Looking forward: Utah Jazz hopeful their core of big men rise again
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz feel the same way about big players as Marvel comic books creator Stan Lee and moviegoers feel about superheroes.
The more, the merrier.
Ask anybody on the Jazz — from general manager Kevin O'Connor to up-and-comer Derrick Favors — and they'll tell you they hope Utah's bigs all assemble again next fall.
Like the Avengers, they'd love to put a Hulk smash on the league for a blockbuster 2012-13 season, and the fantastic foursome of Favors, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter is Utah's most powerful weapon.
Be forewarned, villains.
"I can see this team actually growing to be something very special," Jefferson said about the Jazz as a whole. More specifically about Utah's abundance of big players, Jefferson added, "We do have a great group of guys. In my opinion, you need bigs to win championships, and you need a lot of them."
But will the Jazz have as many bigs when they rejoin forces next fall?
And what will their roles be if they're all back?
Those are two of the biggest questions facing the franchise this offseason as the Jazz try to use the momentum of this surprising playoff season to propel them into accomplishing bigger and better things in the future.
Among the Jazz's other concerns going ahead: point guard play; perimeter shooting; pick-and-roll defense; continued progression of young guns; and bolstering the lineup.
"One of the things we can't fall prey to is thinking because we had success and made the playoffs that it's automatic we'll have success next year," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We have to come out and be ready to compete, because everyone else will be better. We have to make sure we understand we have to get better."
Utah ended its 36-30 playoff season with 15 players, but the Jazz only have nine current guys under guaranteed contract for the 2012-13 campaign.
That group includes Jefferson ($15 million), Devin Harris ($8.5M), Millsap ($7.2M), Favors ($4.8M), Kanter ($4.4M), Raja Bell ($3.5M), Gordon Hayward ($2.7M), Alec Burks ($2.2M) and Earl Watson ($2.1M).
Bell, of course, has expressed that he hopes to not be back for next year. It remains to be seen if the Jazz handle that situation by trading him, using their amnesty or simply calling his bluff and forcing him to return.
Josh Howard, C.J. Miles and Blake Ahearn will be unrestricted free agents, so their futures are fuzzy. But it wouldn't be surprising for the team to take its options on Jamaal Tinsley ($1.4M) and DeMarre Carroll (less than $1M).
That would put the Jazz's payroll in the $53 million ballpark with 11 players, giving the team about $5 million and multiple exceptions available to flesh out the roster (13-15 players required) through free agency and/or the draft.
The Jazz lost their own No. 18 pick to Minnesota to finish off the Jefferson trade, but they still remain in the running to pick up Golden State's top-seven protected pick. Somebody behind the Warriors has to leapfrog them in the upcoming lottery for that to happen. Even if Utah doesn't get that pick this year, the team is set to receive the Warriors' first-rounder (still protected) in either 2013 or '14, so it could trade that.
The Jazz also have the $10.7 million trade exception obtained in the Mehmet Okur deal, which they could use to acquire a player while exceeding the salary cap (but staying below luxury-tax levels).
One popular line of thinking is that the Jazz must trade either Jefferson or Millsap in order to allow Favors and Kanter to get more minutes and fully blossom.
Don't count O'Connor among that group.
"What we got to do is add to (our core)," the Jazz GM said. "I don't think we've got to blow it up and start over again, and I don't think we've got to be in a position where we're looking at it and saying we've got to trade some people."
Of course, that still could happen.
But the Jazz believe they have players who will improve the team as they improve themselves — from Harris running the offense more smoothly and being more consistent; to Hayward building his confidence, especially on outside shooting; to Favors, Kanter and Burks continuing to grow up; to Millsap fine-tuning his effectiveness from both forward positions; to Jefferson becoming more of a defensive presence in pick-and-roll situations.
"We've got to grow from within first," O'Connor said, "and then we've got some assets to be able to add some pieces."
That's Jefferson's preference. In fact, both Big Al and Millsap, who'll be in contract years, said they hope to be lifetime Jazz players at Tuesday's locker cleanout.
"If I had it my way, yes, I'd love to see everybody come back because this is a team that we did well," Jefferson said. "All of us have the same goals and all of us have the same mindset just getting better as a team. We got a little taste this year. Now we're greedy. We want more."
Though it might give him some headaches on how to divvy up playing time, Corbin is hopeful he'll have the same four post players at his disposal come training camp. The second-year coach liked the success the Jazz had when the Big Three — Jefferson, Favors and Millsap — played together. He envisions more of that next season.
"Derrick, Al and Paul together makes us better," Corbin said. "The more they are on the floor, the better off we'll be."
That combo didn't have too much success against the Spurs, barring the fourth-quarter comeback in Game 4 of the sweep, but they outscored and outrebounded opponents almost every time they were thrown together at the end of the regular season.
"It's just the versatility we have as a team," Millsap said. "It shows what different lineups we can play with."
Favors and Jefferson pair nicely to counter each other's strengths and weaknesses.
"He's a good offensive player. I'm a good defensive player," said Favors, who showed signs of his power forward potential in a strong personal playoff series. "We complement each other real well."
Playing alongside his 6-foot-10 teammates, Millsap creates mismatches with his ability to post up and rebound from the small forward spot. The Jazz are at a disadvantage when opponents stretch Millsap to the outside with 3-point shooting, but, overall, that three-headed threat gave Utah a unique weapon.
Corbin didn't tip his hand as to whether or not he'd lean to starting them together next season, but if Millsap can become even more adept at guarding small forwards and hitting some threes, it's at least an intriguing option.
Millsap was asked about his previous insistence that he's a starting power forward, something he proved capable of doing in his sixth season.
"I am," Millsap said. With a smile, he added, "I can also be a starting small forward."
As for the backcourt, the Jazz have Harris under contract for one more year, and he has capable backups in Watson and Tinsley (if he's back). O'Connor spoke highly of Harris' second-half showing — the 2009 All-Star provided a nice offensive spark — but it's uncertain if the 29-year-old is the team's playmaker for the future.
O'Connor even hinted Harris could take on more of a shooting guard role and said the Jazz will "explore" the best option for the point guard position.
Fans can only wonder if that means the team might target one of the draft's multiple standout point guards, including Weber State's Damian Lillard, or if it will pursue an intriguing unrestricted free agent like, say, Steve Nash or Goran Dragic.
In the meantime, Corbin and multiple players will take notes from contenders while observing the postseason play out.
"I think we got to get the IQ part down. Watching the playoffs is going to help us out a lot. It's going to help us mature faster," Millsap said. "(Then) once we get a good training camp under our belt, I think things will turn around for us."
Corbin loves basketball, so he'd watch the playoffs anyway. But he hopes to pick up valuable insights as he preps for his first full season as a head coach after replacing Jerry Sloan in February of 2010.
"I'm studying coaches. I'm studying the strategy. I'm looking at plays," Corbin said. "I'm looking at matchups and tweaks that different guys make at different times. This is a great time of year for me personally to continue to grow and continue to learn."
Multiple Jazz players also plan to take advantage of offseason training at the team-recommended performance lab in Santa Barbara. For one, Big Al said he'll work out with both Favors and Kanter.
In July, Utah expects to have a stacked summer league team, which will likely include Hayward, Favors, Kanter, Burks and possibly Carroll and Evans. Watson plans to begin his surgery rehab workouts with the Jazz in Orlando as well.
"(From) one to 13-15, we have to get better," Corbin said. "Until we win a championship, there is a lot of work to be done. We're not satisfied just getting in the playoffs. We want to still be playing at this time for years to come."
But just thinking about the future brings a smile on Corbin's face.
"These guys have made tremendous strides to get to this point. If this is who we are going forward, we expect to continue to make strides together," the 49-year-old coach said. "I think we'll learn lessons from this year. I think we'll learn lessons from this playoff series, and coming into camp we'll use those."
Watson's advice to his teammates is to make full use of the spare time players now have, and the sooner the better.
"I think we established a great foundation making the playoffs," Watson said. "The next season starts right now, and it starts mentally. We have to have home-court advantage going into the playoffs next year. That's our goal."
Added Watson: "That has to manifest itself over the summer, so we can't wait until we get in December and start talking about we want home court. It starts right now."
And they only hope their powers have increased when they assemble next fall.
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