Utah Jazz: Franchise's future rests squarely on the shoulders of its young Core Four
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — General manager Dennis Lindsey believes there are a number of NBA teams who'd want to "trade spots" with the Utah Jazz this offseason.
And, no, not because they've had early summer vacations in the Beehive State in two of the past three years. In this business, that's a bad thing.
Rather, Lindsey has a list of reasons why the Jazz are in a prime position for a bright future, and he's willing to rattle it off at a moment's notice.
"We have a great story to tell about the history of the organization," he said. "I think we have plenty of roster spots and a lot of salary cap to pay good players. I think we have two good draft picks that I'm very optimistic that we'll get some good, at minimum, role players that fit our culture."
And that just scratches the surface.
Though upset about Utah missing the playoffs, Lindsey continued to hit a variety of positive talking points that shed a positive light on a negative situation, considering his end-of-season interview took place in April instead of June.
The Jazz have only had two losing records in the past 30 seasons.
Utah has a strong home-court advantage thanks to "an arena that's passionate."
The organization has "high standards and high expectations."
The team also owns Bird Rights to multiple veteran free agents (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap), which gives the Jazz advantages over other teams in signing them or making sign-and-trade deals.
Then there is the piece(s) de resistance.
The biggest reason(s) for an optimistic outlook.
You know, the guys fans grumbled about not seeing enough of in recent seasons.
Brad Rock talks on 1320AM KFAN about the Jazz's youth movement and the team's hopes of getting back into contention. You can listen to the entire interview here
Lindsey referred to that group, along with former Slam Dunk champion Jeremy Evans, as being "young players that can develop into core-level players we want to build around."
Yes, the Jazz are fully aware that they missed out on the postseason party for the fifth time in the past decade.
"We fell short of one of our goals," Lindsey admitted.
But the narrative — that yet told "great story" of the franchise's history — is one that offers hope for an exciting and win-filled future.
Maybe even a season with a happy ending in June.
"We have a lot of options — whether it's to be bold right now if that opportunity presents itself or to be really strategic and patient," Lindsey said. "So, we're real fortunate."
Lindsey has his work cut out for him over the next couple of months to help turn that optimism into realism.
Those five aforementioned players are the only guys with guaranteed roster spots for next season. It's likely that small forward Marvin Williams will take the $7.5 million player option for the final year of his deal, and it's possible Kevin Murphy will be back for another go.
Other than that, Utah has between six and nine roster spots to fill before training camp rolls around in October.
Utah has three picks in the upcoming draft — its own lottery selection (likely No. 14), the No. 21 pick from Golden State to finalize the Deron Williams deal, and a No. 46 choice in the second round.
As it stands, the Jazz only have about $18.3 million worth of salary on the books for the 2013-14 season. The league's minimum payroll for this past season was $49.3 million, meaning Utah has a lot of money to spend — through various transaction means — in building around its Core Four.
"Whether it's via the draft, free agency or trade, there are a lot of interesting things that will come our way and we'll decide from a value standpoint if that has some merit or not," Lindsey said. "If it doesn't, we'll continue to be patient."
Jazz management, including Lindsey and executive vice president of basketball operations Kevin O'Connor, have admitted coach Tyrone Corbin was put in a difficult position this past season. Not only did the team have nine pending free agents, but it was a mix-and-match mixture of proven veterans and promising youngsters all vying for playing time.
Corbin often relied on the guys who've toiled in the league longer while limiting the younger players to mostly reserve roles. That became a sore spot for critics, who would've preferred to see more cutting-of-teeth happen, especially since it was a given that Utah was not a contender this past season.
Hayward was the exception, but he was only fourth on the team in minutes averaged (29.2 per game). Favors played 23.2 minutes an outing, while Burks (17.8 mpg) and Kanter (15.4 mpg) were even more limited in appearances.
Expect that to change next season.
Progress is something that's hard to quantify, but Corbin believes his young guys each made big steps this past season in the way they handled themselves in practice and in playing situations.
Hayward became a more reliable outside threat, and the 6-foot-8 shooting guard added a variety of offensive moves to his increasingly solid all-around game.
The 6-10 Favors, with his strength and athleticism, proved to be a dominant defensive player and offered glimpses of being a capable scorer down low and from mid-range.
Kanter, a 6-11 center with an improved physique, made the biggest leap of anyone after his rookie campaign, showing that he's able to crash the boards, score inside and out, and play tough defense in the post before having his season abruptly ended with a surgery-requiring shoulder injury.
And, after a string of Did Not Play-Coach's Decision games and inconsistent opportunities, the energetic 6-6 Burks was given opportunities to grow at point guard and as a slashing and scoring shooting guard in certain situations during his second season.
"I think we're much further ahead," Corbin said. "I think the experiences put us further ahead."
With that in mind, the biggest question during this offseason in regards to the Core Four is simply: Are Favors and Kanter ready to make the leap from sidekicks to starters?
It's uncertain whether the Jazz will try to bring back Jefferson or Millsap, and if they don't return, it's likely Favors and Kanter, the No. 3 picks from the 2010 and '11 drafts, respectively, will get huge opportunities.
"They're better. We'll see where it goes," Corbin said. "If that's where things end up, then they'll be ready to go."
Even so, Corbin was quick to point out that Favors (who turns 22 in July) and Kanter (who'll be 21 on May 20) are "still two young guys."
"It's a lot to ask of them, but the experience that we've had in the last two (years) will help in those areas," Corbin said. "They have to increase their play on the floor. We'll have a great summer of developing and getting them ready for this year (2013-14)."
The Jazz will also expect bigger things from Hayward, who averaged more points (14.1 vs. 11.8) this past season despite playing a minute less per game than he did in 2011-12.
"I thought he showed growth in a lot of areas this year," Corbin said. "Gordon will be a guy that can carry us at times, and that process you have to grow into, and I think he's getting a better understanding from the first year he was here to last year to this year of how he can carry us on the offensive end, how he can make plays for us on the defensive end, how he can make plays with the ball in his hands or without the ball in his hands."
But it's not just scoring, passing and defense Utah wants from Hayward, who'll be in his fourth season.
On locker clean-out day, Lindsey was asked about Hayward taking on a more vocal leadership role — something that the 23-year-old previously has been reluctant to do out of respect for veterans on the team.
Jazz management "challenged" Hayward to take more of a leadership role in the future, Lindsey said.
"Clearly, Gordon's a core piece going forward and I think he has a lot of leadership qualities, but he's a respectful guy," said Lindsey, adding that Hall of Fame players like John Stockton, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Tim Duncan took years to develop those intangible skills.
"I think it's safe to say that in many ways Gordon's going to have to grab our team a little like he did at Butler and say, 'OK, here we go. This is how we do things,' " Lindsey said. "Not even so much taking shots and running plays as it is, 'This is the way the Utah Jazz do their business.' "
The Jazz are confident other players will follow the lead of the amicable but soft-spoken 23-year-old.
"It would be empty if Gordon wasn't a good example, but he's a very good example. So I think that's the start," Lindsey said. "We all have the guys that say, 'Do this,' but they're doing the exact opposite. He walks the walk. I think Ty appropriately laid that (leadership) challenge to Gordon, and I think Gordon will respond."
For Hayward, his biggest focus this offseason is on making enough improvements to ensure that the Jazz don't end their season on April 17 like they did this year.
"I go into the summer knowing there's a lot of things to get better on and a lot of things I can still improve on in my game," he said. "And not making the playoffs is obviously going to be some motivation for that."
Hayward is as excited as anyone about the possibility of playing a bigger role with the Core Four.
"It's fun playing with those guys," he said. "I think they have a lot of talent, and if we work hard we can do a lot of things."
For what it's worth, Favors was as ticked off as Hayward about not being in the postseason. The day after the Jazz were eliminated with a season-ending loss to Memphis, the 6-10 big man said he wasn't going to watch a minute of the NBA playoff basketball. After the postseason began, he even tweeted, "I hate not being able to play in the playoffs."
If the Jazz's gamble to trade D-Will for two of the Core Four pieces (and a first-round pick this summer) pays off like the organization's ownership and management are counting on, Favors won't ever have to tweet anything like that again. (Favors and Hayward, by the way, can both begin working out contract extensions with the Jazz beginning in July.)
"We've still got a lot of work to do," Favors added, "but hopefully we can have a big future."
Though it's uncertain whether he's the point guard of the Jazz's future, Mo Williams also gives a glowing endorsement of Utah's youth movement — with a twist, though. While many Jazz fans are eager to see a bright, young point guard brought in, Williams believes they still need some experienced players around them — perhaps him.
"Their ceiling is high," Williams said. "It depends on what direction they (Jazz management) want to go. They've got a lot of young guys, and we can be really good."
Williams lamented the fact that his season (and the Jazz's) got somewhat derailed by his thumb surgery, which kept him out for 32 games. He and the team improved down the stretch, winning nine of their last 12, but it was too little, too late.
"With those young guys, they're going to need some veteran guys around them," Williams said. "They're going to grow next year. How much? I don't think the front office knows. That's one of the things that I think is up in the air."
Interestingly, one of the players with the most optimism about the Jazz's future might never play for the franchise again. Veteran point guard Earl Watson, a free agent this summer, beamed while talking about the prospects of the young guys he's befriended and helped so much over the past three seasons.
"The young core is going to be amazing for the future," Watson said. "Enes Kanter is going to be a great player, the bigs with Fav, and Gordon and Alec — the future is bright."
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