, Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There is a popular notion in the basketball world that the Utah Jazz are — gasp! — purposely loading/unloading the roster for losses this season.
The idea is that the Jazz want to possess a big bucket full of pingpong balls for a lottery of an NBA draft next June that is supposed to be deep, beginning with superstar-on-deck Andrew Wiggins.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey refutes that charge.
And of course he does.
Utah didn’t re-sign any of its seven veteran free agents — including leading scorers Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap — and is clearly entering something that might even be too young to be called a youth movement. But Lindsey isn’t about to admit that his organization is preparing to lose on purpose. He's said that building a defensive foundation trumps win-loss totals this season, but good luck getting him to say the Jazz are in tank mode.
The team executive wouldn’t admit it even if it were true, which, of course, he says it’s not.
"The Utah Jazz, as you know the history, we're never going to cede anything," Lindsey said. "We're going to compete to the best of our ability."
Skeptics are pouncing on what the Jazz's best ability will be.
If you want to see a nice guy become somewhat irritated, try suggesting to Jazz “veteran” Gordon Hayward that his team is going to try to drop games to increase its chances at a top pick next June.
“I’m certainly not going to tank at all. You know me well enough. I hate losses,” Hayward said at last week’s Team USA minicamp. “I’m going to be playing as hard as I can. We’re going to be competing as hard as we can. There’s not going to be any tanking for us.”
Even if they try hard not to tank, it’s quite possible — probable, many believe — that the Jazz simply don’t have the combination of talent and experience to win more than 25-30 games.
“This is called ‘being bad on purpose,’” Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe wrote last week. “(If) Gordon Hayward is your No. 1 option on offense, you're on track for a bottom-five ranking in points per possession and a ton of losses in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.”
Fair or not, it’s the perception.
Whether or not that perception is reality will play out beginning in October when this version of the Jazz gets together for training camp.
Here’s a closer look at how the 2013-14 Jazz roster is shaping up:
POINT GUARD: For the fourth-straight year, the Jazz will have a different starting point guard to begin the season. Move over former All-Stars Deron Williams, Devin Harris and Mo Williams, this is now Trey Burke’s team. The 2013 national player of the year struggled at summer league, but his new team believes he has the talent, competitiveness and leadership to be a standout playmaker in an offense that will rely on more pick-and-rolls than it has in recent seasons. That's why Utah traded the 14th and 21st picks for the floor general Minnesota selected ninth overall.
Burke, considered this draft class' top point guard, will have his work cut out for him — and not just to improve his 24 percent shooting in Orlando. Leading Michigan to the NCAA championship is one thing; having success on a nightly basis against Western Conference point guards Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson and Goran Dragic is a whole 'nother thing.
The Jazz made a somewhat surprising move by signing free agent veteran John Lucas III to help back up and mentor Burke instead of bringing back Jamaal Tinsley. Don’t be shocked if Alec Burks sees time at the point — especially against bigger guards. Barring a shift in plans, draft-night acquisition Raul Neto will play in Spain this year.
SHOOTING GUARD: The popular thought after the 2012-13 season ended was that Randy Foye was one of the free agents certain to be brought back. He set multiple 3-point-shooting records and was considered a good locker room presence.
The Jazz had other plans.
Technically, those who believed Foye would be re-signed were correct. However, he was then traded to Denver as part of a three-team deal that resulted in Utah obtaining sharpshooter Brandon Rush along with Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, two unprotected first-round picks and three second-round selections.
Rush is rehabbing from ACL surgery in January — after his knee was injured the second game of the season in November — and he will be a regular if healthy.
This will be the season Burks, the projected starter, gets his chance to shine after playing second or third fiddle to Raja Bell and Foye his first two years.
"That's what I come into the NBA every year to do — start," Burks said at the Orlando Pro Summer League. "I'm not going to set my goals any lower. I want to start."
"That opportunity's there," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin admitted.
Undrafted shooting guard Ian Clark, the Belmont standout who was named MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League, will officially become a member of the Jazz this week. He also could shoot and defend his way into the mix.
SMALL FORWARD: With the return of Hayward, this is Utah's most solidified position. Interestingly, the fourth-year pro is the only player on the Jazz roster who averaged double-figure scoring last year in the NBA.
Hayward’s play last week at Team USA’s minicamp showed he’s more than able to hold his own against top-level competition. His stats don’t tell the full story, either, as the 6-foot-8 swingman can be a two-way factor.
Jazz big man Derrick Favors voiced his confidence in Hayward’s offensive abilities: “I think he can take on that role of being the leading scorer on the team.”
The Jazz have two enigmatic players behind Hayward. Marvin Williams struggled in his first season in Utah, and it’s uncertain when he’ll be back from his offseason Achilles' heel surgery (projected return is December).
Jazz fans would’ve been ecstatic to get Richard Jefferson four years ago when he was coming off of averaging 22.6 ppg (2007-08) and 19.6 ppg (2008-09). But the 33-year-old only scored 3.1 points an outing in a non-role with Golden State in 2012-13.
POWER FORWARD: Favors has been patiently biding his time behind Paul Millsap since being traded to Utah in 2011 as part of the D-Will deal. The 6-foot-10 big man is more than eager to step up now. He’s worked harder this offseason than ever after being encouraged to work on his physical shape and leadership skills at exit meetings in April.
“They (Jazz management) challenged me,” he said, “to be a better player, come in as a leader and just be ready to go from the jump.”
While Favors has the capability of being a monster in the paint, the Jazz might have a huge drop when he goes to the bench. The 7-foot Biedrins is the likely backup at power forward, and he is coming off of a year in which he scored a grand total of 24 points for Golden State.
To avoid further tank accusations, the Jazz can only hope the Latvian big man recreates his double-double season of 2008-09 when he put up averages of 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds a night.
Jeremy Evans, who’s been with the Jazz longer than any player this side of Hayward, could also work his way into steady playing time in both forward spots. The lengthy 6-9 player’s offensive game is gaining more confidence, and he simply befuddles opponents with his athleticism.
CENTER: This will be the Jazz’s youngest position, seeing as 21-year-old Enes Kanter is going to get his opportunity to step out of Al Jefferson’s shadow and play a major role.
Kanter’s health is a concern, however, due to the season-ending shoulder surgery he underwent last spring. The 6-11 center’s rehab continues to progress — he’s ahead of schedule by all accounts — but it’ll be on Kanter to work all the harder to get his basketball game to move forward once he’s back in full shape.
French big Rudy Gobert, the 7-foot-1 center with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, showed promising glimpses at summer league. While he’s certain to cause opposing offenses grief, the 21-year-old has a limited offensive game and could find life difficult against bulkier post players.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Jazz bring in another big man — via a trade or a fall-camp signee.
Despite the funky roster makeup — one that again has a bunch of contracts that will or could expire next summer — Favors and Hayward both said they’re excited to begin playing.
"It’s going to be a challenge, for sure," Hayward said. "We’re going to have to learn from our mistakes and try not to make them again and again."
"We’ve just got to come in and work harder," Favors added. "Obviously, we’re going to have to adjust, but it should be fun. It’ll be exciting."
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