Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Before tonight’s 2013-14 NBA season opener, Utah Jazz fans should go to the kitchen.
No, this isn’t where we suggest you drink and/or eat future sorrows away while contemplating a potentially rough season, which tips off at 7 p.m. against Western Conference powerhouse Oklahoma City in an upgraded EnergySolutions Arena.
Don’t pre-emptively shut the refrigerator door on the Jazz season just yet because of the youth movement and lack of depth, either.
If you’re a parent, take a moment to look on the fridge at the drawings your children made. If you don’t have kids, think back to your crayon-based creations that were showcased under a “Best Mom” magnet.
The artwork, no doubt, isn’t comparable to masterpieces in the Louvre. Maybe it shows signs of artistic potential. Or not. Either way, it’d get shunned by critics.
To proud parents, though, those colorful scribbles, random squiggly lines and awkwardly drawn stick figures are cherished. They’re appreciated for what they are. Have some warm-fuzzies with that glass of milk.
To wrap up this life-imitates-art metaphor, this Jazz team is the child’s drawing on your fridge door.
It’s young. It's inexperienced. It will color outside of the lines. Some talent is on display, but this roster’s works probably won’t be displayed in a museum anytime soon. It probably won’t win critical acclaim or, for that matter, many basketball games.
That’s why team brass has talked about focusing on youth development, building a defensive foundation, not skipping steps in trying to become “championship-caliber,” competing and progressing instead of using words like win and playoffs.
They won’t use the T-word (tanking), but they aren’t afraid to use the R-word (rebuilding). While talking about the latter this week, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said ownership, management and the coaching staff are all onboard with the process even knowing this year might be, um, colored with setbacks.
“We knew that when we jumped in the end of the rebuilding pool that there’s going to be a lot of tough nights,” Lindsey said. “We’re not going to skip it. We’re not going to trick it up. We’re going to take our medicine like men and hopefully learn those lessons quicker than longer.
“If it’s longer, then so be it,” he continued. “I think we’ll be standing on steady ground when we come out of this period.”
In the meantime, fans might consider appreciating this Jazz team for what it is — and what it could be — as an unusual year begins in a place where the usual winning seasons and playoffs might be years and several art classes away.
As Lindsey mentioned, this was a conscious decision, too. Utah didn’t re-sign the veterans who carried the team the past few seasons, namely Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, to give its young core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks a chance to grow with new opportunities.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” third-year center Kanter said. “Jazz have been waiting for this long time. And we finally get to play with the people who we be with for two years and new people that came with us. I’m really nervous and excited about it.”
Nervous? Kanter, one of four new players in the starting lineup, smiled. “Nervous in a good way nervous.”
Both nervouses are applicable for some.
In order to keep its future roster flexibility and to bring its salary up to the league-minimum range — not to mention pick up a boatload of draft picks — the Jazz traded to acquire veterans Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and injured Brandon Rush from Golden State. For one reason or another, none have been relevant in the NBA for years.
Utah also made draft-day trades to infuse the youthful team with promising point guard Trey Burke and center Rudy Gobert this summer.
All of which could be exciting for the franchise’s future.
None of which likely puts the Jazz in position to be more than an intriguing, lottery-bound team in the mix for a top spot in the coveted 2014 draft.
Good luck convincing the players and coaching staff that they’re supposed to be artwork in progress at best and a team in tank mode, a popular belief outside of their locker room.
“I’m certainly not going to tank at all. You know me well enough. I hate losses,” Hayward said this offseason. “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.”
Temporary starter John Lucas III, signed in the offseason to be now-injured Burke’s backup, said his team has one focus.
“We’re coming in trying to win games. We’re coming in trying to prove a point,” Lucas said. “A lot of people have already put us down, saying it’s a rebuilding year; it’s a development year. As players, we’re not looking at it like that. We look at it like it’s another chance for us to get better, another chance to prove everybody wrong — prove all the critics wrong.”
And there are plenty of those.
Utah hasn’t been gutted like the depleted 76ers or even like the Suns, with only four players back, but the Jazz are widely regarded to be a bottom-five team in the 30-deep NBA.
“People can say whatever they want. People can rank (us) 30. We don’t really care,” Kanter said. “All they can do is just talk. What we’re going to do is we’re going to go out there and show them that they’re wrong if they’re talking about bad. And if they’re talking about good then we’re going to show them that they’re right. We have enough talent to beat every team on every court.”
Perhaps, but Jazz brass has avoided focusing on talking about making postseason plans.
“I’m excited about the group to see where we are,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “I’m excited for the opportunity for these guys to step up in this league and get bigger roles and see how things go. We’re expecting to compete.”
But those seven-straight defeats to end the preseason after surprising Golden State in the exhibition opener? Isn’t that a sign of things to come?
“The real season starts tomorrow. That’s what’s so good about preseason — none of it counts, so everybody’s 0-0,” Lucas said. “And that’s how we’re going into it. We learned. We got better. It’s a lot of new guys on the team that wasn’t here last year. We’re jelling.”
While it’s one thing to talk about youth movement, making daily progress and being in rebuild mode, it’s a whole ‘nother to live through it as the losses pile up, isn’t it?
“It’s not fun,” Lindsey admitted. The Jazz GM, who spent five seasons with the Spurs before taking over for Kevin O’Connor last summer, added, “Every game is an adventure. There’s the relief of victory and then there’s the pain of defeat. Going through defeat is like, many times, going through a death, the postmortems after the game, so you have to go through that.”
Like fans, in part because he is one, Jazz CEO Greg Miller is bracing himself for the upcoming reality.
Miller said he’d love to go 82-0. Losing streaks, he admitted, are “probably the most-anxiety-inducing thing that I experience.” In other words, he has high expectations.
“The ultimate sign that it’s all OK is when we make it to the finals and win a championship,” he said. “I just want to be the best that we can be.”
Bonuses for everyone in the organization if all of that happens this season.
Miller didn’t actually offer that, but fans can be comforted that he wants to win as badly as they do.
“With the young players that we have and the relative inexperience compared to some of the teams that have been together a little longer,” he said, “the chances are that we will have some challenging periods this season.”
Miller hopes the youthful cornerstone pieces will build more character from those challenges.
“We’re all going to make mistakes,” he said. “It’s how we respond to those mistakes, the lessons we learn from those mistakes, and our ability to execute what we learned going forward that really matters.”
That’s why he’ll be judging this season on more than just the final win-loss total.
“If the young guys can do that (learn and grow), then I’m OK going through the pain,” he said. “As long as we get better and make new mistakes the next time around and then learn from those and continue to move onward and upward and just get better as we go.”
As for the Jazz players, they’ve optimistically talked about pushing fast-forward on the rebuilding process.
“If you’re a competitor and you constantly hear how people are putting you down that puts a fire in you,” Lucas said. “It makes you want to go out there and compete to prove everybody wrong. You always want to shut critics up.”
Now, before you leave the kitchen, just imagine the euphoria in Jazzland if those silenced critics even come to appreciate the artwork on the fridge.
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