SALT LAKE CITY — It was business as usual as the Jazz concluded their home season against the Lakers on Monday. The Western Conference rivals were battling for position in April, same as always.
They weren’t fighting for playoff position; that went out the window months ago. This was draft position — an entirely different proposal. Trouble is, in one you’re going for gold. The other can leave you chasing fool’s gold.
Not so long ago, Utah and L.A. were big shots in the West, teams many wanted to emulate. On Monday they were jostling for the worst record in the conference, in hopes of a higher draft pick. In that sense the Jazz won. Or lost. Score it Los Angeles 119, Jazz 104.
So the addition by subtraction continues.
Gone are the days when both teams were marvelous, or even good. The only Johnson in the vicinity on Monday wasn’t Magic, but Wesley, the Laker forward. The only mailman was whoever delivered pizza to the visiting locker room. The great players — Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant — were downed by age and injury.
The result of the Jazz’s 16-25 home season is that this has been more painful for Jazz fans than they imagined. Marvin Williams did the pre-game, midcourt “thank you” for their support, adding that the team was looking forward to seeing them next year.
That’s a long way off.
Last October, the idea of finishing this way seemed OK, considering the depth of the 2014 draft. The greater the losing, the better their chances of a higher pick. After Monday’s game they had the league’s fourth-worst record.
But whether any pick is enough to vault them into the upper echelon of teams is debatable. Many believe the team has tanked the 2014 season, but who could tell? Either way wouldn’t have made much difference in its record. This Jazz team isn’t good enough for the playoffs, whether it’s trying or not. It’s just that one involves intentionally failing, which in real life is inexcusable. In basketball it’s called thinking ahead.
Whatever the reason, the Jazz are in stylish company. This is the first season ever that the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks have missed the playoffs.
“It’s a little interesting,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “There are certain franchises that hadn’t had those lows. You hear those names that are in one of those times now. Right now we have our own headaches, trying to figure out how to get out of it sooner than later.”
Does that include losing on Monday?
The Jazz will get help in the off-season, but how much is uncertain. Whether it’s Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon, each would considerably improve the team’s prospects. Yet some experts believe no one this year is alone a championship-maker. But the people the Jazz add in free agency is also crucial matter. Forget pie-in-the-sky players such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, or aging superstars like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. Adding Eric Bledsoe, Rudy Gay or Greg Monroe, for example, to a top-five pick would make the Jazz a nice team.
It’s murky territory for any small-market team. Drafting will happen and help, but free-agent signings will decide how quickly they come back to relevance.
All those variables lurked at the perimeter of Monday’s Jazz-Lakers game. Was it interesting? In a long-distance sense. Nowadays, if you look around, you can get lower-bowl tickets for a song. Which song?
How about “Someday my Prince Will Come”?
Anyway, the Jazz finished their home season with their fans conflicted and confused. Losing is a good thing, right? But by a 15-point margin? To a team minus Nash, Bryant and Gasol? Nick Young came off the bench to put 41 points on the Jazz.
“I can play a little bit. I just wanted you all to see that I got a future here,” Young said. “I can do my thing. I’ve been telling you all. You better watch out for me.”
Even now, with Jazz’s draft hopes rising, the Lakers still can manage to ruin the fun.
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