Utah Jazz: Reflecting back on a rough rebuilding season
Hugh Carey, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The day after finishing a funky 25-57 season with a double-overtime win in Minnesota — consider the extra time their postseason — the Utah Jazz cleaned out their lockers, ate some traditional end-of-year Crown Burger grub, conducted exit interviews with team officials, answered final media questions, bid farewell to friends and exited EnergySolutions Arena one last time this spring.
Goodbye, 2013-14 season.
Some, like Trey Burke and Derrick Favors, know they will likely return next fall to play basketball in the Beehive State.
Some, like Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson, know they likely won’t.
And some, like Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin and team captain Gordon Hayward, simply don’t know if they’ll be given new contracts now that their current deals are expiring.
Welcome to the puzzle known as the 2014 offseason. Oh, and grab another pastrami burger before you go.
With critical decisions about the franchise’s future pending, some (Corbin’s) sooner than others (Hayward’s), this Jazz group took a moment on its final day together to reflect on a rebuilding year, which included an array of rocky and rewarding aspects.
“The guys, I’m proud of (them). They made some great strides this year,” Corbin said, perhaps speaking publicly for the last time as the Jazz’s head coach. “I like the character of the guys on the team through all of the adversity that we’ve been through. For the most part, they stayed together. Those things are positive.”
For a team that began the season 1-14, started a rookie point guard, had four other young players in key roles they’d never been in, relied on a couple veterans to revive their careers, experienced eight losing streaks of four or more games, valued development over victories, had a coaching staff with an uncertain future, struggled mightily to score, ended as the lowest-ranked defense, and finished at the bottom of the Western Conference and as one of the worst squads in franchise history, the positive Corbin cited just might be the biggest win of a season that didn’t include very many victories.
“For the most part, I think we stuck together, which is very difficult to do in a season like this where you end up losing a lot of basketball games,” Hayward said.
“You can turn on each other. I think we realized that we’re a young team and we’re trying to develop and grow and at the same time try to win basketball games. It’s a hard thing to do, especially in this league where experience is pretty valuable and we didn’t have very much. For the most part, we tried to stay positive.”
They were better at that than winning this season, which made it all the harder to be united while enduring. The start was rough for Utah but somewhat understandable because of Burke’s finger injury and youth, but to end the season with only six victories in the 30 games after the All-Star break took its toll.
“The biggest disappointment of the season is losing for me. As a competitor, I just hate to lose,” Corbin said. “Losing don’t feel good. These guys made some strides, but it’s tough losing games. You want to see the fruit of your labor, your victory, and we lost a lot of games this year.”
Tell Favors about it.
Or, depending on his mood, don’t.
“I’m mad about it because I want to be in the playoffs,” the fourth-year big man said when looking back on the season. “I got that first taste two years ago. I want to be back in that atmosphere. It’s kind of tough, but we still got to be patient and wait our turn.”
In a big way, though, that’s what this season was about — giving the young guns their turn after established veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap had carried the load for the previous three seasons.
For the first time in their careers, Favors, Hayward, Burks and Kanter got extended action, extra offensive opportunities and experience needed to improve their games. Throw Burke in the mix, and the Foundation Five players each logged career-highs in multiple statistical categories, including court time with at least 2,100 minutes (and 2,800 for Hayward).
While they also got the third-most losses in Jazz history and recorded the fourth-worst record in the NBA this season, the common thought is that this season will be an important stepping stone for them.
“Everybody will be better for this experience,” Corbin said. “Whatever happens, happens. But I think this group of guys will be better because they went through this.”
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey admitted the Jazz finished surprisingly close to the unannounced over/under line a couple of team management personnel set for this season after the organization decided to jump into the rebuilding pool.
“I viewed it a little bit different relative to win-loss expectations,” Lindsey said. “Reflecting on 25 (wins), certainly that’s nothing to be proud about, especially with a program here and a consistency here. In some ways, Kevin (O’Connor) and I and ownership, we were very sober going into the season where we positioned the program.”
While he isn’t saying whether enough player development happened to re-sign Corbin — a decision the GM said will happen after a brief decompressing period — Lindsey isn’t about to consider the season an entire loss.
“Frankly, we hit several objectives as well,” he said, specifically mentioning Hayward’s passing and Burks’ performance.
“I think we can go through those minor wins and losses with each guy. We’ll do so. I’m very confident in our group, the character of our group, the ability to move forward. Whether it be with internal improvement or using our salary cap or using our draft picks, I expect us to be better next year.”
Corbin admitted he isn’t sure whether he’ll be part of that future after holding his current position since taking over for Jerry Sloan in February 2011.
In the meantime, Corbin is grateful for contributions of veterans like Jefferson and Marvin Williams, for the way his mostly young players bounced back from a slew of losses and negative exterior influences in an effort to win and learn, for that 15-14 stretch in the middle of the season, and for moments like Wednesday night when his team, which beat Miami, Oklahoma City and Chicago, gutted out a 136-130 double-OT victory on the road on the final night of a rough year.
“It’s a good group of guys. They have great character,” Corbin said. “They have a chance to be pretty good if they continue to work hard.”
That, Burke said, will definitely happen this offseason after they went out on a positive note.
“Obviously with the ups and downs of the season going out with a win (in Minnesota), it was a great feeling for all of us,” the 21-year-old rookie said. “We found a way to win. It was good to end the season that way going into the offseason. We all look forward to getting better and coming back strong.”
Maybe with a new coach and a new captain.
Maybe with a high draft pick like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle or Dante Exum.
But definitely with the idea to not have exit interviews the day after the regular season ends. In fact, Burke set his sights high for this time next season.
"I definitely plan on winning more. I want to reach the playoffs. I think that's one goal that I really have in mind," Burke said. "We've got a young team, but we can't keep saying that. It's going to be a point where that young team has to start producing and I think we're in the right direction."
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