SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin O'Connor used a fun moment at the end of the 2010-11 season — one admittedly plagued by "a second half of turmoil" — to motivate some recent additions to the Utah Jazz family.
Following the Jazz's 107-103 win over Denver in Wednesday's season-finale, the general manager grabbed Al Jefferson, Devin Harris and Derrick Favors while the rest of the team launched and lobbed autographed paraphernalia into the cheering crowd at EnergySolutions Arena.
"The place, it was like a playoff game," O'Connor said at the Jazz's locker cleanout session Thursday. "It was nuts (Wednesday) night. It was great."
Jefferson had enjoyed playing in front of riled-up home crowds while Utah raced out to a 27-13 record in his first season in Utah, but some of the energy had been eradicated from the place by the time Harris and Favors joined the Jazz in late February.
Losing Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan to an unexpected mid-season resignation, seeing beloved team star Deron Williams get traded away and experiencing more losses than expected had dulled the usual roar inside the arena and around Jazz Nation when the New Jersey transplants arrived in Utah.
None of the three had ever experienced a playoff game here.
Knowing that, O'Connor seized the opportunity to tell them, "Look at this. This is the last game of a team that's not making the playoffs, and we beat Denver in what people would consider a non-relevant game.
"Look at this place. Wait 'til we're good. Can you imagine what it's going to be like?"
Because of what multiple players described as a "roller-coaster" season — or a zebra year, according to Andre Kirilenko (you'll have to ask the Russian what that means) — the Jazz packed up the belongings of their lockers on Thursday morning.
Players had their exit interviews with O'Connor and Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin.
They answered oodles of media questions.
And then, instead of going to the playoffs, they left for ... Ukraine, Turkey, southern France, New York, Miami, Indiana, Kentucky and wherever else NBA players go in the offseason.
But to a player, the image of returning next season to vastly improve on this disappointing and dismal 39-43 campaign and get the franchise back into the playoffs was on their minds as they boxed up personal belongings and headed to the offseason.
"Everybody wish that we had more basketball to play. It's not a good feeling," Jefferson said. "I've been going home in April for six years. ... It's not a feeling that guys want to get used to."
This is the first time Paul Millsap has ever ended the season without participating in the playoffs, and he told O'Connor, "I hate this feeling."
Like the rest of his teammates, Millsap enters this earlier-than-expected offseason dejected but determined.
Winning three of their last five games — with road wins over the Lakers and Hornets — gave the Jazz something to feel positive about on the way out.
Rookies Gordon Hayward, who ended the season with a career-high 34 points, Favors and Jeremy Evans showed enough oomph and talent to get fans and the team giddy about their future.
The organization and its players are also high on the key returning veteran players: Big Al, Millsap and Harris. If Raja Bell finds his shot over the summer and Mehmet Okur rediscovers his health after a brutal injury-plagued year, the Jazz have additional pieces returning that could help get things back on track.
On top of that, the Jazz have two lottery picks — one thanks to the D-Will deal which landed Utah a high pick from New Jersey; the other thanks to the team's own struggles. The franchise is hopeful about that rare opportunity to snatch two premier picks.
"Things can get special, that's what we're looking for," Millsap said. "Those guys (rookies) will get better, and I believe everybody will get out and work hard this summer to try to help this team out. We need that. But things will get better."
Corbin stressed the importance of offseason conditioning to his players, who might not be able to work with the team's coaches, strength coaches and other personnel after July 1 if the feared and anticipated lockout occurs.
The new Jazz coach, who went 8-20 in his short stint as a rookie after replacing his boss of the past seven years, also looks forward to getting his players back for a training camp. He wants to put his imprint on the team in an extended training scenario.
"It is an opportunity for us to start from scratch and build it from there," he said, "and I think we have the information from the last 28 games in the regular season to build on."
Corbin also believes the Jazz have enough talented pieces to build a successful squad.
"Do we have a core group of guys? We do," he said. "I think we have talent on this team that we can build around. ... It's going to be by committee. I think the cream will always rise to the top."
"I think this team knows how to win. We had some distractions, some injuries, that prevented that," Harris said. "But I think moving forward with the guys that we have, I think that we definitely can win at a high rate.
The offseason will be a busy one for Jazz management.
The team will have until June 23 to evaluate and pontificate about its two high draft picks — the order of which will be determined on May 17.
The Jazz also have player personnel decisions to make to fill the roster, which currently includes eight players under contract. Barring trades, Bell, Evans, Favors, Harris, Hayward, Jefferson, Millsap and Okur will be back whenever the 2011-12 season begins.
But the Jazz have a one-year, $3.7 million team option on swingman C.J. Miles, who hopes to return.
Utah also must decide whether to pursue Andrei Kirilenko, who'll become a free agent for the first time in his 10-year career, along with Kyrylo Fesenko, Ronnie Price, Earl Watson and Francisco Elson, whose contracts are all up.
Those contract situations are among the many mysteries O'Connor and his crew have to resolve in a longer-than-usual offseason.
"We've got to review everything. We've got to review the first half of the season — what went right," he said. "And we've got to review the second half of the season —what went wrong. And we've got to make some adjustment and changes, and that's going to happen."
The Jazz, who are out of the playoffs for only the fourth time in 28 seasons, simply don't want to be playoff observers again — especially considering they became the first team in NBA history not to make the postseason after starting 15-5 and then going 27-13.
"We're not satisfied with what we did and where we're at," added O'Connor, whose team lost 28 of 37 games before its late positive push. "So does that mean changes in personnel? It could. More importantly, how do we get better from within first and then how do we add from outside?"
Like his players, O'Connor wants to experience the exuberance of Wednesday's festive atmosphere in a playoff situation, not a meaningless game.
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