SALT LAKE CITY — The ominous labor-strife cloud that loomed over NBA cities, teams, players and fans for the past five months finally dissipated Thursday afternoon.
Think Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller is excited about that?
"The lockout's over!" Miller wrote on Twitter. "Let's play ball!"
If Thursday's official ratification of the collective bargaining agreement didn't spread enough sunshine for you, Jazz fans, here are more rays of hope and reasons to be optimistic:
For months, we've heard about the NBPA, CBA, BRI, but in only 21/2 weeks real-live NBA action will return to the court.
"I was going crazy in July," Jazz point guard Devin Harris admitted.
Now, basketball is officially back.
They've trickled back into Utah one by one over the past week or so, but tonight will be the first time since April that returning Jazz guys will be on the same court at the same time.
Eight months after they wrapped up an historical late-season free fall, playoff miss and all of that team turmoil, Jazz players are eager, enthusiastic and hungry to give it another try.
It's redemption time.
They're so excited to get ready for the upcoming basketball buffet, they might not even mind how many wind sprints second-year coach Tyrone Corbin makes them run.
"I'm ready to play, man," Utah guard Raja Bell recently said. "I couldn't be more excited about the prospect of getting back to playing ball. It's been my life for so long now that you kind of feel like a part of you is missing when you don't get a chance to do it."
(Getting paychecks again makes them happy as well, no doubt.)
BIG MAN BONANZA
When people are talking about you having too much of a certain thing and it involves talented big men who demand playing time, that's a good problem to have.
"It's like pitching in baseball," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said of his team's bigs situation. "I don't think you can get enough of it."
Watching Corbin figure out the rotation for this big man staff — and decide who will be the ace and starters and who'll be the middle relief crew — is one of the more intriguing aspects of this season's squeezed schedule.
The Jazz centers include a potential All-Star in Al Jefferson, a rejuvenated former All-Star in Mehmet Okur and a top-three pick in Enes Kanter.
They also feature a pair of powerful forwards in Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, yet another No. 3 draftee.
The fun will be seeing who has the bigger problem — Corbin trying to share minutes or opponents trying to deal with these five guys?
Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans each won over Jazz fans last year.
Hayward first because of his college career at Butler, his frugal car purchase (Honda) and culinary choice (Olive Garden), and then because he played so well down the stretch and dropped 22 on Kobe Bryant in a shocking Jazz win at Los Angeles.
And Evans because of his endless energy and incredible hops.
It will be interesting to see how the pals do now that they're not rookies and don't have to pack around pink princess backpacks (consider yourselves forewarned, Kanter and Alec Burks).
So, will Hayward continue where he left off? (And, yes, we're talking where he left off as a basketball pro, not a video game pro.)
And will the high-flying Evans earn P.T.? More importantly, will he accidentally hit his head on the Jumbotron while jumping?
Also, it will be fascinating to observe whether Kanter and Burks can work their way into the rotation and into fans' hearts.
They'll be overlooked. Underdogs. Outcasts. They won't be picked to make the playoffs by very many experts. But the Jazz might not be as bad as national pundits might try to make you believe.
Heck, O'Connor sounded like he was about to make a team rule that requires a swear-jar-like donation from anybody who says a certain R-word or Y-word.
"One thing I will say is I don't want to hear that we're young," the Jazz GM said. "After today, I don't want to hear the word 'rebuilding.' That's not what this is about. This is about getting better."
And, yes, winning.
"It's a challenge. but that's fun. If you're at work, you want to be challenged a little bit," O'Connor said. "We're not front-runners right now. Nobody's picking us to be anything, and I hope our guys understand and read that, and know that's all part of the challenge to be successful.
"How do you turn your statistics into wins?" he added. "That's one of the things we'll challenge everybody on."
Players have raved about playing for Corbin, who took over a sticky situation and kept his head held high after Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson shockingly resigned.
And his players' compliments and confidence seem more genuine than simply kissing up.
"He understands what it takes to win," Harris said. "He's definitely got the desire and the work ethic."
Added Millsap: "His time has come, and he's well prepared for it."
Though the Jazz only went 8-20 under his watch — and lost eight straight — Corbin also has management's full support as he begins another somewhat funky coaching experience.
Jazz brass know well that Corbin was dealt a less-than-full deck. They traded their star, Deron Williams. They had all sorts of injuries, new guys contributing, young players learning and a hectic situation.
"He went through a mess last year that we created, and I think he handled it professionally," O'Connor said. "And if I look at those last five games, those guys responded. They didn't look to go on vacation. Those are all positive points."
Now stationed two seats over on the bench, Corbin has his own crew that he likes and trusts. The crew includes Jazz mainstays Scott Layden and Jeff Hornacek as well as seasoned new guys with fresh ideas in Sidney Lowe and Mike Sanders (player development).
"I think he's assembled a staff that has a lot of experience," O'Connor said. "That's a nice thing to have."
Sure, he might not be a Hall of Famer like Sloan or a former coach of the year like Johnson, but Corbin is a man the Jazz strongly believe can lead the franchise into a successful future.
With D-Will far off in the rear-view mirror, the Jazz don't have a marquee player. They don't even have a Top 50 NBA talent, according to ESPN's offseason player rankings.
So who will emerge as the team's go-to guy(s)? Who'll provide the scoring spark when needed or the leadership boost?
Corbin was as evasive about answering that line of questioning as he was naming starters. Even so, he's positive it will happen.
"We're going to hold that on the guys," he said. "We'll go through camp, and we'll see who rises to be that guy for this team."
Big Al, ESPN's highest-ranked Jazz player at 52, has spent all offseason getting into shape. But so has Millsap (No. 57) and others.
Could another guy step forward?
Maybe Hayward, Harris, Favors, perhaps even the growing-in-confidence Miles?
"I have a couple of guys I think will be that guy," Corbin admitted. "But I'm going to hold that back and see if they step up."
Regardless of who becomes the standout(s) of this 2011-12 squad, there is optimism that good things can and will happen.
"Based on the guys we've got coming back from last year, we're a good team," Millsap said. "We're young, but we've got a little experience."
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