SALT LAKE CITY — Before the season tipped off, Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor insisted the team could be competitive.
With a straight face even.
Four months later, the Jazz are headed to the playoffs for the 25th time in franchise history and O'Connor has the satisfaction of having called his shot — or at least knowing and believing in his team more than most skeptical onlookers.
"I don't ever want to sound like 'I told you so,' " O'Connor said during an end-of-season interview. "But at the beginning of the year, I think we talked about not being in a rebuilding year."
The Jazz GM had faith that veterans Al Jefferson, Devin Harris and Paul Millsap "could carry us through."
He thought promising second-year players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors "could bounce back" from up-and-down rookie seasons.
O'Connor was concerned with the shortened training camp, and he didn't think the Jazz started off very competitive in back-to-back blowout losses to the Lakers and Nuggets to open the season.
Since then, however, O'Connor credits second-year coach Tyrone Corbin and the Jazz players for "adaptability" while turning this into a playoff season despite plenty of unrefined youth and late-season injuries, among other challenges.
"We just felt we were better than everyone else thought we were," O'Connor said. "That's nice to come out of that and prove it. You have to prove it on the court and I think we did."
O'Connor believes the Jazz still have more to prove as they enter the first round as heavy underdogs against San Antonio.
"This is not like, 'OK, you get a sticker for making the playoffs. You get one star and you can go home at recess,' " he said. "We want to compete in the playoffs. Look, we're going to play basketball and it's the best four out of seven and both teams are 0-0."
More tidbits from O'Connor's chat:
Will this season's success make him re-evaluate team's future plans?: "You (media) guys are the ones that all want me to trade somebody. … You're talking about our big guys. I don't think you can ever have too many. You can have too few. If you look at the teams that have won it over the last couple of years, I think they've all had pretty good big guys."
On putting together a deep roster that got contributions from expected players to guys like Jamaal Tinsley and DeMarre Carroll: "I think everyone contributes to the thing. I'm the conduit into putting those things on the table. You either get the blame or the credit. It really is a collective and a collaborative effort. (O'Connor called himself, Jazz president Randy Rigby and CFO Bob Hyde a "three-headed monster" and credited the Miller family, Corbin and the whole staff for chipping in.)
What he likes about the starless makeup of this current Jazz team: "When you put a team together you try and have a vision. Maybe what you thought here was trying to build it through the draft.…When Detroit was winning, they had a lot of good players. Rasheed (Wallace), Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. I'm not putting ourselves in that category yet because we haven't earned it, but what I'm saying is that maybe that's the idea — that we can beat you a lot of different ways instead of having to go to one or two guys over and over again."
Comment about the Jazz being a perennial playoff team (somewhat like the Yankees or Steelers): "It's not there. We haven't won a championship. Those guys have. I think the key thing is that you try and be patient in an impatient world that you live in, and we live in an impatient world. The best example I have is Nate McMillan, all the success that he had up there, dragging those teams through all the injuries and everything (in Portland). He had two-and-a-half bad weeks and they fire him. I mean, that to me, I don't understand it. But that's, I guess, I shouldn't be in somebody else's business."
What he thinks of fans who'd prefer team keeping first-round pick instead of making playoffs: "We have had two first-round picks two years ago (Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors), two first-round picks a year ago (Enes Kanter and Alec Burks) and we got Jeremy (Evans), who we like. That's five young players. It's not like we have to have an infusion of younger talent. That's not something that's paramount.…We got kids that have busted their butt for 65 games to make the playoffs. For us to say, we're disappointed we made (the playoffs) because we didn't get the 13th or 14th pick in the draft is sacrilegious to me. You keep score. Why not win."
What it means to make the playoffs again: "It's good for the organization. I'm happy the players who played uphill a lot of the year weren't predicted to be very good. Some of the guys who have had hard knocks at other places have come here and we've kind of put it together."
Does this put Jazz on championship path?: "We always are striving for that, whether it keeps us on that or puts us on that I don't know. You never know that.…But I don't think we're treading water, because if you brought everyone back from this team next year we'd be better.…Every player can get better next year and that's going to improve us and if we can add a piece that's really gonna help."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company