SALT LAKE CITY — It's opening day for the Utah Jazz, which for players and basketball-starved fans must feel like a combination of Christmas morning and Halloween Night for kids.
"It's time to start the real thing," Jazz center Al Jefferson said.
The first gift of the 2012-13 season will be opened up tonight when the Jazz host the Dallas Mavericks at EnergySolutions Arena.
As usual, that first tipoff is accompanied by a buzz of emotions, excitement, energy.
And, yes, expectations.
Without being pessimistic or deceptively optimistic, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey offered a refreshingly honest opinion about his new team's prospects.
Lindsey's first response was not unexpected when asked about his expectations for and from the Jazz in 2012-13:
"Being championship caliber day to day."
Lindsey speaks from experience. Having been part of a championship caliber organization in San Antonio the past five years, Kevin O'Connor's replacement is a firm believer that following a consistent pattern of excellence will lead to positive results.
Translation in wins or playoff rounds?
"I don't know. I'm not Nostradamus here," he said. "I think we have a competitive group."
The GM, whose Spurs swept the Jazz out of the playoffs last spring, elaborated with an insightful revelation of reality.
"Now, will we be in the final four, the final two or be the last team standing? I think all of us know we're many steps from that goal," Lindsey said. "But you can again be championship caliber in how you handle yourself, how you do your job, your effort, your openness."
Winning a championship this season is neither realistic nor expected by the Jazz, who surprised many by even qualifying for the playoffs last year.
But, as Lindsey pointed out, there is a high level of expectation for the organization, from players to staff to the front office, to work toward reaching that elite status on a daily basis.
"If you do the fundamentals right," he said, "the results will take care of themselves."
The Jazz realize they won't win every game and might not be quite ready to contend with the likes of the loaded Heat, Thunder, Lakers and Spurs come playoff time.
Or could they make a mark and be among the best in a stacked Western Conference and a tough Northwest Division?
"I think you try to improve from the year before," starting shooting guard Gordon Hayward said. "Obviously, if we don't get into the playoffs, I don't think it'd be a good year for us. We think we're contenders, so that's what we want to do."
Whether they do or not, the organization won't settle for a lack of effort even if it has a lack of wins.
"The target is the best in the league," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Right now, you've got to work from where you are, but we feel good about what's on this team. We're going to lay it out there every night and we'll see where it lands."
Last year the Jazz's landing spot was the No. 8 seed and a .545 winning percentage (which would equal 45 wins in a non-lockout year).
Nobody in the organization is willing to associate a number with a season goal — from Jazz CEO Greg Miller to players. But anything short of getting to the postseason and advancing would be considered a disappointment — if for no other reason than because this returning playoff team believes it's made progress.
"We're better now than where we were last year at this time," Corbin said.
The Jazz believe they're a better defensive squad than the one that was picked-and-rolled apart mercilessly at times in 2011-12.
The Jazz believe they're a better outside shooting team thanks to additions of veterans Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye along with improvements made by the likes of Hayward and Alec Burks.
They believe they have one of the NBA's best collections of big men, with All-Star-bubble veterans Big Al and Paul Millsap paired with tantalizing and talented up-and-comers Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
They believe they'll have stronger leadership and tighter chemistry.
They believe they'll be more effective in transition and be more capable of faring well against quicker teams and bigger teams because of a lineup that is diverse and deep.
They believe they've done enough hard work to thrive and surprise, dating back to summer workouts and continuing through training camp and the 5-3 exhibition season.
Expectations, whether championship level or not, are high.
Energy and excitement abound.
"To me, it's all about the playoffs, advancing in the playoffs, getting deep in the playoffs," said Jefferson, the team's leading scorer and most consistent player last season.
"We had a little taste of it last year, but we ran into a great team," Jefferson added. "Now I just think it's all about getting the wins to put ourselves in a position to get a higher seed and advance in the playoffs, trying to get that home-court advantage."
Questions are aplenty, though.
Can Mo Williams, who was most recently Chris Paul's backup with the Clippers, effectively run the Jazz offense in his return to his rookie team and a role as the lead floor general?
Will the Jazz's transition and pick-and-roll defenses improve?
Can the previously poor-shooting team light it up from outside and simultaneously clear space for its bevy of bigs?
How will Corbin divvy up playing time with so many players who seemingly are capable of contributing and/or need experience to improve?
It's been decided that Mo Williams, Paul Millsap and Jefferson will be tri-captains, but who will emerge as the team's most reliable player?
"It's good to have a go-to guy," Corbin said. "But it's great to have a go-to group."
That depth — in talent and leadership — is what the Jazz really believe will help them push toward meeting high expectations even as few outsiders have faith they'll succeed yet again.
"No doubt in my mind this team can do it," Jefferson said. "We've got a great team. We've got a deep team, a great coaching staff."
Perhaps most important, it's a quickly bonded group that believes in itself.
"I like to think that we have a lot of superstars, not just one guy," Corbin said. "We have a group of guys that's going to work extremely hard to prove themselves in this league. You know, we're going to do it by committee."
That might mean fewer minutes than some players are accustomed to and will require other guys to patiently work while they wait to chip in.
"We're going to play hard and smart together every night that we step on the floor," Corbin said. "Playoffs is ultimate. You've got to get into the playoffs first to have a chance to win the championship, so we want to have a good season and get in the playoffs and then we'll see from there."
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