SALT LAKE CITY — General manager Dennis Lindsey willingly admits the Utah Jazz, days removed from the conclusion of a 25-57 season, have taken a step backwards.
With the ownership’s approval.
That matter-of-fact assessment, by the way, isn’t an admission of guilt or regret. He’s OK with it. Kevin O’Connor, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, is good with it. So is Jazz President Randy Rigby. The Millers are fine with it, too.
It was simply part of the plan.
The plan, the one that's supposed to vault Utah back up onto a championship-contender level, was set forth last offseason when Jazz brass opted to close the chapter on an era that included veteran stalwarts Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in favor of creating a book featuring young players Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke.
The Jazz could’ve proceeded with their former ever-steady bigs, Big Al and/or Millsap, both of whom have led their new teams to the playoffs this year. And there were serious internal discussions last offseason about doing just that. It would’ve been the safer route for the short term. It might have even pushed Utah into contention for the playoffs again this postseason after just missing out in 2013 and qualifying in 2012.
But at what cost? And how high (or low) would the postseason ceiling be?
Instead, the Jazz decided to choose what, Lindsey admitted, was counterintuitive to this world’s instant gratification preference and amounted to what the GM described as doing something that’s “seven parts to the future and three parts to the present.”
In other words, Jazz bosses smashed their collective palm on the reset button.
“(It was) us looking at our reality in a real sober way and saying, ‘We may need to let the younger guys have a bigger stage,’ ” Lindsey said. “And (then) taking that step back to take three or four forward.”
It just so happened — and not on accident — that the take-your-lumps-and-losses-while-playing-young-guys rebuilding process took place during a season that preceded what is expected to be the strongest draft in the NBA in years.
“This was the right year,” Lindsey said Thursday after his team, which ended with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, had cleaned out lockers and participated in exit meetings. “I think you could make an argument in years past, maybe the media or the fans wanted the young players to move to prominence earlier, but for a lot of reasons it was the wrong time.”
In a way, O’Connor got the rebuilding ball rolling in 2011 when he shockingly traded All-Star point guard Deron Williams to New Jersey, a deal that has resulted in the Jazz receiving two key frontcourt pieces for the future, 22-year-old Favors and 21-year-old Kanter.
The Jazz maneuvered on draft day last summer to acquire Burke, getting a competitive point guard whom they believe can work and grow into being the top-tier NBA playmaker Utah hasn't had since D-Will's departure.
Utah also has two intriguing wings in the versatile Hayward and the explosive Burks, who have both made strides even while dealing with shooting struggles.
“We have young talent at each position,” Lindsey said.
The exciting part about that for him is that the Jazz are going to have the opportunity to add another highly regarded young player to the mix through the draft. Utah is currently positioned fourth heading into the May 20 lottery. Best-case scenario, the Jazz will win the big prize and pick first — or maybe second or third. Worst-case, Utah will get leapfrogged by one to three teams and end somewhere between fifth and seventh in the draft. This is the year when any of those spots could yield a franchise-type player.
The Jazz also have the 23rd pick in the first round and the fifth selection in the second round, giving them three of the top 35 players in a supposedly loaded talent pool.
“We’re in very good position with our own picks,” Lindsey said. “ A lot has been talked about the draft, and the draft is just one piece of what we want to do. (There are) a lot of internal questions that we’re getting to right now: Do we take all three of the very good draft picks in this strong draft and go get our vet and speed up the timeline? Or do we just add another really good young piece to an already young base and slow growth it?”
The Jazz didn’t have a lot of wins this past season.
But they sure have a lot of options this offseason.
A lot of questions, too.
Will they re-sign Tyrone Corbin to be the head coach after his three-plus season tenure? Or go a different direction and get a Lindsey-picked bench boss?
Will they come to an agreement with restricted free agent Hayward? Or maybe allow Burks to play shooting guard and add a potential star like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum in his place?
Did the Jazz see enough to continue down the path with the so-called “Foundation Five” — Hayward, Favors, Kanter, Burks and Burke — who all played 2,100-plus minutes but surprisingly only 123 minutes on the court together the entire season? Or will they be dangled out there for potential trades?
Should the Jazz offer contract extensions to Kanter and Burks, who showed flaws but had moments when they flourished in their third seasons? Or let their contract situation play out another year?
Did Favors, Hayward and Burke show enough leadership potential and enough firepower to be considered a true go-to guy on a team that only averaged 95 points? Or does Utah need one or two more high-load scorers to carry the offensive burden? And how will they get that league-worst defense to improve?
Can Rudy Gobert find a more consistent role his sophomore season after his 7-foot-1 frame spent most of his rookie campaign on the bench? How about the athletic Jeremy Evans and fringe players with non-guaranteed contracts like Diante Garrett, Ian Clark, Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy, can they find a niche?
And, with the amount of salary-cap space the Jazz have (only $32 million accounted for now with non-guaranteed guys), could the team attract a game-changing, max-contract-type free agent to "speed up the timeline," as Lindsey mentioned?
While questions are flying, who should the Jazz pick come June 26?
Lindsey, who spoke to media for 42 minutes about these topics and more Thursday, doesn’t know all of the answers yet. But he’s looking forward to working toward a solution for these questions and more during what promises to be a busy and intriguing period before training camp for the 2014-15 season opens next October.
“I’m really excited about the offseason,” Lindsey said, “but I’m also excited about what we currently have and our ability to move that forward.”
Which brings up the biggest question: When will the Jazz win again?
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” Corbin said when asked if Utah will return to its tradition of winning sooner than later. “It’s a good group of guys. They have great character. They have a chance to be pretty good if they continue to work together.”
Burke and Favors both said they want to get to the playoffs again this time next year.
“That’s the goal,” Burke said.
“You don’t want to win just 25 games every year,” Favors added. “Obviously, you want to go in and improve as a player so you can come back and help the team win more games than that and hopefully get into the playoffs.”
Asked multiple times, Lindsey refused to take the bait on any triumphant-return timelines.
“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,” Lindsey said. “I expect us to be better next year. Between picks and flexibility and a good, young talent base, we’re well positioned to move forward.”
That process — one in which the Jazz promise to not skip steps — could take awhile. The playoffs could be years away. Fans might have to endure another losing season or two.
But the main goal remains the same.
The Millers have craved winning a championship in Utah since the late Larry H. Miller made that vision seem like a possibility during his victory-rich ownership days. Now it’s Lindsey’s job to move the team back into a position where lofty dreams become achievable realities.
“We have a real opportunity to get it right for the Utah Jazz,” Lindsey said. “We’ll just continuously try to do the right thing from a development standpoint, from a procurement standpoint, to be very aggressive in the draft.”
So, NBA Finals by 2015, maybe 2016 at latest?
Lindsey smiled when those types of questions were jokingly asked.
“The only thing that we know to do is keeping true to the idea and the discipline that we get in place,” he said. “Then, I think if we put enough good days together we’ll eventually have a very consistent (team) and hopefully a championship contender like they had with John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) here.”
That, of course, will take quite a few leaps forward, especially after all of this backtracking.
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