SALT LAKE CITY — In one way, it felt like 1998 again for the Jazz.
Close enough to believe.
Far enough away to wince.
Was this predictable enough? The Jazz drew the fifth pick in the NBA draft lottery, Tuesday, one below where they were slotted. So they ended up in Neverland, where they’ve mostly been since you-know-when.
With a chance to land between Nos. 1 and 7, the highest probability was actually No. 5, at 37 percent. So they did what they’ve done for most of their history, through no fault of their own.
Close, but no party hats, like in 1997 and 1998, when they made the NBA Finals but finished second. And the No. 1 pick eluded them again.
“It was a little bit like that. We’ve been spoiled to have the fantastic run we’ve had, and to have the cohesion we did, but you always hope we’re on the verge of that whole cycle beginning again,” said Bryan Miller, who represented the franchise at the New York ceremony.
So now it’s the Jazz’s job to do whatever it takes, short of a holdup, to get Cleveland, Milwaukee or Philadelphia to relinquish one of the first three picks. That’s like asking a Texan to give up barbecue.
Otherwise, the Jazz will get a guy who will play a long time in the NBA but won’t get them near the top.
“We have a ton of options,” general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “I feel really good about being aggressive in the draft. That’s really where we can make a difference for the franchise.”
Regardless, the Jazz’s rebuilding project will likely take a step up in June. With an unusually deep draft, whomever they take should be a force. But a franchise-maker is debatable. No. 5s have ranged from Isaiah Rider and Jeff Green to Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Love.
Meanwhile, there’s the ongoing obstacle of Cleveland. Who died and made it Heaven’s favorite? The Mistake by the Lake has lately had fortune shine like nowhere else. In drawing the top pick, the Cavaliers won for the third time in four years. They got Kyrie Irving in 2011, a nice move. They took Anthony Bennett in 2013. Not nearly so nice. In 2003, they chose LeBron James with the No. 1 pick.
This year, as in 2003, even the much-maligned (and much improved) Ohio city couldn’t look bad. There are three fail-proof stars available, providing Joel Embiid’s back doesn’t go balky. Most experts are predicting Andrew Wiggins will be the top pick, with Jabari Parker No. 2, Embiid No. 3.
Australia’s Dante Exum isn’t far behind.
But that leaves the Jazz at the next level down, which is possibly the highest the franchise itself can aspire. Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, Kentucky forward Julius Randle, Indiana center Noah Vonleh and Arizona forward Aaron Gordon are in that group.
The Jazz will be lucky if adding any of them gets them to the playoffs.
Still, their fans can at least feel the team is doing something. Lindsey got Trey Burke via some draft-day hocus-pocus last season. If Lindsey moves them up this year, he should run for office.
Asked about the challenge of convincing any higher team to part with its pick, Lindsey optimistically noted, “It takes just one partner.”
Tuesday’s event held considerable interest for Jazz fans, who sat through the team’s second-worst season since moving to Utah. It was certainly a diverse group that showed up in New York for the ceremony. The Lakers and Sixers sent bona fide celebrities in Julius Erving and James Worthy. Sacramento and Milwaukee sent their owners’ daughters. The Jazz dispatched Miller, a lesser-known son of the late Larry H. Miller.
But there was no lucky draw for the first pick; it’s something they’ve never done. The disappointment was hard to disguise.
“I would have loved to have done something for the franchise that has never happened before,” Miller said, “but I understand while it could have been better, it could have been worse.”
Having slipped from the No. 4 slot to No.5, it certainly felt slightly worse.
All-time, the Jazz have only moved up once from their pre-lottery position, moved down twice, and stayed the same five times.
Though Lindsey said all options, including trades, are possible, the Jazz know they can only go so far — which will probably end at Burke, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, their most marketable commodities. Minus one or all of them, how much would the franchise improve?
But that’s Lindsey’s problem.
“Really, we’re not married to moving up, moving back, moving out, we just want to line up a bunch of good alternatives,” Lindsey said.
In some ways, there are far more alternatives than they would have liked.
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