SALT LAKE CITY — After suffering through the 25-57 season that tied for the fourth-worst in the NBA this season, Jazz fans have been buoyed by the thought of a high draft choice who can turn the franchise around and get the team back into the playoffs. Or perhaps a big-name free agent who will be the missing ingredient for a young Jazz team on its way up
The reality is, no matter who the Jazz draft in June or sign in the offseason — outside of someone like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony — it isn’t likely to result in a huge turnaround that vaults the Jazz back into playoff contention next year.
One-year turnarounds in the NBA are possible but not that common. More often it’s a gradual process to build a winning team through the draft, free agency and experience on the court.
This past year saw three NBA teams make significant turnarounds with improvements of 20 wins or more, two of which resulted in playoff berths and one that didn’t.
The Phoenix Suns made the biggest turnaround of 23 games, improving to 48-34 under first-year coach Jeff Hornacek, although it left them one game short of the playoffs. Charlotte was next with a 22-game improvement, while Portland was 21 games better than the previous year.
The biggest turnaround in NBA history happened in the past decade when the Boston Celtics improved a whopping 42 games from 2006-07 to 2007-08. That was the year general manager Danny Ainge acquired Kevin Garnett from Minnesota and Ray Allen from Seattle. Those two teamed with Paul Pierce to win 66 games and the NBA title.
The best turnaround for a Jazz team since it came to Utah was a 15-game improvement, and that happened twice.
The first was 1983-84 when the Jazz improved to 45-37 under Coach of the Year Frank Layden. The Jazz added rookie Thurl Bailey to a lineup that included Adrian Dantley, Darrell Griffith and Mark Eaton.
The second was in 2005-06 when Deron Williams joined Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko as the Jazz went from 26-56 to 41-41.
Otherwise the Jazz haven’t made any leaps of more than 10 games during their 35 years in Utah. If the Jazz won 40 games next year, it would be their biggest turnaround in history — and still leave them below .500 and out of the playoffs.
Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey is very optimistic about the future of the team, saying it is “well-positioned” for the future because of its young core of players, its cap space to sign players for next season and its three draft choices in a good draft, including a probable top-five pick.
However, he cautions Jazz fans not to expect the team to suddenly make the playoffs in 2014-15, and he wouldn’t speculate on a timeline when asked.
“The nature of sports and society is instant gratification,’’ he said. “It sounds convenient (for management) to lower expectations whether it’s our work with young guys and free agency and trades and draft prep work. I think when we add all of that up over time, several good decisions will add up and we’ll have a very significant team here in Utah. But a specific timeline, I don’t know.’’
Lindsey acknowledged that before this season the Jazz took a step back in order to “take three or four forward” and he believes the fans understood that.
“We’ll take it step by step,’’ he said. “We clearly did a few things to create more opportunities for the young guys, to be very disciplined with our salary cap outlay and the contracts that we have coming due in the next few years. We’re in very good position with our picks.’’
The Jazz have three picks in the top 34 of what is projected to be a deep draft. But even if the Jazz get a top-five pick, that player may not even be a starter right off the bat. Is Dante Exum going to beat out Trey Burke at point guard? Would Julius Randle move ahead of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter on the inside? Are Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins good enough to be starters from day one?
Without naming any names, that’s basically what Lindsey said, that the Jazz can’t expect to get an instant star.
“We have young talent at each position and for conjecture sake, let’s just say we take that early lottery pick,’’ he said. “That player’s going to be coming in behind a very good young significant player in this league, which I like. It will allow them to appropriately grow and not have undue expectations in place behind the young veterans.’’
As for free agents, the Jazz might pick up a solid player, but unless they can talk James or Anthony into relocating to Salt Lake, they’re not going to get a superstar. Whatever happens in the offseason, the Jazz have a lot of options to improve their team for 2014-15.
“We’re very confident in the character of our group that we’re willing to move forward whether it be internal improvement or using our salary cap or our draft picks,’’ said Lindsey. “I expect us to be better next year.’’
Just not necessarily 20 games better.