Posted Aug 23, 2013 11:19 AM
This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.
In the glory days it was Karl Malone and John Stockton. More recently it's been Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, with a dose of Deron Williams.
Now it's all about Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward pulling the wagon as the Jazz move into a new era.
"It's going to be a challenge for sure," Hayward said at the Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas. "We're going to have to learn from our mistakes and not make them again and again.
"Knowing that we're going to be taking on a much bigger role puts another smile on my face and I'm proud that [Favors] is here next to me. I think we've both come a long way."
It's been three seasons of fits and starts, trial and error and plenty of patience that have brought them here as the two main cogs in Utah's so-called "Core Four" that includes Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Now they've added national college player of the year point guard Trey Burke to the mix. While the expectation is that the upcoming season will be a bumpy road with a young lineup, there is a reason to endure it.
"We're not in the business or the practice of sacrificing anything as far as trying to win games," said Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. "But at the same time, we've made some moves this summer that we believe are putting ourselves in position to be competitive over the long term. Our goal isn't to just make the playoffs. It's to win a championship. We believe we're taking a step in that direction."
In other words, enough treading water around the .500 mark and scraping for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. By letting their top two scorers, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, walk out the door in free agency, the front office has turned the page to a future that will put the mantle of leadership on Favors and Hayward immediately.
Favors, who has spent part of his summer working out with the Jazz legend and Hall of Famer Malone, proclaimed himself ready.
"We've just got to come in and work harder," he said. "Obviously, we're going to have to adjust, but it should be fun."
"I'm really excited," Hayward said. "It's going to be a challenge, for sure. But it's time. I'm ready to step up and take that challenge."
In the past two seasons without Williams, all the Jazz have been doing is existing. They battled to grab the eighth seed in the 2012 playoffs and were summarily swept 4-0 by the Spurs in the first round. Last season they swooned late and finished ninth in the West, one spot out of the playoffs. But they weren't going anywhere in the postseason anyway.
For a franchise and a fan base that had grown accustomed to nearly two decades of playoff success as a contender, with Malone and Stockton and Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, it has been a considerable step backward to live in constant mediocrity.
While Jefferson and Millsap are solid veterans and stat producers on the frontline, they simply weren't enough to get the Jazz past the elite teams in the West, especially while running through a revolving door of candidates to play point guard in the wake of Williams' departure. What's more, the Jazz were not capable of stopping anyone with a defensive rating of 106.8 that ranked 21st in the league last season.
The Jazz are facing a season that will test the talents and the concentration of their young players and the patience of their fans. In other words, this won't be pretty.
But that's a necessary process if Utah is ever going to get off the hamster wheel at the bottom of the West playoff race. This is the season when the "Core Four" of Favors, Hayward, Kanter and Burks will get to prove that they can live up to the promise that's been whispered in the hallways of EnergySolutions Arena for the past couple of years. If anyone is not up to the task, it's a season when the Jazz can find that out while they are still inexpensive and not tied up with burdensome long-term contracts. The Jazz have been searching for a point guard to replace Williams, so the rookie Burke will be thrown into the lineup to grow with the rest of them.
Lindsey has positioned the team with salary cap flexibility and draft picks to continue adding talent. The challenge will be to withstand the growing pains of this season.
Besides getting their fans to stomach a season that could land them knee-deep in the draft lottery, the Jazz are likely going to suffer the ups and downs of their rookie point guard. While nobody is questioning the decision to trade up on draft night to get the No. 9 pick, there were indications at the Orlando Summer League that Burke, the 2013 national college player of the year, will need some time to get adjusted to the next step up. He shot the ball horridly from just about everywhere on the floor and at times seemed to be pressing to fit in. Lacking in size at 6-foot, there will be plenty of nights when Burke appears physically overmatched. When you're already committing yourself to a lineup of young guns, having a rookie pulling the trigger will make things more difficult.
Lindsey is wisely positioning the Jazz for life in the new era of the NBA's salary cap and very punitive luxury tax. It simply did not make sense to spend big money on either Jefferson or Millsap. The Jazz may be trying to draw to an inside straight in thinking that every member of the Jazz "Core Four" will pan out as an elite level player. But if the cards fall right for even a couple, the Jazz will have valuable chips to build around. That's as much as they can expect this year.
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