2012-2013 W-L: 43-39
New Faces: Ian Clark, Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, John Lucas, Brandon Rush
New Places: DeMarre Carrol (Atlanta), Al Jefferson (Charlotte), Paul Millsap (Atlanta), Earl Watson (Portland), Mo Williams (Portland)
Draft: Trey Burke (9), Rudy Gobert (27), Raul Neto (47)
These are exciting times for the Jazz.
That sounds nonsensical. Utah let its two best players walk in free agency and completed a trade that nets them almost nothing of immediate consequence for the upcoming season but $24 million in guaranteed salary. Burke’s draft-day slide was a major coup and Gobert’s longterm potential certainly intrigues, but neither is enough to offset the impact of Jefferson and Millsap’s departure.
The major roster overhaul foretold by the February 2011 trade of Deron Williams is finally here, and with it begins this organization’s first ‘rebuilding’ year since 2004. The Jazz don’t have realistic playoff hopes in 2013-2014, have fully embraced a long-awaited youth movement, and emerge from a summer in which every move was made with the horizon in mind.
But Utah isn’t the Philadelphia 76ers or even the Boston Celtics. There’s reason for optimism in Salt Lake City now and going forward, which puts the Jazz in a unique and enviable position among the teams that underwent offseason construction in anticipation of next summer’s loaded draft.
Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the justification for Utah’s optimistic prospects, just as they’ve been for two seasons running. But things are different with Jefferson and Millsap playing elsewhere; they’re suddenly this team’s future and present as opposed to just the latter. That means more opportunity but more responsibility, too. So while there’s a reason the Jazz aren’t on anyone’s short-list of potential playoff teams, there’s another they’ll remain competitive regardless: Hayward, Favors and Kanter might be really, really good.
That Utah’s three best players are valuable NBA contributors at the very worst is obvious; what isn’t is the slope of their career trajectories going forward. We’ll finally get the proper opportunity to gauge that this season, though, and what we learn is paramount to this franchise’s direction going forward. Are they merely starter-level? Is one of them an All-Star? Can Favors and Kanter play together? Is Hayward best as a shooting guard or small forward? There’s enough to suggest multiple answers to every question, and the hope is Utah will have enough real evidence after this season to narrow down the possibilities.
Point being, there’s talent here. And it’s not just in Hayward, Favors and Kanter, either.
Burke, everyone’s darling of the NCAA Tournament, was once projected as the second overall pick in the draft. He wasn’t a realistic option for Utah after March, but draft night’s wild lottery gave them a chance to acquire him. Surrendering the 21st pick of a weak draft to swap the 14th for Burke – considered by many as the top point guard in the 2013 class – was an easy choice for the Jazz, long in search of a franchise lead guard. Burke is hardly without deficiencies, but at the very least stops Utah’s revolving door of floor generals since being forced to trade Williams. Noted physical limitations plagued him during summer league play, but Burke’s future is bright.
His potential influence – despite Burke’s limitations, he’s a likely upgrade on the departed Mo Williams and a certain one over Jamaal Tinsley – as an overall playmaking threat will pay dividends for the rest of Utah’s young core, and perhaps most notably third-year guard Alec Burks. Despite flashes of two-way impact and a rare physical profile, Burks has struggled to earn consistent playing time over his first two seasons despite his team’s lack of viable options on the wing. But he showed considerable improvement last season nonetheless, especially as a defender and three-point shooter. He’s not a foundational piece for the Jazz yet, but this should be the year Burks gets a real chance to show he belongs as a fixture of Utah’s longterm plans.
The rest of this roster is made up of career journeymen. But there’s a silver-lining here, with the contracts of Biedrins, Jefferson, Rush and Marvin Williams set to expire after this season. Though the Jazz likely won’t make a major trade deadline splash unless the ideal scenario presents itself, they should be active as third-party facilitators; teams with so many salary, player and draft assets are always sought-after trade partners come late February.
Mediocrity gets you nowhere in the NBA, a fact Utah was reluctant to admit until this summer. So instead of clawing tooth-and-nail for another chance to lose in the first round come spring, the Jazz are sitting that fight out with a longterm payoff in mind. But their’s is a different rebuilding process than the rest, one as much about players already on the roster as those that might be this time next year.
A small step back makes it easier to take a giant leap forward. The Jazz understand that now, and have as encouraging a future as ever because of it. Don’t let the losses this season fool you; Utah should still be the force we’ve thought it will in years to come.