SALT LAKE CITY — In or out of the playoffs, opinions vary greatly on the prospects for the Jazz this season.
As the season gets under way Wednesday, anything less than qualifying for the postseason would be an extreme disappointment for the Jazz. And for some, it’s not enough simply to finish in the top eight of the Western Conference standings.
With a mixture of veterans and youngsters, the Jazz begin the season with fresh optimism stemming from last season’s surprising run to the playoffs, several offseason acquisitions and further development from the holdovers.
“Obviously, if we don’t get into the playoffs, I don’t think it would be a good year for us,” said Gordon Hayward.
No argument here.
This season’s roster is an interesting blend, roughly divided into three groups. There are the veterans, mainly comprising Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Then there are the four kids, starting with tantalizing third-year players Hayward and Derrick Favors, followed by second-year pros Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Mo Williams leads the newcomers, who include Marvin Williams and Randy Foye.
Obviously, if we don't get into the playoffs, I don't think it would be a good year for us.
Although this team likely is not a championship contender, the pieces are there to make a playoff push. Now it’s up to coach Tyrone Corbin to bring it all together.
“If the Lord blesses us to stay healthy all year, I just think we have a chance to really make some noise,” said Jefferson.
Background noise isn’t good enough this season. The roster is stocked with enough talent to push for home-court advantage in the first round.
Aside from the Lakers, the Thunder and probably the Spurs, the rest of the conference is wide open. There’s no reason the Jazz can’t compete favorably with the likes of the Nuggets, the Grizzlies, the Clippers and any other Western Conference team that manages to surprise this season.
The point isn’t to saddle the Jazz with unrealistically high expectations, but rather to envision the possibilities.
You gotta believe it to achieve it.
It starts with the coach, which is unusual to say in a players’ league. Despite having coached parts of three seasons, Corbin finally had a full training camp and a complete preseason schedule. Now it’s time to establish his identity as the franchise leader.
Without a natural leader who doubles as a star player, the Jazz need a forceful Corbin to set the tone. To do that, the former NBA journeyman has to create an equal starting line for every player on the roster.
In other words, Corbin can’t be married to the veterans the way he was last season. If Jefferson insists on stalling the offense by holding on to the ball too long or makes Carlos Boozer look like an all-league defender, Corbin can’t keep rewarding him with 35 minutes a game.
And that’s not to single out or pick on Jefferson, who is merely being used in this case to illustrate a point. The same rules apply across the board.
Until the playoffs forced his hand, Corbin seemed reluctant to go with the younger players last season. The most obvious example was Favors, whose enormous athletic ability often rotted away on the cushioned chairs along the sideline.
That’s not to say potential alone should guarantee playing time. For all his raw talent, Favors has to earn minutes. (Here’s hoping he gets in the range of 30 a game).
The same goes for Jefferson and Millsap. Nobody is entitled here, not even the overachieving Millsap, whose status as the league’s premiere hard worker embodies the foundation of this small-market franchise.
For all his talk of toughness during his introductory press conference over the summer, Mo Williams has to back it up on the court with strong play. If Williams slumps, Corbin has to bench him, even if he ends up pouting, as one anonymous scout in Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview edition accused him of doing last season with the Clippers.
I like to think we have a lot of superstars, not just one guy.
For the last month, we’ve heard all about Kanter’s incredible progress. Last year’s No. 3 pick in the draft dominated the preseason, culminating with 21 points and 12 rebounds in the last game against Portland.
Based on the games that don’t count, Kanter has earned playing time. But it won’t matter much if he gets only sporadic minutes.
Normally, players perform best with continuity. Every Jazz fan could set his watch by the substitution patterns Jerry Sloan used for decades.
But this team is not the Jazz of old, nor is it the Miami Heat of this season. Corbin has to have the courage to go with the hot hand, even at the expense of the proven players.
“I like to think we have a lot of superstars, not just one guy,” he said.
Truth is, the Jazz have a lot of good players but no superstars. Ultimately, like any team, the Jazz will need at least one superstar to win an NBA championship, but this isn’t about the title for now. This team’s greatest asset is depth, which means Corbin has to be willing to use it.
“We’re going to do it by committee,” he said two days before the season.
We’re counting on it.