Following a legend is often a road to nowhere.
But when Tyrone Corbin found out in a blurred rush one year ago that Jerry Sloan was quitting and that Jazz management wanted him to take over for the iconic coach, his response was … good choice.
“The circumstances weren’t particularly pleasing,” he says. “But when I got the call, I was ready. I’d spent one year in New York and seven years here as an assistant. I thought, ‘OK, let’s move forward.’ ”
He somehow thought the same thing two weeks later when Deron Williams was traded, meaning the two faces atop the Jazz’s Mount Rushmore had been dynamited away and a whole lot of recasting and remolding and rebuilding had to be done amid the rock and rubble.
The end of last season was mostly clean-up, as the Jazz skidded through the remainder of their schedule. But by the night of the draft, the club had new hope in a fresh young core of promising players that included present lottery picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, and past lottery selections Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. Those pieces, mixed with veterans Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, C.J. Miles and Raja Bell, among others, gave Corbin a powerful-yet-delicate stock of ammo with which to go to battle this season, once the extended labor dispute got settled.
Twenty-four games in, now at 13-11, Corbin says he still feels good about his team and about his position as its leader: “I’m happy with the progress of our guys, although there are a lot of things we have to improve upon. But we’re getting better. I feel good about being the head coach, but I’ll feel better when we lift that trophy that we all want over our heads.”
Nobody expects the Jazz to be lifting any hardware anytime soon, and Corbin is aware of that fact, even as he winds his way through the only guaranteed full year of his contract. (Next season is at the team’s option.) He also should be as aware as anyone that winning games this season is a bonus, and that the real mission for the Jazz is to push forward as he develops and meshes his younger talent alongside and with the older players. That’s more complicated than it seems, especially as Corbin attempts to find and justify himself as a rookie head coach.
He says the toughest part is “not being where we want to be right now. You look at all the good teams in the West, and you lose one or two games, and you start worrying. But that’s what’s exciting, that’s what gets your blood flowing, seeing how we’re going to react to that.”
But don’t forget the development, too.
That’s Corbin’s comprehensive challenge: the weaving of ongoing growth, keeping the veterans satisfied, and winning when possible.
The other night against Indiana, the Jazz fell behind by 21 points before a group of the youngsters, including Favors and Kanter, came off the bench to boost the team back into contention. Still, down the stretch, Corbin went with and to Jefferson, who in 32 minutes finished the game making just 6 of 17 shots, again and again while the more energetic and effective Favors and Kanter played a mere 16 minutes each. Rookie Burks didn’t play at all in the loss.
Such a scenario makes some of the players whisper and wonder about Corbin’s handling of the team. Not just what plays to call, but also who to call on to execute them.
The sample size remains small at this point. And Corbin is still getting a grip on his team. It’s worth remembering, though, that leaning too heavily too often on a player like Jefferson, at the expense of the younger guys, could be shortsighted. The only way the Jazz will ever make a deep run in the playoffs is if guys like Kanter and Favors become the players a lot of people believe they can be. The only way they can become what they can be is if they play — a lot, and in all kinds of situations, including critical, pressurized moments.
Which is to say, getting them time is worth it, alongside Hayward, even if the Jazz don’t always win. Preparing for serious winning next season and the season after with the youngsters should be a priority over getting some scattered wins right now with veterans who likely won’t be around in coming years. Again, this season, the Jazz will be fortunate to even qualify for the playoffs. Remember also that the clock is ticking on players like Favors, who could bolt when their time is up. It’s a useful idea to make them comfortable, a part of the basic infrastructure, as soon as possible in hopes of keeping them.
There are no superstars right now on the Jazz.
Better for Corbin to build them from within, and win what he can with top picks, than to hope the Jazz can somehow sign or trade for them from without. And doing the former would be a huge achievement for Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, let alone a rookie head coach.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” says Raja Bell, the Jazz’s veteran of veterans. “But [Corbin’s] done a good job of staying consistent with what he believes in. We’ve got a good communication line open. We’re being held accountable for our defense and effort. Offensively, we all understand that our bread and butter is pounding the ball inside. At times, the ball sticks. We still have to understand we’ve got to get the ball humming around to get a better shot. We don’t always do that.
“I’ve played for some Hall of Fame coaches and they’ve done some things differently than what we’re doing here, but … it’s not my ship to run.”
One thing the Jazz definitely are not doing is hitting the 3-point shot, in part because of a personnel shortcoming in that area. That’s hurting them, and Corbin knows it.
But he insists he will find a way to make the most of what he does have by working it, motivating it, developing it, teaching it and learning it. If he does, he’ll earn the full trust of his players, most of whom are listening to him and attempting to please him. If he doesn’t … well, the post-Sloan road will take him elsewhere.
“It’s a work in progress,” Corbin says.
And so, for the time being, is he.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.