Orlando, Fla. • Hope has taken a hit. The promise of the future has given way to concerns about the present. And for all the progress the Jazz have made during the first half of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Utah enters the All-Star break not just falling backward, but also questioning its sense of direction and overall standing in the crowded Western Conference.
Just 6-13 since Jan. 19, the Jazz’s gut-wrenching 100-98 road loss to Minnesota on Wednesday highlighted much of what has gone wrong for Utah (15-17) during the past five weeks. An inability to defend the pick-and-roll; an embarrassing track record against speedy, aggressive point guards; an offense that either soars or sinks; a leaderless team that falters at the worst possible time and often fails to finish what it begins.
The sudden fall has sent second-year coach Tyrone Corbin back to the drawing board. He’ll spend some of his downtime during the break watching his son, Tyrell, play college ball for UC Davis. But any mental relief will be brief.
Corbin said game tape and statistical breakdowns are on the agenda while his 14 players alternately disappear for four days or head to Orlando, Fla., to bask in the All-Star weekend spotlight. Corbin’s goals: figure out how to tweak and improve what’s fixable, while determining what it’ll take for Utah to jump back into the playoff picture before it’s too late.
“We’ve got to be able to finish ball games. We’ve got to be able to make shots. We’ve got to be able to execute better in the fourth quarters,” he said. “So that’s where we are. We’ll look at things and see what gives us the best chance to get better soon.”
Corbin spent Utah’s first 19 games this season finally emerging from ex-coach Jerry Sloan’s shadow, guiding the Jazz to a surprising 12-7 start. But with Utah heading into the break as one of the coldest teams in the NBA — having more in common during a 10-game span with Charlotte, New Jersey and Washington than Western Conference-bubble teams Houston and Memphis — Corbin sounded hesitant and uncertain about the state of his unproven squad minutes after watching the Jazz blow a 16-point fourth-quarter lead against the Timberwolves.
Toward the end of his postgame interview, Corbin unexpectedly announced he’s considering inserting small forward Josh Howard into Utah’s starting lineup for more than just a temporary run. During the Jazz’s past two games, Howard filled in for an injured Raja Bell, with Gordon Hayward sliding down to shooting guard. But after viewing Howard in full-attack mode Wednesday — 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting and six rebounds in 31 minutes, 48 seconds — Corbin embraced an idea he spent the first 30 games of the season avoiding.
From late December through mid-February, Utah’s coach was reluctant to make Howard a permanent starter for a variety of reasons. Now, with Bell shooting better than he has since signing with the Jazz 18 months ago and Hayward more involved in the offense than ever, Corbin’s acknowledged he’s open to shaking up Utah’s starting five in an attempt to increase the team’s offensive output while spurring a bench that sometimes fails to find traction.
“[Howard’s] done a great job. It looked like he might be better starting for us than coming off the bench,” Corbin said. “So we’ll look at that and evaluate it and see what gives us a good chance.”
Howard was caught off guard by Corbin’s statement and initially declined to comment. But the nine-year veteran has proven he can be an X-factor for a Utah team that’s recently struggled to balance youth with experience.
When Howard was at his best from Dec. 31 to Jan. 11 — averaging 12.5 points in seven games before injuring his left quadriceps — the Jazz were on their way to a 9-4 start.
Howard signed a one-year deal with Utah before the 2011-12 season started, doing so with the understanding he could be a difference-maker — a player who could help lift the Jazz from the NBA Draft lottery back to the postseason.
With Utah again sliding toward the bottom of the West and below .500 at the All-Star break for the first time since 2005-06, Corbin is considering giving Howard the chance to cash in on his midcareer resurgence.
“I’m here [at] his disposal,” Howard said. “Whatever he wants me to do, I’m going out there to do it.”
For only the second time in seven seasons, the Jazz are below .500 heading into the NBA All-Star break.
Since starting 27-13 during the 2011-12 season, the Jazz have gone 27-47 under coach Tyrone Corbin and ex-coach Jerry Sloan.