Tyrone Corbin has been on a roll. The Jazz coach has made bold decisions at the right time and his team has followed the light, winning four consecutive contests to move within a half game of a Western Conference playoff spot entering Wednesday.
But Corbin’s biggest call of the season awaits. And the outcome could determine whether a surging team ends up in the postseason or returns to its previous unpredictable play.
Losing starting small forward Josh Howard on Tuesday to what could be season-ending knee surgery ended the Jazz’s 45-game run of good luck and good health. Now, Corbin has 20 games left to keep the Jazz moving forward. He doesn’t have to just replace Howard, though. The coach also must determine who will start at shooting guard, with both decisions creating a domino effect that will color everything from playing time for rookie guard Alec Burks to veteran guard Raja Bell’s standing on a team he was forced to leave less than two weeks ago.
Asked Wednesday about the dilemma he faces, Corbin acknowledged his mind is far from made up. Utah’s second-year leader sees pros and cons in every selection; he’s fully aware of the wide-ranging ramifications; and the last thing Corbin wants to do is mess up a good thing at the exact time the Jazz (24-22) are shining.
“I like the way we’re playing now,” Corbin said. “But if I continue to start the way we are, does that hurt us coming off the bench?”
His primary options:
• Re-insert Bell into Utah’s starting shooting guard spot and move either C.J. Miles or Gordon Hayward to small forward.
• Keep Miles at shooting guard and return Hayward to first-unit small forward, a role he held for the first 37 games of the season.
• Promote Burks to first string, allow Miles or Hayward to start at small forward, and move Bell to the bench for the first time this year.
Making the decision even more complicated: Bell’s aiming for a return against the Kings; Miles has recently played some of the best all-around ball of his career as a starter; Hayward has thrived in a reserve role that’s put the ball in his hands; Burks’ confidence has soared due to the increased minutes that resulted from Bell’s absence.
Miles and Hayward excelled as a starting pair Tuesday during a victory against Oklahoma City. Offensively, they were interchangeable pieces that did everything from slash and shoot 3-pointers to pass with precision. Defensively, their length, height and aggressiveness allowed the Jazz to not miss a beat despite two of its top defenders — Bell and Howard — being sidelined. Miles and Hayward also enjoy running the floor together, turning an off-the-court friendship into a hardwood allegiance.
“C.J.’s an easy guy to play with,” Hayward said. “Because, kind of like me, we both can make plays for other people. We both can kind of play with the ball [or] without the ball.”
If Corbin starts both, though, the Jazz’s bench immediately becomes small. Bell and Burks are thin shooting guards who are true 2s, and they can’t effectively play at the same time. In addition, Bell has only held a reserve role in five of 101 games played since he re-signed with the Jazz during July 2010.
The Jazz should be able to fill Howard’s void with its strong blend of youth, depth and selflessness.
But Howard is not easily replaceable. He was the pole the Jazz’s talented 14-man roster revolved around. Now that he’s gone, dominoes will fall.
“I’m going to work it out; I’ve got to get it worked out,” Corbin said. “It may take a game or two for us to get it figured out. We’ll see who gives us the best chance.”
Jazz at Kings
P Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 24-22, Kings 17-29
Last meeting • Kings, 103-96 (Feb. 28)
About the Jazz • Utah has won four consecutive games and seven of 10.
About the Kings • Ex-BYU guard Jimmer Fredette is averaging just 2.4 points and 11.8 minutes while shooting 25 percent in his past five games.