Monson: Is Kevin O'Connor building the Jazz into a title contender?
O’Connor has assembled a nucleus that is good now but can get even better.

By Gordon Monson

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 23, 2012 11:35PM
Updated: April 23, 2012 10:32PM
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Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah's Paul Millsap drives around Cleveland's Antawn Jamison during first half action in the Jazz Cleveland game at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah Tuesday, January 10, 2012.

Kevin O’Connor deserves major credit for the positive things happening with the Jazz right now, and there was no better illustration of — and contrast to — that than the teams on the floor Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

On the one hand, there was Orlando … heavy organ music, please … performing, without its injured and brooding star, in the latest tired episode of the daytime drama, “As the Magic Skid.” On the other was a fresh new hit show, with an emerging ensemble cast, still climbing in the ratings and still getting better, hungry to keep ascending as each game goes by.

Dwight Howard’s sorry script in Orlando could have been Deron Williams’ in Utah. Williams’ might not have had all the same drama, but then again, after what happened a year ago in February, it might have featured even more.

You had to think about that as Derrick Favors and Devin Harris, just part of the return booty in the Williams trade with the Nets, combined for 37 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists and a number of huge plays through the deciding moments of a significant Jazz win.

O’Connor recognized that Williams wasn’t going to re-sign with the Jazz — he couldn’t get comfortable with, among other issues, the point guard’s commitment level, constantly asking, “Are you in? Are you in?” and never getting the response he wanted — so he unloaded him, avoiding the farcical show the Magic have suffered through with Howard this season.

More importantly, he got assets in return: Favors, around whom the Jazz can build for years to come; Harris; two first-round draft picks, one of which turned into Enes Kanter, another promising, young big man; and $3 million.

Looking back, the move was brilliant.

“It tasted like it, it smelled like it, and it felt like it,” O’Connor says. “[New Jersey] got a great player. It’s a trade-off. It’s tough to trade an All-Star in the prime of his career for players who maybe haven’t proved what they can do and for future considerations. We felt, in the best interests of the thing, the risk-reward was where it was.”

Which is to say, the Jazz fleeced the Nets.

They plowed straight through a problem faced by every NBA team, an especially harmful one to many small-market clubs, under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement: At some point, a star player can hold his incumbent team hostage and call his own shot. Everybody saw what happened in Cleveland with LeBron James, in Denver with Carmelo Anthony, in New Orleans with Chris Paul, in Orlando with Howard, and now in New Jersey with You Know Who.

It did not happen here.

Jazz management deserves praise for the way that’s turned out.

“The biggest thing I concern myself with is trying to make the right decision for the right reason at the right time, and then let the chips fall where they may,” O’Connor says. “You sit there with the best available information you can get, and make a decision.”

Sometimes it works out for O’Connor; sometimes it doesn’t. He’s had hits and misses through the years, in drafts and in trades and in signing decisions.

“If you don’t make mistakes, then you’re not trying,” he says. “We’ve made mistakes in a lot of areas, obviously, and you’re going to do that. We all do that.”

But O’Connor has not done much of that lately. He bridged the Stockton-Malone Era to the Williams-Boozer Era to the Evolving Era of Promise now without excessive losing in between.

“We started out 27-13 last season,” he says. “And then, we had half a bad season. It went to hell, basically.”

It’s back out now, the Jazz having moved into a favorable situation where they can nourish that core of young players — Favors, Kanter, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward, all 22 and under — mixed with a still-improving Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, who are under contract for another year, and a list of useful role players, including second-chance vets such as Jamaal Tinsley and Josh Howard.

“I feel good that the guys on this team care about winning,” O’Connor says. “The next question is, ‘How does this team get better?’ We can get better internally, and we still have the ability to add pieces. We have flexibility.”

That combination of potential for growth and flexibility leads to another question: Can O’Connor pull off the one big deal the Jazz yet need in order to make certain a realistic run at championship contention? Will he trade a Jefferson or Millsap or Harris for a draft pick or an asset the club lacks? For an asset that will help transform them from good to great?

His ultimate legacy could ride on that.

O’Connor believes, everything else being equal, growth from within is preferable because you have to give something up to get something back in trade. And, as he says it, with internal growth, “You know what you have, you know where they need to get to. Get somebody from the outside, whether it’s a drafted rookie or a trade, and you don’t know the person as well as you think you do.

“We know these guys.”

He adds that the Jazz will eagerly help their youngsters develop over the offseason: “We’re going to spend a lot of time individually with the players on how they can get better, like Enes Kanter. We’ve got to get him so he’s in better shape. We’ve got to get him so he recognizes defenses. There’s a list of things we’ll go down with each player. We’re going to have a hands-on approach.

“Derrick Favors is 20 years old. I look forward to seeing him in two or three years, Kanter in two or three years. That’s how you have to build through the draft and then add pieces. Are we going to be able to get a huge free agent? Probably not. But we have to get free agents who fit in.”

Beyond that, the Jazz have a trade exception to use before next December, a midlevel exception, and can utilize their assets yet under contract.

O’Connor is optimistic about the Jazz’s opportunity for growth and their expansive upside, and he should be.

They’re decent now, and they can get better. They still need outside shooting, and he knows that, too. But the foundation is in place, especially with one more successful key move added in, for another solid, enduring run. Regardless of how this season ends, the Jazz are in the early stages, the early scenes of a good long script, absent now of any melodramatic organ music. And O’Connor is the author of it.

GORDON MONSON hosts the “Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

Remaining Jazz schedule

Tuesday • Phoenix at Utah, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Thursday • Portland at Utah, 6 p.m., ROOT