Jerry Sloan is a memory. Deron Williams no longer has a place. John Stockton and Karl Malone: long gone.
This isn’t the 1998 Jazz. Or the 2007 Utah team, which advanced to the Western Conference Finals on the backs of Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Williams. Even the 2009-10 team already has faded away, with veteran power forward Paul Millsap the only remaining link to a club that once appeared positioned for annual trips to the NBA playoffs.
In its place: talent, youth, depth, wisdom, experience — and a whole lot of uncertainty.
The 2011-12 Jazz were one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, defying low expectations and making a late-season run during a lockout-compressed campaign to qualify for a spot in the first round of the postseason.
Then Utah was trampled, embarrassed by San Antonio via a 4-0 blowout that served as a painful reminder Utah is nowhere near the top of the league’s increasingly crowded summit.
The premier slots belong to the chosen few: Miami, Oklahoma City, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Jazz? Stuck again between something and nothing, loaded with potential but lacking anything close to a superstar player.
That went out the window when Williams shockingly was dealt to Brooklyn in February 2010, following on the heels of Sloan’s abrupt resignation. Nearly two years later, Utah still doesn’t have a true on-the-court identity or a team captain.
But the Jazz do have potential. A young core of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could rival Minnesota and the Thunder in terms of long-term potential.
If only they could get on the court. Blocking their path: Veterans Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye and Marvin Williams, who are set to make a combined $34 million this season and highlight a loaded roster that featured eight expiring contracts when training camp began in October.
Thus, the 2012-13 Jazz. One of the deepest teams on paper Utah has put together during the past two decades. A well-matched group of former lottery picks and proven vets who again could surprise the Western Conference and push for a playoff spot.
But a 1 through 4 seed and home-court advantage again appear out of the question. The West only has gotten tougher, while the Northwest Division is deeper. And for every tantalizing positive — Favors, Hayward, Utah’s stacked frontcourt — there are endless questions.
The Jazz’s biggest names carry big-money expiring deals. And since a small-market Utah franchise long accustomed to winning seasons and sold-out home games has been reluctant to hit the restart button and fully commit to youth, everyone from player agents to the Jazz’s devoted fans have no idea what Utah’s young guns actually can do — let alone who will be in uniform when the 2013-14 season begins.
“This is our team,” Millsap said. “I try not to look back at the past — who was here and who wasn’t here. You take what you have and you move forward and you go on with that.
“But what we have; we have a good nucleus. We’ve got veteran guys with veteran leadership. We’ve got the pieces we need to make some things happen.”
The Jazz proved that last year. Picked by some to be among the worst teams in the NBA, Utah blended passionate play with inner-squad sacrifice, winning seven of its last nine games to edge Houston and Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff seed.
But while the Jazz spent the offseason tweaking around the edges — Foye and Marvin Williams should improve outside shooting; point guard Mo Williams should be a minor upgrade over Devin Harris — the Western Conference and Northwest Division only became stronger. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash paired up in Los Angeles, giving the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers one of the most top-heavy clubs in NBA history. Oklahoma City was sharpened by its NBA Finals loss to the Heat. Meanwhile, second-tier clubs such as Denver, Dallas, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Timberwolves loaded up either via free agency or trades.
“Any [game] we’re supposed to win, we gotta win,” Jazz veteran point guard Jamaal Tinsley said. “It don’t get any easier.”
Jefferson, Millsap and Mo Williams won’t be the only ones challenged.
Coach Tyrone Corbin’s first two seasons were as unpredictable as the 2011 NBA labor negotiations. He took over Utah toward the end of the 2009-10 campaign, uncomfortably stepping in when Sloan stepped down. The Jazz proceeded to fall apart, completing a messy rupture that shadowed the conclusion of the D-Will era.
Last season was all about survival. Corbin never got the benefit of a full training camp because of the NBA lockout. But he also clashed with key players — Raja Bell, C.J. Miles, Harris, among others — failed at times in late-game situations and clearly was outcoached by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich during the playoffs. Entering the final year of his contract — Utah holds a team option for 2013-14 — Corbin has management’s backing, but also has much to prove.
“He’s really coming into his own, as far as putting his own identity into the team,” Jazz veteran point guard Earl Watson said. “When he took over, it was really hard, because everything was so unexpected. Like, no one seen that coming. … I see him being more comfortable every year, and that’s only natural.”
With a larger coaching staff and the two-headed front-office leadership of Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey and executive vice president of basketball operations Kevin O’Connor, Corbin will have increased options and more decisions to make than ever before.
So will the Jazz. As interesting as the 2012-13 season will be, it’s just a setup for this summer, when Utah could posses some of the deepest pockets during free agency. Favors, Hayward, Burks and Kanter appear to be locks to stick around. Everything and anyone else are up for grabs.
For a franchise that’s never won an NBA championship, the long wait continues.
“As a team, you’re either selling hope or wins. And at some level, Kevin’s positioned us so that we can sell hope that our group, which is collectively a young group, is improving. I think we all feel that,” Lindsey said. “We can also sell [wins], in that we unexpectedly made a jump.
“We don’t want to oversell and under-deliver. … I want to see the quality of the players, the cohesiveness of the group, the unselfishness of the group.”
The road’s wide open for 2012-13. The era of uncertainty is about to begin.