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Monson: Jazz take two steps up, two steps back

Published December 26, 2012 8:48 am

NBA • Depth is there, but talent needs growth.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

So, this is the way it's going to be this season, kind of the way it was last season.

The Jazz are going to take a few steps up and a few steps back, just sort of ebb and flow, probably to about the same spot they were a year ago in April. Results-wise, there will be no huge surprises out on the horizon for this team, as presently constituted. The only big thing would come from a trade, a move a lot of people have assumed would happen, given the Jazz's crowded frontcourt and the contract status of many of their players. But assumptions often veer away from what's real when it comes to the Jazz.

On account of that, they'll plug on, winning more than their share of games at EnergySolutions Arena and losing more than their share on the road. Through their latest 2-2 Eastern swing, the Jazz are 6-12 away from home, and there are few ironclad indications of them bumping their way out of that rut. It would take something substantial for them to do that, namely find three consistent scorers, guys on whom they can count no matter where they play. Even the Stockton-Malone teams didn't win on the road — until Jeff Hornacek was added to the mix. After that, they could have played on the surface of Pluto and still been tough to beat.

For every happy indicator (the win over the Nets in Brooklyn, the win over the Magic in Orlando), there's an unhappy one (the loss to the Pacers in Indiana, the loss to Miami).

Ask the players what the solution to the problem is and, generally, they say what Derrick Favors said the other day: "Play better defense."

That is true. On the whole, the Jazz are nobody's idea of a collection of stoppers. Paul Millsap is too small to guard bigger power forwards and too big to guard quicker small forwards, the combination of which leads to him fouling too much. Al Jefferson is slow laterally and can't seem to muster any sort of regular effort at that end. Favors is an exception to the Jazz's defensive whiffing. He's a force who not only blocks shots in the low post, but also plants doubt in the minds of opposing perimeter players who might otherwise challenge the Jazz D at the rim. That kind of presence is worth much more in the NBA than just counting up the number of blocks on the stat sheet at game's end. It alters the way opponents think, the way they do their business.

Favors, then, ever needs more time on the floor, no matter what's happening at the offensive end. He's shown improvement there, as well, although the third-year player still has no real go-to move. That's something with which the Jazz can live.

But he has to play.

And that brings us back to the Jazz's crowded situation up front. Jefferson is the team's primary scorer, and, unless he goes 1 for 8 from the floor, as he did against Indiana, the Jazz benefit from his work down low. They also suffer when he hugs the ball and doesn't deliver it in timely fashion to a passer who can then hit an open weakside shooter. It's the same story you've heard a thousand times, and you've heard it a thousand times because that's how many times it's been true.

Millsap has languished on the bench through some fourth quarters, eager to play, but more eager to win. Favors on the floor gives the Jazz a better chance to do so.

And Enes Kanter, though still raw, has shown periods of improvement at both ends. The more time he spends actually playing, the better he gets. Plus, despite his youth, he adds a component to the Jazz that they badly need: toughness.

The Jazz seem to get along great — "We have good chemistry," Marvin Williams said — but when there is too much redundancy at specific positions, they struggle to meld together. They play grumpy. They find no groove. The minutes are sometimes divided, sometimes withheld. Check with Alec Burks about that.

The team is deep, but that advantage, because of the aforementioned splintering of minutes, can turn into a disadvantage. And that's an affliction sometimes plaguing the Jazz. The alternative conclusion to draw, if you choose to do so, is a discouraging one: They just aren't that good. Ty Corbin can tweak the minutes. He can't tweak the talent.

The question is: Can they grow it?

An additional one: Can they grow it and win as much as they would otherwise?

One more: Which talent are they really investing in and which talent is temporary help?

Gordon Hayward is key in all of that. In the short term, he should be that third scorer, but he has to smooth his ride. He's been in the league long enough now to step up and be whatever it is he's going to be. His consistency and confidence have to be solidified. He's long and has a varied set of skills. Asked recently about that, he said he believes he's the player to fill the role.

The importance of his ascendancy can't be overstated, in the present and future.

Past that, Corbin must find a way to best use his numbers, to pilot an advantage through a disadvantage to an advantage again. In a league of teams with star players and short supporting casts, he has to beat those teams with no stars and a long roster. It's his charge to push forward a deep team with serviceable parts, with a handful of promising young players, and a number of veterans who likely won't be with the team next time around. The Jazz can utilize their financial flexibility this coming offseason.

In the meantime, short of major player growth or player movement, they are what they are. Which, pretty much, is what they have been.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.