Kragthorpe: Jazz remain mired in mediocrity
Friday’s game vs. Bulls was a chance to show growth over two years.

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

Published: February 9, 2013 07:42PM
Updated: May 21, 2013 11:32PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Even with a huge effort from Al Jefferson, the Jazz were stymied by Chicago’s defense in the end. Carlos Boozer walked off the EnergySolutions Arena court in triumph.

That’s what happened two years ago. The story was repeated Friday, only this time coach Tyrone Corbin paced the Jazz sideline as Jerry Sloan watched unemotionally from the seats.

Much has changed for the Jazz since Feb. 9, 2011 — or has it? Management has overhauled the roster after the Deron Wiliams trade, Corbin has settled into Sloan’s old job and the Jazz have doggedly climbed their way to becoming an average team.

Two years ago, Jefferson scored 26 points but the Jazz lost the ball on three straight possessions in the late stages of a 91-86 defeat. The frustration of facing Chicago’s relentless defense boiled over to the point where Sloan feuded with Williams at halftime and quit the next day.

Nothing so extreme occurred Friday, that we know of, but the Jazz scored only one basket in their last nine possessions after taking a four-point lead in an eventual 93-89 loss. The last of Jefferson’s 32 points came with 9:10 remaining. The Bulls’ defense — not Corbin or Jefferson’s teammates, it should be pointed out — limited him to two shots the rest of the game.

The Jazz stood at 31-23 at Sloan’s departure point; they took a 28-23 record into Saturday’s game at Sacramento. Corbin deserves credit for overcoming his 5-18 start in a tenure complicated by the trade of Williams. There would have been some significance in Corbin’s moving above .500 for the first time with a win over Chicago on almost the two-year anniversary of his promotion, but he fell to 72-73.

So the issue becomes just where this franchise stands. Corbin, who’s understandably not fond of milestone observances or comparisons to the Boozer-Williams era, likes to believe his team is developing its own look and feel.

“We’re trying to create an identity of who this team is,” he said. “We’ve come out of the gray area. … Now, you know who we are a little bit more than we did a couple of years ago.”

A little bit — which is a Sloan expression — is accurate. The Jazz have re-established their culture under Corbin, as articulated by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in reflecting on Sloan’s influence. “You think of the Jazz, you think of how hard they play, how unselfish, smart, tough — what they stand for,” he said. “They’ve been the gold standard in the league for such a long time.”

Yet the reality is that the standards in the Western Conference are so high that being in the range of 44 to 46 wins, as the Jazz’s current record projects, is simply mediocre. And I really don’t figure to have a clear idea of where this franchise is headed until the summer, when executives Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey can rework the roster again. Amid the anticipation of the Feb. 21 trade deadline, it’s unreasonable to expect them to pull off a move that genuinely alters the franchise’s outlook.

If they can do so, I’ll be very impressed, I’ll say that. If there’s a young point guard available who could join the Gordon Hayward-Derrick Favors-Enes Kanter core and enhance their future, great. Otherwise, the Jazz might as well let the Jefferson era play itself out, absorb their first-round playoff defeat and regroup at that point.

The Jazz have managed to retool themselves sufficiently to get back to where they were two years ago, before the D-Will trade. There’s also some hope going forward, but only after a 2012-13 season that sure feels like a holding pattern.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt