If this is how it ends, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap together on the Jazz’s bench, watching contentedly in the final minute of a resounding victory, they have made sure they would be remembered well in Utah.
Whatever happens between now and Thursday afternoon’s NBA trade deadline, Jefferson and Millsap deserve credit for conducting themselves professionally and playing some of their best basketball in the last three weeks, amid their uncertain futures.
They’ve been involved in more midseason trade rumors — some of them undoubtedly substantive — than any two players in Jazz history, and they could not have responded any better. In the past 10 games, following that 125-80 debacle at home against Houston in late January, the Jazz have gone 7-3 with Jefferson averaging 20.6 points and Millsap adding 17.1 points.
In the process, they’ve increased their value to the Jazz and other teams — both now and in July, when they become free agents. They’ve driven home this message to Jazz executives Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey: If one of these guys is traded this week, it had better be a very good deal for the sake of the franchise’s long-term future.
With their recent work, Jefferson and Millsap have made sure they would be noticeable in their absence. They’ve been terrific, while dealing with everything that’s swirling around them. One way or another, they’ve made themselves a lot of money lately. That’s not a cynical response to their offensive surges, because they’re delivering in a team context, “within what we’re trying to do,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
“They won’t let [the deadline] affect their play,” Corbin added, prior to Tuesday’s 115-101 win over Golden State. “They’re tremendous character guys, they’re proud guys, and you see it in their play.”
Jefferson and Millsap have kept their focus and performed under trying circumstances that have ruined other players. “Sometimes, guys can’t handle it,” said Corbin, who himself experienced plenty of trade rumors — and trades, being dealt to and from the Jazz, among other teams, in his 16-year NBA career.
“This isn’t the first time for me,” said Jefferson, remembering how Boston supposedly was trading him for Allen Iverson as a second-year player. “Nothing happened then; every year, nothing ever happens.”
It might happen this year.
Jazz fans have more personal attachment to Millsap than Jefferson, who’s in only his third season in Utah. Yet Jefferson has become embraceable. He’s much more efficient in passing the ball out of the post now, while remaining the Jazz’s go-to offensive player and a team spokesman.
He’s done nothing, other than approaching the end of his contract, to make himself perceived as expendable.
That’s even more true of Millsap, who has grown up with this team through seven seasons. He’s the last player left from the 2006-07 team that reached the Western Conference finals in his rookie year, and he embodies the Jazz’s traditional style as a hard worker who’s anything but a self-promoter. Not even signing an offer sheet with Portland damaged his relationship with Jazz fans, because matching it turned out to be a bargain for the team.
Like Jefferson, his locker-room neighbor, Millsap has powered through the buildup to the deadline. “We’ve been through this before,” he said. “We’re all veterans, and we help each other out. We talk about things. So it’s easy for us to deal with it, because we have other people going through the same situation.”
Not that 1 p.m. MST on Thursday can come and go quickly enough. Asked if he’ll be happy then, Millsap laughed and said, “Oh, I think everybody will be.”
Actually, that sentiment is conditional in Jazzland. If one of these guys goes, he’ll be missed.