In the tradition of Jazz legend Karl Malone, center Al Jefferson accidentally referred to “the city of Utah” during an interview Thursday.
If this is the end for Jefferson with the Jazz, his legacy hardly will resemble the Mailman’s, considering Jefferson’s three-year tenure in Salt Lake City includes exactly zero playoff victories.
Yet Jefferson, whose face on the southeast facade of EnergySolutions Arena temporarily hovers above Malone’s statue, deserves to be remembered well around here. He performed better than Paul Millsap in every respect this season. That’s a statement I never would have expected to make, and here’s another: Jefferson will be missed more than Millsap, who may have been the most affected by the free agency-based uncertainty that surrounded this team.
The reality is that neither player will be back next season, unless the market somehow dictates a more affordable price for the Jazz. Otherwise, the team will move on with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter in major roles and rebuild around them.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey obviously would not rule out the return of Jefferson or Millsap, but he said, “They’re going to have a ton of options because there’s a lot of money in the market.”
Lindsey himself is in a rather enviable position among NBA executives, with roster openings and money to spend.
Then again, his team no longer is playing. Along with coach Tyrone Corbin and Gordon Hayward, Jefferson is someone I really wanted to watch in the playoffs, just to see how he would respond after being overwhelmed by San Antonio last spring.
“It wouldn’t been like last year, that’s my belief,” Jefferson said. “But … we’ll never know.”
Millsap, meanwhile, was the one player during Thursday’s locker-cleanout interviews who acknowledged the difficult, awkward nature of the season. Maybe that just made him the most forthright Jazzman. But clearly, in his seventh year, he was not the Millsap of old.
The contract situations affecting many of his players undoubtedly made Corbin’s job tougher as he tried to balance developing Favors and Kanter with being loyal to the veterans.
As Millsap said, “Dealing with free agency, dealing with the rotation … it was tough for everybody, from the players to the coaches to the management.”
Asked if he kept the issues from distracting him, Millsap said, “Personally, I’m human, so no. That’s me being honest.”
Compared with Jefferson, there’s much more attachment to Millsap, who was drafted by the Jazz. He became a rotation regular for Jazz teams that won 19 playoff games (and four series) from 2007 to 2010, which seems like a long time ago.
Fans embraced Millsap as a humble, hard-working, team-oriented player, in contrast to the perception of Carlos Boozer, a star of those playoff teams.
Arriving from Minnesota as Boozer’s replacement, Jefferson had to overcome his reputation as a “black hole” — a selfish offensive player. “And I lived up to that name,” he said good-naturedly.
“I hoped I showed people that I can do other things,” he said, “and I’m working my butt off every year to try to get better and better on defense.”
Well, he had a lot of improving to do. It’s also true that Jefferson feasted offensively against inferior teams. But Jefferson became the Jazz’s most dependable player, the label once held by Millsap.
So what happens now?
“Once I get to that table, I’m going to cross that bridge,” Jefferson said.
“I’m not psychic,” Millsap said.
Odds are, they’ll become like Boozer, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and other ex-Jazzmen who visit ESA, with fans’ responses gauging their popularity. Millsap likely will be better received than Jefferson. But based on this season’s showings, that would not be justified.