Utah Jazz: At the half, Jazz taking their lumps but getting better
Since its horrific 1-14 start, the team has gotten healthy and is playing close to .500 basketball.
Published: January 17, 2014 09:55AM
Updated: January 16, 2014 11:23PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune General manager of the Utah Jazz Dennis Lindsey is surrounded by the media as he attends Media Day at the Zions Bank Basketball Center in Salt Lake on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

Detroit • The 1989-90 Utah Jazz lost 27 regular season games. So did the Jazz teams that lost in the 1992 and 1996 Western Conference Finals. And when the postseason season started in the spring of 2000, Utah was sitting on 27 defeats.

Twenty-seven — the same number of losses the Utah Jazz have racked up so far this year, with a game to go before crossing the midway point.

But, hey, nobody said rebuilding was easy.

When the Jazz front office pushed reset on the franchise this past offseason, new general manager Dennis Lindsey knew Utah’s nearly annual push for the playoffs would be put on hold. Wins and losses alone wouldn’t tell the story of the team’s progress. Lindsey instead talked about a season of discovery, development of the team’s young core, and an effort to improve defensively.

So as they approach the halfway point what have we learned?

• The Jazz are not historically bad.

There was talk of tanking even before the Jazz lost seven straight preseason games and then opened the 2013-14 campaign 1-14. Injury riddled, Utah was on track to set the worst kind of NBA records.

But the Jazz have gone 12-13 since then.

“You can be Brooklyn … or the Lakers,” said Jazz forward Richard Jefferson. “If you’re dealing with injuries, your season is mostly likely going to go to [expletive]. We were dealing with injuries at the beginning of the year. I know we had low expectations, but we were all very confident that once we got healthy we were going to be a very competitive team and we’ve shown that.”

• Trey Burke can play at this level.

Utah traded up in June to grab the point guard out of Michigan. After missing the first dozen games of the year with a fractured finger, Burke has proven his value. He’s averaging better than 13 points, five assists and three rebounds a game — and is in contention for the Rookie of the Year Award.

He’s topped 20 points in six of his 28 games.

His 2.94 assist-to-turnover ratio is top 10 among all point guards.

And while his shooting percentage (39.1) leaves room for improvement, Burke has shown an ability and willingness to hit shots when they matter.

His latest effort: Wednesday night against the Spurs, Burke scored 11 points in the games final 65 seconds, leading a comeback effort that would fall just short.

• Derrick Favors’ offensive game has improved.

When he signed his four-year extension with the Jazz in October, the focus was on the fourth-year big man’s defensive prowess. But through 40 games, Favors has shown growth on the other end of the court.

Favors is averaging 13.8 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting.

He’s shooting 43 percent on shots from 10-14 feet, up from 40 percent last year. And from 5 to 9 feet, his numbers have improved from 25 percent last year to better than 36 percent this season.

• The Jazz’s defense is still offensive.

Lindsey emphasized he wanted to see the team make strides on the defensive side of the ball this season. So far, the returns have been poor. Through 40 games, the Jazz are dead last in defensive efficiency. They allow 108.1 points per 100 possessions, the most of any team in the league.

Still, Corbin sees progress.

“We’re getting better,” he said. “We still have a ways to go. There are areas, especially man-to-man that we have to get better at. Our rotations are getting a little bitter, but we have to be a little crisper there.”

One of the biggest changes the Jazz have made, center Enes Kanter said, has been keeping a big man near the hoop instead of having him trying to slow a pick-and-roll ball handler on the perimeter and then tracking back.

“Coach figured that out and we do one-down now,” Kanter said. “We’re staying back and bigs are doing a much better job.”

• What about development?

At the beginning of the season, most fans expected a youth movement in the starting lineup. But at the halfway point, the veterans Jefferson and Williams have entrenched themselves in the starting forward spots.

Still, Gordon Hayward (36.1), Favors (31.6), Burke (30.9), Alec Burks (27.7) and Kanter (25.4) are all playing the biggest minutes of their careers.

Despite having Burks and Kanter come off the bench, Corbin believes the two third-year players have made progress this season.

Burks is averaging 13 points a night and Kanter, after struggling last month following his move to the bench, has put together double-digit scoring games in six of his last eight outings.

“Early on there was so much pressure and expectation on the young guys,” Corbin said. “They’re talking about being young and building around the young guys and getting the opportunity on the floor … and they feel that pressure. Sometimes you have to take a step back to decompress, get your breath, get your legs under you, see a little bit. [Kanter] has done a good job of refocusing.”

afalk@sltrib.com

Jazz at Pistons

P At the Palace of Auburn Hills

Tipoff • Friday, 5:30 p.m.

TV • ROOT Sports

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 13-27; Pistons 16-22

About the Jazz • Last place in the Western Conference. … Leading scorer Gordon Hayward has missed three straight games with a hip flexor injury. … Scored 70 points in the paint on Wednesday against San Antonio.

About the Pistons • The youngest starting five in the NBA, with an average age of 23 years and 175 days. … Center Andre Drummond has been a rebounding machine, averaging more than 12 a game. The Pistons, meanwhile, set a franchise record with 62 rebounds last week against Philadelphia. … Point guard Brandon Jennings dished 16 assists in one half in the team’s last game against Phoenix.

Highlights

Nov. 13 • Only hours after being signed, and without having a single practice under his belt, point guard Diante Garrett closes out the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans, helping Utah to its first win of the season.

Dec. 18 • Trey Burke scores 30 points, dishes eight assists and grabs seven rebounds in an 86-82 win over the Orlando Magic.

Dec. 27 • Derrick Favors’ put-back dunk with 2.1 seconds left against the Los Angeles Lakers gives the Jazz a 105-103 victory.

Jan. 7 • Gordon Hayward scores Utah’s final 17 points to push the Jazz to a win over Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Lowlights

Oct. 12 • Rookie point guard Trey Burke fractures his right index finger in an exhibition game against the Clippers. He would miss the remainder of the preseason and the first 12 games of the regular season.

Nov. 9 • After suffering three straight road blowouts, the Jazz finished off their first East Coast trip by falling behind by as many as 38 points in Toronto and losing 115-91.

Dec. 6 • The Jazz let the Portland Trail Blazers hit 17 3-pointers in a 130-98 stomping at Moda Center. The Jazz trailed by as much as 42 at one point.

Dec. 7 • Sacramento rookie Ben McLemore hit a 3-pointer to force overtime and the Jazz watched as the Kings ran away with a win at EnergySolutions Arena.