The Jazz are only 14-28 just past the halfway point of the season, but already they are more fun to watch than they ever were a season ago, or the season before that and the season before that.
Those past years were a time to endure limited, mind-numbing basketball, made up of a pass dumped into the low post, where Al Jefferson held the ball until he felt comfortable enough to find his own shot and, by then … zzzzzzzzzzzzzz, your head had slammed off the coffee table in front of the La-Z-Boy in your TV den and landed in your bowl of Doritos, knocking over your frosty-cold beverage. It was hoops designed by the Sandman for insomniacs who could settle on no other way to get some shuteye.
There was little in it to race the pulse, other than an occasional Jeremy Evans dunk or a Gordon Hayward shot block trailing on the break. The Jazz fouled a lot because their veteran bigs couldn’t play a whiff of defense, so opponents were on constant parade to the free-throw line.
The season was perennially a six-month march toward the inevitable — the outer reaches of the playoffs or no playoffs at all. And that was the worst part of it. There was no upside. There was no hope for something better. There was no gateway to real contention. There was only the ho and the hum, the hum and the drum to what you already knew would happen come April.
It’s the most miserable state for an NBA franchise, a state of mediocrity, a state of living in the in-between, a state of being neither good nor bad, a neutral state of going nowhere.
After grinding for a few years, having off-loaded those veterans who filled their salary-cap space but who couldn’t get them to the upper reaches, the Jazz are in gear now, moving forward and upward after coasting back. They are the classic example of a pruned tree, its cut branches enthusiastically seeking the warmth of the sun. Even when they lose, they grow.
“Everybody’s getting better almost every day,” says Diante Garrett.
That was evident in defeat against San Antonio. The Jazz fell behind by double digits, their young students absorbing lessons from the masters, and then, they fought back to nearly win the thing. It was the perfect scenario for the Jazz, playing on the road against about as disciplined a team as they’ll ever face, and losing, so as to not hurt their shot at a high lottery pick in the draft.
The problem is — if that’s what it is — the Jazz are growing at such an accelerated pace, that high draft pick might soon be in jeopardy. Ask the Pistons, who the Jazz crushed in Detroit on Friday night, how good the Jazz could be. Look at the bottom of the standings around the league and see the Bucks, the 76ers, the Magic, the Kings, and consider whether you’d trade any of those rosters for the Jazz’s players.
It’s a low standard, but … you wouldn’t.
The Jazz’s plan was always two-pronged: Develop the young players and lose their way to a great draft pick. They’re like a diversified stock portfolio. When one part of the investment goes down, the other goes up. They are protected that way, then. They want the high pick. They want their players to grow. If they can’t have both, they’ll take the bonus of the advanced side of the ledger.
The advanced side is the young players they already have. They’re better than anybody thought they’d be. Trey Burke could be a star. Derrick Favors has been their best two-way player. Enes Kanter is averaging 15 points and eight boards in January and has flashed the potential to do a whole lot more. Alec Burks went for 34 the other night. And we haven’t even gotten to Hayward, the Jazz’s leading scorer.
“Everybody’s coming together,” Burke says. “Everything is working out. We make mistakes, but we’re learning our lessons.”
There’s something uncommon happening here. All of those kids are on a positive move. It’s rare enough in the NBA when one player dramatically improves. It’s a complete anomaly when a whole group of players blows back its limitations and metamorphoses anew.
That’s why this season is cool, especially in contrast to the monotony of the past. It’s fresh. It’s promising. It’s more than what was expected. An ascending stretch of open road is now in front of the Jazz. They’re still going to lose in the short run — likely a lot. They need more. But they will not be in April what they were in November. And by the April after that, and the April after that, and the April after that, barring dumb decisions by coaches and management, there will be no ho and no hum, no hum and no drum. They will be what they weren’t in seasons past.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.