Atheists are convening downtown, Comic Con’s costumed enthusiasts are worshiping on the site where the Jazz once played and Dennis Lindsey is trying to inspire belief in his rebuilding project.
Just another April week in Salt Lake City.
Lindsey, the Jazz’s general manager, presided over a 25-57 season that ended Wednesday with a double-overtime win at Minnesota, as the Jazz barely topped the worst record in the franchise’s 35-year Utah era. They finished 24 games behind Dallas, the Western Conference’s last playoff qualifier.
“It’s tough to sit here today with the record that we have,” Lindsey said Thursday, following the team’s exit interviews at EnergySolutions Arena, “but with the plan we enacted, I think we’re really on stable ground.”
Presumably, this is the bottoming-out portion of the process, geared toward making the Jazz not only respectable again, but championship contenders someday. So these were the natural subjects for Lindsey: How long will this whole thing take? Was he satisfied with 25 wins — or did he want more losses, in the interest of draft positioning? Did the team’s young core get enough playing time?
The timetable question is inevitably asked and never answerable. Lindsey could point to Wednesday’s victory as proof of not tanking — he wouldn’t even use that word — although he acknowledged a strategy from last summer that applied “seven parts to future and three parts to present.” And he distanced himself from Tyrone Corbin’s allotment of minutes, saying that’s the coach’s responsibility, but cited “no disconnect, whatsoever.”
Lindsey is a persuasive guy. Some combination of his successful NBA background in Houston and San Antonio and that slight Texas accent makes you trust in his vision. When he speaks of player development, salary cap and draft picks and says, “We have a real opportunity to get it right,” Lindsey is believable.
And he’s shrewd. Last summer’s trade with Golden State will deliver another unprotected first-round pick in 2017, so his employment status is assured for another three years — or longer. He just needs to do a better job of cheering against the Warriors, while gradually improving the Jazz.
In that sense, 25 wins is a nice starting point. Last August, the Tribune sports staff named Lindsey the most influential person in Utah sports. That pick was questioned by some who wondered what Lindsey had accomplished. Yet in its own way, this disastrous season validated his degree of power. The Jazz’s ownership authorized his tearing down and rebuilding, likely will endorse the franchise’s first firing of a coach in 32 years and will allow him to execute his plan.
The reality is that no Jazz team ever improved by more than 15 wins, so even a .500 record in 2014-15 would be historic. The challenge is for the Jazz’s current players to drive improvement, as much as any new addition. The team’s lottery pick is “going to be 19 years old,” said veteran forward Richard Jefferson. “He’s not going to have an over-the-top impact in this league at 19. It takes two or three years.”
The Jazz tied with Boston for the NBA’s fourth-worst record. As of this moment, they could pick anywhere from first to eighth (plus 23rd, via Golden State). That position may or may not validate the strategy of subjecting their fans to a lot of misery — although many of them seemed to endorse as much losing as possible, especially once the Jazz started 1-14. Those struggles contributed to a fan culture that celebrated the thrill of defeat. If Wednesday’s win was costly, in that context, Lindsey welcomed it. He pointed to big performances by several young players and concluded, “We can live with that alternative.”
And eventually, according to Lindsey’s script, winning actually will become acceptable — maybe even the expectation around here.