The Jazz waived little-used 14th-man Roger Powell, a seemingly innocuous bookkeeping move, before heading to Houston for tonight's game with the Rockets. But in doing so, the Jazz sent a clear signal that they intend to seize upon their surprisingly strong 23-9 start and try to become a serious title contender a year or two ahead of their original schedule.
Cutting Powell before his contract became guaranteed next week saves the Jazz roughly $240,000 in salary, but more importantly, frees up a roster spot for a more experienced player, one that presumably would address the Jazz's most glaring weaknesses: Either a reliable perimeter shooter at the off-guard position, or a strong interior defender.
Coach Jerry Sloan and senior vice president Kevin O'Connor both spoke Thursday about the possibility of acquiring a veteran over the next six weeks - an unmistakable change of course for a franchise that has preached patience with its young core for the past three seasons. The team still intends to be patient and won't sell out its future, O'Connor said, but when a chance to join the NBA's elite presents itself - and Utah's management obviously believes it might be a player or two away from a long playoff run - the Jazz plan to seize the moment.
"We will be agressive. And if we have to spend a little money to make our team better, Larry [owner Larry Miller] has given us the opportunity to do that," said O'Connor, who already is managing a franchise-record $61 million payroll. "We wouldn't want to damage ourselves for the long-term, but if we can add something we need to the core we already have, we're ready to do that."
That's a serious departure from the give-it-time philosophy the team has advocated since acquiring Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams over the past two seasons to play alongside Andrei Kirilenko. "If you're asking whether we would have done it two years ago, probably not," O'Connor said. "But we have a core in place now."
For the past two seasons, O'Connor has had no idea whether that core would mesh, because a series of injuries sidelined Boozer and Kirilenko and derailed any meaningful evaluation. Now healthy, Utah has exceeded expectations this season, and allowed the Jazz to dream of greater goals than merely breaking its three-year playoff drought.
Just probably not with its current 13-man roster, not with the Spurs, Mavericks, Nuggets and Suns all inhabiting the same conference.
While discussing Powell's departure, Sloan mused on his team's greatest need. In doing so, the coach gave away his thirst for more experience on the roster.
"We need more veteran players. If the opportunity presents itself to pick up a veteran player that knows how to play," he supports the move, Sloan said. "These young guys have talent. But you see teams that are successful - look at Dallas or San Antonio, they have veteran players coming off [the bench] who know what's going on. And are we just going to bide time?"
The coach insisted that, despite Utah's best start since John Stockton and Karl Malone departed, "this team is not even close to where they should be, in my opinion. How many games have we had where we've played the full 48 minutes? To me, it doesn't say that we've accomplished anything. We've won some games, but who are we?"
They're probably a playoff team, given that the Jazz own the league's fourth-best record nearly four-tenths of the way through the season. But that goal is no longer enough, Sloan said. "You have to go forward and try to win, see if we can get to the playoffs, go as far as you can in the playoffs," he said. "Not just show up, play three or four games and you're out."
So who would, or could, the Jazz add? O'Connor said he will pay attention to other NBA team's contract-guarantee cuts this weekend, and the team is looking at D-League and CBA prospects who could be brought in on 10-day contracts. Former lottery pick Luke Jackson, a shooting guard who says he has recovered from back surgery, is a possibility.
But players who could have the impact the Jazz are looking for most likely would come via trade. The Jazz are well-positioned for deals, with a couple of intriguing rookies in Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap, an expiring contract in Rafael Araujo's $2.4 million deal, all their first-round picks plus another one eventually owed them by the Knicks, and even expendable (and reasonably priced) players like Gordan Giricek (owed $4 million next year) and Jarron Collins (owed $4.4 million over the next two years).
O'Connor would not comment on trade possibilities, other than to confirm that he is exploring his options. But here's a name to remember between now and the Feb. 22 trade deadline: Corey Maggette.
The 27-year-old Clippers' guard, who averages 15.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in his eighth NBA season, suggested last month he is ready for a trade. "Me and Coach [Mike] Dunleavy... we don't see eye to eye," said Maggette, who was subsequently rumored to be involved in a trade for the Kings' Ron Artest, a deal that appears dead now. "Coach doesn't respect what I do. If that's the case, it might be time for me to go, move on and have a new beginning. It's better for me to go."
The Jazz's interest in Maggette is already on record, given that O'Connor negotiated the $7 million-a-year contract (which expires in 2009) he is playing under. The Clippers kept the guard by matching Utah's offer during the summer of 2003, but his combination of size (he's 6-foot-7), athleticism and shooting ability figure to interest Utah again. Of course, the Kings, Heat and other teams have reportedly inquired about Maggette's availability, too.
O'Connor said no move is imminent, and it's possible that the situation could change drastically over the next two weeks. The Jazz tonight embark on perhaps their most challenging stretch of the season. Seven of the next nine games are on the road, all of them against teams with winning homecourt records. And the two home games feature Dallas and Miami, last season's NBA Finalists.
Still, O'Connor hopes to be busy over the next six weeks. "We're going to look at all our options," he said. "The goal is always to improve the team."