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Kurt Kragthorpe: Jazz can’t give up on this season quite yet

NBA » But the team is rapidly approaching a point where that decision will have to be made

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If the NBA season ended today, the Jazz would be positioned perfectly for the future.

The present is more complicated.

At a glance

Jazz’s draft prospects

The Jazz will keep their 2012 first-round pick, unless they make the playoffs, in which case Minnesota would get it (via the Al Jefferson trade). The Jazz have the NBA’s 12th-worst record. The lottery could improve that position.

The Jazz will get Golden State’s first-round pick (via the Deron Williams trade with New Jersey) unless the Warriors are in the top seven, following the lottery results. Golden State has the NBA’s 11th-worst record, with a road-heavy schedule remaining.

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With their own pick and Golden State’s — assuming nothing weird happens in the lottery — the Jazz would select 11th and 12th in a deep draft. That would give them six of the combined top 33 picks over three years, a nice foundation for any franchise.

All that could mess up this picture is the Jazz making the playoffs. But trust me, that’s not much of a concern.

As the 2011-12 schedule resumes following the All-Star break, these are the key questions dogging the Jazz’s fans and management:

How bad are you willing to let this season get?

How will you judge coach Tyrone Corbin?

This Jazz season comes with a Give-Up Date — or a sliding scale, when it comes to reasonably pursuing a playoff berth. That day is fast approaching, but it’s not here yet.

It is too easy to say the Jazz should write off this season and turn it over to their young players, for the sake of development. The side effect is how much that approach punishes the team’s fans, being asked to keep showing up at EnergySolutions Arena to witness a succession of losses.

Such a suggestion also skews any evaluation of Corbin. I don’t know how anyone can determine at this point whether he really can coach or not, and that judgment will become even more difficult when the Jazz stop trying to win.

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Clearly, it is not up to Corbin to decide when to back off. That directive has to come from above, involving some combination of Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor and CEO Greg Miller. They’re the ones who would have to promise Corbin that his future is secure if he plays along with an all-out youth movement and, in Miller’s case, to persuade fans to stick with the growth strategy.

Corbin, whose career record is 23-37, won’t have coached the equivalent of a full season until April. Giving him more time to show what he can do is both deserved and necessary. His players have responded well to him, but the Jazz (15-17) have lost too many winnable games for anyone to say he’s overachieved this season.

The Jazz are playing to 97-percent capacity at ESA, a healthy response to a non-playoff season and a team devoid of All-Stars. The franchise could absorb some empty seats in the last 15 home games, factoring in the coming attractions of Miami, Oklahoma City and Jimmer Fredette.

The other issue is fair treatment of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Any extra minutes that go to Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are taken away from those guys, who want to further their own careers. Look, I’m as tired as anyone of seeing Jefferson pound the ball into the floor with his back to the basket, but that’s how this offense is designed and he’s the team’s leading scorer. Millsap’s level of effort also merits playing time.

So the answer is just gradually increasing the minutes for Favors and Kanter. On the wings, the Jazz eventually should start Alec Burks and bring Gordon Hayward off the bench. That would help both of them, because Hayward’s game will expand only when he becomes a bigger part of the offense, such as playing with the second team.

The Jazz can’t implement this stuff just yet. ESPN.com projects a 36-30 record will be required to make the Western Conference playoffs. That means the Jazz would have to go 21-13, which is not going to happen. But they have to try, considering they’re only two games below the cut.

By March 10, after eight more games, we’ll have a better idea of where they stand. By March 31, with 13 games remaining, we’ll know even more.

And that leaves just enough of this season to be wasted in defeat — and invested in development.


Twitter: @tribkurt

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