While the lockout raged and the NBA was silenced, Tyrone Corbin wondered.
How could he get an uneven, unproven Utah team to return to Jazz basketball? What would it take to finally maximize Al Jefferson’s talent? Could promising but diverse pieces such as Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors be glued together to form a strong, complete whole?
After the Jazz fell to 15-18 on Feb. 28, Utah’s playoff hopes were on the verge of being erased. The Jazz finished the season 21-12, though, and Utah collected a 9-4 April record while finishing the season with a five-game winning streak.
A look at Tyrone Corbin’s first two years coaching the Jazz
Record » 8-20
Postseason » None
Additions » Devin Harris, Derrick Favors
Departures » Deron Williams, Francisco Elson, Kyrylo Fesenko, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Price
Record » 36-30
Postseason » First round vs. San Antonio (Game 1 is on Sunday at 11 a.m.)
Additions » Josh Howard, Jamaal Tinsley, DeMarre Carroll, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Blake Ahearn
Departures » Mehmet Okur
It’s taken more than 14 months for Corbin’s vision to appear.
After the lockout ended and the Jazz were rushed through an abbreviated training camp and a heavily compressed schedule, Utah’s second-year coach rode the same unpredictable roller coaster as his team. Up one game, down the next, stuck between the bottom and the top. But Corbin’s finally put his stamp on the Jazz.
With No. 8 Utah on the verge of attempting to upset No. 1 San Antonio in a Western Conference first-round playoff series, the man initially known as the guy who had to take over for Jerry Sloan is now officially known as coach Corbin. The ghosts of Deron Williams and Sloan are gone. The identity Corbin was searching for when training camp started? Utah found it, then rode it for a 9-4 April record and a surprising trip to the postseason.
"Ty been great, man," Jefferson said. "He don’t take no [bullcrap]. He not afraid to call guys out. He not afraid to hold you accountable for your mistakes. … That helped our team and let us know our role. It let us know that when you step out on the court, you’ve got to give 110 percent. If not, you’re going to sit beside him [on the bench]. And you’ve got to respect a guy like that."
The Jazz haven’t just bought in. They believe. Jefferson swears by Corbin. Millsap nightly pours out his heart and soul. Hayward has blossomed, while Favors has only grown taller. And after initially failing to synch up with a coach who constantly pushed for a faster tempo and a more aggressive style of play, Harris’ relationship with Corbin has evolved to the point the like-minded duo can trade inside jokes before practice, then dish in-game dirt about the best way to attack an opposing point guard.
"He keeps us loose and he encourages us. … He understands what we need to do well and he gets us back to that point, especially when we stray," Harris said.
Corbin hasn’t strayed all season. While many on the outside pointed out the holes in an imperfect Jazz team, Corbin drew his circle closer and hammered home Utah’s strengths: an inside-out offense, two distinct units and youth-driven depth.
"He different than every [coach] I had," said Utah point guard Jamaal Tinsley, a nine-year veteran. "Most of these guys was worrying about one situation. With him, he let people play through certain things. He give young guys a chance. Guys like Enes [Kanter], they’ve been playing a lot of different minutes. … They wouldn’t have been getting that opportunity when I was in Indiana."
Some of Corbin’s best moves — relying on 2011 lottery picks Alec Burks and Kanter — were by necessity. Others were by accident. And his smartest decisions — linking Millsap, Favors and Jefferson together — weren’t made until the end of the season, when the Jazz’s roster had been watered down by injuries.
All the while, Corbin preached unity. He knew Utah no longer had an All-Star, a true game-changer or a closer. He was more aware than anyone about the Jazz’s faults and imperfections. But he also believed in his team’s undeniable strengths.
Few NBA teams flight, claw and scrap anymore. Utah does. Fewer are willing to sacrifice minutes, points and prestige for anonymous roles and hard-fought wins. The Jazz have. Even fewer take on the personality of a coach who spent 16 years on 11 teams, proudly making a living in an unforgiving league.
"The fight and the togetherness of this group on a day-to-day basis in practice. The locker-room talks. The way they support each other … and talk about getting better, man. We wanted to make sure that we seized every moment," Corbin said. "And we had to learn our way through it. And the message was to learn through your failures and get ready and not make the same mistakes. … Those mistakes helped us at the end of the season."
Utah’s coach has grown only tougher, stronger and more confident during his 14-month tenure leading the renewed Jazz.
So has his playoff-bound basketball team.
Game 1Sunday » Jazz at Spurs, 11 a.m., ESPN
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.