In their quest to model the small-market success of Oklahoma City, the Jazz can develop Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter as their versions of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Whoa. This comparison falls apart rather quickly, right?
That's not to say the Jazz's pursuit of the Thunder in the Northwest Division during this decade is hopeless, considering the promise of their young players and the potential solutions to their issues. Yet the Thunder's rise to the NBA Finals illustrates how everything must align perfectly for any team to reach the league's elite level.
Beginning in the franchise's Seattle era, here's what had to happen for the Thunder:
• Finishing with the league's fifth-worst record in 2006-07, rising to No. 2 in the draft lottery, having Portland pick Greg Oden instead of Durant, trading Ray Allen to Boston.
• Winning 11 fewer games with Durant as the Rookie of the Year, drafting Westbrook, moving to Oklahoma City, starting the next season 3-29.
• Firing a coach, drafting Harden, improving by 27 wins in 2009-10 and barely making the playoffs, then continuing to improve over two more seasons.
Sure you want to live through all of that? Well, yeah, if the reward is an NBA Finals appearance and more to come, probably. But that's a lot of suffering, and other franchises go through similar troubles without this kind of payoff.
The most amazing aspect of the Thunder's emergence is what they got out of those drafts. With the Nos. 2, 4 and 3 picks in successive years, they landed Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Partly via trading Deron Williams, fearing they could not re-sign him, the Jazz acquired the Nos. 3, 9 and 3 selections from two drafts: Favors, Hayward and Kanter.
Obviously, the three Jazzmen are at earlier stages of their careers. Yet to picture any of them becoming a top-10 NBA player takes some imagination. Durant and Westbrook already are at that level, and they're committed to the Thunder via new contracts.
The Jazz's personnel situation is coming together nicely at every position other than point guard. They have decent talent overall, but lack a top-15 NBA player because they traded him.
In other words, the Thunder's roster resembles what the Jazz's talent level might someday have become if they had kept Williams and added Favors, Hayward and Kanter, which was impossible.
So here's what the Jazz can do: The solution starts with trading Al Jefferson, even if he's their only top-25 player at the moment. General manager Kevin O'Connor must use his assets some combination of Jefferson and his expiring contract, the Mehmet Okur trade exception and the future draft pick still owed by Golden State, via the Williams trade to fill some needs. That can happen before, during or after this month's draft, in which the Jazz currently lack a first-round choice.
The Jazz have to find a point guard of the future and a shooter of the present. Beyond that, their biggest hope is that Favors, Hayward, Kanter and Alec Burks will improve significantly in the coming years. Favors is the Jazz's next All-Star, although moving to the All-NBA level, like Durant, is another issue. Hayward's all-around game is advancing, but he needs to become a genuine NBA shooter, and the same is true of Burks. Kanter's work ethic must overcome his modest talent.
These guys are intriguing, and they've topped my projections to this point. They certainly suffer from comparisons to Oklahoma City's stars, but that's not their fault. Maybe the Jazz's biggest problem is not themselves as much as unfair standards, created by the Thunder.
NBA Finals Game 3
P Oklahoma City at Miami, Sunday, 6 p.m., Ch. 4