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Anybody out there satisfied with or excited about what and where the Jazz are after 33 games? They did beat the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, temporarily injecting a brief bit of boo-yah into an otherwise dismal stretch during which they lost seven of 10 games and found themselves at the bottom of the Northwest Division with a 16-17 record. If the playoffs started now, Jazz players would be enjoying them from their villas in the Caribbean, watching the Chuckster break down games on television.
And, yet, the Jazz keep dripping on, making no major changes in personnel and only a few minor ones in the lineup, as they meander along a course that appears to be leading them nowhere.
The 2012-13 production of Jazz big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who are both in the final year of their contracts:
Min FG% FT% Pts Reb Ast Blk
Jefferson 32.7 .477 .854 16.8 9.9 1.9 1.3
Millsap 30.0 .479 .711 14.4 7.5 2.6 0.9
But, in reality, it’s taking them somewhere significant — if it’s played right.
The Jazz have a promising young core. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks can ball. They also can make a lot of mistakes. But they can get better, too. It’s upon that foundation the Jazz can build.
So, why, then, are those guys not getting more time — Favors averages 22 minutes, Kanter 15, Hayward 26 and Burks 11 — to hurry their development along? That’s a complicated question. Boiled to its rudiments, the answer, in part, can be attributed to perception.
Two of the Jazz’s most valuable assets are Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both of whom are in contract years. Each side of that equation makes them attractive. A big man who can score in the paint and a high-energy, high-character scrambler have value. The financial flexibility that comes with their contract status also makes acquiring them worth the risk of losing them to free agency.
But for the Jazz to keep Jefferson’s and Millsap’s trade value up, they have to provide a platform for them to produce. To produce, they have to be on the floor. The fact that they play the same positions as Favors and Kanter is a mere inconvenience, at this point. But as the trade deadline nears, the Jazz can swap either Jefferson or Millsap, or both, for assets that are much less redundant, less expensive and more promising: draft picks.
They need an athletic young point guard who can pass and score, who can help young bigs like Favors and Kanter in a lesser-but-similar way a young John Stockton helped a young Karl Malone. Whether or not Mo Williams heals quickly, he’s not the solution. Picture, for instance, Damian Lillard on the Jazz’s current roster … that’s what the team needs.
The Jazz could keep Jefferson and Millsap straight through to season’s end, letting their money come off the books to bring in a free agent or two. The problems tangled with that include 1) who’s out there that fits what the Jazz want, 2) would those free agents want to play for the Jazz, and 3) would the Jazz have to overpay to get them?
As the past has shown, having all three aspects fall favorably for the Jazz is not the way to bet. Putting themselves in a position to draft difference-makers is the better route to real contention. Think about the top talent through the club’s history and how it was acquired.
Outside of a blockbuster trade that would bring them a superstar guard, and not erode their foundation, it would be better for the Jazz to trade one or both of their bigs for other assets and draft picks. From there, it would be in the hands of general manager Dennis Lindsey to make the right choices. That’s his job, it’s what he’s paid to do — evaluate talent, find a way to secure it.
A hard truth: It’s the only way the Jazz will ever be contenders. Moving around mid-tier veterans and making them the collective focus for an NBA title is like straightening deck chairs on the Titanic, the Good Ship Lollipop.
The Jazz might go on being better than average that way, cleverly hanging around the periphery of the playoffs, but for them to make a genuine push toward the top, they have to find and grow young stars, and build around them.
Not saying it’s easy. Just saying it’s necessary.
If they don’t make the playoffs, the Jazz would have their own lottery pick and potentially Golden State’s protected pick, which is looking as though it won’t be high, in June’s draft. Odds are, that’s not good enough to grab the difference-maker they lack.
The span between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 21 will be critical for the Jazz, then, more important than anything that happens for them at the end of April, when the playoffs start.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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