Kurt Kragthorpe: Jazz finally thrive in a starter's absence
Jazz guard Alec Burks' career night is not going to help teammate Gordon Hayward's campaign to become the league's MVP.
In Hayward's absence, Burks' 34-point effort in Monday's 118-103 victory over Denver boosted the value of Trey Burke, Marvin Williams and himself, of course. The scoring spree at EnergySolutions Arena also elevated the Jazz to a tie for the NBA's fourth-worst record (13-26), their best status of the season.
Decide for yourself if that's a worthwhile accomplishment, amid the anticipation of the 2014 draft. It certainly represents a big climb from the Jazz's 1-14 start, which had something to do with Burke's missing 12 games with a broken finger.
If the story of the night was Burks, the story of the season is Burke, who contributed 18 points and eight assists Monday.
Strangely enough, his injury may have saved the team's draft hopes. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that Burke could have helped the Jazz to about a 4-11 start, and that would give them only the 12th-worst record at this stage. So his absence stuck them in enough of a hole to enhance their lottery opportunity, while they've surged lately with improved health and a more favorable schedule.
Factoring in the weakness of the Eastern Conference, the Jazz probably couldn't maintain that middle-tier standing. But it's apparent that Burke could have altered the dynamic of this season by steering the focus away from any collegians who have yet to arrive.
Monday's episode was a breakthrough. The Jazz previously were 1-18 (having beaten New Orleans) with any starting lineup other than the first-choice five of Richard Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Williams, Burke and Hayward, who remained out with a hip flexor injury. That group is 11-8, illustrating how the Jazz are so easily disrupted by personnel issues.
"All that does is give an opportunity for somebody else to come in and make a name for themselves," said Denver coach Brian Shaw.
That's a standard-issue NBA quote, but the theory did not apply to the Jazz, prior to Monday.
"Look at our roster," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said before the game. "It's not difficult for me to see when you miss a guy, why we tend to have trouble."
Hayward's perceived value rose recently with help from Cleveland, as the Cavaliers topped the Jazz by 11 points in his absence and then lost by 44 at Sacramento.
Burks clearly was not the answer against Cleveland, as the Jazz dropped to 0-4 with him starting. Denver's visit was another story. With the Nuggets treating defense as an afterthought, Burks took advantage with aggressive driving and a variety of shots, going 13 for 19 - all with 2-point attempts.
While this showing came in a start, "It's kind of what we envision him coming off the bench to be able to do," Corbin said.
Williams' seven-point effort, meanwhile, was notable because he shook off illness to play 24 minutes. His presence must have meant something, because the Jazz are 0-10 without him.
The Jazz can thank Denver for helping them shoot 55.7 percent from the field, raising their season average to 43.9 percent. They temporarily rose above the .436 mark of the 2003-04 team, the lowest in the franchise's 40-year history, coming in the first season after the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
That team somehow finished 42-40, which will far exceed the current Jazz's performance. This rebuilding phase obviously has affected Corbin's record. He's now 100-115 in his fourth year, after having topped .500 briefly last season.
But he's 12-12 since Burke's first start in this building, and he's unbeaten when Burks scores 34.