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Monson: Utah Jazz are stuck and searching for a way out

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Gordon Monson

By Gordon Monson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 14 2013 02:13PM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:32PM

Edging toward the Feb. 21 trade deadline, and idling in a general sense, the Jazz are … stuck. They’ve done a decent job of putting together a 30-24 record, made up of an undulating series of highs and lows over that extended stretch heading now into the All-Star break, but they yet lack what all serious contenders, maybe with the exception of one, have had more than their share of en route to a Finals appearance.

Stars.

It’s ironic, for a quintessential team game, that the path to the top is established: draft, develop, sign as a free agent, or trade for a couple of real difference-makers, fill out the rotation from there with one particularly valuable sidekick and a handful of useful foot soldiers, and watch the wins stack up.

The problem with that course for the Jazz is they have no stars. And they have no obvious, easy way to acquire them.

Asked recently about that, general manager Dennis Lindsey said: "By and large, the wisest thing for us to do here is asset accumulation through the draft. Historically, this hasn’t been a free-agent destination and, frankly, that’s OK with me. We don’t have to sell ourselves. If the average NBA player who is a free agent can’t see the passion in the state and in EnergySolutions Arena and what we stand for as a tough, executing club, at some level, we don’t want them, anyway. We’ll have to build our team by other means."

Trouble is, the Jazz traditionally and currently are too good to regularly score big in the draft, but not good enough to win big. This season, they will either land in the back half of Western Conference playoff qualifiers, excluding themselves from the lottery, or, failing that, end up outside the playoffs with a low lottery pick. Asset accumulation, from that place and at that pace, won’t require patience as much as a prolonged life. Check back with us in 2023.

At the end of this season, if they make no moves before the trade deadline arrives, the Jazz will have all kinds of financial flexibility because two-thirds of their roster will no longer be under contract. Under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, that, at least in theory, is a great position in which to be. Salary-cap space is valued almost as much as talent. The issue then becomes to whom will they give their available money?

Even though past marquee free agents haven’t lined up to come to Salt Lake City, there is a belief among some that the NBA’s new shorter contracts might make the Jazz’s money more enticing for a greater number of players and agents. Only more evidence will cause everyone, or anyone, to really believe that. Either way, this much has always been and always will be true: If a team has only so much cash to spend, when it does spend it, it better lay it on players who are worthy of the price. Once the units are committed, undoing those commitments is problematic and painful. The Jazz, to their credit, since the end of Andrei Kirilenko’s contract, have avoided that predicament.

Still, if the Jazz need stars to truly contend, and they aren’t in position to acquire them through the draft and they can’t secure them through free agency, where do they get them?

They either trade for them or they grow them.

Outsmarting other clubs is the charge required for competitively successful small-market teams. That may not be fair, it just is. For all the reasons already mentioned, the little guys can’t simply make up for other mistakes by waving a fatter wallet in front of top talent and pointing at Hollywood or South Beach.

It won’t bring them a championship, only improvement, but the Jazz must find underappreciated players on other rosters that fit their specific needs and be willing to give up assets in the exchange. Risk is often involved there, and a league-wide fear exists among personnel managers, even those in deep need of new talent, of being made to look like a fool. One general manager told me that’s one of the biggest hindrances to deals being completed.

The grow-your-own-stars option, though frequently undoable and sometimes laughable, might actually work, at least to some degree, for the Jazz. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks are promising talents. All were lottery picks and all are young. All also have holes in their games. The only way those guys will actually become what they might is through time on the court. None of them is playing as much as they need to, due in large measure to the ongoing presence of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.

Even with Jefferson playing at his present high offensive level, the question has to be asked: Would the Jazz add to their improvement through subtraction? Moving Al or Paul could be compared to pruning back a tree, allowing healthy new growth among the youngsters who subsequently fill in the gaps. Add to the equation a solid asset at a less redundant position in return, and that option makes a lot of sense, especially since either Jefferson or Millsap won’t be re-signed by the Jazz, and therefore lost, at season’s end.

Everybody pretty much knows what the Jazz are, what their top end is, with the two veterans as the focal points. What nobody knows is what the Jazz could be, however long it takes, if Favors and Kanter got the time and are the real deals.

Say it again: Stars are what the Jazz need.

"I’m very pleased with where we’re at," Lindsey said. "Do we have LeBron James or Kevin Durant right now? No, but we can build it with a level of depth where there’s not one central player, but several good players."

Lindsey, who openly admitted the Jazz are not complete, cited the example used by every hopeful team in the Jazz’s position — Detroit in 2004, when the Pistons won their unexpected championship over the Lakers without a couple of massive talents leading the way. Two counters to that, though:

1 • Detroit was the definition of an outlier that season.

2 • That club had more talent, especially on defense, than anyone seems to remember. Among the Pistons were Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, all in the prime of their careers.

On the other hand, one cue the Jazz could take from the 2004 Pistons is this: They acquired Wallace, a necessary piece in their eventual title run, just before the trade deadline that year.

The deadline this year is less than a week away.

"What we have to have is an asset base and flexibility," Lindsey said. "When situations come up, that’s when you need to be bold and strike."

The Jazz had best hope a situation comes up.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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