When presented the question of rebuilding or reloading, the Utah Jazz somehow managed to choose "both." The clock ran out last February on the Jazz group that had reached the postseason four years in a row, but never seriously contended in the Western Conference. Utah was too good during that stretch to be on the treadmill of mediocrity, but was weakened by losing Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Brewer and an injury to Mehmet Okur.
With a star already in place in Deron Williams, Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor could have attempted to build back up quickly with a different cast. However, Williams' looming free agency convinced O'Connor and company to go another direction. They dealt Williams to the New Jersey Nets for a package headlined by veteran guard Devin Harris, then-rookie forward Derrick Favors and the Nets' first-round pick.
On paper, Utah was clearly rebuilding. However, the Jazz never bottomed out. After finishing last season at 39-43--just the second below-.500 campaign in the franchise's last 28 years, Utah has returned to playoff contention this season. With 11 games to play, the Jazz is a game and a half out of a playoff spot, and our latest playoff odds show Utah returning to the postseason 39 percent of the time.
In his first full year on the job, Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin has successfully blended the younger newcomers to the roster with the team's veteran core, led by big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Corbin has been criticized by Utah fans at times for not giving enough playing time to the youngsters, but as long as the Jazz remains in playoff contention, it makes sense that winning games should be the team's first priority, followed by developing players.
Utah is uniquely positioned to accomplish the seemingly conflicting goals of winning now and building a team for the future. Unlike most of the teams our Neil Paine studied earlier this week, the Jazz does not have to lose 50-plus games to earn a high lottery pick because the Williams trade netted a pair of them. In Favors, Utah may have its future star. Nothing Favors has done in his first two NBA seasons has changed the lofty assessments of his ceiling coming out of Georgia Tech.
Specifically, Favors shows the potential to be an elite defender. He is a fine rebounder with the physical tools to match up with opponents both in the paint and on the perimeter, and the Jazz's best defensive alignments tend to feature Favors. (For example, swapping him for Jefferson with the rest of Utah's most used lineup has caused the team to allow 14.8 fewer points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com.) Should Favors develop a post-up game, he could become a Jermaine O'Neal-style anchor.
Favors is one of four lottery picks in either their first or second seasons. Sophomore forward Gordon Hayward has quickly developed into the Jazz's top wing player. If there's a criticism of how Corbin has handled his youngsters, it lies largely with briefly favoring middling veterans Raja Bell and Josh Howard over Hayward in the starting lineup. Bell and Howard have both gone down with injuries (the former after he had already been pushed out of the rotation), and Hayward is getting force-fed minutes--he's played at least 35 in eight of his last nine games.
Rookies Alec Burks and Enes Kanter have been less consistent than their more experienced predecessors, but they too have shown flashes of impressive play. Kanter is already a stout rebounder and must improve his finishing and ability to defend quicker players. Despite lacking an outside game, Burks has been effective at getting to the basket.
Utah has a chance to add more lottery talent to the mix this June, depending on how the final month of the season plays out. The Jazz's own first-round pick depends on the team making the playoffs. In that case, it would go to the Minnesota Timberwolves to complete the Jefferson trade. Utah also owns the Golden State Warriors' first-round pick from the Williams trade, contingent on it falling outside the top seven picks. Right now, our simulation shows that happening a little better than 70 percent of the time, depending on how aggressively the Warriors try to ensure they keep their pick.
Going forward, the Jazz has three core pieces in place. Millsap, who recently turned 27 and has played at an All-Star level this season, is also signed to a cap-friendly contract that pays him just $8.6 million next season. Eventually, he'll team in the frontcourt with Favors and Hayward, leaving Jefferson--whose contract also expires in the summer of 2013--out of the mix. Kanter should, at the very least, grow into a third big man, while Burks could step into the vacancy at shooting guard.
That leaves one glaring hole at point guard Utah will try to address this summer. Harris has been a disappointment. As his 2009 trip to the All-Star Game grows smaller in the rear-view mirror, it becomes increasingly clear that Harris is a below-average starting point guard. Entering the final year of his contract, he could be on the move as the Jazz searches for a long-term solution via trade or the draft. This year's draft is light on top-flight point guards, but the consensus top three available--local product Damian Lillard of Weber State, North Carolina's Kendall Marshall and Washington's Tony Wroten--could all be on the board with either of Utah's potential picks.
There's an outside chance the Jazz might have a better read on the young talent had they played larger roles this season. However, none of the four recent lottery picks has exactly been tethered to the bench, and the reward is significant. Utah has a realistic chance at a playoff berth. This, to me, is a crucial distinction in the rebuilding/tanking discussion. As long as a playoff berth is within grasp, it's worth pursuing because of the excitement it generates and the financial value to the team. When a team slips out of the playoff race, goals ought to change.
For now, the Jazz seems to be demonstrating that there is a possible third path toward building back toward contention.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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