The Utah Jazz couldn't even take a game in the team's opening-round series with the San Antonio Spurs. It took a furious rally in the fourth quarter of Game 4 for the Jazz to even lose a game by single digits; they lost the four games by an average of 16 points. The shooters weren't shooting well, nobody could stay in front of Tony Parker, and one-time All-Star guard Devin Harris managed a shockingly low single-digit PER over the first three games of a four-game postseason.
And it doesn't matter. Would we have liked to see the Jazz give the NBA's hottest team a few more close games, or even a win? Sure. But this wasn't ever supposed to be the year for Utah to attempt this. The Jazz went into 2011-12 fully ready to use each of the season's 66 games to develop rotations, give Tyrone Corbin his first full year -- if you can call it that with a shortened season and training camp, and so few practices -- as head coach and see how well the team's bigs played off each other.
The answers, some 5 1/2 months later? There still aren't any. This group is still developing, and the playoff trip was a fantastic bit of gravy not so much for the extra gate revenue or needed work on an advanced stage against a championship-level team, but because it allowed Corbin and the Jazz more of what they needed the most — reps. What comes next? That depends on quite a bit.
For one, despite the team's reputation as a star-less unit, don't expect any wholesale changes. After a year of settling down, expect the Jazz to allow Corbin a chance to enter 2012-13 with would-be third-year center Derrick Favors in the starting lineup. Favors is hardly a typical pivot, forward/center Al Jefferson has his issues guarding both big positions and Paul Millsap wants absolutely nothing to do with chasing down small forwards. But the big lineup that Dan Devine broke down in April will be the focus for this team moving forward.
It has to be, because the Jazz have been afforded such rare gifts. And though the respective scouting reports behind each of the three big men wouldn't seem to point to a defensive powerhouse, the group's short work in both the regular season and playoffs seems to suggest that the triptych as a unit can do some very nice things defensively.
The worries, as they've been for years, come in the backcourt. Unless Utah uses its potential cap space -- the Jazz may have as much as $8 million in cap space this summer if they let the poor-shooting C.J. Miles walk -- on a two-guard that can actually shoot, the team will continue in a decade-long string of employing inefficient shooters at the position — stringing all the way back to Jeff Horancek's retirement in 2000.
Though Gordon Hayward is a good all-around athlete who brings plenty to the table in different areas, he was a below-average 3-point shooter in his second season (at 34 percent), and despite the Jazz' sixth-ranked offense, the group badly needs someone to space the floor. We know that Gordon Hayward's 6-for-33 mark from the floor (1 for 12 from long range) during this year's postseason was obviously an aberration, but Gordon is still going to have to make a major improvement in that area if he's to play alongside those bigs up front.
And Devin Harris? His stagnant growth has become tiresome. Apologies for heading to a catch-all stat, but Harris' Player Efficiency Rating of 16 this season at age 29 was matched by a 23-year-old Harris during the 2005-06 season. He has completely fallen off since his All-Star turn with the New Jersey Nets in 2009, and his postseason showing this year (13 points per game, 15 assists to 12 turnovers, just five free-throw attempts in the series' first three games) was more than worrying.
There's room and time to change this, of course. The Jazz don't have an obvious replacement in line (reserve Jamaal Tinsley's moxie and gutsy decision-making was pretty cool to watch this year, but the 34-year-old has played just over 1,100 minutes over the last four calendar years, and there's not a lot of production there), and Harris is entering a contract year in what should be his prime as an athlete. There's no reason to give up on Devin in any transaction unless another significant upgrade at that position is shipped back in return.
That doesn't mean Utah can't stay proactive, though.
They'll have room to work, and that's such a luxury. With that cap space in hand the group will be allowed to take in more salary than it sends out in a trade. The team also boasts a pair of assets that teams badly covet — potentially great players with expiring contracts, as both Harris (set to make $8.5 million next year in a front-loaded deal), Al Jefferson ($15 million) and Paul Millsap ($8.6 million) will have their deals come off the cap in a summer of 2013 that will see the Jazz with only tiny qualifying offers on the books for 2013-14.
Only youngsters would remain if the Jazz clear those books. Even more youngsters could be on board if another team leapfrogs the Golden State Warriors in the NBA's draft lottery later this month, which would hand the Jazz a lower-rung lottery pick (it's top-seven protected, right now) from a long-forgotten Warriors deal for Marcus Williams.
The Jazz have one year left to figure this all out, decide to keep all their of semi-stars, none of them or some of them. And despite the 5 1/2=month run -- full of reps, learning experiences and a surprising playoff trip — the Jazz really aren't much closer to figuring out the answers yet. Not with Favors and Hayward still developing. Not with all that potential cap space in 2013. Not with so much left to determine.
We have to remember that this is a good thing.
Jazz fans no doubt want to quickly move back to the era of winning 60 games and winning two or three playoff series a year, but this slow rebuild will pay off eventually. It might not come with this crew, we submit, but the Jazz are going to be smart and patient as they determine whether to stick with this lot for the long run. In a win-now league, we applaud this sensible turn.
Especially when it results in a playoff appearance along the way.