Sunday, October 13, 2013

Are the Utah Jazz really tanking?

I'm not bothered by the fact that the Jazz probably aren't going to win a lot of games this season. I'm bothered because for the first time in three decades of following the team, I'm not sure I actually want them to win.

As you look through the forecasts and the predictions from outlets with a lot more than 68 followers, you see the Jazz lumped in with a group of teams accused of tanking the 2013-14 season. Teams that have no solid chance to compete, and have opted to bottom out, presumably to snag one of the top prospects in next year's draft. As evidence, pundits point to the fact that the Jazz let all of their veteran players walk without any real effort to bring them back. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were pretty much the only reason we've sniffed the playoffs for the last two years, and I don't even know that the Jazz extended offers to re-sign either free agent this summer. In their place, the Jazz filled out their roster with expensive vets on short-term contracts (Richard Jefferson, Andres Biedrins) who feel a lot more like placeholders than game changers. At one point I wondered if I should have contacted Dennis Lindsey myself. This may have been my best shot at making my junior high dreams come true.

Let's be honest: when you let your best players walk and plug in short timers to meet the league salary cap minimum, it kind of sounds like tanking, right?

I'm not so sure.

Note to Dennis Lindsey: During my
sophomore year at Viewmont High
School, I averaged over 12 points per
game for my Junior Jazz team.
I don't think the Jazz harbor any serious expectations for making playoff noise this year, but I don't think they're tanking, either*. To me, tanking is trying to lose. Trying to be bad. It's getting rid of assets for no reason, and deliberately sitting good players on the bench to make it hard for your team to compete. It may all happen in the hopes of a brighter future, but it feels disingenuous. It's basically the Golden State Warriors in the spring of 2012.

That season, just as in so many over the years, the Warriors weren't in any legit position to make the playoffs. The problem was that if they didn't meet a certain threshold in the next summer draft, they had to forfeit their pick to another team per the conditions of a previous trade.

Take a guess who that team was.

Over the course of two months, Golden State went from a fringe playoff team to, well, I don't know what they were, because they didn't play the guys they had. They tried to lose. They tried to be bad. All to preserve a draft choice they'd already decided to trade away in a deal that helped to get them there in the first place.

What the Jazz are doing is different. The four key players they retained this summer (Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks) are the players they see as the core of their future. They will not be seeing the bench when the Jazz need to play their hardest. The Jazz intend to ride them hard (just like many Jazz fans have been demanding for the last two years, actually). They added a first-round point guard named Trey Burke to that mix through the draft, and he's going to get a baptism by fire. The Jazz may not win a lot of games while these guys go through their make-or-break growing pains, but to me that's a lot more sincere an effort than "resting" good players for several games at the end of a lost season.

Maybe its too subtle a difference. Maybe we're just splitting hairs or debating semantics. But I don't have a problem with what the Jazz are doing this season, and I don't think that fans should feel like the team is deliberately trying to field a bad team this year. They've decided to field an inexperienced team in the hopes that they'll grow together, and they've pretty much stripped away anything that won't be coming along for the long haul.

Of course, that doesn't have much to do with my wrestle to decide whether I want the Jazz to win games this year. I guess what I'm saying is I won't be bent out of shape if they don't. Because this year, losses still provide valuable learning experience, and lots of losses could translate to better draft choices. Plus, losses that come at the end of honest efforts feel a lot different than losses that come because you aren't trying.

Ever since Stockton and Malone retired, we've been more or less stuck in a "just-in-or-just-out of the playoffs" limbo, and Lindsey and the Jazz have effectively told fans that limbo isn't good enough anymore. It's a brave move, but I support it. And I don't have a problem with the way they are doing it.


*At this point it might be smart to acknowledge that since I am employed by KJZZ Television, which falls under the umbrella of the Larry H. Miller Corporation, I have good reason to "tow the company line." But I stand by what I'm writing here, and besides, I don't think the team is very concerned about the blog analysis of some peripheral kind-of co-worker.