Jazz pack up, hope for better future

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The foul smell emanating from the Utah Jazz locker room Thursday proved to be a moldy T-shirt soaked with a protein drink. Moving forward from a stinker of a season likely will prove just as delicate as the way ball boys handled that source of the odor after players cleaned out their lockers. Start with the June draft, where the Jazz will have two lottery picks thanks to the blockbuster February trade that sent All-Star point guard Deron Williams to New Jersey. Add in the prospect of a lengthy lockout, which could inhibit the development of Utah’s young players. And cap it with key decisions on free agents, none more notable than forward Andrei Kirilenko, whose final moment as a Jazz player may have been carrying a cardboard box of personal items through the bowels of the arena where he has played for 10 seasons. Even the Russian-born Kirilenko had difficulty describing what a crazy season it’s been – one that started with record-setting 20-point comebacks, featured the sudden retirement of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and the subsequent Williams trade, and ended with an injury-plagued downward spiral that saw the Jazz miss the playoffs for only the fourth time in 28 years. “It (is) like a zebra, how you call the animal with the stripes?” Kirilenko said of the night-and-day difference between the 27-13 Jazz team and the one that closed 12-30. “It’s lousy,” general manager Kevin O’Connor said of finishing 39-43 overall – only the second time in 28 years Utah has posted a losing mark. Coach Ty Corbin, who looked forward to having an offseason to prepare as top guy, saw reason for optimism. “I think the fans had a chance to see the future of this franchise,” Corbin said of breakout performances from rookies Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. “The young guys are good and going to get a lot better … The main thing is each guy has a responsibility to continue to get better.” As for free agents, the Jazz made it clear they want a few back. Start with Kirilenko, who earned $17.8 million this season despite averaging 11.7 points and missing 18 games because of injury. “I don’t think there’s a decision; we want Andrei back,” O’Connor said. “The decision’s going to be on his part. … Everybody looks at the contract and looks at the production and I don’t think that’s fair to him. That’s on us a little bit.” Asked if the Jazz got their money’s worth, Kirilenko said, “I’m not the guy who’s supposed to comment on that. All I’m trying to do is play hard on the floor and be a good person in the community.” He insisted money would not be the major factor in where he signs. What is best for his family is key, as is playing time and playing in front of such a loyal fan base. “This is worth a lot I’m telling you,” Kirilenko said of fans who showed up en masse for a meaningless season finale with Denver on Wednesday. O’Connor pulled newcomers Favors, Devin Harris and Al Jefferson to the middle of the court after Wednesday’s win. “Wait until we’re good,” O’Connor told the trio. “Can you imagine what it’s gonna be like? Going forward hopefully that’s incentive to use.” The Jazz have to decide whether to pick up the option on C.J. Miles, who had 44 points one game but struggled to find consistency. Also not under contract are reserve guards Earl Watson and Ronnie Price and big men Kyrylo Fesenko and Francisco Elson. O’Connor remained impressed with Watson’s energy and professionalism, and with Fesenko’s size. “His progress was lower than we wanted it to be, but it was progress and you can’t teach height,” O’Connor said of the 7-1 Fesenko. “He showed flashes. It’s a matter of Fes deciding what shape he can come in at. We are not ruling him out.” Corbin said all the players, Jefferson in particular, needed to come back in better condition. “I hate going home in April,” said Jefferson, who hasn’t been to the playoffs since his rookie year. “It’s not a feeling guys want to get used to.” For Miles and Paul Millsap, missing the playoffs was a first. “In a way you’re glad that it’s over,” said Millsap, who averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in his first season as a starter. “You’d love to be in the playoffs, but the weirdness, the wildness of the season is over and we look forward to a better future.” The Jazz must decide if they can continue playing Jefferson, Favors and Millsap on the floor at the same time, which would entail using Millsap as a small forward on a regular basis. Millsap said he would do whatever is asked, but O’Connor admitted it was a stretch at times for the fourth-year pro to play the No. 3 position. But are the Jazz looking to trade Millsap? O’Connor insisted that wasn’t the case. O’Connor said the team would like to add length through the draft, but couldn’t guarantee it. Asked if he would take a chance on a pure shooter like BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, he wasn’t saying. “No comment,” O’Connor said before adding, “I’ve been booed before.” That would have been last year when he drafted the 6-8 Hayward out of Butler. “I hope I get booed again in this draft and (whoever we pick) turns out to be the same kind of player,” O’Connor said of Hayward, who scored a career-high 34 points Wednesday night. “He’s going to continue to get better and better.” Nuggets coach George Karl, no stranger to the playoffs, thinks the Jazz are only a trade or free agent away from becoming good again. “They probably need one more piece to elevate everybody to a higher level, but it doesn’t have to be a special player,” Karl said. “It could be just a damn good player. I expect them to be back next year. I’ve been around and history says that’s what’s going to happen.” The question is when next season will begin with a lockout looming. Players vowed to try to get together for pickup games when they could. And O’Connor insisted there would be voluntary workouts in May and June to try to get young players familiar with each other if there’s a chance the season won’t start until January. He said the overriding message to the players was that they owed it to each other to improve and come back as a team.

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