Jazz investing this season in player development, not tanking

Nov 24 2013 - 12:00am

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Last week I wrote a column about the Jazz, their struggles this season and how it's all part of an uncomfortable purging process for a proud franchise -- and fanbase -- that simply isn't used to losing so often and so badly.

I noted that the process is uncomfortable but necessary in order to reshuffle the roster, which could very well include a top three pick in next year's draft.

Experts say the 2014 draft could very well be a once-in-a-generation coming out party featuring some phenomenal talent and Jazz executives definitely want to get in on the ground floor. If the team keeps losing at the clip it has, Utah will have the inside track for the No. 1 overall pick, a potentially franchise-changing commodity.

In the past, NBA teams searching for that all-important top draft pick were less than competitive on the court. In other words, they "tanked" the season in order to rack up more losses, thereby assuring themselves a better chance at a higher draft pick.

Conspiracy theorists have often felt the the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls tanked games to land Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan in 1984 and that the Spurs tanked to get Tim Duncan in 1997.

More recently, Golden State tanked toward the end of the 2011-12 season to avoid surrendering a protected draft pick to the Jazz.

The idea of tanking games seems fairly logical to people like us, and by "us" I mean media-types like me and diehard fans like you. Shoot, it probably makes sense to team execs -- general managers, team presidents, CEOs and the like -- but it's hard for most coaches and players to fathom losing games on purpose. After all, we're talking about hyper-competitive people who are driven by being the best.

(For the record, I'll acknowledge not all professional athletes are as competitive and as driven as others. I've met a few whose main motivation seemed to be money, who generally had no loyalty to their team.)

So, the question is, are the Utah Jazz tanking in order to get a crack at college studs Jabari Paker, of Duke; Andrew Wiggins, of Kansas; or Kentucky's Julius Randle?

Technically, no. Of course not. Practically, however, team execs saw this draft coming and knew the 2013-14 season would be a great time to reorganize the roster, continue developing inexperienced young players and "take our medicine," as general manager Dennis Lindsey said.

But it's interesting to note what the guys who wear the uniform think about the concept of tanking.

Veteran Richard Jefferson spoke with intelligence and passion when asked about it recently.

"That 'tanking' thing? That's a media-driven (concept)," he said. "That's B.S.-driven. No, we're professionals and we're paid to perform. My job is to do as good a job as I can to put myself in position to continue playing in this league.

"If you're going to tell me that I'm going to tank and it's going to jeopardize me possibly playing another few years in this league so an organization can get a better player? I've been blessed and I've been to the playoffs nine of the 12 years in this league. I wouldn't even begin to know how to tank."

Wow, that's great stuff.

And when it comes to developing young players like Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Derrick Favors and others, Jefferson said tanking is no way to teach them how to win ballgames.

"You don't ever put your young guys, especially guys that you've invested in -- Gordon, Derrick, Trey, Rudy (Gobert), Alec (Burks) - you don't ever want to put them in a mindset of losing," he said. "You want them to win as many games as you possibly can."

He's right, of course. By reshuffling the deck over the summer the Jazz put themselves in position to put their young players through a rigorous development this season. In the process, they've also put themselves in good position to get a great draft pick next year.

But to call it "tanking" would be an insult to the guys who actually play the game for a living.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. He tweets at http://twitter.com/jmb247

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