Uncertainty surrounds Jazz because of free agents
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)
Soon-to-be free agents Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye left the Utah Jazz arena together Thursday afternoon, walking into an uncertain future less than 24 hours after their season came to an abrupt end.
The Jazz missed the playoffs for the second time in three years following Wednesday night's loss in Memphis. Yet unlike years past, an unprecedented two-thirds of the players have expiring contracts.
While most expressed an interest in returning, all acknowledged the team could have an entirely different look next season. As many as nine players could be gone, including four of five starters.
''The ball is in their court,'' point guard Williams said of Utah's front office. ''It's more in what direction they want to go. They know how I feel ... We'll see what happens.''
General manager Dennis Lindsey offered few clues, other than noting the foundation is set with a strong core of young players under contract, Tyrone Corbin as head coach and plenty of salary cap space.
''We have a lot of options, whether it's to be bold right now if that opportunity presents itself or to be really strategic and patient,'' Lindsey said.
Utah finished 43-39, just out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. It owns the 14th and 21st picks in the June draft.
The team was 22-24 with Williams as a starter, his season interrupted by surgery on his right thumb that sidelined him for two months. The Jazz struggled during that stretch and also in integrating him back into the lineup.
Lindsey, however, said the head coach and point guard too often are assessed too much blame when a season doesn't pan out.
He said Corbin, who took over after Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan abruptly resigned in February 2011, ''is the right person to lead us.''
As for Williams, Lindsey noted the point guard played injured in Wednesday night's loss. Asked about Utah's chances of being in the playoffs had Williams been healthy all year, Lindsey said, ''I think pretty good.''
Williams, who will be 31 in December, made it clear he wants to return.
''I was drafted here,'' said Williams, a second-round pick by Utah in 2003 acquired in a trade last summer. ''This organization gave me a shot when I first came in the league, when I was a young pup. Now I'm at a point in my career where stability is key. ... It will be disappointing (if I'm not back), but I'm going into my 11th year and I understand the business side of it. I understand the youth movement.''
Millsap, meanwhile, was still trying not to think about the future. He is Utah's longest-tenured player but saw his minutes decline with the emergence of young players Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter -both part of a core group locked up through 2014-2015.
Millsap acknowledged he was ''only human'' this season thinking about becoming a free agent. Now that the season is over, he said ''words can't express'' what the organization has meant to him.
Jefferson, who earned $15 million this season, may be the biggest part of the puzzle for the Jazz. He led the Jazz in scoring and rebounding, improved his defense and his passing.
Unlike Wednesday night when he buried his head in his hands as the final minutes ticked away on the season, Jefferson was downright jovial.
''It would have been so easy to fold up and give up on season. We fought all the way until the end,'' Jefferson said. ''Even though we didn't make the playoffs, I don't think nobody should put their head down.''
Jefferson, acquired in a July 2010 trade, believes he has transformed himself since then. ''I have showed I'm not just the black hole reputation I had years ago,'' he said of never passing the ball back out of the post. ''I showed people that I can do other things.''
He gave credit to the critics, including Jazz coaches, who said his defense stunk when he arrived.
Lindsey offered a simple ''no comment'' when asked if there was a scenario in which both Millsap and Jefferson would return next season.
Jefferson, given a lot of credit in aiding the development of Favors and Kanter, acknowledged it was emotional saying goodbyes during a team meeting Thursday.
''There's no way in the world every one of these guys will be here next year, all together,'' he said.
Foye certainly would be the likeliest to return of the free-agent starters, considering his lower salary and his 3-point shooting. He set a single-season franchise mark with 178 3-pointers and shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. He was adamant in his desire to return, calling it a good fit for him and his family.
''When I first signed here, the plan was not to sign for just one year, the plan was to sign for three years but with the situation with (disgruntled guard) Raja Bell, it just didn't happen,'' Foye said. ''I understood. I took a chance of playing one year and playing my butt off and it worked out for me.''
Regardless of which free agents are re-signed, the team could be built around guard-forward Gordon Hayward, who will be entering his fourth year.
''He was just challenged (to be the vocal leader),'' Lindsey said. ''Clearly Gordon is a core piece going forward and I think he has a lot of leadership qualities. ... In many ways Gordon is going to have to grab our team like he did at Butler and say, `OK, here we go. This is how we do things.'''