Jazz home finale could be farewell for 9 players
More than the playoffs are on the line in Utah's regular-season home finale Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The game could be the last in Salt Lake City for as many as nine Jazz players with expiring contracts, including starters Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Al Jefferson and Randy Foye.
''I've been through it both ways where (the last games) meant a lot or you're playing for next year or a spot or consideration to come back to that team, or playing for your reputation in the league,'' Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. ''(In the latter case), you're just trying to be who you are. If you're a hard-nosed player, you try to give 100 percent, win or lose. It's your reputation as to who you are in this league.''
The Jazz have three games remaining as do the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom they are mired in a battle for the final Western Conference playoff spot. The Lakers enter Friday with a one-game lead over Utah but finish against playoff-bound Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. The Jazz play a home-and-home series against the T-Wolves, then close out the regular season in Memphis.
Utah holds the tiebreaker so the Jazz need one more win than the Lakers to overtake them.
Jazz players insist they are focused on the task at hand, not farewells.
Millsap, the longest-tenured veteran, said he ''didn't have enough time'' to talk about his seven seasons in a Jazz uniform - years that saw him grow from a pure rebounder to a starter with power and a soft outside touch.
''It's been a long road, a long time being here, seen a lot, done a lot, met some great people,'' said the 6-foot-8, 258-pound Millsap, a second-round pick in 2006. ''And everybody that I've met has been part of my growth, been part of me getting better as a person, as a basketball player. I owe a lot to this community, owe a lot to this organization.''
Millsap is the only player remaining from Utah's 2007 run to the Western Conference finals. In recent years, the trade rumors have come. He is in the final year of a deal that was to pay him $7.2 million this season.
Though he is averaging 14.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, those numbers are down from the previous two seasons, as are his minutes per game (30.5).
The trade deadline also came and went without the Jazz moving big man Jefferson, who is in the final year of a contract that is paying him $15 million this season.
Jefferson leads the Jazz in scoring (17.4 points) and rebounding (9.1), and has worked hard to improve his passing (2.1 assists per games) and defense - efforts that recently earned him Western Conference player of the week honors.
''I think he's done a great job, coming in, being known as an offensive player, getting numbers,'' Corbin said. ''And he's gotten numbers here, but they've helped us win a lot of games. He's been healthy. He's always ready and willing to play and likes to be on the floor and I think he's been a great guy with this team of guys.''
Though Jefferson is just 28 in his ninth NBA season, Utah has younger players who could step in down the line for big Al.
Third-year pro Derrick Favors doesn't have the offensive game of a low-post scorer like Jefferson or the versatile Millsap, but he has become a defensive stopper.
Favors leads the team in blocked shots with 126 - with 14 in the last three games, including five Tuesday night against the Thunder. He has averaged 10.1 rebounds over the last 10 games.
Utah's backup center, 6-11 Enes Kanter, has made as many strides in his second year. Since the All-Star break, Kanter has averaged 9.8 points and 5.1 rebounds. His development, however, has been put on hold while he recovers from season-ending surgery to re-attach ligaments damaged when he dislocated his left shoulder March 27.
Players have talked about trying to be less dependent on Jefferson, especially early in games.
''Some of that was the improvement in our perimeter shooting, where we can go to Randy (Foye), we can go to Gordon (Hayward), go to Marvin (Williams) and get something on the perimeter first,'' Corbin said.
Foye, 29, has provided the perimeter shooting Utah has lacked, setting a franchise record for 3-pointers with 170 on the season. He also is the lowest-paid of Utah's starters, having signed a $2.5 million free-agent deal this summer.
Then there's point guard Mo Williams, a player Jazz personnel exec Kevin O'Connor once called his ''biggest mistake'' for allowing him to leave one year after drafting him in 2003.
The Jazz brought Williams back as part of a trade last summer and he has averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 assists, but his contract expires after this season as well.
General manager Dennis Lindsey in February said the point guard had ''acquitted himself well here,'' particularly because of his desire to be in Utah and his professionalism.
Nothing is written in stone, with Williams turning 31 next season and having missed 32 games because of thumb surgery - 36 in all.
Expect his aggressiveness to be on display the last three regular-season games as his ability to push the pace jumpstarts Utah's offense. He's also been an extra perimeter shooter at times, having hit 6 of 7 3-pointers in a victory over Portland last week (though he is 5 of 18 in four games since).
The other players with expiring contracts come off the bench: veteran point guards Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley, rookie guard Jerel McNeal and fan favorite DeMarre Carroll, a third-year forward. The Jazz also have a team option on 2012 draft pick Kevin Murphy while forward Marvin Williams has a $7.5 million player option.
It's not time for those decisions yet.
''Right now we're still alive so we're approaching it as if we're going to make the playoffs,'' Corbin said.