SALT LAKE CITY — One week ago, as attention around the NBA turned to the postseason, the Utah Jazz instead set their sights on an early summer vacation.
The team, which failed to reach the playoffs for just the fifth time since 1983, was left to reflect on a roller-coaster season that yielded a dramatic — yet ultimately unfruitful — playoff push at the end of the regular season.
“I can't say enough about this group of guys,” Jazz coach Tryone Corbin said at locker cleanout last Thursday. “I appreciate them staying focused on the race at the end and staying in there until the very last game.”
That last game, an 86-70 drubbing by Memphis, showed a glimpse of the team’s strengths throughout the season — like Al Jefferson’s domination on the inside and his ability to kick the ball back out to solid 3-point shooters — as well as point out its greatest weakness: playing outside of Salt Lake City.
“(We had a) dreadful time out on the road,” said swingman Gordon Hayward, referring to the team’s 13-27 record away from EnergySolutions Arena.
“If we would have been decent on the road, we wouldn't even be here today,” Hayward continued. “That’s something that we just couldn't find the answer to this season. I think toughness and energy are two things that we needed more of.”
Corbin added to the list of Jazz problems: injuries, inconsistent play, and not winning some must-win matchups.
“We didn't win some games we should have won,” he said when asked about the biggest problems his team had. During a particularly rough stretch in late February and March, the Jazz went 3-12. Nine of those losses were on the road. Their only wins were on their home floor.
“Consistent play had some ups and downs. We had a lot of injuries, guys in and out. We changed lineups a couple times to try and get something going,” Corbin said. “I thought we had some good things. We just didn't get it done at the right time.”
Although the team was disappointed about not attaining its ultimate goal of making the playoffs, the Jazz displayed a number of strengths over the course of the season. The most visible strength was immensely improved 3-point shooting, which went from 29.3 percent last year to 36.6 percent this year behind Randy Foye’s franchise-record 178 makes from long range.
“I think our greatest strength was obviously when we were working inside out, kinda working through Al and Paul (Millsap),” Hayward said. “When they got going, they would get doubled-teamed. They'd kick out to our 3-point shooters and our outside wing players. When we had that full package going, I think that was our greatest strength.”
The Jazz had an additional component working for them behind the scenes. One that, along with seven free agents, the team is in jeopardy of losing during this offseason.
“We were a close-knit group,” Hayward said. “We really didn't have any problems with the team. The Jazz were blessed with good people. I think that definitely helped us out.”
Marvin Williams, who has a player option to return to the Jazz next season, agreed that the team was made up of a special group.
“I was blessed to play with a great group of guys,” he said. “There were times when we couldn't get a win but guys were still coming in being positive, still working hard. The coaching staff was positive. They were still working hard. We kinda worked our way out of that rut. I think that's the thing I appreciated the most: I was able to play with a great group of guys.”
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org