HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — There’s a line between the lottery and that last spot in the playoff pecking order.
Yeah, it’s no secret. It’s always out there, lurking in the shadows this time of year.
And it’s a tightrope some team ends up straddling every season. Current players fight tooth and nail to do whatever it takes to gain entry to the NBA’s postseason party while the folks in charge of the long-range vision for the franchise weigh a potential short playoff stint against the benefits of adding another young player via the Draft.
The Utah Jazz walked that tightrope the past two seasons, watching the end of an era change the fortunes of a loyal fan base. It’s the sort of transition, from playoff-regular to lottery team, that can scare the daylights out of some fans.
Just ask the Pacers, a playoff team (as the No. 8 seed) last season and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. They are still trying to lure their fans back after a half-decade in lottery limbo after the Malice at the Palace.
The Jazz were able to weather the departures of both Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams, in that order, without falling completely off the face of basketball planet. Locking up that eighth and final spot in the West last night with the win over the Suns is validation for the players wearing the uniform now that their work hasn’t been done in vain.
(It should be noted that if the Jazz had missed the playoffs, they would have perhaps had a late-lottery pick anyway. By making the postseason, the Timberwolves get it — courtesy of the Al Jefferson trade. The Jazz do have a shot at the Warriors’ draft pick in the lottery, which Utah acquired as part of the Williams trade last season.)
That celebration last night after the win over the Suns was revealing. It shows that no matter what outside influences might believe, Jazz coach Ty Corbin had his team locked in and focused on seizing the opportunity at hand from the start of training camp, something Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor no doubt preached to his coach from the moment he elevated him from Sloan assistant coach to become the man to replace his legendary mentor.
Having witnessed it before in other young teams (the Hang Time Grizzlies the past three years and the Hawks five years ago remain two of the shining examples) and knowing the positive impact it can have on the entire group, not to mention the franchise, means the Jazz could draft off of the fuel from this playoff bid for years to come.
The Jazz has a relatively young crew with headliners Jefferson and Paul Millsap leading a young core that features Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and others into uncharted territory. They’ll have to grow up fast in the first round against the Spurs.
But you’d rather they do it there, in the middle of the playoff mix, than spend another year wondering what it feels like to call yourself a playoff outfit.
And if you don’t believe it, ask those guys wearing the Suns and Rockets jerseys about it.