So was Deron Williams.
When the recently traded All-Star guard asserted Jan. 19 during a tip-of-the-iceberg 0-4 East Coast road trip that the Jazz were possibly no better than a ".500 team," his words stung and his honesty was startling. Utah was just two games removed from the peak of its season a 27-13 record after a home victory Jan. 14 against Cleveland. And while the Jazz had obvious on-the-court issues and clear holes in the team's uneven roster, Williams initially appeared to be firing a warning shot rather than serving as a whistle-blower.
If Utah (33-30) only knew then what it knows now.
Williams was directly on target. The Jazz have done little but spiral downward since mid-January, when the playoffs were basically promised and the biggest concern was not whether Utah would still be playing basketball in late April, but how high the Jazz's playoff seed would be. Now, Utah is stuck in fourth place in the Northwest division and tied for ninth place in the Western Conference.
Optimists point out that the Jazz are tied with Phoenix, a game and a half behind eighth-place Memphis, and trailed fifth-place Denver by only 3 ½ contests. But realists have a variety of reminders to draw from. Yes, Utah began the season replacing key performers such as Carlos Boozer, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver. But even after reality sank in and the team's strong start was proved false, few thought the Jazz would fall this far this fast.
The divide in Utah's season was clear Saturday, when a team many saw as a Western Conference dark horse just two months ago was forced to fight, claw and resort to overtime on its home court just to beat a short-handed, 15-win Sacramento team.
Which leads to the Jazz's second ongoing project. At the same time that Utah is attempting to extend its season and not lump 2010-11 in with the dark, non-playoff years of 2003-06, a franchise widely associated with consistency and steadiness is trying to rebuild on the fly.
"I think it's difficult to try and balance it," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said. "But I think our first responsibility is to our fans and to our coach and to our players, and is to try and win. Because once you don't do that, everybody knows it."
Thus, Utah continues on two fronts. One places the organization in the hands of talented veterans such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Devin Harris, who have yet to hit their prime and are playing under relatively affordable contracts. The other hints at instant rebuilding 2010 lottery picks Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward have played key minutes for the Jazz in the past two weeks while refusing to accept that the reset button has been fully pressed.
Everyone from Jefferson and Harris to coach Tyrone Corbin said they have received no indication that the team that writes their checks has cashed in on a frustrating season. But all acknowledged that gunning for the postseason while occasionally peeking at the future is a difficult balance.
"We're trying to make this playoff run while trying to learn each other," said Jefferson, who has statistically carried Utah since Williams was traded and increased his leadership role.
Ten-year Jazz player Andrei Kirilenko was even more realistic about the Jazz's plight. As Utah prepares to play seven of nine games on the road a stretch that includes contests against Western Conference playoff contenders Houston, Memphis and Oklahoma City the Jazz are blending the old with the new at the same time that many opponents are playing their sharpest ball of the season.
"Losing Jerry [Sloan] and Deron is a huge part of rebuilding," Kirilenko said. "You can't expect it to be painless. Jerry was the [leader] for 20-something years; he knew every situation on the floor how to react, how to change. Deron was the guy for six years all the team was built for."
But while Utah is just 2-7 since Sloan walked away, has dropped 17 of 23 games, and has lost its once-potent home-court advantage, the Jazz's core still has hope. Jefferson likes where his team is and its chances. O'Connor's long-term vision has just begun to play out. And Corbin now controls a team playing with the energy and effort that previously eluded Sloan and Williams.
"We've just got to get down to the business of playing basketball," Corbin said. "We are where we are. We have an opportunity … if we get it going, we can get back in it."
Jazz at Knicks
P At Madison Square Garden, New York
Tipoff • 5:30 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 33-30, Knicks 31-29
Last meeting • Jazz, 131-125 (Jan. 12)
About the Jazz • Mehmet Okur (back) will travel with the team during a four-game road trip. … Rookie Jeremy Evans was recalled on Sunday from the Utah Flash. … Andrei Kirilenko (back), Paul Millsap (knee) and Kyrylo Fesenko (back) are game-time decisions.
About the Knicks • New York is 4-3 since trading for Carmelo Anthony. … Point guard Chauncey Billups (quad) sat out a road game Sunday against Atlanta.
Read our Jazz Notes
V For exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis, check The Tribune's Jazz Notes blog. > sltrib.com/blogs/jazznotes
Here's a look at the Jazz's four-game road swing this week:
Monday • at New York, 5:30 p.m.
Wednesday • atToronto, 5 p.m.
Friday • atMinnesota, 6 p.m.
Saturday • atChicago, 6 p.m.
All games in Mountain time and televised on FSN Utah.