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Pop quiz: Who has the brighter future, the Jazz or the Minnesota Timberwolves?
Just 15 months ago, the answer was easy. Utah had an All-Star guard in Deron Williams, a legendary coach in Jerry Sloan, and 50-win seasons were the norm. Even eight months ago, all current and prospective momentum tilted toward the Jazz, with Utah counting on four lottery picks from the 2010 and 2011 NBA Drafts to lead the way in a post-Williams-and-Sloan world.
One game away from the 2011-12 All-Star break, though, little is certain or predictable in Jazzland. Utah's young guns continue to show promise, while veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap at times have carried the team. But four of the Jazz's five starters are only under contract through 2013, and Utah's Big Two of Jefferson and Millsap soak up crucial minutes that will likely belong to 19-year-old center Enes Kanter and 20-year-old power forward Derrick Favors in the near future.
While Utah waits on an unpredictable combination of impending draft picks, potential trades and possible free-agent signings to dictate its path, a Timberwolves team long the doormat of the NBA Minnesota went 78-250 from 2007-11 has pulled off Salt Lake City's version of the unthinkable. The Timberwolves entered Tuesday in fourth place in the Northwest Division, .001 percent ahead of the fifth-and-last-place Jazz.
"[Am] I surprised that they're doing what they're doing? No," said Jefferson, who played for Minnesota from 2007-10 before being traded to Utah. "They've got a great coaching staff. [Ricky] Rubio's a great point guard. Kevin Love: The name speaks for itself. And them boys play hard. So, no, I'm not surprised. They're doing well."
The Timberwolves' edge in the standings is minimal and could be very temporary: Minnesota hosts Utah on Wednesday. But the simple fact the Timberwolves have jumped the Jazz midway through a lockout-shortened season highlights the challenges Utah faces during its new era.
The Jazz need a pass-first, aggressive young point guard to complement key building pieces Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Kanter and Favors. Minnesota already has one in uniform. As a 21-year-old rookie, Rubio has crossed continents to exceed expectations, averaging 11.5 points and team-highs in assists (8.4) and steals (2.4).
"He instills a lot of the same thing that Jeremy Lin instills in New York," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "Just throwing the ball around and looking to score very little, to be truthful."
Utah also needs a true No. 1 player, who can not only drop in 30 points on a given night, but close down tight games and inspire teammates to victory. The Timberwolves also have that covered. The 23-year-old Love is averaging a team-high 25.5 points and ranks second in the NBA in rebounds (14.2). Minnesota's best player is also under contract through at least 2015, after signing a four-year, $61 million extension in January (he can opt out after three years).
Factor in young talent such as center Nikola Pekovic, small forward Michael Beasley, backup point guard J.J. Barea, rookie forward Derrick Williams and shooting guard Wesley Johnson, and the Timberwolves have more promising pieces than the Jazz, in addition to a comparable salary-cap situation.
"You've got a good group of young guys with a coach and a system that fit what they do," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
Minnesota also has offensive diversity. Six players average 10.1 points or more only Jefferson and Millsap reach the mark for Utah and 12 Timberwolves hit at least 5.1 points.
Then there's Minnesota's new coach. Rick Adelman has presided over five NBA teams, advanced to the playoffs 16 times, and twice led Portland to the Finals. He's one of the most-respected sideline-walkers in the league, and consistently guided Houston through adversity from 2007-11.
Corbin referred to Adelman as a "great coach," while Rockets guard Goran Dragic said he's a difference-maker. Give Adelman talent and open minds, and he can turn silver into gold.
"He just lets you play your game. … And then, in the offense, they have really good action, especially to move the ball around," Dragic said. "Everybody get their touches; everybody [shoots] it. And then you never know who's going to score 20 or more points. That's the key: for all guys on the court to be dangerous."
At the bottom
Five years after advancing to the Western Conference Finals, the Jazz entered Tuesday in fifth-and-last place in the Northwest Division. While Utah balances rebuilding with a win-now focus, Minnesota is surging. The Timberwolves have won three of four, riding the impressive young duo of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, while being led by new coach Rick Adelman.
From all directions
The Jazz have just two players averaging at least 10.1 points: big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Both are under contract through 2013 and will likely become expendable if Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors continue to progress. Meanwhile, Minnesota has six players averaging double-digits in scoring:
Player Pos Avg
Kevin Love PF 25.5
Michael Beasley SF 12.6
Nikola Pekovic C 12.4
Ricky Rubio PG 11.5
Luke Ridnour PG 10.5
J.J. Barea PG 10.1
The (real) young guns
Utah has seven players 26 or younger: Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, C.J. Miles, Jeremy Evans and DeMarre Carroll. Minnesota has 12, while guard J.J. Barea is 27.