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The Jazz's 2011-12 season will be characterized by rebuilding and recovery. It'll come down to maturation and evolution, player development and organizational progress, and the never-ending battle of age versus youth.
However, everything about Utah's unyielding 66-games-in-122-days campaign will initially be defined by one question: Who are the Jazz?
Right now, Utah doesn't have an identity. There's no locker room leader or on-the-court general. No obvious No. 1 when the shot clock's shrinking and a game is on the line. Not even a distinct offensive focus or a concrete defensive philosophy that's been tested and proven over time.
Many teams are in flux thanks to the NBA lockout, which left Utah less than three weeks of practice and two exhibition games to prepare for its nationally televised regular-season tipoff at 8:30 p.m. MST Tuesday against the Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But few teams, if any, are staring at an immediate future as uncertain as the Jazz's.
Point guard Devin Harris said consistency will be the short-term key word as Utah attempts to jump out of the gate via a soft early schedule that's highlighted by 13 of 19 games at EnergySolutions Arena before Feb. 2. To discover consistency, though, the Jazz must first establish who they want to be and what type of basketball they want to play.
"We have to find our identity find out who we are and how to be effective," Harris said Monday before practice at the team's workout facility.
Will Utah's offense again feature a methodical half-court, inside-out attack that saw power forward Paul Millsap and center Al Jefferson combine to average 35.9 points and 17.3 rebounds during the 2010-11 season? Or will second-year coach Tyrone Corbin gradually open up the Jazz's offense in the attempt to increase outside scoring options and take inside pressure off his bigs, in turn giving more freedom to everyone from Harris and C.J. Miles to Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks?
"We have guys who can post up. We've got guys who can shoot," Harris said. "So, are we an inside team? Are we an outside team?"
Utah's reconfigured defense contains more questions. The Jazz struggled to control the perimeter, paint and pace last season, and Corbin has made two major alterations in an effort to cover up the holes that plagued Utah during 2010-11. Offensive players who gain an advantage will be funneled toward the baseline instead of the middle, while help defense will be more structured, relying on a system of planned reaction that emphasizes communication and trust issues even veteran-based teams struggle to master.
"Obviously, defensively we've got to be better," Harris said. "We know we can score. We've proven we can score. But it comes down to, can we get stops especially when we need them?"
On paper, Utah isn't any better than a disappointing 2010-11 team that fell apart midway through the season, finished 39-43 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. The production and presence of All-Star point guard Deron Williams haven't been replaced; the box-score filler that was Andrei Kirilenko has been exchanged for the reclamation project that is Josh Howard; and Corbin is still finding his way after an unforgiving 8-20 run that followed Jerry Sloan's shocking departure.
But what could separate the 2011-12 Jazz from last season's failure is depth, which is mainly derived from youth. Howard and Jamaal Tinsley should improve Utah's standing at small forward and point guard; Miles finally appears comfortable with the idea of consistency; and the emergence of potential young stars such as Derrick Favors and Hayward could give Corbin a variety of options to choose from in the nightly attempt to exploit matchup advantages.
"As long as you have that many weapons, it's good to have that in your back pocket," Harris said.
Corbin's pockets are full. So full, he won't name the Jazz's starters or team captain until Tuesday.
The guarded approach has been the initial hallmark of the second-year coach's first full season leading Utah.
Corbin has made minor changes but avoided a full-scale overhaul. The biggest moves the signing of Howard, the unexpected recent trade of veteran center Mehmet Okur have been marked by the busy hands of general manager Kevin O'Connor.
Corbin is still thinking about, analyzing and figuring out what he wants the Jazz to become who will represent the team's new, unpredictable era and how will Utah play the game post-Sloan?
Corbin asked every player on the roster to show up for training camp in top-level shape, and they did it. He then asked everyone to compete for starting spots like their careers depended on it, and they did that.
Corbin got what he wanted. Now, the Jazz just have to figure out who they are.
Asked about the challenge of balancing a core veteran trio of Harris, Millsap and Jefferson with the desire to unleash Utah's lottery picks, Corbin acknowledged the test he faces.
"It'll be tough," he said. "It's tough for everybody."
But with a four-month marathon on the edge of finally tipping off, Corbin pushed away any darkness and moved toward the light.
"The great thing about it, we have guys that we feel comfortable about putting in the game," he said. "They deserve minutes on the floor [because of] the way they play. … It's a great pleasure to have bodies that you feel comfortable with putting on the floor."
Those individual bodies will soon be playing for a team identity.
The Jazz will play 66 games in 122 days, highlighted by a two-month run in February and March that will see Utah play 21 of 34 contests on the road. The Jazz open their 2011-12 season Tuesday, play six games in eight nights, and close the year April 26 against Portland.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin has made two significant changes to his team's defense: offensive players who gain an advantage will be driven toward the baseline, while help defense will be more structured. Key Utah players said Monday both areas must show immediate improvement for the Jazz not to fall behind during the first month of the season.
Jazz at Lakers
P At Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tipoff • 8:30 p.m.
TV • TNT
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 0-0, Lakers 0-1
Last meeting • Jazz, 86-85 (April 10)
About the Jazz • Utah coach Tyrone Corbin won't announce his starters until Tuesday. … The Jazz went 1-1 during the preseason, with Utah's first unit failing to establish a rhythm in both games. … The Jazz have 13 players on their roster and can add two more.
About the Lakers • Center Andrew Bynum is inactive. He's serving the third game of a four-game suspension. … Kobe Bryant scored 28 points, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded six assists during a loss to Chicago on Monday, but also committed eight turnovers. … Newcomers Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Andrew Goudelock combined for 19 points and 18 rebounds.