Most Utah Jazz fans are still in shock. This was supposed to be the year of the Jazz. They were led by new gold medalists Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, fueled by a nearly-untouched roster, and bolstered by the addition of "veteran" backup guard Brevin Knight and rookie center Kosta Koufos.
Owners of two straight division championships and having won three playoff series in the previous two years, the Jazz message to the rest of the NBA was seemingly very clear: get out of our way.
Then came the injuries.
First to Deron Williams. Then to AK, then Boozer, Memo, and almost everybody else on the roster. Ankles, knees, hips, fingers, backs, and wrists—they all got bumped, bruised, strained, sprained or broken. The Jazz lost over 150 man-games to injury, more than twice the number from the previous season.
Miraculously, the Jazz held their poise—and their position—waiting for when they would be "healthy," all in one piece, every piece available to play. They started 5-0, beat just about everybody at home (although almost nobody on the road), handling the Celtics, Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets and Hornets during their 12-game winning streak.
With the team healthy and supposedly complete for the first time all season, Jazz fans began licking their chops.
The team rose from the ninth seed in the West to the fourth, and regained their customary spot on top of the Northwest Division standings. Even the death of long-time owner Larry H. Miller seemed to lift the winning spirits even higher.
That proved to be the high point of the season, the one glimmering hope.
But after a close loss at Atlanta, the Jazz completely self-destructed in Miami, letting slip a seven-point lead in the last minute of regulation, and an eight-point advantage in the first overtime, eventually losing in three extra periods. Looking back, that loss was a major downturn.
From that point, the team seemed to be in a shambles, getting blown out by good teams on the road and losing at home to lottery teams. Even their victories were close, having to come from behind late against marginal teams at home.
Losing seven of their last 10, they planted themselves firmly in the eight seed and drew Los Angeles for the first round of the playoffs.
Boozer's return was, instead of the promised lift, an unfortunate chemistry-buster. His tentative and uninspired play was understandable at first, but quickly digressed into depressing. He showed flashes of his former self in the playoffs, but it wasn't enough to even slow down the Lakers.
Had the Jazz not lost to both Minnesota and Golden State at home in the waning days of the regular season, they might have matched up with San Antonio or Portland in the first round, and might have lasted more than five games.
After a short, painful series against the Lakers, their postseason ended, the Jazz' offseason has officially begun.
The questions loom large, loud and critical. The Jazz absolutely must answer them right, or the next few seasons could be pretty dismal in Utah. The top issues facing the Jazz this summer will make or break the franchise for the foreseeable future.
1- Will the real Carlos Boozer please stand up? Which Boozer is the real Boozer? The injury prone, bad-decision making, overly-cautious too-small forward, or the 20 and 15, dunk-over-Pau-Gasol-at-the-end-of-Game-Three power player? And if it were even possible to answer that question...
2- Blow the team up, or keep it together?In other words, who stays and who goes? The Jazz have multiple players who can opt out, and a few who are either at the end of their contract or are close. Among others, Boozer, Korver, Millsap, Okur and Knight are all questionable for next season.
About the only locks are Williams and Kirilenko. Given the imminent luxury tax implications, who do you keep? Even if Boozer doesn't opt out, do the Jazz want him and his immense contract or do you take the undersized body and oversized heart of Paul Millsap?
Is AK trade bait or still an important defensive piece? Is the Brewer/Miles combination developing into the perimeter scoring threat, or is Kyle Korver a necessity? What about Memo? The Jazz MUST figure the roster out, and soon.
3- Where will Ronnie Price fit? This was a much bigger, but less important, question before the fourth quarter of Game Five of the Lakers series. All season long, Jerry Sloan played Brevin in front of Ronnie, operating on the belief that Brevin's veteran experience would provide the more solid backup to D-Will.
But in the waning moments of their eventual elimination, Price almost single-handedly brought the Jazz back from a 20+ point deficit, forcing Phil Jackson to reinsert his starters, who had already checked out and were ordering drinks to celebrate their first round spoils.
The energy and fearless attitude of Ronnie Price make him an obvious asset to the Jazz, one that Sloan admittedly misused this season.
4- Jerry and...Greg? This question is really multiple questions, but for the sake of brevity (not Brevinity, Ronnie) I'll over-simplify the issue. What will the direction of the franchise be under owner-in-chief Greg Miller?
Late owner Larry Miller was very hands on, passionate and involved in the everyday issues of the franchise. Greg admits, himself, that he is not nearly as passionate a fan. Will GM Kevin O'Connor take even more control of personnel and other franchise decisions?
In essence, the Jazz must maintain the course or choose a new mountain to climb in search of a title.
5- When will Jerry Sloan give it up? J-Slo has the most playoff wins of any coach without a title. But what is his ultimate quest? Why is he still in the game? Is he bound and determined to win a championship?
If he is, will he continue to adapt his game plan?
He seemed to show a little bit of flexibility this season by mixing up the starting roster and varying the player rotation, but still stubbornly sticks to a lot of, in his words, "...the same play we've been running for the past 20 years." (Quote from a postgame interview when asked about a Deron Williams game winning shot.)
Sloan has often been out-coached, out-adjusted, out-smarted simply because he was unwilling to vary from his established patterns. Many a player would never prosper in Utah because of coaching rigidity.
That being said, Jerry Sloan is still a great coach with a great record. Almost every coach and player in the NBA over the last twenty years speaks highly of him and the teams he has led.
So what will the future hold for the Jazz? Much will be determined over the next weeks and months, but some things will have to play themselves out over the next several seasons.
Funny thing about questions like this, though. If the Jazz don't choose to answer them, they'll answer themselves, and it may be that nobody likes what they get.