Utah Jazz fans and bloggers all over Twitter may be jonesing for them to tank, but the team (or at least the players) are looking to be competitive this season.
After starting 1-14, the Jazz are 3-2 in their last five games. The latest loss came at the hands of the best team in the NBA, but by only nine points.
They played the Pacers so tough, they actually led the game by 11 in the second quarter. Youth (and extremely bizarre substitutions) got the better of them down the stretch.
In a tight game against the team with both the best record and point differential in the NBA, Tyrone Corbin randomly inserted Mike Harris and Andris Biedrins in the second half.
Harris has appeared in just 14 of Utah's 20 games and is averaging 12.1 minutes. Biedrins has played eight minutes total this season.
Like I get it, Kanter is in now, but you allowed Biedrins, Mike Harris, and Richard Jefferson to play vital minutes in a close game.— Mychal Lowman (@My_Lo) December 5, 2013
That’s not even stealth tanking. That’s “getting a call from the competitions’ committee in the morning” tanking.— Mychal Lowman (@My_Lo) December 5, 2013
The Pacers took control of the game during that crucial stretch, but before the coaching blunders, there were some fantastic signs from this bunch. And that's something that could be said of the last week and a half for the team.
The future is indeed bright if the individual members of the young core continue on this trajectory.
Each one is starting to carve out a role for this and for coming seasons. These rankings will be based on the importance of those roles and the overall play of each member of the team through the first six weeks of the season.
15. Andris Biedrins
Like the intro said, Biedrins has been on the floor for a total of eight minutes this season. And they haven't been terribly inspiring minutes.
When he was acquired this summer, it was clear why: He's an expiring contract. Right now, Biedrins is the second-highest paid player on the team ($9 million for this season). But this season is probably his last in Utah, and possibly the NBA in general.
14. Ian Clark
Ian Clark was signed by the Jazz after a solid showing during the summer league. But he hasn't had much of an opportunity to showcase his skills during the regular season.
He's averaged 2.8 points and 8.8 minutes in eight appearances so far. In order to crack the rotation in the next few months and become a real part of Utah's future, Clark would probably have to step in for an injured guard and shoot the lights out.
13. John Lucas III
The John Lucas III signing was pretty confusing when it happened this summer. And now the veteran who was brought in to "mentor" Trey Burke is completely out of the rotation and playing behind recent D-League call-up Diante Garrett.
Lucas hasn't played since the loss to the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 29. His numbers prior to the demotion explain why it happened.
He's averaging 5.4 points while shooting 34.3 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from three-point range.
This shouldn't have been surprising though. Lucas's career-high field-goal percentage is 39.9.
12. Mike Harris
Prior to the Jazz inviting him to training camp, Mike Harris hadn't played in an NBA game since the 2010-11 season.
His lack of recent NBA experience hasn't kept him from being moderately effective though. In 14 appearances, Harris has averaged four points a game and posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 13.2.
11. Brandon Rush
Brandon Rush is very slowly working his way back from a torn ACL that he suffered in 2012. He's appeared in only three games and he scored his first two points of the season on Wednesday night.
If he can fully recover, Rush could be an important part of the Jazz now and in the future.
Floor spacing is very valuable in today's NBA, and Rush's career three-point percentage is 41.2.
Richard Jefferson is the final third of the salary dump the Jazz took from the Golden State Warriors. But unlike Biedrins and Rush, Jefferson has actually had a pretty significant role over the first quarter of the season, starting all 20 games.
Sadly, that shouldn't be the case.
Jefferson's PER has gone down in each of the last seven seasons since 2007-08. With the Jazz, he's reached a career-low with a paltry 9.2.
When you watch the Jazz play, it's difficult to come up with any discernible reason for Jefferson being on the floor at all, let alone with the starting five.
Veteran presence. Steady hand. All that noise amounts to little more than static when you look at the numbers.
Jefferson is shooting 39.5 percent from the field, turning the ball over at about the same rate at which he distributes it (1.9 assists compared to 1.8 turnovers) and providing almost nothing as a rebounder.
On the entire team, the only Jazzers with rebounding percentages lower than Jefferson's 5.4 are Clark, Rush, Lucas and Diante Garrett.
The team, and Jefferson, might be better served with this veteran leadership coming from the bench rather than the floor.
A side-by-side comparison Utah's "big" free-agent acquisition this summer (John Lucas) and recent D-League call-up Diante Garrett is pretty telling.
|John Lucas III||21.1||5.4||1.6||34.3||30.6|
Is it too late for Utah to get its money back on that summer investment? Barring injury, Garrett and Trey Burke have made Lucas darn-near expendable.
Garrett plays with great poise for a guy who's only appeared in 30 NBA games. He knows his role (run the offense and hit open shots if they present themselves) and he doesn't try to do more.
Among players who've appeared in at least half their team's games, only Andre Drummond has a higher rebounding percentage than Rudy Gobert.
The 7'2" rookie grabs 22.2 percent of the rebounds that are available when he's on the floor.
And that's not all he does well. Gobert uses his insane length (7'9" wingspan) to protect the rim at a rate of 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes.
His prowess as a rebounder and shot blocker isn't based entirely on his natural gifts either. Gobert is one of the most entertaining players on the team because you can tell he plays as hard as he can whenever he's out there.
All that energy and length comes at a price right now though. In pretty much every other way, Gobert is as raw as steak tartare.
His shot is clunky, his hands are about as soft as frying pans and his footwork in the post makes Elaine Benes' dancing look good.
If Karl Malone can manage to coach this guy into being at least average in those skills over the next couple years, he'll be a nightmare for opposing centers.
Rookie Trey Burke is getting loads of credit for Utah's recent improvement. But the resurgence of Marvin Williams has perhaps been just as important.
He missed Wednesday night's game against the Pacers, but in the previous four (in which Utah went 3-1), Williams averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from three-point range.
Williams' recent success as a stretch 4 makes it seem like he's been playing the wrong position his entire career. At the 3, he was often on the wrong end of mismatches. At the 4, he creates them with his ball-handling, perimeter shooting and athleticism.
Williams would be higher on the list if his future on the team was more certain; his $7.5 million salary comes off the books this summer. Unless the rebuilding Jazz can get him for a significantly lower price, he could be elsewhere next season.
And if he does return to Utah, he figures to be a role player behind ever-developing bigs Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.
Jeremy Evans has been startlingly efficient this season. He only takes good shots. And he gets a decent amount of them because he works so hard.
He's shooting 72.2 percent from the field and averaging 8.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 19 minutes a game. And the lofty percentage shouldn't be seen as too much of a fluke. His career field-goal percentage is 65.8.
Evans' ability to finish isn't the only thing benefiting the Jazz. The springy forward plays with an infectious brand of energy that seems to lift the entire team every time he checks in.
Because he was recovering from an injury, Evans has only appeared in seven games. Utah's winning percentage in those games (.429) is more than five times better than what it is when Evans hasn't played (.077).
If Alec Burks ever develops a dependable mid-range jump shot, watch out.
Right now, he's shooting just 30.2 percent outside of five feet. But you can still see the natural potential he has as a scorer when he plays.
Burks can get to the rim at will, often contorting his body in midair for finishes few other players in the league are physically capable of.
He uses the same speed, explosiveness and ball-handling to get himself open for mid-range shots as well. He just can't hit them.
But shooting is something that can be fixed. Repetition is the key. If Burks really wants to add that to his repertoire, he can. Just look at LeBron James.
Burks also has the potential to be a great perimeter defender. His quick feet give him the ability to stay in front of 1s and 2s, and his 6'10" wingspan makes him an option against 3s as well.
Enes Kanter might be the most skilled offensive player on the Jazz.
His footwork inside is a throwback to the '80s, his mid-range jump shot is as smooth as any big man in the NBA and he can switch from bull on the boards to soft touch at the rim in an instant.
It's hard to fully understand his recent demotion from starter to under-20-minutes-a-game bench guy. Sure, he doesn't defend the pick-and-roll extremely well. And Marvin Williams' play as a stretch 4 makes it easier to accept.
But this is a season for development. And if the young guys aren't allowed to work through some slumps, what's the point?
Kanter was struggling with something. Instead of coaching him through it, he was simply demoted.
The shakeup may have jolted things in the right direction in the short term, but Kanter's development is of long-term importance.
And if he gets much better than he was against the Pacers Wednesday night, the NBA is in for many years of trouble trying to slow him down.
Kanter returned to the starting lineup as Marvin Williams was out with a heel injury. The big man scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the best defense in the league and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Roy Hibbert.
I was as high as anyone on Hayward prior to the start of this season, but I may be ready to concede that he's just not a No. 1 scoring option at this level.
That doesn't mean Hayward lacks the potential to become a great player. Just in terms of scoring, he's better off the ball—particularly as a catch-and-shoot floor spacer playing off good post players.
That's what he did last season and he thrived in that role. When Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap commanded attention inside, Hayward was often the beneficiary.
This season, his shots typically come as pull-up 18-footers or drives into waiting big men.
The difference becomes clear when you look at the shooting percentages. In 2012-13, he shot 43.5 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from three-point range. This season, those numbers are 39.3 and 28.9.
Maybe he'll adjust to the new role and the percentages will slowly increase over the course of the season, but things are actually trending down right now. Over the last eight games, he's shooting just 33 percent.
Despite the terrible shooting, Hayward is still high on the list for everything else he does well and the potential he has to turn the season around if he gets back to being a catch-and-shoot guy.
His shots need to come out of double-teams down low or off playmaking by Burke or Burks. When Hayward's the one handling the ball, he should focus on distributing.
In Utah's wins, Hayward is averaging 7.3 assists a game. In the losses, just 4.5.
Combine his playmaking in this season with his shot selection from 2012-13 (when he averaged 10.7 attempts a game instead of the 14.9 he takes in 2013-14) and you get the ultimate Gordon Hayward.
Trey Burke's progression was proceeding quite slowly prior to the last three games. Somehow, something seems to have clicked.
On the season, Burke's averaging 12.6 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 39.6 percent from the field. In the last three games (two wins and a loss to the best team in the league), he's averaging 18 points and six assists while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 64.3 percent from three-point range.
It's amazing what a difference a real point guard makes. And since he's been healthy, Burke has looked every bit a bona fide NBA point guard.
And adding that to the mix has made everyone else noticeably better. The team's field-goal shooting is 2.5 percent better in Burke's six starts than it is overall and the scoring is up too. 95 points a game in those six games compared to 91.2 overall.
In a season that's been about as constant as the weather, Derrick Favors has somehow managed to be a rock.
After his 22-point, 13-rebound performance against the Pacers, Favors is now averaging 13.7 and 9.9 while shooting 51.2 percent from the field.
His steady efforts on the glass and ever-expanding post game are even more impressive when you consider the circumstances in which he's played.
For most of this season, Favors didn't even have a legitimate point guard to get him the ball.
Once he and Burke develop some chemistry together, they could form a devastating pick-and-roll duo.
For 140-character pearls of wisdom from Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey, follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDBailey.