AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — During interviews, it’s fairly common to hear Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin use two particular words when he’s talking about his young team.
And the coach has had plenty of opportunities during this rebuilding and developing season to point out where and show his players how to, yes, get better.
As the Jazz approach the midway point of this 2013-14 campaign tonight against the Pistons in their 41st game, Corbin has a sense of pride and accomplishment that improvement has been made.
Sure, the Jazz still own the worst record in the Western Conference at 13-27.
But the team is trending in the right direction.
And Corbin believes that will continue to happen as long as the Jazz try like they did at the end of Wednesday’s 109-105 loss to the Spurs when they nearly erased a 14-point lead in the final three minutes.
The thought he shared in the locker room at the AT&T Center was similar to the one he’s preached all season while promoting his get-better message. To sum that up: “Keep fighting.”
Preferrably sooner than later.
“We made some mistakes. The only way to get better is to continue to fight as hard as we fought tonight,” he said. “There are no moral victories in this league, but if we get this kind of effort on a nightly basis we will have a chance to win our fair share of games.”
That is already starting to happen.
Remember the 1-14 start when it seemed like the Jazz might be the worst team in the history of basketball?
Utah is an anti-tanking 12-13 since then.
Veteran Richard Jefferson said he’s most proud of “the way our team has answered after the slow start.”
Defensively, the Jazz were porous and sloppy. But Corbin is optimistic because he feels the team’s D is “getting better.” Offensively, the Jazz were miserable to start the season. Utah only hit the 100-point mark once in its first 16 games (something it’s done in each of its past four games, by the way).
“Everybody was struggling to shoot,” Jefferson said. “As we kind of got our lineups down, Coach kept figuring it out, that’s what I’m most proud of — we didn’t just tank it in. Guys didn’t start acting crazy, getting selfish, doing any of that stuff — we kind of stayed the course, and that says a lot about the character of guys on this team.”
Utah also persevered through a slew of injuries. The Jazz began the season with only 10 healthy bodies, and two of the injured players were starters — rookie Trey Burke and power forward Marvin Williams.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the Jazz started clicking once those two guys began playing. The change was especially evident when Burke made his NBA debut, seeing how the Jazz struggled mightily at the point guard position while he was out the first 12 games with a broken finger.
“If you’re dealing with injuries, your season is most likely going to go to (bleep),” Jefferson said, bluntly. “We were dealing with injuries at the beginning of the year. I know we had low expectations (from outsiders), but we were all very confident that once we got healthy we would be a very competitive team, and we’ve shown that.”
Though some fans are still clamoring for guys like Alec Burks and Enes Kanter to become starters (or permanent ones), the Jazz have been pleased with the progress of the team’s Foundation Five guys.
Young players, deemed to be the core for the future, have shown promising signs of being able to produce at this level. They’ve even been brilliant at times despite playing one of the busiest and toughest schedules in the NBA to date.
Versatile swingman Gordon Hayward finishing off Oklahoma City with the final 17 points for the Jazz and a career-high 37 last week was a highlight for a guy who’s growing into his role as a leader, a top scorer and all-around player.
Rookie Trey Burke exploding on the scene, earning Western Conference rookie of the month honors and going off for 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in a nice win at Orlando has been a fun shot in the arm.
Shooting guard Alec Burks turning into a high-flying, off-balance scoring machine with newfound consistency, not to mention 34 points, in a victory against Denver and 31 versus the Heat, has been a pleasant development.
Center Enes Kanter working his way out of a rough season start to come on strong with six straight double-digit games, including his season-best 25 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday at San Antonio, has been encouraging.
And, of course, Derrick Favors becoming a reliable and strong two-way player since signing his four-year, $47 million-plus contract in October has been one of the biggest storylines so far.
“We have a lot of potential,” Kanter said. “We have a lot of young guys and we have competitive young guys (who) want to win every game.”
The Jazz, of course, are multiple pieces away from getting to the point where that is an expectation instead of a pipe dream. In a bit of irony, Utah could have a better shot of obtaining one of those star-type players if it returned to its erratic early season play instead of its current .500ish pace.
Whatever happens in the future personnel-wise, Corbin, in the final year of his contract, wants his team — for as long as it’s his — to try to emulate the Spurs squad that just beat them.
His dream scenario?
For now, Corbin wants the Jazz to string together some wins. Utah has only won consecutive games three times all season, and the team has yet to go on a winning streak.
Defensively, he still wants players to be “crisper” in execution, more communicative, quicker to rotate and help. Offensively, he’d love to see better consistency, increased focus and more nights like Wednesday when the Jazz scored 70 points in the paint.
And long term?
“To get where San Antonio is,” he said. “Every night they step out there on the floor you know you’re going to see a really sharp team on the offensive end, a quick rotating team on the defensive end.”
Setting your goals to Spurs level — always a contender, winning multiple championships — seems lofty. But Corbin likes the Jazz’s starting point.
“We see it at times and sometimes it’s not as good,” he said. “Sometimes it’s mediocre. Sometimes below average.”
It’s that identity that he’s trying to create.
It’s that consistency and competitiveness that he craves.
Corbin used the word “process” while explaining that's what the Jazz are shooting for.
“That’s part of the journey,” he said, “and we have to continue to work on it.”
Almost on cue, the Jazz coach ended his thought with this positive statement: “We’re getting better.”