Which way for the Jazz?

Had they surveyed the EnergySolutions Arena crowd after the Jazz's crushing April 11 loss last season to a seven-man Golden State team, support for acquiring C.J. Watson and Rob Kurz likely would have been stronger than keeping together the current group in Utah .

The Jazz sealed the fate of their 2008-09 season that night, dropping to eighth place in the Western Conference standings and setting the stage for a first-round playoff exit against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

A season that opened with among the highest expectations in franchise history didn't even make it to May. The Jazz dropped seven of their final nine games in the regular season and 11 of 14 overall counting the five-game series loss to the Lakers.

Yet the Jazz opted to stand as still as a statue this summer. They will return 12 players from last season in a league whose top contenders all made significant additions, including the Lakers with Ron Artest and San Antonio with Richard Jefferson.

"People aren't talking about the Utah Jazz right now," Deron Williams acknowledged. "When you talk about teams that are contenders in the West, they were putting us in there before last year, now they're not. We can do the sneaking-up-on-people-thing again."

About the only prediction that seems well-founded is that this Jazz team will be (by far) the most expensive in franchise history, with an $82 million payroll that will push them into luxury-tax territory for the first time ever.

Whether the Jazz should have made a move this summer will be debated all season, followed closely by what direction the team is headed.

The Jazz do return seven players from the team that advanced to the 2007 Western Conference finals and remain one of the youngest teams in the league. Mehmet Okur is the oldest regular at age 30; Williams still is just 25.

By matching Portland's four-year, $32 million offer sheet to Paul Millsap this summer, the Jazz can continue to build around a young core of players that includes Williams, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Miles. In addition, Okur is signed through the 2011-12 season.

"I've always said I think this team can be special if we stay healthy," Williams said. "It sounds repetitive, it gets kind of old saying it, but it's true. If we stay healthy and we get the right attitude, right mentality, everybody's working together, we can be a great team."

The Jazz also are poised to add another top talent for next season. They own New York's unprotected first-round draft pick in 2010. If the Knicks were to win the draft lottery, the Jazz would pick No. 1 overall, all the result of a 2004 trade.

By returning an almost intact roster, the Jazz hope to enjoy internal improvement, something that did not take place last season as they dipped from 54 wins to 48 and were leapfrogged by both Denver and Portland in the Northwest Division.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan expressed the belief that continuity can translate to three to four more victories for a team annually. There is simply a learning curve, he added, before players have mastered what to do in critical situations.

It took 12 years together before John Stockton and Karl Malone finally reached the NBA Finals. At least to Sloan, all the talk about breaking up the Jazz this summer had a certain familiarity from the Stockton-to-Malone era.

"I know them pretty well," Sloan said of his current players. "I know who they are and what they've been. I think they're good guys. They've just got to continue to work. This is a young team. ... The ups and downs of this business teaches you a lot of lessons."

Andrei Kirilenko has been an advocate for not turning over the roster. "You can count on [returning players] more than if you have somebody new," he said. "It's definitely a great thing and not a lot of teams in NBA can really say they've stayed together."

At the same time, the Jazz have to hope the notion of a lame-duck season applies only to Carlos Boozer.

They will open the season with Boozer improbably back in Utah, despite a summer in which he unexpectedly opted to play the final year of his contract rather than becoming a free agent, then campaigned for a trade to Chicago or Miami.

There is no telling whether Boozer will finish the season with the Jazz . For now, he will start and Millsap will come off the bench (despite Millsap's prior declarations about wanting to start) in what is all but certain to be Boozer's final year in Utah.

"It's a business," Williams said. "We just try to shake things off. Stuff happened in the summer. It happened with A.K. one summer. We know it's a business, we know there's nothing really you can do about it now. You've just got to go out and play."

Although the distractions have been minor so far, Boozer is certain to be one of the most-discussed players in the NBA prior to the February trade deadline. In addition, Millsap's happiness with a reserve role will be closely monitored.

For his part, Sloan has seen parallels with the Boozer situation and past summers of controversy involving Malone. He met with Boozer before media day last month and reached an understanding about playing hard and contributing to the team.

"I've had situations like that before where the best thing to do is just go play and forget about what's been said," Sloan said.

The Jazz are counting on a return to All-Star form by Boozer, who has missed a third of the team's games during his five seasons in Utah because of injuries. Boozer was lost for 44 games to an injured left knee last season and ultimately underwent surgery.

All told, the Jazz lost 149 combined games to injury. They were forced to use 20 different starting lineups as a result (only one for more than 20 games) and blamed a lack of chemistry for their disappointing season.

That, however, ignores the fact that the Jazz were at full strength beginning Feb. 23, following Boozer's return, yet closed the regular season 15-11. They went 15-26 on the road and a disastrous 3-18 in the second game of back-to-back sets.

The trends have been discouraging the last three seasons, with the Jazz giving up 98.6, 99.3 and then 100.9 points a game last season. They've gone from 20-21 to 17-24 to 15-26 on the road in that time as well.

The Jazz have stressed defensive accountability from the start of training camp -- even breaking huddles with chants of "1-2-3 Defense" -- but they acknowledge that their overall schemes and principles haven't changed.

"It's just a matter of us wanting to play defense," Williams said. "You've got to want to play defense. The best defensive players, the best defensive teams, they take pride in it, and that's what we've got to try to do."

If they return to 50-win status, the Jazz can convince people they remain on the right track. If not, it could lead to a summer of change with Boozer and Kyle Korver set to become free agents and Andrei Kirilenko a potentially highly attractive $17.8 million expiring contract.

"It's one thing to have expectations, it's something else to see how good we can possibly be," Boozer said. "The rest of it, the proof's in the pudding, we've got to go out there and do it."

rsiler@sltrib.com Back in blue

? Forward Carlos Boozer decided to stay with the Jazz rather than opt out of his $12.7 million deal.

? The Jazz matched Portland's lucrative offer to forward Paul Millsap.

? Center Mehmet Okur signed a contract extension to stay with Utah through the 2011-12 season.

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Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: October 27, 2009