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Essay: Utah=Gloomy

Last night the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play basketball at the Staples Center. Whether or not what went down from 10:30-1 am in that building can be constituted as that is still up for debate, but what we do know, after the Laker lead ballooned to 587 points midway through the third quarter, is that Salt Lake City’s only professional sports team is depressing. The Jazz are currently on a five game losing streak that includes losses at Washington, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. Embarrassing. (Their other two losses were the previously mentioned beat down in Los Angeles and an equally brutal shellacking by the Boston Celtics.) Utah has tried reshaping their starting lineup by moving Gordon Hayward, C.J. Miles, and Andrei Kirilenko  in and out of the starting lineup, and despite having only three of their losses before this recent streak come at the hands of sub-.500 teams, they  look panicked, impotent, and deplorable.

I’m not one to overreact after a few regular season losses, especially when they occur before February, but this team has a defeated aura surrounding them. Their best player, Deron Williams, is playing each game as if it’s a blind date with his teammates; a frustrated look on his face like he can’t understand why his friend would keep setting him up with such hideous women. He isn’t playing poorly and rarely does—in the last 14 days Williams is averaging 20 points and 10 assists per game—but Williams has politely declined converting himself into the leader of this redesigned Utah team, something he absolutely needs to do in order to win. Out went Carlos Boozer, in came Al Jefferson (and Paul Millsap as a full-time starter). Out went Wesley Matthews, in came Gordon Hayward. Through 45 games the Jazz are the least motivated 27-18 team in recent memory—under Jerry Sloan, nonetheless—with a roster that’s isn’t working towards any semblance of cohesive teamwork.

Williams looks unhappy. Inside he appears to be dissatisfied and cranky and furious; if the Jazz are eliminated in the first round or fail to make the playoffs, Deron Williams will follow in the footsteps of fellow superstars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in making slightly indistinct trade demands for an extended period of time. (And in the process give Utah’s beloved fan base chronic heart palpitations.) Charles Barkley, among others, has publicly stated that after two or three years of holding down the top point guard throne, Williams has been supplanted by young guns like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. It can’t make him feel good.

So, if you’re a basketball superstar, what’s the chic thing to do when you’re unhappy and have a modestly manageable contract situation? Publicly spout that you’ve given the city all you’ve got, that no matter what your management does—short of trading for two fellow superstars and holding the franchise’s future for ransom—winning just isn’t in the cards and it isn’t your fault. Then, when nobody’s looking, demand a trade! Deron Williams has the right to pass up $17.7 million and opt out of Utah after next season. Should he choose to do this, Williams could join Dwight Howard and Chris Paul should those two choose to opt out of their contracts as well. Utah is George Costanza picking up a dinner tab when it comes to signing big money free agents, so from where it stands their chances of keeping him are unlikely. I don’t picture him being the 2011-12 Carmelo Anthony, dominating headlines with perpetual nonsense, but then again that’s the nature of the beast. The national media on trade rumors can often have the same effect as a hungry bear on an unguarded camp site. Irrational and out of control when staring at a slab of raw meat.

All in all, the Utah Jazz can still turn their season around, but unfortunately they can’t win a championship, and won’t be built for one, through the rest of Deron Williams’ contract. This stretch the Jazz are going through right now will be the period people retrospectively look back on as the end of an era. Super sad.

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