Jazz hoping for big returns

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz are about to find out if they’re a contender or just really expensive.The Jazz have essentially the same lineup they did a year ago and are confident the continuity can lead to a run in the playoffs – if they aren’t besieged by injuries again.”We can be good. I’ve said it all along,” point guard Deron Williams said. “If we stay healthy, I think we can compete with anybody.”They’re already off to a slow start on the health front. Outside shooters C.J. Miles (thumb) and Kyle Korver (knee) are recovering from surgery and likely to miss the first few weeks of the season – at least.But the core of Williams, forward Carlos Boozer, center Mehmet Okur and forward Andrei Kirilenko are all back and healthy, giving coach Jerry Sloan plenty of experience and talent in his 22nd season with the club.”I have a sense every year – not ‘we can be good.’ We are good,” said Kirilenko, who bulked up about 20 pounds over the summer. “It’s a privilege to have the same team for a long time. Not a lot of teams have it.”Nobody really expected Utah to have such a return, especially given Boozer’s comments last season about opting out of his contract, then saying during the summer that the team had agreed to trade him. That fueled speculation that Boozer wanted out of town despite opting in for a guaranteed $12.7 million, but any tension between Boozer, his teammates and the club seems to have dissipated.Boozer has helped his public image by toning down his comments and playing hard during the preseason.Sloan has said all along he would welcome back Boozer, who when healthy has averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in his five seasons.”Boozer’s been fine. He came in sat down and talked to me for a few minutes when he came back. He said ‘I’m here to play and do the best I can,'” Sloan said. “I said ‘I’m here to coach and do the best I can’ and we’ve both tried to work in everybody’s best interest.”That’s not to say Utah won’t listen to offers before the February trade deadline. If the Jazz are muddling through the season, they could be eager to dump salaries. But they didn’t when Boozer, Okur ($9 million) and Korver ($5.2 million) all opted to finish out their contracts rather that risk free agency during the recession.Even after all three potential free agents decided to stay, Utah matched Portland’s front-loaded $32 million offer to restricted free agent Paul Millsap.The Jazz are willing to see how they do before worrying about paying $10 million-plus in luxury tax penalties.”With our versatility our depth and our experience, we should be – or have a chance to be – competing for a conference title,” Boozer said.Starting Boozer and continuing to bring Millsap off the bench gives the Jazz a powerful, albeit pricey, combination down low. Both can play at the same time and free up Okur to wander outside for 3-pointers.Williams is a potential All-Star at the point after averaging 19.4 points and 10.7 assists in his fourth season. He’s backed up by Ronnie Price and rookie Eric Maynor, the first-round draft pick out of Virginia Commonwealth. Maynor and Wesley Matthews, an undrafted free agent out of Marquette who made the team in training camp, are the only additions to the roster.Shooting guard Ronnie Brewer was bothered by back spasms during training camp, but is expected to be ready for the season opener at Denver on Wednesday.Once Korver and Miles return, the Jazz add two more players who can play either shooting guard or small forward.”We’ll see when we start playing,” Sloan said. “That’s when you find out who good your depth is.”The Jazz will have only 11 players available for the first part of the season. Veteran forward Matt Harpring is on the active roster, but is still at home in Atlanta hoping to recover from an ankle injury that plagued him all last season. The original injury was bone spurs, but it’s the infection that developed after the surgery that put Harpring in the hospital in the summer of 2008 and he’s still not sure whether he can return.Harpring, 33, and Okur, 30, are the only 30-somethings on the roster. It’s basically the same group that went to the Western Conference finals three years ago, only with more experience.The Jazz need to improve on two straight woeful road records, winning just 32 games away from home the last two seasons, and get better on defense. The improved defense goal is nothing new, but the goal has been mentioned even more often that usual during the preseason, when the Jazz went 6-2.If the players live up to their preseason pledge and don’t have anymore injuries, Utah could contend for the Northwest Division title again and a higher seed than the No. 8 that stuck Utah with the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.”We’ve got to become more consistent and do a better job. It’s something we’ve got to monitor during the season,” Williams said. “Coach is a great defensive coach, but he can only do so much for us. It’s got to be us out there wanting to play defense.”

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