- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The roster is filled with rookies and foreigners and undrafted no-names. The new offense is a relic from the 1960s. The power forward is a skinny Russian who will never be confused with his prototypical, muscle-bound predecessor. The point guard is not so easy to identify, because the assist king who used to play that position has been replaced by a two-guard front.
There are really only a few things about the Utah Jazz, as we have all come to know them, that followed the rest of us into 2004.
Those things are:
The winning record.
The loud crowd at the Delta Center, starting with the boisterous owner who sits courtside and revved up by the PA man who famously screams, "How 'bout this Jazz."
And the guy who really makes it all work.
"If our start holds true," says Jazz forward Matt Harpring, "he should be Coach of the Year."
No argument here, and no real mystery about who "he" is. You can't stop a calendar -- you can't even hope to contain time -- but it's somewhat reassuring to know, as one year melts into the next, that Jerry Sloan is still right there, doing exactly what we expect.
Making lots of us look dumb, for starters.
The solace for our colleague Frank Hughes is that he is far from the only soul who predicted gloom for the Jazz in their first season without Karl Malone and John Stockton. No one was quite as bold as Mr. Hughes, who suggested that Utah might not win more than eight games, but lots of folks (me included) picked the Jazz to be the worst team in the league. Not just media types, either. The same sentiment was offered by peers from rival teams, who were quick to nominate Utah as the first team certain to drop out of the West playoff chase.
Instead we have been presented with nearly a half-season of evidence to suggest that it was Sloan, even more than Stockton-to-Malone, who stood as the reason why you could never write the Jazz off.
Mailman defected to the Lakers. Stockton retired. The Jazz made free-agent overtures to every good, young player on the market and came away 0-fer. Offer sheets to the Clippers' Corey Maggette and Atlanta's Jason Terry were matched. Attempts to sign Brad Miller away from Indiana only served to drive up the price of the contract Miller received from Sacramento.
So, naturally, Utah is 17-14 entering Friday's game in Memphis against the Grizzlies, another one of the NBA's first-half surprise packages.
"We haven't proven anything," Sloan said. "They can't get satisfied, and think, 'Well, we're only supposed to win 15 games.' I don't know how many we're supposed to win. I thought we'd make the playoffs. I know that sounds a little silly at times probably, but if you're going to go out there with the idea that you're going to lose, you're going to teach them how to lose. And I'm not in the business of teaching them how to lose."
Said Malone, still admiring his old team from afar: "I told everybody before the season that you were still going to have to play them (hard) because of Jerry."
But Karl, what about the fact that these guys are such no-names that a season-ending injury for some guy named Handlotion is seen as a major loss?
"That's probably working in their favor," Malone said.
It certainly helps that Sloan, in a way, has experienced similar circumstances, even if almost no one can remember where he was before Mail and Stock pick-and-rolled into his life.
"You've got to go back to 1966, when I went to an expansion team as a player and we were supposed to win 10 games," Sloan said of the '66 Chicago Bulls. "We made the playoffs. I've always believed you can win if the guys come and play hard every night."
It was a different league then, with only 10 teams, but those Bulls stand as the only expansion team in league history to make the playoffs.
It also helps that the few holdover players from the Stockton-to-Malone era learned a lot more about winning basketball, apparently by osmosis, than anyone imagined.
Harpring had a career year last season as a third wheel to the two legends, averaging nearly 18 points per game. Now in his sixth year, he's still scoring regularly without the starry help (16.2 points per game on 46.7-percent shooting) and sounding more like a little Jerry every day.
"We have the potential to be a good team," Harpring said. "When we play as a team, we're good. When we play as individuals, we're not very good. You can tell when we win games. When we beat good teams, everybody's touching the ball.
"It's tough to get young players with one-year deals to play together as a team, because a lot of people are trying to get that contract for next season. But you don't need big-name players to win in this league. I'd take 10 guys that go out there and bust their butt every night. I think we're kind of proving that."
Andrei Kirilenko, meanwhile, is threatening to earn a frontcourt spot on the West All-Star team, even though that's the toughest position for getting recognition in the power conference. Like Malone, but with a totally different style, the Russian is playing the four spot in a manner never seen before. Besides averaging a team-best 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds nightly, Kirilenko ranks as one of the league's top five defensive players -- if not higher -- as the league's No. 3 thief (2.16 steals per game) and No. 3 shot-blocker (2.9 blocks per game).
The rest of the roster is either underdeveloped or non-descript, with 11 players making less than $2 million in a league with an average salary of almost $5 million. Just try telling any of that to the coach, though. Sloan has eased up on the kiddies slightly, but isn't giving them nearly as much leeway as has been widely suggested. His ever-demanding push has the Jazz winning regularly even though Keon Clark and free-agent find Carlos Arroyo, two of the players counted on to replaced Malone and Stockton, have also missed significant time through injury.
"When we do things wrong, he stays on us, but he'll laugh and joke with us, too," said Jazz swingman DeShawn Stevenson. "He didn't do that the first three years I was here."
Asked if Sloan has really changed, Kirilenko countered: "Actually, no. Well, maybe a little bit. He's a little bit softer on the guys."
And Harpring: "He knows we've got a young team, so he's more patient. But he's still Jerry. All he's looking for is people who are going to play hard."
Yep. Still Jerry. Sloan has installed Dick Motta's motion-based offense with the two-guard front which Sloan played in with the Bulls. And Sloan still calls all the plays (a little-known fact is that Stockton actually preferred for his coach to make those calls in the halfcourt, even though Stock was obviously more than capable). Sloan also refuses to complain about anything other than his own players' effort when it dips. You won't catch Sloan, say, lamenting the fact that the Jazz have been famously unable to lure a marquee free agent to Salt Lake City, no matter how much salary-cap space is available to peddle.
For example: "We can't sit back and wait for a free agent to come in and make us twice as good. It's not a frustration at all. I understand the parameters I've always coached under."
The only thing that really bothers Sloan in his basketball life -- bothered is the better word, because he has let it go -- is the fact that he was never given the chance to coach Team USA in the Olympics. Not surprisingly, that's not a subject he's in a real rush to discuss.
Same goes for the Coach of the Year trophy that has eluded him for 15 seasons. "I never pay any attention to that anyway," Sloan said, "because I really don't care what people think about the coaching part of it."
If you ask me, it's a bit sad that it has taken until now for Sloan to be mentioned as a leading COY contender, given that he has the longest coaching tenure with one team in any of the four major pro sports. I relayed my disappointment to one longtime Sloan colleague, who promptly insisted that having a good team playing team ball is sufficiently satisfying for Jerry.
"Jerry and (longtime assistant Phil Johnson) never, ever think they're going to be out of (playoff contention)," the colleague said. "They have a pretty deep inner confidence. They don't need to walk around pounding their chest or bringing attention to themselves. Deep down, they believe they're going to win."
Which is why I resolve, as the calendar flips to '04, to never write the Jazz off ever again.
I know, I know. I've made that promise before. But this time I mean it.
At least until Sloan, now 61, retires.
"If you like coaching, what's the big deal for me in going somewhere else to coach?" Sloan said. "That's what a lot of people thought I should do, I guess. But this is still basketball here."
Year after year after year, it always is.
31mEthan Sherwood Strauss
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com