- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Finally. At long last, after years of trying, someone has identified and confirmed an achievement that the Utah Jazz will never, ever realize.
"I don't think we can move Salt Lake any closer to L.A.," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor concedes.
Of course, then comes an important realization.
The Jazz don't need to. Not to lure free agents or for any other reason.
Utah is doing rather nicely in Salt Lake City, where it took just a couple of summers and one scrappy season to eradicate a fear that nagged the Jazz for years: How will we ever recover when Karl Malone and John Stockton leave?
Turns out that nothing stops this Jazz, as Delta Center PA man Dan Roberts calls the squad. Nothing. Nada. Not Hall of Famers leaving in twos, not personal hardship and not injuries. Not the know-it-alls who predicted an eight-win season last year. Not the year-after-year notion that no one wants to play in the SLC. Not the refs who are calling the games tighter.
Folks feel so guilty about doubting the Jazz last season, when they won 34 games more than some pundits projected, that the answer is usually in the 50s when someone asks today: How many games will this Jazz win?
O'Connor even gets questions now like this doozy, on the eve of Saturday's Pistons at Jazz matchup: Is Utah the next Detroit?
You know. A superstar-free, defense-first ensemble cast.
"Who wouldn't look at what they've done?" O'Connor said. "You would be silly not to look at what Detroit has done and the kind of team Joe [Dumars] has built," O'Connor said. "But, to be honest, two years ago this was kind of our game plan."
The game plan, post Stockton-to-Malone, was to aggressively target team-first youngsters who looked like they could play the Jerry Sloan way. In its first-ever summer with major salary-cap space, Utah signed Corey Maggette and Jason Terry to offer sheets, only for both to be retained by the Clippers and Atlanta, respectively. Yet in retrospect, you score that as a double-blessing for the Jazz, who went 42-40 despite losing Matt Harpring early and without any marquee additions -- in a breakout that should have earned Sloan his first Coach of the Year award -- and still had the resources this past summer to sign two better fits to offer sheets: Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. The offers were so rich that Cleveland and Detroit couldn't match them, enabling the Jazz to hush the media pests who said they'd never be a factor on the open market.
With Sloan, 62, committed to extending the longest coaching tenure in major American sports to a 17th season -- not at all easy for him after his wife, Bobbye, passed away in June after a bout with pancreatic cancer -- it appears Utah will be launching a new playoff streak this spring. Boozer and Okur join the do-everything Andrei Kirilenko and sparkplug Harpring to form a promising frontcourt unit with no one older than 28.
The pieces around them aren't bad, either. Gordan Giricek is the perimeter specialist, Raja Bell is another rugged defender and Stock has been succeeded by a committee of point guards: Carlos Arroyo, surprising newcomer Keith McLeod and the newly re-signed Howard Eisley. Later in the season, Utah also expects to see something from rehabbing point guard Raul Lopez and its two rookies, Kris Humphries and Kirk Snyder.
"I can tell you this -- we'll get a little bit more respect than last year," Arroyo said. "Definitely.
"My teammates will tell you that last year, we used to walk into gyms and teams would look at us like, 'It's going to be easy tonight.'"
Not any more. Actually, that probably didn't happen much after Christmas last season. In the face of those Worst Team Ever projections, Utah was a stunning 9-6 entering December.
At 4-1 in the new season, a start achieved without the injured Arroyo or Lopez, the new challenge facing O'Connor and especially Sloan is keeping Utah hungry and humble. No longer are the Jazz seen as plucky or surprising. These guys are certifiable darlings, starting with Kirilenko and his apparent campaign to be the best shot-blocking small forward ever seen.
"One of the things I'm concerned with is that we missed out on the playoffs by one game and then made a couple nice additions to our team, but people seem to think you can just go from winning 42 games to winning 52 games," O'Connor said. "I think it's going to be tougher than people think for us.
"Our biggest consideration is not where we are after five games, but where we're going to be next year and the year after that."
Deep down, though, O'Connor can't be seriously worried, knowing the hold Sloan has over his players and the fear he still instills in them. "We think we've got the best coach in the game," O'Connor said.
And together they've got a team racking up the wins and admirers, no matter how hard they try to temper expectations.
"Utah is deep, tough and unselfish, and that's going to carry them a long way," said Pistons architect Joe Dumars. "I really like that team."
You'd be silly not to.
LINE ITEMS ...
The most impressive aspect of Utah's start, from here, is how the Jazz are still playing withering defense even though referees have been instructed to call touch fouls in an attempt to limit hand and forearm contact and thereby boost offenses. The Jazz led the league in personal fouls by a long way last season, totaling 2,026 for a per-game average of 24.7. Nineteen of last season's 29 teams accumulated fewer than 1,800 fouls. Before Wednesday's home loss to Toronto, Utah won its first four games by an average score of 104-83. . . .
Put Orlando rookie Dwight Howard in the same breath with Maurice Stokes, Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Wes Unseld and Mychal Thompson. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, those are the only other forwards in the past 50 years to grab at least 10 rebounds in each of their first five NBA games -- although, yes, I personally consider Unseld and Thompson to be centers more than forwards. . . .
Golden State coach Mike Montgomery, fresh off a 30-2 season at Stanford, is facing the possibility of an 0-8 start in the NBA unless the Warriors can win one of their next three road games at Memphis, Charlotte (Game 2 of a back-to-back) and Cleveland. "I don't like losing, but were in this together," Montgomery said. "We've got a young team that I have to try to help get better. If they stay with it and stay with me, (and we) defend like we did (Monday in Dallas), we will win some games. I knew coming in that if we lose 40 games, it's been a heck of an effort from where we have been. And that's a lot of games to lose." Yes, indeed: It struck me, too, as a bit early for a "stay with me" request. . . .
Can't tell you when they'll finally win a game, but we can tell you this: Warriors owner Chris Cohan didn't order Chris Mullin to hire Montgomery. The Warriors, in fact, insist that Montgomery and Cohan passed each other in a hotel lobby without stopping on the day of Montgomery's introductory news conference because they had never met before. Besides, I highly doubt Mullin would agree to take over the GM duties if he didn't have the freedom to choose his coach. . . .
Doesn't really matter if Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady are ailing Saturday night. Doesn't even matter if they both have to sit out. Lakers at Rockets means Rudy Tomjanovich is returning to Houston for the first time as a visitor, which guarantees us a spectacle. . . .
Ignore the six points, five rebounds and four fouls Erick Dampier totaled in his first Dallas vs. Miami showdown with Shaquille O'Neal. Forget Dampier's modest averages of 8.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks through six games as a Mav. So says Memphis' Bonzi Wells, who took an active role in trying to recruit Dampier to the Grizzlies in the off-season and who believes it's Dampier's presence that has keyed a Dallas defense allowing just 93.7 points per game so far. "I called Damp all summer," Wells said. "He wanted to come (to Memphis), but he's in a better situation than we probably could have put him in. I'm really happy for Damp, because he's the real reason they can do a lot of denying on the wings. He's holding down that middle to perfection." . . .
As for the Grizzlies' 1-4 struggles, Wells says guys like me were wrong to surmise that Memphis' continuity -- bringing back virtually the same team it had last season -- would be an early advantage after so many other teams made changes. "Everybody made their team better in the off-season," he said. "We tried to do the best we could to make our team better, and we got Brian Cardinal, but we didn't have as much movement as everybody else." Wells also estimates that the Grizz had "maybe one day of training camp where everybody could practice" because of various injury issues. And there's more. "People know what we're going to run," Wells said. "They know our plays. They know everything that we want to look for. We've got to try to go to the second or third option and try to throw teams off. We were the best-kept secret in the NBA (last season), but not any more. Everybody has scouted us. Everybody knows what we want to do on the offensive end, and they're stopping it." Memphis is only the fifth team in league history to start 0-4 after a 50-win season.
59mMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne
7mESPN Stats & Information