A dozen years after their last NBA Finals appearance, 31 years after they moved to town, the Utah Jazz are still no closer to bringing a world championship home to Utah.
On Monday night, for the third year in a row, they were shown the door by the L.A. Lakers and that gift that keeps on giving, Derek Fisher.
This is beginning to feel like "Groundhog Day."
Hey, Robinson, you're in the wrong department — sports is two sections over.
This time of year the Jazz are the drama that spills out of the sports page onto the Metro Page and sometimes even onto A1. Their quest for a championship is an ongoing made-for-TV saga that has been playing in Utah for nearly three decades and never provides a happy ending. Some seasons seem like reruns. It turns out that winning the Winter Olympic bid for Utah was easier than winning an NBA championship. Who do we pay off?
The question is, can the Jazz ever deliver a championship? A.D. couldn't do it. Darrell Griffith couldn't do it. Karl and John, the Hall of Fame duo, couldn't do it. Larry Miller couldn't do it. A new arena didn't do it. New uniforms didn't do it. Two NBA Finals appearances didn't do it.
Twenty-four times in 27 years the Jazz have gone to the playoffs, and 24 times they've come away empty-handed, although no one can complain that they didn't make it fun and suspenseful along the way.
But is it realistic to expect a small-market team, even one as well managed as the Jazz, to win a world championship?
In the 62-year history of the NBA, the Lakers and Celtics have won more than half the championships (32) all by themselves. That certainly increases the odds for other teams.
In the last 30 years, only eight teams have won the championship — the Los Angeles Lakers (9), San Antonio (4), Boston (4), Detroit (3), Chicago (6), Houston (2), Miami (1) and Philadelphia (1). That's 22 teams that have been denied a championship. Of those teams that won titles, only San Antonio qualifies as a small-market town, and its championship seasons required the miracle pairing of two athletic 7-footers.
"The odds are stacked against the Jazz" says Tom Nissalke, the longtime Jazz analyst and former NBA Coach of the Year. "You have to be very fortunate to win it all. It takes luck, judicious management and stable coaching."
The Jazz have had all of the above except luck. They reached their peak years in the '90s at the same time as the greatest player of all reached the height of his powers. More than in any other sport, one player can transform a team and Michael Jordan was proof of that. The Bulls won three in a row with Jordan, then went three years without a title while Jordan played baseball, then won three more when he returned. Nissalke believes there were seasons when Jordan could have won championships with as many as 26 teams.
"You've got to have that one guy who stands out above everybody else, because one player can make a difference," says Nissalke.
Small-market teams have difficulty attracting free agent stars while the Lakers seem to have them fall in their laps. The Jazz have to overpay to sign quality free agents — to wit: Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur.
Then there's the draft. The great irony is that the Jazz have been such consistent winners the last three decades that it actually hurt their effort to improve since teams with poor records are awarded the high draft picks.
But take heart, Jazz fans. If not for a Jordan steal and a last-second shot in Game 6 of the '98 Finals, the Jazz might have won it all in '98. If they came that close once, there's no reason to think they can't win it all someday, small market team or not. It's just that the margin for error is much smaller than for other teams. They can't make many mistakes with free-agent signings and draft picks, and they can't afford injuries like the ones that sidelined Kirilenko and Okur this year.
"I actually felt the Jazz players were as good as any team in the league when they were healthy," says Nissalke.
Reason to come back for next year's continuing story.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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