SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly 2,500 regular-season games and 72 playoff matchups, the NBA's 2014 Final Four is finally set.
And, just as many people predicted months ago, back before the 2013-14 season even started, the last four teams still standing are (drum roll here) ... Miami and Indiana in the East, and San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West (clash of cymbals here).
All right, let's face it, unless you're a Heat, Pacers, Spurs or Thunder fan, it's almost a letdown. I mean, really, they played all those games just to whittle it down to the last four teams that we thought were gonna be there all along?
OK, so maybe it wasn't quite as predictable as a Republican getting elected in Utah or Clippers owner Donald Sterling opening his big mouth and sticking both feet in it.
But when it comes right down to it, there are no real surprises there.
Some might say that such predictability is a bad thing, but it really depends upon what perspective you're looking at it from.
See, for a couple of decades beginning back in the early 1980s and stretching into the early part of this century, the Utah Jazz were pretty darned predictable — and that was a good thing. Indeed, for Jazz fans, it was a very good thing.
From 1984 through 2003, the Jazz made the NBA playoffs every year — every year!
With the arrival and ascension of John Stockton and Karl Malone, they not only reached the NBA Finals twice, but they also advanced as far the Western Conference finals a total of five times in a seven-season span from 1992-98. And they got as far as the conference semifinals — which meant winning at least a first-round postseason series — 11 times in 20 years.
Ah, yes, the good ol' days, filled with glory and hope.
No wonder they built statues to honor those two legendary Jazz players outside EnergySolutions Arena. Perhaps a third statue of longtime coach Jerry Sloan, shouting instructions to his team (or cussing a blue streak at a ref), should be added to that impressive bronze collection on the ESA veranda.
Sure, they didn't win an NBA championship, and we can commiserate about that all we want. But for two decades, at least, they were a factor, a contender, a team to be reckoned with, every single season.
I remember watching the closing seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, after Michael Jordan had stolen the ball, pushed away Bryon Russell and hit the huge shot that would give the Bulls their sixth title in eight years, and the fan in me had this sinking feeling as I thought ... the Jazz may never get this close to winning a championship again.
Sadly, it seems, 16 years later, I was right.
Since 2003, when Stockton retired and Malone left to chase a championship ring in Los Angeles, the Jazz have made the playoffs five times, reached the conference finals once, and advanced beyond the first round only twice in 11 years.
Now they've hit rock bottom. Yes, I believe a 25-57 season certainly qualifies as rock bottom for this proud franchise.
And the next few weeks may be the most critical time in the history of the organization.
First comes the NBA draft lottery, wherein the Jazz and all the other teams that endured the league's most dreadful 2013-14 seasons will find out their pecking order for this year's draft.
Then comes the draft itself in late June, when the Jazz will have a top-seven pick — and possibly even a No. 1, 2 or 3 selection — to add to their current crop of young yet promising players.
Thus, they'll have a legitimate chance, if they can strike gold the way they did back in the early 1980s when Stockton and Malone were selected, to possibly bring another cornerstone piece to build around.
Sometime between now and then, though, general manager Dennis Lindsey has a couple of potential make-or-break decisions: Who will become the new head coach of this team, and how much are they willing to pay to keep swingman Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent, in Utah?
The list of coaching candidates includes everybody from recently fired Golden State coach Mark Jackson to Stockton himself. The number of potential suitors for Hayward's services, and the amount they're willing to pay him, won't be known until July.
Whether the Jazz will match that offer and keep Hayward here remains to be seen, perhaps based partly on who they get in the June 26 draft.
Indeed, during the next couple of months, there are so many critical decisions that will go such a long way to determining the future of this franchise.
Lindsey certainly has a shrewd plan in place, a high-risk/high-reward scheme that is willing to sacrifice the present for the sake of a strong and secure long-term future.
Now they've gotta take a deep breath and pull the trigger on a critical coaching hire, a potential difference-making lottery pick, and the dicey dilemma of deciding Hayward's future with the team.
And if they can step up to the plate and hit a home run on all three of those difficult decisions, maybe, just maybe, the good ol' days of glory and hope will find their way back to Utah sometime in the forseeable future.
Yes, the summer of 2014 is so crucial to this team and holds the key to future success — or failure.
Happy days are here again? Well, let's hope so — but that still remains to be seen.
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