There are several teams in the Western Conference that seriously improved themselves during the off-season, but none enough to change the Mailman's plans.

The Jazz opened training camp Friday, after an hour-long media day, which provided more than enough time for Karl Malone to make his predictions for 1990-91: "I think this is going to be our year," said Malone. "I'm looking forward to it."Of course, on Oct. 5 everyone is looking forward. The specter of the Phoenix Suns squeezing them out of the playoffs before their time is now ancient history. This year when the teams meet (Nov. 2-3 in Tokyo), the Jazz should be considerably better, now that they are equipped with several types of attacks.

"We've got a lot of options. How we do just depends on us," said Malone. "If we just go out and play, we'll be fine."

It should be an especially promising year for Malone. Besides his own improvement, he now has the help of teammate Jeff Malone, who was acquired in the off-season, to help take the pressure off the inside. Presumably, that will prevent the double- and triple-teaming Karl Malone has had to put up with. "That's the game plan," he said. "I just hope it works, that's all."

The optimism wasn't limited to Malone, however. Second-year Jazzman Mike Brown, getting in the mood of the season, proclaimed, "A lot of energy is around here."

---

Backup point guard Delaney Rudd was the only player missing from Friday's first practice. Rudd broke his nose on Wednesday in a misunderstanding with Brett Vroman's elbow.

Trainer Don Sparks said Rudd will miss at least a week of practice. After the swelling goes down, they will perform surgery and then fit him with a protective brace. He is expected to be fully ready for the season-opener on Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, Rudd is also rehabilitating a knee that was operated on during the off-season. Sparks said he had originally planned to have Rudd just work out during the morning sessions of camp until he got the leg back in full shape.

---

With the first game only 28 days and a 14-hour plane flight away, players are beginning to considering the ramifications of the grueling trip to Tokyo.

While Coach Jerry Sloan says "I don't care where we play the game, this is the NBA," the players are the ones who will have to play the game under the effects of jet lag. Although nobody's complaining, nobody's considering it a vacation, either.

"It could be a grind," observed center Mark Eaton, "but Phoenix has to go through the same thing. It's tough, no question . . . but we're going there."

---

Another who stands to benefit considerably from the arrival of Jeff Malone is guardmate John Stockton. While saying he will miss the contributions of Eric Leckner and Bobby Hansen, Stockton said he is "elated" about the addition of Malone.

"I've played against him for six years and he's never had a bad game against us - ever."

Concerning the new versatility the Jazz have - they can now interchange big or small lineups in various combinations - Stockton said, "Versatility is really the difference between the good and the average teams."