After the most aggressive offseason in its history, the Utah Jazz come into the 1990-91 National Basketball Association season on a higher note than ever before. Ever since the 1989-90 campaign ended at the buzzer of the final playoff game against Phoenix, when Kevin Johnson's jump shot sent the Suns west to Los Angeles and sent the Jazz to summer vacation, progressive moves have been going on.Most significant of the offseason's developments were:
- Groundbreaking for a new arena.
- A major trade that brought all-star guard Jeff Malone to Utah.
- And healthy pay raises for the franchise's marquee players, Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Together, these moves served notice that the Jazz are committed in full to the decade of the '90s as well as to the season at hand.
The new area, a 22,000-seat (19,500 for basketball), $66-million multi-purpose facility located just west of the present Salt Palace, is scheduled to be ready for the 1991-92 season, meaning this will be the Jazz's last season in Arco Arena. Team owner Larry Miller held an announcement ceremony in May, only a matter of days after the end of the season to announce the beginning of construction. The ceremony was held at the building site as bulldozers were already in place to begin earth-moving the next day.
Not long after that, in mid-June, the Jazz were holding another announcement ceremony, this one in a VIP room in the Salt Lake Airport. The featured guest was Jeff Malone, who flew to Salt Lake City only hours after learning that the Jazz had traded for his rights. The 6-foot-4 veteran guard came to Utah via a three-way trade involving the Sacramento Kings. Washington Bullets and the Jazz. The Jazz sent backup forward/center Eric Leckner and starting guard Bobby Hansen to the Kings, who sent Pervis Ellison to the Bullets, who sent Malone to Utah.
A two-time All-Star with a career scoring average of 20.2 points a game, Malone is seen as the shooting guard the Jazz have been searching for; an outside scoring complement to the other Malone whose forte is scoring inside. Malone will team at the shooting guard position along with veteran Darrell Griffith, who returns for his 10th Jazz season.
To compensate for the loss of Leckner, the Jazz retaliated in the June NBA Draft by selecting 7-foot-2 Walter Palmer from Dartmouth. Palmer is projected to play at either center or forward, similar to Leckner. By the end of the summer the Jazz had officially signed Palmer and indicated he would be looked at as a longterm project to backup incumbent center Mark Eaton.
While adding new players was a big part of the summer, so was cementing ties with the veterans. First, Griffith, who could have been a free agent, was signed to a two-year contract extension before he cleaned out his locker and headed home to Louisville for the offseason. Then, just before the opening of fall training camp, the contracts of Karl Malone and Stockton were adjusted to reflect healthy raises.
Malone's 10-year, $18-million contract was changed to eight years, $26 million and Stockton's eight-year, $10-million contract was changed to six years, $14 million.
In both cases, the players will play less and get paid more.
The deals were initiated by Miller, who reasoned that new TV revenues and NBA-mandated salary ceilings meant sizeable raises to the franchise's perennial All-Stars were economically necessary.
Before handing out the raises, Miller met with both Malone and Stockton to discuss the franchise's philosophy.
"I wanted to talk to them to see how they feel about playing for Utah, about living in Utah, and how serious they are about winning a championship, not just be well-paid for the next several years," said Miller. "I'm confident they feel the same way I do."
"Once we have a new place for the team to play," the owner continued, "then we need to keep the team healthy. We need to do everything to be a contender. If we make sure we protect our prime assets, we're on the right track."
In addition to the new re-done deals for Karl Malone and Stockton, Miller indicated the Jazz will make every effort to strike new contracts with Jeff Malone and backup center/forward Mike Brown, both of whom are on the final year of their contracts.
The contractual atmosphere - as well as the new arena - should leave the Jazz with no outside distractions to worry about for the next couple of seasons, at least. Concentrating on winning the league title will be front and center.
Whether the Jazz's 1990-91 season will turn out to be historic at the finish - with an NBA title - the beginning is already assured of historic status. The Jazz will play the first two games of the regular season against the Phoenix Suns in Tokyo. The games will be the first regular season games played by American sports teams away from home soil.
After the Japan road trip, the franchise will get down to the business of winding up its era in the Salt Palace - and moving full speed into the 1990s.