Yesterday, as the Utah Jazz boarded their flight to Phoenix at the Salt Lake airport, Jazz forward Jeff Malone walked past the conference room where he was welcomed on arrival last summer.
Malone's entrance to Salt Lake in late June was not low key. The Jazz, who had just traded away Bobby Hansen and Eric Leckner to get the rights to their latest Malone, didn't even let him take the down escalator and claim his luggage before they paraded him into a room full of fans and media and presented him with his new purple-gold-and-green jersey. Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach, stood up and said a few words that, roughly condensed, said, "It's about time."Malone was to be the club's missing link, the long sought-after shooting guard with enough offense to take the pressure off Karl Malone, the Jazz's main inside man. It isn't every day you sign a two-time All-Star (1986 and 1987 with Washington), and a 20.2 career scorer. It isn't every day you finish your jigsaw puzzle.
Malone was as happy as the Jazz. He said he was glad to be away from the Washington Bullets, a team that had lately treated the playoffs like a trip to the dentist. He said he looked forward to playing with a club that he felt was one of the six or seven teams in the NBA with a legitimate shot at the title.
He said he thought he could help this team.
Yesterday, as he and the Jazz headed off to Phoenix to begin their five-game first-round playoff series with the Suns, Malone reflected on his thoughts then and how they compare to his thoughts now.
"I do think I've helped this team," he said. "I've been very happy here all year, and I still think this team can win it all. I'm not saying we don't have a long road ahead of us. I'm not saying I don't wish we had the homecourt advantage (against Phoenix). And I'm not saying one player is going to make the difference. But I think we proved during the regular season this is a different ball club."
Year-end statistics show that Jeff Malone did indeed make the Jazz a two-Malone team. His 18.6 scoring average - while below his 20.2 career norm and well below the 24.3 he averaged a year ago with the Bullets - was second highest on the Jazz, behind Karl Malone's 29.0. He shot .508 from the field and .917 from the line (which was second best in the NBA), averaged three rebounds and 1.7 assists and35.7 minutes a game.
When compared alongside the combined statistics of Hansen and Leckner last year, the numbers generally favor Malone. Hansen/Leckner played 35.8 minutes a game, averaged two assists, 5.1 rebounds, 11.9 points and shot .494 and .659 from the field and line, respectively. They also committed 4.3 personal fouls per game compared to 1.6 for Malone.
On a team-wide basis, however, the statistics are mainly on the side of last year's team. The 1989-90 season saw one more win (55-54), a slightly better field goal percentage (.505 to .492), a slightly higher opponents field goal percentage allowed (.459 to .455), a slightly better rebound average (42.1 per game to 40.7) and a slightly better points-per-game average (106.8 to 104). This year's team did better at free throws (.789 to .754) and had less turnovers (15.9 to 17.2).
If the above figures mean the jury is still out on the Malone-for-Hansen/Leckner trade, the playoffs could be the deciding factor.
No one had any arguments with last year's regular season, the best in Jazz franchise history. It was only in the postseason that the load on Karl Malone's shoulders became glaringly obvious. He was double- and triple-teamed and scored six points below his scoring average and one rebound below his rebounding average as it dawned on the Suns that the way to stop the Jazz was to block the boulevard between John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Another All-Star scoring target for Stockton was - and is - seen as the perfect playoff antidote.
A year later, and the proof will be in how well and how far the Jazz - starting out against that same Phoenix franchise - now travel on the back of not one Malone, but two.
"I know people are looking at me, and how I'll do," says Jeff Malone. "But I don't think anyone's saying that just because we made the trade we're supposed to win. I don't feel any added pressure. I want to win. That's why I came here. I'm looking forward to see what we can do in the playoffs."