These days, the Jazz find themselves having to advertise that no matter what you hear, some tickets are really still available.
Karl Malone is on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated. They expect to win 50 games and even challenge for the NBA championship.Are we talking about the same Utah Jazz?
No kidding. The team that played to so many empty seats, came very close to moving more than once and always stayed home during the playoffs is really arriving in the 10th season in town. "This ballclub has matured, and they will be a legitimate contender all the way through the season," says Dallas Coach John MacLeod.
"I really believe we're one of the four best teams in the league," says Jazz owner Larry Miller.
Could they really win the NBA championship? Sure. They could also lose in the first round of the playoffs. That's the NBA of the late '80s, especially in a Western Conference where everybody looks better, and all that really counts is what you do in May and June.
The Jazz will be good, at least by their standards. Or can you picture Pat Riley guaranteeing the Lakers will win 50 games? The Jazz's Frank Layden, in a bold moment, did that last summer on a radio show. For argument's sake, the Jazz do have reasons to fade this season - two of their top eight players, Bobby Hansen and Mike Brown, open the season with injuries; their three best players, Malone, John Stockton and Thurl Bailey, are playing but still waiting for new contracts; some publications pick them as low as fourth in the Midwest Division; and they've yet to prove they can win consistently on the road.
On the way to their best record ever, the Jazz were 14-27 on the road last season - barely meeting the Layden standard for a .500 team. And that took winning the last four games, all against disinterested opponents. "That'll be the difference in wining the 50 games or not," notes Layden. "We have to face that pressure now."
And after a summer when addition by subtraction was the company slogan, the Jazz are short at a few positions to open the season. Among the 10 available players are three rookies and a second-year man, meaning that Friday night against Seattle in the Salt Palace, they'll look an awful lot like they did in the '88 playoffs, with Layden playing the regulars as long as possible. Unlike in exhibition games, the Purple Team (reserves, who wear purple jerseys in practice) will not play together.
"That's a big hole, to lose those two guys," president-general manager David Checketts says of Hansen and Brown. "Our team is not as deep as Detroit or Atlanta. An injury or two like that could really affect us."
A scheduling break will allow the big boys to play big minutes in November. With eight of the first 10 games at home, the Jazz have to play back-to-back games only once until Nov. 26.
Saying he already factored in injuries,
Layden is not backing off his claim of 50 to 55 wins. Having previously complained about their followers' - and the team owner's - expectations, the Jazz figure they can deliver this season. "If we didn't want the expectations," reasons Malone, "we should have lost every game."
On the chart of NBA point guards, Stockton is No. 2 with a bullet. Putting 6-foot-9 Magic Johnson in a special category, Stockton is the best traditional player at the position and will no doubt make his first All-Star Game appearance this season. Behind Stockton was a cast of many; the Jazz cut the three players who spent the summer and most of training camp with them and kept Jim Les, formerly of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, who had asked Milwaukee to cut him last month in hopes of finding another team. While Les played well in his preseason audition against the Lakers, how much dropoff the Jazz will have when they go from Stock to the former stock trader is a real issue.
After trying to solve overcrowding last season, the Jazz almost had to scramble at off guard this fall. Hansen broke his left hand and will be out until late November - fortunately for them, Darrell Griffith and Bart Kofoed recovered from their own injuries. For now, the Jazz will have to live with Griffith's inconsistency and without Hansen's defense; all considered, they'll just try to get by at this position. Bailey will even play guard occasionally, the way the Lakers use James Worthy.
Mark Eaton is Mark Eaton, which means the Jazz will have a lot of defense and little offense in the middle. Following a long line of disappoiting backups to Eaton, rookie Eric Leckner showed good signs in the preseason, but mostly against other rookies or journeymen. Brown could surface as the backup center, but complications with a thigh bruise will keep him out about two more weeks.
The one-two package of Malone and Bailey approaches the NBA's best. Layden is hedging about whether he'll bring Bailey off the bench again; Bailey did start every preseason game and is practicing with the first team this week. In any case, Marc Iavaroni will be the third forward in the rotation for now; later, Brown will play regular minutes at power forward while rookie Jose Ortiz could get some time with Brown out.