DALLAS - With 22 shopping days until the NBA trading deadline, Western Conference teams are in a feeding frenzy. Just look at the standings: Everybody's in the hunt - or in danger of missing the playoffs. Houston is second in the Midwest Division, one game behind the Jazz, and yet only four games ahead of Denver, which would miss the playoffs if they started today.
That's why the last three months of the season - and especially the next three weeks - will provide some very intriguing moments in NBA boardrooms. Everybody knows the Lakers are vulnerable, but not such an easy target that anybody can overtake them in the playoffs without making personnel moves this month.Or can the Jazz? Or Rockets? Or SuperSonics?
All of a sudden, this is looking like baseball in July. Everybody's looking for that one player who can make the difference in a pennant race and the postseason.
Jazz general manager David Checketts has fashioned a 26-16 team this season with two basic operating philosophies: never panic, and add by subtracting.
Checketts deserves credit for not making a rash move when Bobby Hansen was injured in the preseason; how did he know that Darrell Griffith would play the best basketball of his life in November? Otherwise, Checketts' record as a basketball man since taking the GM title in June 1987 shows him making one major deal and spending more than a year trying to correct that trade.
That's about all.
In August 1987, he dealt Kent Benson and Del Curry in a three-way trade, securing Darryl Dawkins and Mel Turpin. Maybe giving up Curry and Benson was no loss, but what did Dawkins and Turpin bring? Trouble. Checketts wisely bailed out with Dawkins, shipping him to Detroit after he'd played in only four games last season.
Ridding himself of Turpin, of course, was more challenging for Checketts. Creatively, he arranged to send him to Spain for the rights to his own drafted player, Jose Ortiz. The curious thing about the 14-month quest to sign Ortiz is that he reportedly had more trade value last June, while he was still unsigned and the next class was being drafted.
Acquiring Kelly Tripucka was not officially Checketts' doing, because Frank Layden was the reigning basketball man in those days. Checketts did send Tripucka to Charlotte in an expansion-draft tie-in with a very good intention: bringing in guard Jon Sundvold. Miami foiled that plan by selecting Sundvold, leaving the Jazz with the second choice of Mike Brown - and Brown's contribution is hard to evaluate, following his injuries this season.
So what's Checketts done? Well, he's made a happier, distraction-free team, with people like Jim Les and Jim Farmer on the bench. And the Jazz are miles ahead of where they were at the end of January 1988, when they were trying to climb out of an 18-22 hole and faced growing dissension rivaling that in Dallas these days.
Or did you hear the talk: Mark Aguirre for Adrian Dantley? What's that, addition by subtraction plus subtraction by addition? Anyway, that's not Checketts' worry this month. Finally, with the Jazz's personnel troubles of recent seasons behind him, he can add. He should add - somehow, some way.
The Jazz need one more player. Nobody earthshaking, nobody glamorous. Just one more player. A backup point guard, who could give them 15 minutes if John Stockton had foul trouble in a big playoff game, that's all.
Down deep, I figure Checketts still wants to address this question: Is Darrell Griffith or Bobby Hansen - or a Griffith/Hansen ticket - a championship-level player? For this season, though, Griffith and Hansen probably deserve this chance, to see if Griffith can hold up through the playoffs and if Hansen can salvage anything from a miserable year.
Maybe that position can wait, but a subtle player move is worth a try. This could be the Jazz's best chance to win the West. The way that young teams like Phoenix and Seattle have come on, the Jazz will be just another contender in future years. Right now, they're a logical favorite - they just need a little help.
Sure, everybody else is looking for just that one player too, so prices are high, the competition is tough and February deals are risky. Maybe we'll look back in June and nominate Checketts for NBA Executive of the Year, just because he stayed cool all season instead of making the wrong move.
That sounds a little funny, though. The need remains: one player. The NBA Finals are worth a try.