Responding to a caller's question about his coaching future while speaking Sunday night on KSL-TV Ch. 5, Jerry Sloan dropped this little nugget: "Maybe he doesn't want me back, or something like that."

"He" would be Larry H. Miller, owner of the Jazz.

Yet "he" has no idea what would possibly prompt Sloan to even wonder about not being wanted back.

"I don't know what it would be," Miller said before the Jazz beat Houston on Monday night at the Delta Center. "I was watching, too. And I kind of went . . . 'Wonder what made him say that?'

"In fact," Miller added, "I've done just the opposite with him, where I've reassured him that everything, as far as I'm concerned, in the relationship is still intact."

The decision on whether or not to return, Miller said, belongs to Sloan, who has two years remaining on his current contract.

"I've told him it's got to be his call," Miller said, "but he should not do it out of a sense of obligation to the team or to me or anything else. (Only if) he wants to be here."

It sure seems he does.

Sloan said later Monday that it was "just a comment."

"I think you always have to be aware of that, so you're not shocked," he said. "That's just part of this business."

But, Sloan added, "everything's fine . . . there's not any reason at this point" to think otherwise.

With just five more regular-season games remaining for Utah, the Jazz coach actually seems more enthused about what's ahead than he was at the end of any recent season.

"Last season we were really not very good," Sloan said. "But these guys have tried to hang in there all year long, despite the fact we haven't had everybody healthy.

"I think this team can be a better team. Last year, I didn't know where we were going to go," added Sloan, who in his 18th season is tenured with the same team longer than any other coach or manager in America's four major professional sports leagues. "I just look at the whole picture and say they can be a good basketball team if some things fall into place."

Even with the Jazz's playoff hopes ever so slim, Miller also remains enthusiastic about his franchise's future — and Sloan's place in it.

"He's solid," said Miller, who about a month ago met personally with Sloan — at the coach's request — during a particularly rough period in the Jazz's season.

"I feel really good since the (mid-February) All-Star break," the Jazz owner added before Utah won for the sixth time in its last eight games, "because, to me, at least we know what we can do with the starting five. . . . One of my questions was has he (Sloan) somehow lost touch with the athletes? And I think (with) what's happened since the All-Star break, particularly — and that kind of coincides with (rookie point guard) Deron (Williams) starting — I feel really good right now about what Jerry's doing."

Sloan, in turn, feels good about the starting lineup he's been able to use — Williams, Andrei Kirilenko at shooting guard, Matt Harpring at small forward, Mehmet Okur at power forward and Carlos Boozer at center — since shortly after Boozer returned from injuries that caused him to miss last season's final 31 games and the first 49 of this season.

Though Harpring will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, the Jazz seem quite high on the notion of trying to keep that group together for the 2006-07 season.

In fact, it seems only the disintegration of that core — beyond the potential loss of Harpring — would prompt Sloan to even consider not returning for season No. 19 as head coach of the Jazz.

"You don't know who comes back, and who wants to be here," he said. "If players don't come back, and they want to be traded and you have all that mess to go through, that could change a lot of things.

"(But) I'm looking at these guys out there on the floor play," Sloan added, "and for the first time this year since we got Boozer back I can have a mismatch on the floor. I never had that since Karl Malone and John Stockton left."