When the Jazz open training camp today in Boise, one key player will be absent due to his child's illness. But that's only one of several issues facing the team. For instance, the situation at shooting guard remains unresolved. So are the circumstances surrounding Andrei Kirilenko, who is clearly unhappy with his role. There is still no practical low-post center, though it's debatable whether the Jazz even want one these days.

Wait a minute — isn't this where we left off?

Four months have passed and there are still many questions, most of which are the same as before. And maybe a few others, such as: Will A.K. actually show up? Is this the year someone finally tells him the Mohawk isn't in style? If he didn't use his wife's annual one-night pardon last season, does he get two this year? Will Andrei finally get his groove back?

And finally, did the Jazz actually get better over the summer?

This and more, beginning today.

The situation isn't identical to last spring, but close. Gone is guard Derek Fisher, whose daughter continues to battle a rare form of eye cancer. This year the missing player is forward Carlos Boozer, whose son is recovering from a bone-marrow transplant. Boozer's return date has not been determined.

As for basketball, there actually are several new faces. But regarding the key question — did the Jazz get better? — the best they can offer is this: They'd like to think so.

Which for them is encouraging. After all, they weren't half bad last season.

Back are the key components to a team that went to the Western Conference finals. But the old problems — lack of overall speed, perimeter shooting and perimeter defense — are still apparent. Yet to make wholesale changes wouldn't make sense. The Jazz wantedfine-tuning, not demolition work. They did try to improve, going after Morris Peterson, who ended up in New Orleans, and making inquiries about Phoenix's Shawn Marion. They drafted Morris Almond, a sweet-shooting 2-guard who could be the answer to that quandary, though probably not immediately. They also beefed up at point guard, adding backup Jason Hart from San Antonio and Ronnie Price from Sacramento.

In the draft they acquired 21-year-old, 7-foot man-child Kyrylo Fesenko from Ukraine, who is likely a few years away from being useful.

They let backup guard Dee Brown and backup center Rafael Araujo go and allowed Fisher to escape his contract in order to play where he felt his daughter could better be treated (L.A.).

Add all that up and what does it mean? They got better. Maybe.


Even if they didn't get better, they probably didn't get worse.

Kirilenko was so unpredictable last year, they learned not to rely on him; that will apply this year, too. Anything he contributes is a gift.

Perhaps a bigger question is how much better the competition became. Answer: Not much. In the Northwest Division, Denver stayed essentially the same. Portland added a half-dozen players and subtracted as many. But the Blazers' biggest addition, No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden, is out for the season after knee surgery.

Minnesota took on a whopping eight players and subtracted All-Star Kevin Garnett. Don't look to the Timberwolves to make much difference.

The Jazz's biggest divisional worry could be Seattle, which drafted rookie Kevin Durant and picked up veterans Kurt Thomas, Wally Szcerbiak and Delonte West. That's a decent group, though the Sonics had to unload Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen to do it.

Meanwhile, the conference's best teams, the Spurs, Suns and Mavericks, remained much the same, which is to say still better than the Jazz. So although fans can expect the Jazz to make the playoffs again, it wouldn't be wise to look much further. Until Tim Duncan gets old, Steve Nash gets bored or Dirk Nowitzki gets traded, the best teams in the West are still the best.

What's that saying? The more — or is it less? — things change, the more they stay the same.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com