All Jazzed out
Utah's title quest ends with changes on horizon
Posted: Saturday May 29, 1999 06:52 PM
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- It has been four years since the Utah Jazz had such a long, cold summer ahead.
The Jazz cleaned out their lockers and said their goodbyes at the quiet Delta Center Friday, just hours after their season came to an end in Portland's Rose Garden. The Trail Blazers' 92-80 win knocked Utah out of the playoffs and pushed the aging team into an offseason of certain change.
"I know it won't be the same bunch coming back," said Bryon Russell, one of just five Jazz players under contract for next season. "When you take a step back like that, you have to change things."
Utah failed yet again in its Sisyphean quest for its first NBA title, but the Jazz admit this season's result, their earliest playoff exit since 1995, was the most disappointing yet.
The Chicago Bulls ended Utah's last two seasons in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. But with Michael Jordan in retirement, the spotlight seemed pointed at Karl Malone and John Stockton, the players who have waited longer than any in league history for their chance to lift that silver trophy.
With two straight Western Conference championships and a largely unchanged roster of veterans, Utah began the lockout-shortened season as a team most thought could win the first title of the post-Jordan era. For much of the regular season, Utah held the league's best record.
But starting April 20, when the Jazz had an 11-game winning streak snapped at home by the San Antonio Spurs, Utah's season began sliding downhill. The Jazz went just 5-5 in their last 10 regular season games as the Spurs matched their league-best 37-13 record and took away the West's top playoff seed.
The Jazz narrowly survived their first-round series with Sacramento, rallying from a 2-1 deficit and twice holding their breath as potential series-ending Kings shots missed. Utah's offense, once the model of consistency and poise, was frequently erratic in the postseason.
The Jazz were really no match for the younger, healthier and angrier Trail Blazers. Utah squeaked out a win in Game 1, but the Jazz were then beaten three straight times.
Utah recovered to win Game 5 convincingly. But on Thursday, the Jazz played another poor offensive game, and Malone -- the likely league Most Valuable Player -- capped his season with a 3-of-16 shooting performance. "I really think I pushed them as hard as I could push them," said coach Jerry Sloan, who his players say is almost certain to continue his run as the NBA's longest-tenured coach.
"Mentally and physically, you just can't continue to do this the same way and at the same intensity year in and year out."
With the season's end, speculation in Salt Lake City turns to the fates of Malone, Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, Utah's signature veteran trio with 436 games of playoff experience and no championship rings. All three become free agents this summer.
Malone and owner Larry Miller already have a handshake agreement for the Mailman to finish his career with the Jazz, but Malone has been known to change his mind. Malone, who is without a contract or an extension for the first time in his 14-year career, said he's "still not used to being a free agent, so I'm going to see what that's like for a little while."
The 37-year-old Stockton, the league's career leader in assists and steals, said Friday he intends to be back for a 16th season with Utah.
"It's a lot more fun when you're winning, but right now, I still feel pretty good," said Stockton, who still says he has no idea when he might be ready to retire. "Nobody feels as good as they did five years ago ... but I would hope to be back and try it another time."
Before the lockout shortened the regular season, Hornacek had planned to retire in 1999. Now, he is looking forward to another run.
"All of our guys will be back," Hornacek said. "Nobody wants to leave it like this."
"You'll probably see me somewhere else," said Foster, who went from the Jazz's starting center in last year's NBA Finals to the 11th man on the bench. "You never know what can happen, but you'll probably see a whole new Jazz team next year."
Utah's top priority is to re-sign Anderson, whose league profile rose rapidly during his stellar playoff performances. But he may be difficult to keep, particularly with Hornacek's decision to return.
It's obvious Anderson is ready for more playing time and responsibility, and the solution may be to give him minutes at both shooting guard and small forward, both of which he played equally well in the postseason.
"My first option is to come back here," Anderson said. "The most important thing to me is playing time. ... If I'm going to get enough minutes and have a chance to be productive, I'll be very happy here."
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