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1.Utah
2.Houston
3.San Antonio
4.Minnesota
5.Denver
6.Dallas
7.Vancouver

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  Jazz
 
Early on a hot Sunday morning in late July, Denver coach Bill Hanzlik wandered into a health club not far from Salt Lake City's Delta Center. Training camp was more than two months away, yet there was Jazz forward Karl Malone, the 1996-97 NBA MVP, working out like a rookie trying to make his first roster. Hanzlik went back to his hotel, grabbed four Nuggets rookies who were in town playing in a summer league and escorted them to the gym so that they could see the kind of dedication required to succeed in the NBA.

No, there will be no coasting for Malone following his team's first trip to the NBA Finals. In fact, because he didn't play like the league MVP in last season's championship series against the Bulls, Malone was expected to come to camp in the best shape of his career (he always reports in phenomenal condition) and with revenge on his mind. He and point guard John Stockton, Utah's best player in the playoffs last season, are 34 and 35 years old, respectively, but they have at least one big season left. That alone makes the Jazz the team to beat in the Midwest.

"The experience of getting to the Finals, especially for our young players, was huge," says Scott Layden, Utah's vice president of basketball operations. It was so huge, in fact, that the Jazz kept its roster virtually intact over the off-season (the team held on to its first 11 players). By the end of the summer 12 players had guaranteed contracts, including the team's first-round draft pick, point guard Jacque Vaughn from Kansas. Guaranteed contracts won't make this a complacent team, however. With Malone, Stockton and shooting guard Jeff Hornacek, as well as hard-driving coach Jerry Sloan, there will be no psychological letdown in Utah.

"There are a lot of excellent teams out there, and if we're not careful, we could fall out of this in a real hurry," says Sloan. "But if we can stay healthy in the season and develop some rhythm going into the playoffs, we'll be fine."

It will take the Jazz a bit longer than Sloan had hoped to develop that rhythm. On October 13, Stockton underwent arthroscopic surgery to his left knee to repair what the team called significant damage to the cartilage. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks, ending a string of more than seven seasons in which Stockton hadn't missed a game.

With Stockton out, the Jazz will have to hope that Howard Eisley can carry the load. In last season's playoff run, Eisley provided Utah with some needed scoring off the bench, but Eisley is a pale imitation of Stockton. In three previous seasons, he has never averaged more than 4.5 points per game or more than 2.4 assists. Eisley and Utah's first-round draft pick Jacque Vaughn had been expected to share back-up duty, but now Vaughn will see some substantial minutes. Vaughn, who says that Stockton is his idol, is smart and always prepared, so much so that he sets three alarm clocks every night (one with a battery backup). But it remains to be seen whether Vaughn has the shooting range to be a scoring threat in the NBA.

The Jazz won't win as many games as it did last season (64)—not with the injury to Stockton and the return of a healthy David Robinson to the Spurs—but all that experience its young players gained last season will make the team better. One of the budding stars is forward Bryon Russell, who averaged 10.8 points per game during the regular season but 12.3 in the playoffs. In the Finals he was deadly from three-point range (9 for 19) and played tough defense (he guarded Michael Jordan and didn't get completely destroyed). In the off-season Utah rewarded Russell with a five-year, $20 million contract.

Then there's 7'2" center Greg Ostertag, who improved markedly last season, his second in the league. He played well in the conference finals, too, holding his own against Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon. "I want to be a respected player, like a Michael Jordan, Karl Malone or Charles Barkley," says Ostertag, who has shown flashes of deserving such respect.

Before Stockton's injury, it appeared that the Jazz would have served itself better by drafting a reserve power forward instead of a reserve point guard. But the maniacal Malone probably won't need any rest anyway and now their decision looks pretty good. The only questions about the Mailman are how he will react to having won the MVP and to having turned in a relatively poor performance in the Finals. After learning before the Western Conference finals that he had won the award, Malone tried too hard, shooting 43.5% from the field (compared with 54.7% before he knew he had been named MVP). In the Finals he averaged 23.8 points per game, 3.6 under his regular-season average. Of course, Malone may simply turn such drop-offs into incentives to have another tremendous season—no one would expect anything less from the man who was named an honorary member of the Avikan Witanuche Ute Indian tribe over the summer and given the name Kwiagat Muikway, which means "the Bear Who Leads with Dignity."

The Utes gave the Jazz organization a name too: Kava Wuni, which translates as "the Mountains Rise Up." Though the first month will be rough, the team will certainly rise again in '97-98. The only question is how high.

—Tim Kurkjian