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Say This about the Jazz: This is a franchise that's set in its ways. While most of the league's teams were frantically making themselves over in the last couple of weeks, Utah's biggest move was bringing in 37-year-old Thurl Bailey, who spent the last four years playing in Greece and Italy after 8½ seasons with the Jazz. Even Utah's biggest addition is a familiar face.
"We were very fortunate in this crazy year to have so many players  under contract," says vice president of basketball operations Scott Layden. "It wasn't part of any master design. It was just good timing."
Time, however, is something that's not on Utah's side. While up-and-coming Western Conference powers such as the Lakers and the Spurs are a year better, the Jazz, having failed to complement their aging core, are merely a year older.
The Jazz did make a run at free-agent forward La Phonso Ellis, who opted to sign with Atlanta for two years and $3.75 million. While waiting for Ellis to make his decision, the Jazz lost an opportunity to re-sign Antoine Carr or fellow free-agent forward Johnny Newman. "It's disappointing, because we put all our eggs in one basket," owner Larry Miller says. Similarly unsuccessful was Karl Malone's secondhand overture to free agent Buck Williams, which didn't reach the Knicks power forward until after he had announced his retirement.
After the outrageousness of his off-season, playing basketball might seem relatively simple for Malone. Last summer he wrestled professionally against his nemesis, Dennis Rodman; hired Rodman's agent; and, in Dennis's menacing tone, hosted his own radio talk show in Los Angeles, during which he vowed to never play again for Utah. More meaningfully, his in-laws survived scares with cancer. "We almost lost them both," he says.
Malone, who against all laws of common sense continues to improve, is 35. John Stockton turns 37 in March. To make its way to a third straight Finals, the elderly Jazz must survive an intensified regular season that includes nine sets of back-to-back games and an eight-day, six-game marathon.
Without new faces, the Jazz will need ever more help from familiar, less-wrinkled ones. Third-year swingman Shandon Anderson could help by subbing for Jeff Hornacek and occasionally spelling Stockton at the point. Carr moved on to Houston, but the Jazz hopes Bailey can fill the void with his shot-blocking and shooting skills.
The Jazz is like a classic Thunderbird with a tenderly maintained engine—a traditional basketball lover's dream, so long as it can replace the occasional worn-out part. "I don't have one guy on the team that I can tell to take the ball and beat his guy off the dribble," coach Jerry Sloan says, almost proudly. "If we don't do it as a team, we aren't going to win."
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