Thursday, June 11, 2009
No. 7: Utah Jazz
By John Hollinger ESPN.com
Utah's Stockton-to-Malone pick-and-roll was one of the most lethal plays in the history of the game.
7. UTAH JAZZ: 52.31 POINTS PER SEASON (1974-2009)
Wins: 1,541 Playoff wins: 113 Series wins: 21 Titles: 0
All-Stars: 40 Best player: Karl Malone Best coach: Jerry Sloan Best team: 1996-97 (64-18, lost NBA Finals)
It's amazing that a franchise that started so badly could end up being so good for so long. Entering the league as the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75, the franchise had neither a winning record nor a playoff appearance in its six seasons on the bayou before pulling up stakes for Salt Lake City in 1979. Bizarrely, they kept the "Jazz" name, even though Utah's jazz tradition is about as strong as Guam's snowboarding culture.
By any name they were a bad team, and remained horrid for the first four seasons in the Beehive State before two fortuitous draft choices changed the team's history forever. Utah picked John Stockton with the 16th pick in 1984 and Karl Malone with the 13th pick in 1985. The franchise nabbed two of the greatest players of all time in consecutive drafts, while other teams were tabbing the likes of Terence Stansbury and Jon Koncak.
Utah Jazz (1979-present)
New Orleans Jazz (1974-79)
It wasn't just those two: In the early 1980s, Utah had arguably the greatest draft run in league history. The Jazz took Dominique Wilkins third in 1982 before trading him to Atlanta (oops; how's that for a "what-if" scenario?), stole 7-foot-5 Mark Eaton in the third round that same year, took Thurl Bailey No. 7 and Bobby Hansen No. 54 in 1983, and nabbed Dell Curry at No. 15 in 1986.
Not surprisingly, the team improved rapidly. Utah got the league's attention by taking the Lakers to seven tough games in the second round in 1988, and when Jerry Sloan took over for Frank Layden early in the 1988-89, Utah had its first 50-win season. Sloan has been in charge ever since, and the team has won 50 games or more 12 times (13 if you prorate the 1998-99 season).
Unfortunately, it took a long time for all this winning to translate to postseason success. The Jazz didn't make their first conference finals appearance until 1992 and didn't put up much of a fight in that round until their third try in 1996, dropping a seventh game in Seattle.
The next two seasons, however, were the two best in franchise history. Utah won the Western Conference and gave Michael Jordan the two sternest tests of his six visits to the Finals. Six of their eight losses to the Bulls were by five points or less, with Jordan's shove and jumper over Bryon Russell being a particularly painful moment for Jazz fans.
Malone and Stockton were in their 30s by this point but had aged so well that they were still in their prime, and once they finally fell off, Utah found another promising point guard-power forward combo in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Those two made it to the conference finals in 2007 but have yet to get back.