SALT LAKE CITY – Forgive Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan if he's a little sick of the media "predicting" how many wins the Utah Jazz are going to get this year.
For years, writers prematurely were predicting the demise of John Stockton and Karl Malone. When Stockton finally retired and Malone left for the Lakers last season, we predicted more than demise – we predicted the apocalypse.
Some writers went so far as to claim that the Jazz would be the worst team in the history of the NBA.
Sloan didn't believe it then. Last year at training camp he told me he thought his team would compete for the playoffs. He was right. The Jazz were the hardest-working team in the NBA last season and missed the playoffs by just one game.
"We've still got to play," he said October. "That's the only way I know. We're here, we've got a job to do – so go out, bust your butt and go home."
Give this to Sloan. He's a straight shooter. A man who tells it like it is. Both for the good and the bad. He's like a prophet from the Old Testament – his wrath is swift, his convictions unwavering.
Sloan is having an equally hard time believing our rosy predictions for his team this year. Insider ranked the Jazz sixth in the West in our preseason preview. Sloan thinks we may be getting ahead of ourselves.
"Last year everyone said we wouldn't win a game; this year you think we'll win them all," Sloan said. "I'm glad you guys know who we'll be, because I don't. I don't know who we'll be. I think we'll have to get a little bit into the season before we really figure out who are we and what we have and (if) we can compete."
While the rest of the world labeled the Jazz a success after they smashed low expectations last season, Sloan says he still feels last year was a disappointment.
"I expected them to make the playoffs, and they didn't," Sloan said. "I wasn't very happy. A lot of people we're happy, but to me, if you don't make the playoffs in this league, it was a pretty dismal year. It wasn't a very happy ending.
"Making the playoffs is important to me. We'll find out who we have this year, because they'll be expected to play well in everyone else's mind. I expected them to last year, and I expect them to this year."
Sloan isn't alone in his apprehension. Matt Harpring, who along with Andrei Kirilenko and Jarron Collins, is the last holdover from the Stockton-Malone era, believes this team has its work cut out for it, too.
"I think people are thinking we're going to be really good this year, and last year everyone thought we'd stink," Harpring said. "I'd rather be on this side, but it doesn't make things any easier. A lot of guys took us for granted last season and let their guard down. I don't see teams taking us for granted this year. I think we'll have a hard-fought game every time."
"It's going to be tougher this year. Last year everyone said we'd lose 70 games. It's hard to lose 70 games in this league. It's hard to do. This year everyone thinks we'll win 50. That's also very hard to do. I think every team in the West got better this year, too."
Sloan points to a number of factors that give him pause about his team.
While the media praised GM Kevin O'Connor this summer for the acquisitions of Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer in free agency and rookies Kris Humphries and Kirk Snyder in the draft, Sloan looks at the additions from a slightly different perspective.
Appearances can be deceiving. Harpring is the veteran of the group, and he's just 28 years old. Three starters – Boozer, Okur and Gordan Giricek – have played just two years in the league. Kirilenko just turned 23. Starting point guard Carlos Arroyo has played just one full season as a starter.
"We're real young," Sloan said. "A veteran team has experience and knows how to do things. I'm not sure we know how to do things yet. I don't know who we are, and I don't know if we can take hold of the situations we have to deal with every night."
That's not all. The Jazz have just one player on their roster, Humphries, who was a lottery pick. Three of their projected starters (Giricek, Boozer and Okur) were drafted in the second round. Arroyo was undrafted. Kirilenko was a late first-round pick. There isn't another team in the league without at least one lottery pick in its starting five. The only other team that comes close to the Jazz as far as experience and draft position is the expansion Bobcats.
Sloan also is worried about the big contracts signed by his players last summer, as well as ongoing contract negotiations with Kirilenko. In addition to free agents Okur and Boozer, Arroyo, Giricek and Collins also signed new deals. Last year, almost ever player on the Jazz, as well as the two free agents they signed, were playing for a contract. That led to a do-or-die effort that Sloan feels might have disappeared this year.
"They have different objectives this year," Sloan said. "Two or three of them, have new contracts – they were playing for their lives last year. Those things become more important to them now than basketball itself. I can't control any of that. I don't know what they'll do."
"Andrei has, quite frankly, struggled a bit the last few days. He's got a lot on his mind. He's struggled in practice. We were hoping to get those things squared away so we could go about our business or forget about it so that we can just play."
Arroyo, who signed a four-year, $16 million contract, agrees to a point. "It puts a lot of pressure to go out there and perform. You always want to earn what you're being paid."
Finally, Sloan says there's a certain value in playing with low expectations. Last year his players competed with a chip on their shoulders. Fewer expectations means less pressure.
"We're competing from a different position than we were last year, because we now have some pressure on us to perform," Sloan said. "I don't have a problem with expectations. But are players are going to be shooting the ball from a different perspective? They didn't have to make them last year. So that's a completely different shot."
Still, there may be more to Sloan's bark than his bite. For two days at least, the Jazz looked like the real deal. Sloan demands execution, great fundamentals and players who aren't afraid to roll in the mud. He has them in abundance this year.
Arroyo is in the best shape of his career. He looks quicker and more decisive running the team and could be poised for a breakout year.
Kirilenko has come back with a new mid-range jump shot that could turn him into a lethal offensive weapon.
Okur didn't come into camp in great shape, but his ability to step out and hit the perimeter shot gives the team a facet that didn't exist last year.
Boozer's toughness and relentlessness on the boards is a perfect fit in the paint next to Okur.
Harpring is totally healed and, by every account, often has been the best player on the floor in scrimmages.
Giricek has shot the ball well enough to earn the tentative starting job at the two.
Sloan may be forecasting fire and brimstone. But there's every reason to believe this group of no-names is capable of being special. O'Connor's ability to find hidden talent, along with Sloan's no-nonsense approach, should make this collection of overachievers a force in the West.
"I think we picked up a couple of good basketball players, but they weren't in leading roles, so we don't know," O'Connor said. "We improved our talent. We've got to prove it, just like we had to disprove it last year that we'd be that bad. Now, with the contracts signed and the future secure, will they continue to play the right way every night?"
"I think a player is who he is. We have competitors on our team, and we have a coach in Jerry that brings it out of them. I don't expect that to change. I think we're going to continue to play the way we did last year. With Jerry, there really isn't another option."
That, Sloan will agree with.
"My job is to coach them, teach them and try to get the most out of them every day," Sloan concludes. "That's all I know."
If the Jazz win more than 40 games this season, if they make the playoffs and live up to their expectations, there will be only one explanation. Jerry Sloan is still coaching the Jazz. Hard work and winning is all he knows.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.