by Marcel Mutoni

The regular season jumps off tomorrow night, but before that happens, we’ve got to wrap up our Team Previews.

Today, Salt Lake Tribune basketball columnist Phil Miller, helps us preview the Utah Jazz.

SLAM: Andrei Kirilenko is one of the most versatile guys in the League. What makes him such an exceptional player?

PM: His ability to fly. Wait, that might just be an optical illusion, but Kirilenko has this way of jumping quickly, and using those flagpoles he has for arms, that makes it seem like he can hover in the air and just wait for a shooter to try to arc a shot over him. He has a body type unlike any other player in the league. Now, that doesn’t always translate into superior performance, particularly on offense. Kirilenko has a habit of forcing shots that aren’t there, or dribbling into traffic.

He can get flustered when things don’t go well. But in many games, he’ll have three or four plays where you just shake your head and wonder how he did that. He can dominate a game without the ball, and other than Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan, you don’t hear that much.

The Jazz made some key acquisitions this summer. How will they fit in Jerry Sloan’s system?

Surprisingly quickly. The big additions are two rookies —first-rounder Ronnie Brewer and second-rounder Paul Millsap—and guard Derek Fisher, picked up in a trade with Golden State. Normally rookies can count on having excellent seats for Jazz games and little else, but Sloan appears to have changed his ways. He sounds like he is OK with giving Brewer and Millsap plenty of playing time this season. Brewer adds the athleticism that a team of plodders desperately needed, and Millsap looks like a quality rebounder to back up Carlos Boozer at power forward. As for Fisher, the Jazz have searched for a quality backup point guard for years, since as triggerman, the point is so critical to their offense. They finally think they have found their man, since Fisher is so well acquainted with quarterbacking an offense. Plus, he’s an accurate three-point shooter, a weapon they mostly haven’t had for a couple of seasons.

You always hear about how players don’t want to play in Utah. Does the city get an unfair rap?

Yes, to some extent. Players who haven’t played for the Jazz don’t want to come to Salt Lake, but you almost never hear anyone saying they want to leave, or are thrilled to get out. The Jazz pay NBA wages like everyone else, and that makes up for many lifestyle issues. It’s not like they can’t sign free agents—Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur were more than happy to accept Utah’s offers. The city is beautiful, clean and not isolated from the rest of the world. And Utahns love their NBA team.

The Jazz have some of the most loyal and vocal fans in the entire League. What is it like to take in a game at the Delta Center?

Well, it’s not the late 90s anymore, when crowd noise could help decide some games, but it still gets loud. I mean, it’s not Sacramento loud, but it’s pretty good. And the crowd is decidedly loyal; it’s rare to hear the hometown team booed. The building is also great for watching games, since it’s not a hockey arena like other cities have; the seating wraps tightly around the floor, so the fans are very close.

Alright, enough foreplay, how will the Jazz fare this season?

They should be much improved, since many people—their coach included—believes they would have made the playoffs last season if not for injuries. They are healthy, and their key players have reason to be motivated.
Carlos Boozer has to repair his reputation after missing half of each of the past two seasons. Andrei Kirilenko wants to develop his offensive game to match his defense. And Deron Williams is emerging as one of the best point guards in the league, already asserting his leadership, not to mention becoming a fearsome scorer. Then there’s the bench: With players like Fisher, Brewer, Millsap and Jarron Collins around, no longer with the Jazz use players better suited for the CBA. Their division is weak, and their core players are reaching their prime, so the Jazz expect to climb back into the playoffs for the first time in three years.