The Utah Jazz conclude our Northwest Division previews. You can read past previews here.

by Ben Osborne

There’s definitely some irony in my being asked by Ryne to do the Utah Jazz preview, thanks to the acrimonious relationship I have with many Jazz fans who read SLAM. While I honestly can’t think of one regular commenter on this site who supports the Jazz (I’m sure you guys will correct me if there is one; and if not, I wonder where they go for their online hoops coverage), there is no team whose fans produce more angry letters to Trash Talk than Jazz fans. Their beef is simple, and to a degree, understandable: they want one of their guys on a cover! With the Stockton-Malone teams playing in era that SLAM came out less often, and definitely not seeming like a very SLAM duo, those guys never made it onto our esteemed front page (Mailman did as a Laker, once), and while you could make a case for Carlos Boozer and/or Deron Williams, those hardly sound like surefire big sellers. At this point it’s almost more fun not to cave in, continuing to produce letters that swear we are biased against the Jazz.

Here’s the thing, though: this era of the Jazz could force the cover issue if they’d just reach that next level. Lead the conference in wins, make it to the Finals, win a Finals. And yet, even coming off back-to-back 50+ wins, first-place-in-the-Northwest seasons, and returning 13 (thirteen!) players on the roster from last season, does anyone really feel that confident that the Jazz can pass the very-good-but-not-great threshold? Not that I’m aware of. The way I see it, there’s only one major variable with this team that could make such a thing happen, and it’s a tall order. In the interest of creating a little drama, I’ll get to it last. Here’s a little summary of the components of the Jazz, who went 54-28 last season and lost to the Lakers in the second round of the Playoffs as Kobe Bryant paraded to the free-throw line (John Hollinger reminds that KB took an average of 16 FTs/game in that series).

Coach: The amazing Jerry Sloan. During the 2007 Playoffs, I did a post on the site which was basically re-running an interview I’d done with Sloan in 1998. That sitdown was 10 years ago, and Sloan was the most old-school coach in the game then. Obviously, you—and the Jazz players—know what they’re going to get from him, and with this bunch that should work just fine, at least strategically. You might wonder how they can be motivated by Sloan through yet another season, but shoot, from ’88 (when Sloan took over during the season) to ’01, the Jazz won 50 games all but two years (one of which was the lockout year when they went 37-13). So I guess that’s not much of a worry at all.

Bench: The most minutes off the Utah pine should go to Kyle Korver (couldn’t have fit in better after he came over from the Sixers last season), Paul Millsap (solid as a rock), Ronnie Price (apparently the everyday back-up for Williams, though since Brevin Knight is on the scene as well that role might be in doubt), Matt Harpring (nice career that should be winding down soon) and CJ Miles, a pretty fresh wing man who is still getting better. The Jazz also drafted Kosta Koufos, who I saw a bunch in high school and loved, but who didn’t do as well as I thought at Ohio State. After just a year of college, he’s obviously young, but his offensive game is pretty mature, so he might be a factor for the Jazz right away. He’s got to be better than Jarron Collins, doesn’t he?

Starting frontcourt: Yet again, the Jazz will roll with Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, a funky mix of three dudes who have been All-Stars in their career. It would be harsh to say any of these guys are on the downside of their careers, but they’re not getting better or younger, either. Boozer and Okur can opt out of their contracts after this season, and AK47 is getting more erratic by the year. Basically, before these guys’ truly see their skills atrophy, or get involved in contract disputes or even leave Utah, this is the year for these three to play as much—and as well—as possible. If they do that the 50-win mark will be a lock and at worst you’re looking at another second-round Playoff appearance. Which leads me to…

Starting backcourt: Ah, the one potential variable. Not necessarily at the off-guard spot, where Ronnie Brewer is a long, defensive-minded player who somehow shot 56 percent from the floor last year. He could get a little better, but I don’t think he has the offensive skills, nor will he get the green light or the minutes, to become a star. No, in my opinion Utah’s one shot to turn a 54-56 win, second-round season into 60 wins, a top seed in the West and a berth in the Finals would be if their best player, Deron Williams, entered that zone his man Chris Paul did at the end of last season. I know they are different players and they get somewhat sick of the constant comparisons, but I think it’s relevant. CP3 reached a level last year where he was basically unguardable, and the Hornets rode that to the brink of a WC Finals matchup despite a roster that, on the whole, was not as good as Utah’s. Williams averaged 21.6 ppg and 10 apg last season while becoming just the third player in NBA history (after Magic Johnson and Kevin Johnson) to have 1500+ points, 800+ assists and shoot better than 50 percent from the floor in a season. He’s a top-10 player in the League and is only entering his fourth season. If he can somehow up those numbers a bit while, even more importantly, completely taking on the role that this-is-my-team-and-at-the-end-of-big-games-I-am-not-going-to-let-us-lose, then the Jazz can reach the next level…

Projection: Will they? Meaning no disrespect to Deron, I don’t think so. But they’ll come close. Despite stiff comp from the Blazers, I see 55 wins and yet another NW Division title, but no Finals appearance. As for a cover? No guarantees there either.