Behind a skilled and versatile frontcourt, the Jazz have defeated three contenders and jumped out to the league's best record
THE SMALL forward is the team's lone shot blocker, the center is a three-point bomber, and the power forward is undersized. So how did Utah—which has beaten the Rockets, Suns and Pistons this season and had the best record (6--1) in the league at week's end—so quickly recover from losing the Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone three years ago? The Jazz has embarked on this promising new era by quickly and shrewdly assembling the NBA's most intriguing front line: small forward Andrei Kirilenko, power forward Carlos Boozer and center Mehmet Okur. At week's end the three were averaging a combined 46.4 points and 27.9 rebounds, and Utah was in the top four in scoring, rebounding, assists and field goal percentage. The trio's impressive start, in combination with the slew of injury and chemistry issues haunting defending Northwest champion Denver (2--3), has made the Jazz the favorite to win its first division title in seven years.
When Stockton and Malone departed in 2003, observers figured that Utah would need more time to rebuild because the franchise wouldn't be able to attract young stars to Salt Lake City. But in 2004 general manager Kevin O'Connor committed a combined $118 million over six years to free agents Boozer and Okur. Rivals second-guessed the $50 million deal given to Okur, who was coming off a milquetoast season in which he scored 9.6 points in just 22.3 minutes per game for the champion Pistons. But the 6'11" Okur got leaner and stronger, and last year he averaged 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds in 35.9 minutes as a Jazz starter. With a similar stat line this year (16.1 points, 9.1 rebounds through Sunday), his $8.3 million salary looks like money well spent for a 27-year-old center shooting 41.7% (10 of 24) from the three-point line. "He was tough enough to play inside, and yet he could shoot the ball out on the floor," says O'Connor of his initial interest in Okur. "And he's rebounded at every level that he's played at, which was key."
Boozer seemed like more of a sure thing when he signed—but then he missed 80 consecutive games over his first two seasons in Utah, leading to speculation that he was exaggerating his injuries (a strained right foot in 2004--05, a strained left hamstring last season) to force a trade. "That was very unfair," says O'Connor, who last November went so far as to make the team doctor available to the media to discuss the interior bleeding in Boozer's hamstring.
Even when Boozer was able to play, his effort was maligned by owner Larry Miller, and his defense has long been exploited by opponents and excoriated by coach Jerry Sloan, who as recently as last month sniped that Boozer was giving up as many points as he was scoring. But Boozer, who admits that he is 6'7", two inches shorter than his listed height, is off to his best start—he leads the Jazz with 21.9 points and 12.3 rebounds per game—and Sloan is confident that Boozer and Okur eventually will learn to cover for each other's defensive weaknesses. "Any player wants to be healthy and show what he can do," says Boozer, 25, "and I'm getting that chance now."
The front line's long-term future is still in question—Boozer remains the subject of trade rumors—but for the time being Utah is making the most of its winning combination.
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An opposing team's scout on the Pistons, who were 3--4 at week's end:
"They don't have any interest in playing defense, and a lot of that has to do with missing Ben Wallace—though I don't think it was a mistake to let him go, because he's a guy who needs to have something to prove, and he wasn't going to find that next challenge in Detroit. The only Piston doing it at the defensive end is Tayshaun Prince (above). They have an All-NBA defender in Rasheed Wallace, and Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups are better-than-average defenders, but they're not giving the effort and I don't see Flip Saunders yelling at them. Maybe it's too early for them to have that urgency, but they'd better get it soon because I don't see them being able to outscore a lot of people."