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Look for the Jazz to move up the chart

Look for the Jazz to move up the chart What are we waiting for? As Max said in "Where the Wild Things Are": "Let the wild rumpus start!" The Jazz's 82-game rumpus begins tonight in Denver, and if there's one thing you can say about them, it's that they're as familiar as a beloved kids' book. After all those years of Stockton and Malone, the new Jazz are becoming downright entrenched, too.

They have the same shifty-bumpy point guard as they've had for the last few years. Same long-distance center. Same double-threat power forward. And Andrei Kirilenko may be wearing a new haircut, and 20 badly needed pounds, but it's still unmistakably him. Did we mention Jerry Sloan is back for a 22nd semi-cranky season? So this is what you have: The same basic team that finished eighth in the West last year. But it's also largely the same bunch that finished second in the Western Conference playoffs in 2007. "The last three years we lost (in the playoffs) to the NBA champion twice and the runner-up once. So the teams we lost to were either the best team in the world or the second-best team in the world," said Jazz G.M. Kevin O'Connor. So you decide. Is this a team that could end up in the conference finals again, or are Jazz officials just putting lipstick on a pig? I'm siding with the former. But what do I know? I thought Greg Norman and Chrissy Evert were a forever deal. Still, I'm figuring the Jazz have weathered the worst of their problems. They won 48 games last year with a ragtag cast that looked like the crew of the Black Pearl. If they just have a normal number of injuries ? which at this point is a significant "if" ? they'll be fine. That's because they work. Anyone can get his team ready for big games. But nobody gets his teams ready to play an oinker against Sacramento or Washington better than Jerry Sloan. "This is still a young team," Sloan said. "It takes sometimes some ups and downs to teach them whether or not it's worth it. It's a tough business." And Sloan is a tough coach. Although it's true the Jazz have at least seven players back from the 2007 team that played for the conference championship, it's also true other teams made moves. While the Jazz rode out the summer, wary not to trade Carlos Boozer ? or anyone else ? for trinkets, other teams made deals. L.A. added the mercurial Ron Artest. Makes sense. The Lakers once tried Dennis Rodman, too. Portland gained Andre Miller, San Antonio picked up Richard Jefferson and (San?)Antonio McDyess, New Orleans traded for Emeka Okafor and Dallas acquired Shawn Marion. Intriguing stuff. But really, does that change where the Jazz are? They finished with the fifth-best record in 2007, sixth in '08 and eighth last year. Yet Houston, Denver and Phoenix aren't more potent than a year ago. San Antonio has to be worried about its aging stars. Portland is always facing Greg Oden's injury issues. Houston is missing Yao Ming. Barring another injury siege (Kyle Korver's and Matt Harpring's knees, Ronnie Price's hamstring and C.J. Miles' thumb matter, but they aren't deal-breakers), the Jazz remain a middle-level playoff seed ? and good enough to beat anyone in the West except L.A. and maybe San Antonio. Besides, adds O'Connor, "If you look at the ages of those guys that were there (in 2007), they should be coming into their prime." Truth is, the Jazz may not be finished yet. It usually takes time to build a contender. They didn't make it to the NBA Finals until Karl Malone and John Stockton had been together 11 years. They didn't make the conference finals until Malone's fifth season, Stockton's sixth. This is Deron Williams' fifth season. "We like to think this team can grow a little bit," O'Connor said. "Remember, in '95 and '96, everyone said to break it up, it's time to move on, and then '97 and '98 were our best years." Certainly the Jazz don't have the luxury of waiting 11 seasons with this bunch. Carlos Boozer is bound to be gone after this year. Still, he's also bound to play well in his contract year. Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer, Miles, Kirilenko, Boozer and Williams were there when the Jazz went 12-1 to start the 2006-07 season ? the best launch in franchise history ? and they're here now. Even with 156 games lost to injury and illness, they finished just two games shy of the sixth seed last year. This year's Jazz went 6-2 in exhibition games. That doesn't mean much, except that they seem to be taking things seriously. Williams should be ? finally ? an All-Star in 2010. "You look at a lot of the good teams in the NBA, they all have a core of players that have been around awhile," Price said. "Very rarely do you see a team just all of a sudden put together and they're good. So I think we have an advantage." Will they end up in the NBA Finals? Not as long as Kobe Bryant is around. But a return trip to the conference finals? It's not inconceivable. Advancing beyond the first round? No doubt about it. Knowing the people you're traveling with can have a lot to do with where you're going. e-mail:

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Added: October 29, 2009


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