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Utah's offseason of uncertainty
by Robbie McKay / May 19, 2002

The Delta Center’s lights went out early again this year and after the team’s second straight first-round exit, the front office is facing it’s most perplexing offseason in franchise history. Eight free agents, Spanish draft picks and an aging nucleus are just a few of the hurdles blocking the team’s path to re-establishing its Western Conference prominence. Now, team management finds itself with an opportunity to resurrect lost glory, or drift even farther into relative obscurity.

It’s far too early to begin predicting the team’s future however, taking a closer look at the current 14-man roster reveals a group on the brink of a rapid transition. It’s safe to say not all eight free agents are coming back, and the John and Karl situation is, at best, unpredictable.

Jazz owner, Larry Miller isn’t shy when indicating that his team will undoubtedly face some turnover. Bryon Russell, Donyell Marshall, Rusty LaRue, John Crotty, Scott Padgett, Quincy Lewis, John Starks and this year’s most pleasant surprise, Jarron Collins, are all up for new deals. It’s clear the Jazz struggled from the floor this year and everyone agrees open shots were missed. Utah had a frustrating year at both the 2- and 3-spot. Inconsistent D, injuries, horrific shooting and a nasty turnover fetish all seemed to handcuff the team throughout the season, and that’s where the most likely changes will be seen.

Keeping both Marshall and Russell will prove nearly impossible. Marshall sat injured through most the year, but when healthy, he showcased a game capable of slippery low post play and deadly outside shooting, both possible signs of an imminent return. Alternatively, Russell had a second consecutive season marred by inconsistencies. He will probably ask for more cash, and with career lows in all major offensive categories, Jazz management will surely explore their options.

As for the rest, resigning Collins is a must. Starks seems to have fallen off the map. Padgett impressed all year and Quincy came on strong after his late-season activation from the IR. Rusty remains expendable, and Crotty’s first-half may have earned him some points with management. Sadly, things must, and always do, change …even in Utah.

The rumblings across the Wasatch echo with Malone trade rumors, and the gut wrenching reality that Stockton may unwind in Spokane indefinitely. Malone stands to make nearly $18 mil in 2002-2003, but with Miller’s reluctance to sign an extension, Karl’s apt to start looking for work elsewhere.

Then, there’s the Raul Lopez issue. With Stockton’s future undecided, the desire to bring Lopez to Salt Lake ahead of schedule has grown stronger. Ideally, Lopez would have at least one season as understudy to the game’s wisest playmaker. Unfortunately, faltering negotiations with Real Madrid have made that a not-so-probable scenario.

Outside of Lopez, Stockton and Malone and the team’s free agent circus, Utah must also come to terms with the shortcomings of its contract players. Ostertag had another erratic campaign and, like Russell, registered many career lows. Surprisingly, his late-season and playoff performances showed some promise to Utah and maybe others in the NBA. Amaechi’s lack of offseason preparation and sloppy early season play bought him a seat in Sloan’s doghouse for most of the year. His inability gain any type of foothold into the rotation makes his future with the Jazz iffy.

DeShawn Stevenson also concluded the year in Sloan’s doghouse. His play, although sometimes impressive, appeared to stray too far from Sloan’s game plan, and left him exiled to comfy seat alongside Amaechi. Considering Sloan prefers to develop his rookies gradually, Stevenson is certainly predicted to return and play a more significant role in 2002-2003.

Amidst all the confusion, there remains one undeniable bright spot—Andrei Kirilenko. Throughout his rookie campaign, Andre provided some desperately needed promise, that there really is a future after “Stockton-to-Malone.” Jazz fans and management alike know he’s capable of becoming the franchise’s cornerstone. And rebuilding around him immediately may be Utah’s best bet at re-establishing itself as a feared playoff contender.

However, blockbuster player moves, and inventive tweaking of the salary cap won’t guarantee a remedy to Utah’s most disheartening ailment…an inability to finish games in the 4th. Since their last trip the finals in 98, the Jazz have proved they can play with the league’s best—a tribute to Sloan’s workmanlike coaching style—but winning has become a different matter all together. Offensive execution seems to wilt in the fourth, but now, management has an opportunity to lead by example. Their 4th quarter began the day the Delta Center doors closed. If the front office can execute some late-game heroics before training camp, it may just revitalize a once proud franchise.

Robbie McKay is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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