One thing I thought I'd never see out of the Jazz is this: They could wind up with the highest -- or near the highest -- payroll in the NBA.
Even though the Jazz in the past shouldn't be characterized as cheap, if you had asked me a decade ago which would come to them first, a championship or the league's biggest or near-biggest payroll, I would have, without hesitation, taken the title.
Well. They are closer to the big-money trophy.
The Jazz rank fourth on the NBA's payroll list, behind the Hornets, Lakers and Wizards. There is some inexactness, of course, because some individual salaries are estimates, and totals are fluid.
Still the Jazz rolled in at over $73 million. And one of the most notable things about that number is it does not include a full roster of players. Most significantly, it doesn't include whatever it will take to re-sign Paul Millsap.
Add that in, and the Jazz could find themselves at the head of the big-spenders club, or near it, if the Lakers, as expected, roll out some major bones to re-sign all their guys.
That's an incredible possibility, given the market in which the Jazz play and the club's history of not splashing cash. Larry Miller once told me that as much as it might pain him to throttle into the luxury-tax realm, he might be willing to do so if it put the Jazz in a position to win a title. He said he wanted a championship for the community and for his franchise.
But you tell me: Are the Jazz on the verge of a title?
They are essentially the same team they have been, the same team that lost in the second round of the playoffs two years ago, and the same team that lost in the first round this past season.
There are those who are blowing sunshine up the Jazz's skirt around here, celebrating what has taken place with the possibility of all the important parts of the roster returning, hailing stability and the status quo. That seems foolhardy, given the results over the past two postseasons.
Especially considering the high costs in salary, which damage the Jazz in ways that reach beyond not being championship-ready. As beat writer Ross Siler recently pointed out in his blog at sltrib.com, the spending sets a bad precedent. Why, for example, should big-market teams give small-market teams a break via luxury taxes, et cetera, when small-market teams are outspending them? If those limitations are threatened or removed, the Lakers will win titles even more often by throwing their millions around.
On the other hand, the spending would be worth it for the Jazz if it were used on the right players.
Yeah, the Jazz suffered injuries last season, and optimists and apologists can lean all over that if they have to, but when the full complement of players was back together down the stretch, the Jazz did not jump ahead, they sagged.
The Jazz did not, could not play enough defense. They were fundamentally flawed that way, and, unless something changes this offseason, they will be fundamentally flawed again. They might finish higher in the Western Conference regular-season standings, and that could give them a better shot in the playoffs, but there are questions that pick at that assumption.
They still are lacking interior defenders. It's one of the great dilemmas in having both Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in the same lineup. Neither is a shot blocker. Both are good offensive talents, but both are big liabilities at the other end.
The best teams in the West either are -- or might be getting -- better. The Lakers are champions for a reason. The Nuggets showed the Jazz how to vastly improve by not settling for the status quo, but by making one significant move to give new hope to a franchise and a fan base. The Spurs needed a boost this offseason, and acquired it in Richard Jefferson, and they are looking at further improvements. Portland, a young team which passed the Jazz last year, is fighting hard to lure in veteran free agent Hedo Turkoglu.
Beyond that, if the Jazz stand pat, they run the risk of alienating fans who are now questioning the team's competitive play-it-as-it-lies mentality.
One thing that has always been true remains true: It's easier to blow cash than it is to get your money's worth.
Another truth: The Jazz are no closer to a title now than they were last year at this time.
There's no way to determine just what some of these teams' payrolls will be until after free agency, but here's how it stacks up as of today:
1. L.A. Lakers » $76.7 million without having re-signed Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza or Shannon Brown. The Lakers are almost certain to have the NBA's highest payroll.
2. New Orleans » $76.5 million. The Hornets are likely to make a salary dump somewhere, much as they tried to do with Tyson Chandler last season. Their payroll skyrocketed much like the Jazz's did with Chris Paul's contract extension kicking in.
3. Washington » $75 million. The Wizards have huge commitments to Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, plus took on a salary from Minnesota in acquiring Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
4. Utah » $73.5 million without re-signing Paul Millsap. The Jazz have to add at least two players no matter what just to reach the NBA's minimum 13-man roster.
5. Phoenix » $73.2 million without having re-signed Grant Hill or Matt Barnes. The Suns were able to save salary by trading Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic.
6. Miami » $71.9 million. The Heat acquired Jermaine O'Neal and his $23 million salary for 2009-10 from Toronto last season.
7. San Antonio » $71.3 million. The Spurs took on salary when they acquired Richard Jefferson from Milwaukee but kept their championship window for Duncan/Ginobili/Parker open.
8. Boston » $70.7 million without re-signing Glen Davis, Leon Powe or Stephon Marbury. The Celtics' payroll will climb when they spend the midlevel exception on a free agent for their Big Three.
9. New York » $70.1 million without re-signing David Lee or Nate Robinson. The Knicks still have huge commitments to Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries.
10. Cleveland » $68.5 million. The Cavaliers are likely to come in second or third behind the Lakers if they re-sign Anderson Varejao and spend all of their midlevel exception ($5.6 million).
11. Orlando » $68.5 million without re-signing Hedo Turkoglu. After acquiring Vince Carter from New Jersey, the Magic likely will add a player with the mid-level exception and push themselves into tax territory.
12. Dallas » $66.0 million without re-signing Jason Kidd. The Mavericks could add upwards of $14 million in payroll should they re-sign Kidd and make a mid-level signing.
13. Houston » $63.6 million without re-signing Ron Artest. The Rockets have deep pockets and are guaranteed to spend their full mid-level exception and take back salaries this summer.