Let’s cut through the prattle here and say it straight.
No. It cannot.
Check that, not unless it goes all the way this postseason. Does a stretch of the imagination have that kind of elasticity? That’s the only way, by doing what no other Jazz team has done — hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Otherwise, I’ll go with the statues.
My co-workers, Eric Walden and Andy Larsen, have made their list of the five greatest Jazz teams of all time, or at least since the Jazz came to Utah in 1979. Having watched all these teams play, here’s mine.
Comparing and ranking teams from different generations comes with a sort of cloudy variability in which proof is tough to come by, but also with license that doesn’t require it.
That’s the beauty and the futility of the exercise.
This particular endeavor comes with something else for the 2020-21 Jazz.
A team can be good, great even, or on the precipice of it, and still end up derailed and disappointed, with empty hands and empty fingers.
Don’t the best teams in Jazz history know it.
The people of Utah certainly do.
The Jazz are at the center of determining multiple sides of a significant issue, one that has sparked millions of arguments among so-called sports experts through the years: Can a team be one of the best ever if it doesn’t win a championship, because, say, the best player in the history of the game — another subjective conclusion — stood in its way? Is nudging up against a title good/great enough? Can the individual stars on a team be super if their team — and thereby, they — fall(s) short of or on the biggest stage?
We’re looking at you, Stockton and Malone, Mitchell and Gobert.
In the case of the Jazz, the answer to those questions has to be yes, because … there is no other choice. Hands and fingers aren’t the only things that are empty around here. The trophy case is, too.
With that bit of pain absorbed, there were difficult decisions to make in compiling the top five, Overall, six Jazz squads have made it to the Western Conference finals, of which four are included here. The two that were left out — the ’91-92 and the ’93-94 Jazz — could have just as easily made the list. Seven Jazz teams have won 55 or more regular-season games, of which three were included. One that won 60 games is not, thanks to a forthright playoff bellyflop.
The team that might have had the best circumstantial chance of winning an NBA title, the 1998-99 Jazz, is not included because that group — which finished with more wins (37) than any other in a shortened regular season, got bounced from the playoffs in the second round by the Trail Blazers.
5. The 2006-07 Jazz.
The Jazz had better subsequent regular-season records in two of the following three years (54 wins in 2007-08 and 53 in 2009-10 versus 51 wins), but the ’06-07 team reached that marked level for any Jazz outfit, namely, an appearance in the Western Conference finals.
Led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, this iteration beat the Rockets, 4-3, in a brutal first-round series, going on to oust Golden State, 4-1, in the next round, setting up a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs for entrance into the NBA Finals. That didn’t happen when the Spurs shut the door on the Jazz, 4-1, and went on to grab another championship with a sweep of the Cavaliers. It could be said that the Jazz, then, were the second-best team in the league that season.
4. The 2020-21 Jazz.
What follows here, admittedly, is some severe recency bias, this Jazz team having not yet done anything in the playoffs, the heavy standard by which all the other historical teams were measured. The ’94-95 team, for instance, won those aforementioned 60 regular-season games, but was left out because of a first-round playoff loss to the Rockets.
On the other hand, why compile a list like this if it has no relevant connection to the here and now? These guys, led by three All-Stars, are getting the benefit of the doubt by way of a handful of numbers and the wonderfully vague eye test.
Quin Snyder’s ’20-21 outfit has been beautiful to watch when not playing Phoenix and Minnesota, conjuring a mix of selfish and unselfish attack ball, allowing Donovan Mitchell to soar, along with Jordan Clarkson, on good nights, but also stressing pass-first offense that emphasizes spacing and movement, the pick-and-roll, and 3-point shooting, much of it done early in the shot clock. What they’ve accomplished in that last regard is, in fact, historic. Nobody’s taken or made as many bombs as this team has. Also, nary a night has gone by without Snyder talking about the importance of defense, and why wouldn’t he when he has the best defender on the planet — Rudy Gobert? That much is verifiable.
The Jazz’s success — they rank third in offensive rating, third in defensive rating, and first in net rating — in a season during which they’ve had the best record in the NBA longer by far than any other team, now sharpens for them a razor’s edge through the postseason in the double-barreled form of high expectation and the attendant pressure to live up to the precedent they’ve set.
They have in front of them the gaping opportunity to rise in future rankings like this and the open jaws that could swallow them whole if they fail to win in the weeks ahead.
3. The 1995-96 Jazz.
This is the less-talked about version of the Stockton-Malone-Hornacek Jazz, one that lost in the Western Conference finals to the Sonics, 4-3. After a regular season during which the Jazz went 55-27, this was nothing short of a blown chance, as strong as they were through the earlier parts of the postseason, having beaten Portland, 3-2, and the Spurs, 4-2, leading to the inglorious end.
In the seventh game of the WC series, Karl Malone put up an effective field goal percentage of just 36%, hitting eight of 22 shots and missing six of 12 free throws for 22 points in what ended up being a four-point loss. A win would have been the Jazz’s had their star forward performed to his standards that season of 52% FG shooting and 26 points.
2. The 1996-97 Jazz.
This team had the best regular-season record in Jazz history (64-18) and made it to the NBA Finals, just like the ’97-98 Jazz. It finished second in offensive rating, seventh in defensive rating, second overall, also bettering the following year’s team. But its first walk into the league championship series appeared to catch this team not quite prepared for the onslaught, although its victory over the Rockets in the finals of the West featured the most memorable shot and win — Stockton for 3! — in club history.
There’s one more indignity in this particular 4-2 Finals loss to Chicago: The Jazz won the series — if you took away the last 30 seconds of each game.
1. The 1997-98 Jazz.
The most important numbers don’t back it up, and maybe good sense doesn’t either, this Jazz team finishing with two fewer wins than the season prior, and ranking 17th in defensive rating, although they were first in offensive rating. But from the eye to the court to the brain, this team somehow seemed better than any other Jazz outfit.
John Stockton and Malone and Jeff Hornacek headed a team that played the best basketball a Jazz playoff team has ever played, leading up to the battle with the Bulls.
Utah edged the Rockets in the first round, then went 8-1 over the next two rounds, through the Spurs and Lakers. The sweep of L.A. highlighted the Jazz’s firepower and may have actually hurt them heading into the Finals because they finished their work so quickly that they wound up sitting for a week-and-a-half, waiting for Chicago to win the East.
Some believe that rest hurt the Jazz, rust setting in, taking them out of the rhythm they’d found.
The Jazz valiantly won the first game of the series against Chicago in overtime. They lost the second when Malone went oh-for-four in the second half. They got blown out by 42 points in Game 3, shooting 30 percent, getting killed on the boards by a negative-12, and suffering 26 turnovers.
But after losing Game 4, and trailing 3-1, the Jazz, led by a ferocious effort by Malone, fought back to win Game 5, a road game they couldn’t win, but did. In the sixth game, the Jazz famously had possession and the lead, up one with 18 seconds to play, the ball having been entered into the iron-clad mitts of Malone on the low block when Jordan stole the ball, ran the length of the court and … well, you know the rest.
If that last sequence hadn’t happened, the Jazz would have won Game 6, and gone into Game 7 with the advantage that Scottie Pippen wouldn’t have played due to injury. Which is to say, the Jazz would have won a championship.
That’s as good as it gets, as good as it’s ever gotten, for the Utah Jazz.
Unless they do something better, something greater, this time around.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.