Jazz plays the oldies - with sights on best record

ON THE NBA

March 29, 1998|By JERRY BEMBRY | JERRY BEMBRY,SUN STAFF

Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, one of the elder statesmen of the NBA, turned 36 Thursday. In the coming months, Karl Malone (July) and Jeff Hornacek (May) will turn 35.

To the younger generation of NBA players, the Jazz trio might be referred to as "old heads." But what Stockton, Malone and Hornacek have done over the second half of the season has turned heads.

The Chicago Bulls have the best record in the league, but they are closely followed by a Utah team that has the league's best record since the All-Star break. Utah is 21-2 since the break-almost duplicating its second-half performance from last season, when the team was 31-4.

And after spending half of the season battling San Antonio for the Midwest Division title, the Jazz has its sights on a bigger prize: the best record in the NBA, which would result in home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Utah didn't have home-court advantage during last year's NBA Finals, when the Jazz lost to Chicago in six games.

That Utah was just a game behind Chicago for the league's best record is, in part, due to the play of Malone. Malone's averages of 26.2 points and 10.5 rebounds are almost identical to his numbers last season (27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds), when he won the league's Most Valuable Player award. In the season's second half, the 6-foot-9 power forward is playing maybe the best basketball of his 13-year career.

And that has been needed, considering that Stockton has not resembled his old self since returning in December from knee surgery that forced him to miss the first five weeks of the season. In his absence, reserve point guard Howard Eisley demonstrated an ability to lead the team. With Bryon Russell (now coming off the bench), Adam Keefe (starting at small forward), Shandon Anderson and Greg Foster all playing well, Utah is a deeper team than it was a year ago.

Is the Jazz - whose 13 straight winning seasons are the third longest streak in league history- as good as its recent record indicates? That's still open to debate. Utah, during its post-All-Star break run, has faced only three teams that would be considered among the league's heavyweights over the second half of the season: The Jazz beat Seattle, 111-91, on Feb. 14 (one night after Seattle beat the Lakers), lost to Miami, 104-102, on Feb. 24, and got crushed by Charlotte, 111-85, on March 18.

There should be some answers by Wednesday. That's when the Jazz finishes a three-game stretch against the Lakers (yesterday), the Sonics (Tuesday) and Portland (Wednesday).

Lockout ahead?

With Monday's vote by owners to void the final years of the collective bargaining agreement, players and coaches are expecting a summer lockout. The owners, who voted 27-2 to reopen the agreement, say 15 teams will lose money this season.

"I think [some teams] are losing some money," Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan said. "But I don't think the league in general is losing money. I won't accept that until they open up the books and show us that they're losing money -each and every team. They may not be making as much profit as they were. But I don't think they're losing as much as they say they are."

Currently, about 100 of the NBA's 400 players play for the minimum salary of roughly $300,000 a year. The 37 highest paid players-9 percent of the union-earn 32 percent of the revenue.

A major issue will be what's called the "Larry Bird" exception, that allows teams to pay their own free agent any amount if he has been with that team for three years. That has resulted in the mega-contracts given to players such as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett and Washington Wizards forward Juwan Howard.

"We've got to sit down and talk to the players because we're overpaying according to the agreement we made," said Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh, whose team lost about $17 million last season. "Not only are we overpaying what we bargained for, but we're also distributing it in a way that isn't good for the players. The top players are getting a bigger percentage, and there are a lot of players at the bottom now that are taking the minimum."

Scare for Blaylock

For Atlanta Hawks guard Mookie Blaylock, what started as a normal pre-game nap before a March 19 game against Milwaukee ended up with a trip to the doctor's office.

"They found out that my heart rate was going down when I'd lie down to relax," said Blaylock, who had been feeling weak before that episode. "It was like I'd stop breathing. One night, I popped up and ran downstairs and rode the bike for 15 minutes, just felt like I had to get my heart rate going. I told the doctor I was scared more than anything."

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