According to the experts, this year's edition of the Utah Jazz is the best ever.

"No question," said Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley. "Not even close."Hundley is in his 21st season announcing Jazz games on TV and radio. He's been with the team since its inaugural season in New Orleans - 1974. He's seen them all - the Pete Maravich teams, the Adrian Dantley-Darrell Griffith teams, and for the past decade or so, the Karl Malone-John Stockton teams.

And this is the best.

"They've got more depth," Hundley said. "Everybody can play. Plus we've got guys like Karl Malone and John Stockton who are playing their best ever."

Going into tonight's game against the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets (7 p.m. tipoff), the Jazz are 19-8 overall, having won eight straight games and 17 of 21. The past two seasons Utah also got off to 19-8 starts, but Hundley's broadcasting partner, Ron Boone, says this team is a better 19-8.

"No doubt they're better," Boone said. "And the reason is that you're getting so much out of so many people."

Boone, who is in his sixth season as Hundley's sidekick, says he can't remember a time when the Jazz had a 12th man who could contribute off the bench. Just last season, for instance, Utah's last bench spot was shared by such notables as Luther Wright, Darren Morningstar, Aaron Williams, Chad Gallagher and Sean Green.

"The Jazz are playing nine and 10 guys, and you haven't seen that in the past," Boone said.

The two guys who have played the fewest minutes this season (excluding Jay Humphries, who is coming back from an injury), are Adam Keefe and Jamie Watson, and both have made solid contributions at crucial times.

Hundley and Boone say there are other factors that make this an improved team, namely:

- Greater versatility. "They can do more things now," Hundley said. "They can run. They're not just walking the ball down the floor."

- Jeff Hornacek. "Hornacek being here from the start makes a difference," said Hundley. "They even run plays for Hornacek now." Boone noted, "Jeff Hornacek has learned how to play with John Stockton and Karl Malone. He's just the third option (in the offense), and look what he's doing. Even to shoot 48 percent is tremendous for a two (shooting) guard, and he's shooting 56 percent."

- Antoine Carr. "He's made a big difference," Boone said. "The Jazz offense is built around a power forward, and when Karl Malone goes out now, Antoine Carr can pick it up."

There are other reasons, too. Tom Chambers is playing fewer minutes this season, but seems to be getting more out of the minutes he plays. Felton Spencer continues to improve. David Benoit has made great strides. And this team seems to genuinely like playing together, which, as several Jazz opponents proved on Utah's recent road trip, is a huge factor.

Being a coach, Jerry Sloan would be horrified to hear any talk about this being his best team. And his players know that it's way too early to get euphoric.

"The main thing is, don't get too excited, because you want to stay focused," Malone said after Wednesday's blowout of Indiana.

But despite the caution, even the Jazz veterans are starting to sense something special going on here.

"Karl and John think it's the best team we've ever had," Hundley said.

The question is, is being the "best-ever" Jazz team good enough to be NBA title contenders? There are those who believe, for instance, that all those 30-something Utah veterans who are playing so well now will wilt in the course of a grueling 82-game season and arduous playoffs. Only time will answer that question, but Boone thinks the Jazz can be there at the end.

"We heard of an article where Charles Barkley didn't even consider the Jazz (as contenders)," Boone said. "I think they can contend."