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How to find a championship combination in the NBA?

Ask around the league and the same expert answer keeps popping up: Shop the bargain aisles of the free-agent market.That's the advice of Dave Checketts, the former Jazz general manager who is now president of the New York Knicks, the team battling it out with Houston on Wednesday for all the marbles.

"I think the Jazz are looking to get a little bit younger in terms of backup help," he said. "They're putting a lot of miles on Karl and John at this point and Jeff Hornacek is not that young a guy."

Some of the best free-agent deals are some of the least-noted, he added, pointing to Indiana's not-so-distant acquisition of then-obscure reserve players Antonio Davis and Haywoode Workman, both surprise factors in the playoffs.

"Davis was playing in Europe. Workman was in the CBA (Continental Basketball Association)."

These are the kind of bench aids Utah could use, said Checketts.

"I don't think they're looking at a major overhaul at all," he offered. "But some younger role players with a lot to prove can put you over the top."

Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic, also thinks the Jazz would do well to make a personnel move or two.

Assuming the team has $2 million or $3 million to spend on new players this off-season, "that would allow them to do something," said Williams.

"They need an all-star center, but it's not a perfect world and all-star centers aren't available," he said. "They've done a good job working around two superstars, but this summer they've got to figure out something else to do. They've got to keep trying to add to that great nucleus of Stockton and Malone."

"All they can hope to do, all any of us can hope to do, is pick up a guy who can maybe help for a year and make you better. It's awfully hard when you're that good a team, winning 50-plus games, to make a quantum leap."

Barry Hecker, player-personnel director for the Los Angeles Clippers, anticipates some Utah activity in the free-agent market. The team needs a little more punch, he agrees, though he added that much of its greatness has come from its steady leadership.

"Changing coaches isn't going to make a difference. Jerry Sloan's done a hell of a job. I think their success is because of their stability. He's got them as far as they could go."

Tom Nissalke, a longtime NBA coach who was at the Jazz helm in the team's early Utah years after coaching in Houston and Cleveland, bucks the conventional wisdom that calls for someone better at small forward.

"I kind of like David Benoit there," he said.

Where the franchise needs help is in a a stronger backup to Spencer and a top-notch substitute for Stockton, he said.

"Sure it's a lot, but it takes a lot to win a championship."

"Because this is our only major-league franchise, I think people here sometimes think they won't make it that far," said Nissalke, a Salt Lake restaurateur today. "They're one of the best six or eight teams out there. They're not that far away from Houston or the Knicks."

Ron Boone, the former Utah player who does broadcast commentary for the team now and is openly candid in his critiques of the Jazz, says - like many - that "more athleticism" at the small forward position is in order.

"That's what I've been harping on for awhile . . . I would think that's the position they'd be looking to strengthen."

Brushing aside insistence by some that the Jazz are old, Boone gives the Malone-Stockton combination three more years before age catches up with it.

"They look awful productive to me," agrees Jerry West, the former Los Angeles Lakers great who is general manager of the team now and considered one of the best player-personnel strategists in the game.

West declined to say where he thinks Utah could beef up its payroll, but was effusive in his praise of a small-city franchise that has emerged from out of nowhere to become one of the NBA's elite clubs.

"I really think they've done a terrific job," he said.