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Now that the Utah Jazz are not only back in the playoffs once again for a league-leading 12th straight time, but back there stronger and better than ever, has the rest of the NBA learned its lesson?

Has the NBA learned that when it comes to striking deals and sniffing out overlooked talent and recycling players from other team's benches, Scott Layden might be the smartest man in the league?Layden, the Jazz's director of basketball operations, has pulled off so many shrewd deals that you wonder why anyone in the league even takes a call from this guy.

It's Scott Layden on line two, sir.

Uh, tell him I'm outta the country.

Just look at the Jazz. Other than the Big Three - superstars Karl Malone and John Stockton and All-Star Jeff Hornacek - what do you have? Castoffs, role players given up on by other teams, players purchased at fire sales.

Not only were Adam Keefe, Felton Spencer and Blue Edwards sitting on the bench when the Jazz found them, they were sitting on the bench for some of the worst teams in the league. Antoine Carr was pulling pine time, too, but on a good team. The Jazz got all of the above cheap through trades, and all of them have been major contributors for the Jazz this season.

The Jazz have rebuilt virtually their entire supporting cast for Stockton and Malone through trades and deals via Layden's telephone. Of the 12-man supporting cast, the Jazz drafted only two of those players - seldom-used Bryon Russell and Jamie Watson late in the second round (unless you want to count Edwards, but that's another wheel-and-deal story for later).

In less the last two years, Layden has almost completely overhauled the Jazz, making them legitimate championship contenders. For years the word on the Jazz was that they were old and stagnant, which is why they were picked to finish no better than fourth or fifth in their division this season. But aggressive trading has made them younger and better, without sending the club into bankruptcy.

This season the Jazz produced the second-best record in the NBA with a club-record 60 victories, and they did it with a team salary that ranks in the middle of the league.

All this notwithstanding, somehow Layden is largely overlooked, like his team. He is not considered one of the front-runners for the league's Executive of the Year award. The award tends to be given to executives from teams that have made the biggest improvement from the previous season - from a lousy season to a good one. But what about a guy who has kept a team from having a lousy season?

What about a guy who has maintained the team's excellence year in and year out through a series of saavy trades; a guy who has had to improve his team without benefit of the draft because his club is always too good to get an early pick; a guy whose club has been so consistently good that it is one of only two teams (along with Portland) that has never had the luxury of a modern-day lottery pick (top 11) in the draft?

"Scott Layden," gushes assistant coach Gordon Chiesa. "I mean how smart is this guy?"

The conventional wisdom in the NBA is to restore a team's youth and strength through the draft; Layden, who has been in charge of player transactions since 1989 and shared the duty with Dave Checketts for years before that, has accomplished the same thing through bargain trades.

"We see so few players we like, that we keep track of them, and then we try to get them when they're undervalued," says Chiesa, who notes that the Jazz stumble onto talent while scouting other teams on videotape. "We'll say, `wait a second, this guy intrigues me,' " says Chiesa. "Then we'll discuss it, write it down."

Then they wait for their chance to get them on sale. To wit:

ADAM KEEFE - In 1991, the Jazz traded Thurl Bailey and a second-round draft pick to Minnesota for Tyrone Corbin, but really what they got for the fading Bailey was Keefe, three years later.After Corbin's production declined last season, the Jazz traded him to Atlanta for the much younger (by eight years) Keefe, the 10th pick of the 1992 draft. Bailey wound up in Europe. Corbin averaged 6 points and 17 minutes per game this season. Keefe averaged 6.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 17 minutes per game.

FELTON SPENCER - How bad were things for Spencer two years ago? He was sitting on the bench in Minnesota, behind Luc Longley. It was like being unemployed in Greenland. The Jazz traded Mike Brown (a former third-round pick who had played in Europe) for Spencer, the sixth pick of the '90 draft, getting a player who was five years younger in the process.

Until suffering a season-ending injury this year, Spencer was thriving with the Jazz. He has averaged about 9 points, 8 rebounds and 25 minutes per game in 11/2 seasons. Brown's last name has become DNP in Minnesota.

BLUE EDWARDS - Edwards was part of a strange deal, one that Layden would just as soon forget. In 1993, the Jazz traded Edwards and Eric Murdock for Larry Krystkowiak and Jay Humphries. Humphries gave them two solid years, but injuries and age took their toll. During the last offseason they traded the injury-plagued, aging Humphries and a second-round pick to get a younger (by three years), more athletic Edwards, who by then was sitting on the bench with the Boston Celtics.

Humphries missed 51 games this season because of injury. Edwards has played in all 36 games since joining the Jazz and averaged 6.6 points and 16 minutes per game.

("In hindsight, I wish we had never made the (first) deal," says Layden. "We took a chance.")

ANTOINE CARR - Carr spent most of last season in the training room or on the bench in San Antonio. The Spurs had given up on the 33-year-old Carr, and apparently so had other teams.

Carr was still looking for employment after the preseason ended and didn't sign with the Jazz until just before the season opener, and then in part because of Karl Malone's recommendations to Layden. Carr, whom skeptics said would be lucky to last 10 games with a healthy body, played in 78 games (he missed three with a poked eye) and averaged 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 21.5 minutes and shot 53 percent from the field.

JEFF HORNACEK - In 1990, the Jazz gave up Bobby Hansen and Eric Leckner to get Jeff Malone from Philadelphia. In reality, they got Jeff Hornacek for Hansen and Leckner (talk about a deal).

Midway through last season, the Jazz traded Malone for Hornacek, a younger All-Star guard with better shooting range who is considered a better team player. For their trouble, the Sixers freed up salary.

Malone played in just 19 games this season because of injury. Hornacek played in 81 games, averaging 16.5 points and shooting 51 percent from the field (40 percent from three-point range).

The deals go on and on. The Jazz also picked up free agents David Benoit (who had been playing in Spain), John Crotty (from the Global Basketball League), Tom Chambers (cut loose by Phoenix) and James Donaldson (in retirement), and drafted Jamie Watson and Bryon Russell in the second round.

The result of all this back-room manuevering is that the Jazz have wound up with four lottery picks who were drafted by other teams - Carr, Keefe, Chambers and Spencer - not to mention a number of other able role players.

The question is, aside from Hornacek, whose value was obvious, what did the Jazz and Layden see in these players that other teams didn't?

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," says Chiesa.

While watching films of Atlanta, Chiesa says the Jazz noticed that Keefe "played hard without the ball" and did it for a losing team, where the temptation often is to dog it or play selfishly. They believed that would make him a valuable asset for the Jazz, where he would have to play without the ball because it was usually in the hands of Malone or Stockton.

In Spencer, they saw a player who wound up on the bench partly because he was always in foul trouble. But on film the Jazz saw the reason: "He was always rotating over to help out on the dribbler on penetration and getting called for a foul," says Chiesa. "We thought, this is a team-oriented player on a lesser team."

In Edwards, the Jazz knew they would get a player who could give them another outside shot off the bench and additional athleticism, and he understood that Stockton and Malone were the stars. In Carr, they saw a big player who nonetheless relied more on finesse than power, plus he brought a college kid's enthusiasm to the club.

"I call them born-again players," says Chiesa. "They were always good guys, but with their previous team it didn't work out for a variety of reasons. You can't let others affect your thinking. Many question you. Who is Adam Keefe? Who is Felton Spencer? You have to judge players and make them better.

"We study films all time. We watch a player's value system to see if it matches our value system and needs. If he's setting a screen. If he's passing into the low post. How he runs the floor. How he attacks the boards. It's all based on intensity, hard work and team orientation."

Chiesa repeatedly credits Layden's skills as a judge of talent and a mastermind of trades. Asked about this, Layden says, "A lot of it is gut instinct."

Layden's trade savvy has become a necessity, since the Jazz have had nothing but late draft picks for a decade and have had little luck with the players they have drafted (see Jose Ortiz, Leckner, Murdock, Luther Wright, Walter Palmer, Issac Austin, etc.). And, too, they are running out of time in which to develop rookies since their most immediate goal is to make the most the Malone-Stockton years before they're gone.

"In the last few years we've opted to stay away from the draft and use players who can help us now," says Layden. "The hot topic around here now is how long is the window of opportunity going to stay open. We have two superstars, and we felt like we wanted to take advantage of Karl and John now, so we have an opportunity to win a championship."

So the Jazz have assembled this varied, rather odd collection of players from other teams. Maybe no one else saw much in them, but they've prospered together in Utah. Says Chiesa, "For the Jazz, the sum really is greater than any of its parts."