At the midway point of this truncated regular season, it's clear Karl Malone is having an off year -- at least by his own lofty standards. And he's the first to admit it. He's still in the top five in the league in scoring average and among the top 20 in rebounding, but both those numbers are down from the past.
Malone's extended shooting slump is the biggest concern. The Mailman has been one of the most accurate shooters in the league during his long career, but he's making just 45.7 percent of his field goals this year, his lowest ever. He entered this season as a career 53 percent shooter from the field and had never been below 49.6 percent in a given year. Only twice -- as a rookie and in 1993-94 -- has Malone missed more than half of his shots."It's been eight or nine or 10 games in a row that I haven't shot the ball well," said Malone.
Even on Sunday when he scored a team-high 31 points, Malone didn't shoot well. He was only 9-for-23 from the field and 13-of-20 from the foul line.
His 9.3 rebounds per game average is also his lowest output in that department since he was a rookie in 1985-86.
It's not that Malone's lower numbers are because he's playing less this season, either. In fact, Malone's averaging 37.7 minutes per game -- which is more than a minute more per outing than he played on average during the 1996-97 season, the year he won the MVP Award.
Malone was just 5-for-21 from the field in Utah's 83-82 loss to the Hornets on Friday night -- and he missed potential game-winning shots in both regulation and overtime. He called it the worst game of his career, although he used a much more colorful word than "worst" to describe it.
Should Malone's relatively poor shooting be a major concern to the Jazz? Probably not. He's still the best player on the team and the most prolific scorer by far, even if he now has enough help around him that he doesn't have to score 30 points per night to give the Jazz a chance to win. To his credit, he made a couple of big shots in the overtime on Sunday against the Pistons after the Jazz had fallen down by five, helping them tie it back up. He may well get over his shooting slump, have a huge second half of the year and win himself another MVP trophy.
But with only 25 regular season games remaining, it would benefit him and the Jazz if he gets over the slump sooner rather than later.
With two days off in the nation's capital, most of the Jazz players turned into everyday, ordinary tourists when they visited some of the nearby historical sites.
But Malone, John Stockton, Adam Keefe, Todd Fuller, Greg Foster, strength coach Mark McKown and assistant trainer Terry Clark had the best stories to tell. They received a VIP tour of the national FBI headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Not only did they get the royal treatment from an FBI agent who happened to be a Jazz fan, but they were allowed to shoot federal weapons -- including machine guns -- on the FBI's shooting range. As you might imagine, for Malone, who enjoys guns so much that he has a shooting range in his own Salt Lake City home, it was like Christmas to a kid. And now you'll know why some of these guys are wearing their FBI baseball caps around for awhile.
Keefe, who started 75 games for the Jazz last season on a pretty good team, played 10 strong minutes in the first half against the Pistons on Sunday. He made his only shot from the field, had eight total rebounds (three offensive), two assists and a blocked shot with no turnovers. The Jazz led by 16 points at the break.
But Keefe was not to be found on the court in the second half. He never got off the bench, except to shout encouragement to teammates a few times. There may have been a logical reason for this -- like that the Jazz coaches didn't think Keefe could guard Grant Hill. But with the Jazz once again getting killed by second chances -- Detroit had 21 offensive boards -- and with the effort Keefe showed in the first half (eight rebounds in 10 minutes) shouldn't he have at least gotten a chance?
WEEK IN REVIEW
At least the Jazz got their final four-game trip of the year out of the way. They ended up splitting the four games -- although they all feel they should have come away 4-0. A couple of overtime losses after losing big leads will do that to you.
Even though they started the week with wins in Minnesota and Washington, there was reason to be concerned. In both of those games they surrendered big leads before holding on to win at the end. That came back to haunt them in consecutive losses at Charlotte and Detroit. Face it, championship-caliber teams shouldn't give up eight-point leads in the final three minutes (against the Hornets) or 16-point leads to open the fourth quarter (Pistons). The Jazz have some sole-searching to do.
A LOOK AHEAD
One quick home game against the best team in the Eastern Conference and the Jazz will start living out of suitcases once again in a relatively light week during this hyperactive regular season. The Jazz face Pat Riley's Miami Heat on Tuesday night (early game-time of 6 p.m. for TNT) before going on the road this weekend to play two of the Western Conference's worst -- the Vancouver Grizzlies and L.A. Clippers. There really is no reason they should lose any one of them. They have the Heat in their house and the Grizz and Clips aren't that good. But the way the Jazz have played the past couple of games, you never know.
Projected record: 3-0, which would make them 22-6 overall.
POINT GUARDS: Eisley had perhaps the best game of his career on Thursday night. He scored a season-high 17 points, grabbed a career-best 10 rebounds and dished out five assists in 24 minutes in the win over the Wizards. It was enough that Sloan kept Stockton on the bench a couple of minutes more than usual -- as Stockton waited anxiously on the bench. Stockton, meanwhile, is still the master passer. He dished out 10 assists on Friday night, although he was only 2-for-10 shooting from the field. Stockton added 11 points and nine boards against the Pistons, while Eisley in front of his hometown fans had an off game with five turnovers and only two assists. Jacque Vaughn played less than one second against Detroit but did his job beautifully. He was put in the game during overtime to commit a foul and he did it in nine-tenths of a second. Grade: B-plus.
OFF-GUARDS: Jeff Hornacek continues to amaze with his array of off-balance floaters that somehow go in. He was the only Jazzman on Friday night to play well, scoring 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting -- although he uncharacteristically missed a free throw in the final minute of overtime that would have tied the game. He has the best shooting percentage of any guard in the league at 52 percent. Hornacek, a former point guard, can still pass, too. He had eight assists against Detroit. Shandon Anderson has been slowly working back into the form he showed early in the year. Grade: B-plus.
SMALL FORWARDS: Bryon Russell put together back-to-back clunkers before a strong outing on Sunday. He scored just four points in Washington on Thursday night and followed it up with perhaps his worst game of the year on Friday when he shot 1-for-7 from the field against the Hornets with only three rebounds. Russell had 15 points and 11 boards against the Pistons, however. Keefe's eight boards in 10 minutes against the Pistons was impressive -- but not impressive enough for him to be on the court in the second half or overtime. Grade: C.
POWER FORWARDS: Malone called it the worst game of his career on Friday. If it weren't for his 15 rebounds and the fact that he held Derrick Coleman to 2-for-11 shooting, it would be easy to agree. One reason for Malone's shooting percentage being down is that he's taking more outside shots than he did earlier in his career. But even when he gets inside he's not making teams pay. Malone missed at least four layups on Friday night. He had 31 points with 12 boards against Detroit. Thurl Bailey played just one minute in the first half against the Pistons because he suffered a bruise to his right knee. He came back to make two key blocks in the final minutes but missed one of his two late free-throw attempts when every point counted. Bailey had a grand total of two points and three rebounds in 17 minutes in the games against Washington and Charlotte. Grade: C.
CENTER: Ostertag actually has been a bright spot on the team of late and has shown some consistency. His ejection on Sunday seemed to be the turning point. When he was tossed with one minute left in the third the Jazz were up 16. With him gone, the Pistons relentlessly drove to the hoop -- and usually got fouled -- during their comeback. Ostertag is still yet to score in double figures this season, but that's not his role. As long as he continues to average double figures in rebounds and three blocked shots -- as he has in his past five games -- he'll be doing his job. As Ostertag's play has improved, playing time for Greg Foster and Todd Fuller has naturally decreased. Grade: B.