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Jazz have had more luck with age

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It wasn't long after I heard John Starks might be coming to Utah that I looked up his age in the NBA Register. Sure enough, another middle-aged guy. Here we go again. Make room for one more resident at Jurassic Park.

Starks, who turns 35 Thursday, is the latest in a long line of positively prehistoric players to wear a Jazz uniform. His arrival has been met with mixed reviews by fans. Some are excited; others say the Jazz merely got older. Again.

I have to admit, Starks' age doesn't bother me. Maybe that's because I'm older than he is. But even if that weren't the case, under the circumstances, I've decided "old" remains their best option.

In some instances, having an older team is a problem, like when you're playing the Lakers or Trail Blazers. They can make the Jazz look like one of Jerry Sloan's antique tractors. That's likely to be the case again next season.

Still, the Jazz don't have many options. In the price range they're shopping — the $2.25 million cap exception — there are basically two kinds of players: younger players who haven't proven much of anything and older players who have had good careers but whose best days are behind them.

So the Jazz wisely chose the latter.

Acquiring an older player isn't always bad. When the Jazz traded for Jeff Hornacek in 1994, the knock was that he had questionable knees and was on the downhill side of his career. But he put in 6 1/2 good seasons and was a major factor in two trips to the NBA Finals.

Credit the Jazz with one thing: They have this senior-citizen thing down to a science. Karl Malone is 37, John Stockton 38, Olden Polynice 35. Hornacek, who just retired, is 37, Armen Gilliam, a free agent, is 36. Mark Eaton played until he was 37. Tom Chambers was 35 when he was with the Jazz.

When the Jazz signed Billy "The Whopper" Paultz in 1984, he was 36. He wasn't great, but he was effective enough to help the Jazz get through the first round of the playoffs the next spring. Only a veteran like Paultz would know how to needle a young Hakeem Olajuwon into sucker punching him in the playoffs and getting tossed from the game.

So Starks is 35, and maybe the Jazz practices will have to be short again this year. Big deal. It's not like they haven't dealt with that before.

Everyone knows the Jazz must get younger eventually. So why sign another thirtysomething player now? Because in the short term — which the Jazz must address if they plan to win a championship — older is better. Players like Starks are like a Big Mac — nothing fancy but warmed up and ready to go on a moment's notice. And you know what you're getting.

If acquiring younger players was the simple answer, the L.A. Clippers would be NBA champions. Jamie Watson was young when he played for the Jazz and didn't make a ripple. Jacque Vaughn is young and still hasn't contributed in a lasting way. DeShawn Stevenson is young and the best prospect the Jazz have drafted since Karl Malone. But the Jazz still feel he needs seasoning before he'll be a major contributor. Shandon Anderson was young but didn't become an important part of the team until his third year in the league; then he left at the first opportunity.

Growing old can be treacherous if you're an NBA team. But youth isn't going to help the Jazz win a title, unless it's Tim Duncan or Vince Carter — which is impossible under salary cap restrictions. By the time young players are ready to seriously contribute, John Stockton, and perhaps even Karl Malone, will be retired.

Starks isn't the consistent shooter Jeff Hornacek was. But he does have a couple things Hornacek didn't have at the end of his career: two working knees and a defensive presence. He'll be more reliable than Chris Morris, more mobile than Hornacek, more experienced than either Quincy Lewis or Stevenson.

With the addition of Stevenson and Starks, the Jazz should already be a better team than last year. Starks is a proven commodity with high scoring capability. Stevenson is a great athlete and will help in spots as he learns the NBA game.

But for now, the Jazz will continue to rely on older players to get them their wins. Young players are fine, but sometimes you just don't have the luxury of waiting for them to grow up.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com