At roughly the one-quarter mark of this NBA season, Kevin O'Connor doesn't sound anymore sure of where the Jazz are than the average fan.

"I think I'd like to hold the review for another 15 or 20 games," said the team's vice president for basketball operations. "Right now, that would be a tough call."

No kidding. Normally a model of consistency, the 10-12 Jazz have been anything but consistent. One night they appear to have put things together, blowing past a talented Dallas team in the fourth quarter for their third win in a row. Two nights later, they positively disappear in a decisive third quarter against Minnesota.

Despite those schizophrenic efforts, O'Connor has seen enough good to be encouraged.

"I will say this: We're going to be a better team at the end of the year than we are right now," he said. "I've seen improvement. Discounting the third quarter of (Wednesday's) game, I see things we do more consistently. Some of it is growing pains."

O'Connor, of course, is the guy largely responsible for putting this team together. He got the credit when the Jazz, with limited resources due in part to the specter of the luxury tax, acquired free-agent center John Amaechi in the offseason. The Jazz also convinced talented rookie Andrei Kirilenko to join the team and made a second-round draft find in unheralded Jarron Collins.

Combine those moves, minor as they were, with the fact Utah won 53 games last season, and it should come as no surprise that O'Connor is surprised by the team's slow start.

"Would I have predicted we'd be where we are now?" he said. "No. I thought we'd be better. That doesn't mean I expected business as usual, either. I thought it would be a growing process."

The problem is, the guys who should be experiencing growing pains are pretty much playing up to or even above the level one might have expected of them. But the Jazz's veterans, the guys who should be on the court in the fourth quarter, have not. Six Jazz games easily could have gone the other way, including three defeats in overtime, if only the team had been able to close.

"What we need is the ability to finish games," O'Connor said.

What fans probably are hoping is the Jazz will be able to pull off a trade ("Hey, why don't we trade Quincy Lewis for Tracy McGrady?") to improve their fortunes. Teams are expected to do some dealing soon, with Saturday being the first day players signed during the summer can be swapped.

"I think there will be some deals going down," O'Connor said. "I'm not sure there will be any major deals the first day. There are a lot of people talking. There are a lot of teams with big payrolls that aren't performing."

You could include the Jazz in that group, considering they have the league's ninth-highest payroll. You could also include the Jazz's opponent tonight at the Delta Center, the Portland Trail Blazers, who have the No. 2 payroll. Both had higher expectations; both are underachieving.

If the Jazz were to make a deal, it seems most likely it would be for a big guard or a center. Sloan has three big guards to choose from, but none has stood out. And both Utah centers — Greg Ostertag and Amaechi — have fallen out of coach Jerry Sloan's regular rotation.

The problem with acquiring centers, O'Connor pointed out, is that "everybody needs a big guy."

Further complicating that problem is the fact that liberalized defensive rules this season have devalued one-dimensional centers who got by strictly by being big, without posing an offensive threat.

"The players that are non-offensive players have become a liability, because of the zone rules," O'Connor said.

Asked to characterize the Jazz's involvement in trade talks, O'Connor said, "Limited. You can say typical or limited. If we can make a deal for the right reasons, we won't hesitate."

One factor the Jazz will have to consider as they talk trade is the future. They are at a franchise crossroad, with seven players facing free agency next summer, including major contributors Donyell Marshall and Bryon Russell. O'Connor is well-aware of the challenge he faces.

"It's a change year," he said. "We have to determine how we're going to play and what we're going to do. We're not going to stand still."

As for the present, O'Connor remains hopeful the Jazz will turn things around — permanently — and continue moving up in the standings toward a playoff berth.

"If you had been in Bora Bora for a couple weeks and come back and found out we'd won four of five, you'd think that was pretty good," he said.


E-MAIL: rich@desnews.com