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Jazz still not good enough to win it

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Kevin O'Connor, the Utah Jazz's director of basketball operations, should be commended. Since joining the club two summers ago, he has made significant changes. He brought in John Starks, Danny Manning and Donyell Marshall. He drafted high school star DeShawn Stevenson, a risky but daring step in franchise history.

He recently added center John Amaechi to his list of acquisitions.

Given the salary-cap restrictions, he has done a good job of keeping the Jazz from falling into oblivion the way Boston did after its glory days.

O'Connor's latest move, by all indications, was a shrewd one. In essence, he swapped free agent Olden Polynice for free agent Amaechi. The latter is both younger and more versatile. At a certain level, O'Connor improved the Jazz. No longer should they have long stretches in which nobody scores from that position.

Considering salary cap restraints, it was as good as they could have hoped. The Jazz even beat out teams such as the Bulls and Lakers to acquire Amaechi.

Still, before Jazz fans get out their old "Western Conference Champions" T-shirts too quickly, consider this: They still haven't changed the equation. The Jazz aren't good enough to get back to the NBA Finals.

All adding Amaechi did was keep them from becoming invisible. They now find themselves in a familiar position, treading water.

After making the NBA Finals two straight years, expectations for the Jazz rose. Having one of the league's best records and going to the conference finals was no longer enough. That had become as familiar as those "Back to the Future" reruns on cable. But for three straight years, they have failed to advance beyond the second round.

Adding Marshall and Starks seemed to be a major boost. Nevertheless, it didn't get the Jazz anywhere. They lost to Dallas last spring after leading their first-round playoff series 2-0. Which raises the question: Will the addition of the erudite Amaechi significantly change anything?

The answer: Not unless the NBA champion is decided by a spelling contest.

Despite some improvement in the middle, the Jazz are still ill-equipped to beat the Lakers. They still don't have an answer for Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant. Heck, they don't even seem to have an answer for a healthy Derek Fisher.

Meanwhile, they aren't equipped to combat the San Antonio duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. They don't have the depth to beat Portland in the playoffs. Now that Chris Webber has re-signed with Sacramento, it's doubtful they could beat the Kings.

It's unlikely they have even improved enough to beat Dallas in the playoffs, their nemesis last year.

Amaechi is a decent offensive player, but Utah still hasn't addressed its inconsistency at off-guard. DeShawn Stevenson is still too young to be much help. Quincy Lewis looks as though he could be headed for a career in Europe. Bryon Russell was never comfortable playing guard.

At forward, Andrei Kirilenko is a rising talent but only 21 years old. He won't be a factor for two or three years. By the time Kirilenko matures, Karl Malone and John Stockton will be in their 40s.

As long as Stockton and Malone remain, the Jazz will continue to be a good team but not a championship one. Both now must play against younger, more athletic players at their positions. The Jazz superstars can no longer put the team on their backs and carry it deep into the playoffs.

O'Connor has made it no secret he plans to improve the team by whatever means necessary. That leaves the door open to more acquisitions, which could change the situation. But for now, the Jazz are still no better than the fourth- or fifth-best team in the West. That isn't good enough to get them back to the Finals. In fact, it isn't good enough to get them past the second round.

Amaechi's arrival, then, is good news for Jazz fans. It means they are still moving ahead. But it's not celebrating news. If the Jazz intend to get back to the Finals, more changes or additions must occur. Otherwise, plan on them finishing up in early May once again. Schedule your vacation accordingly.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com