As recently as last summer, conventional wisdom held that the Utah Jazz were looking at several inevitable seasons of futility once the Karl Malone-John Stockton era ended.
Now, team owner Larry H. Miller isn't so sure.
He's seen enough bright moments, enough encouraging signs to give him hope that the Jazz might avoid the kind of rebuilding pains that have plagued their old NBA Finals nemesis, the Bulls.
Miller discussed the future of the Jazz, and a couple other topics, in a recent interview at the Delta Center. The Jazz had just won, so he was in a good mood. But, he points out, he's frequently found himself feeling less anguish than usual when the Jazz lose this season because he's known the effort was there.
"I can handle losing if we leave it all on the floor," he said.
For the most part, that's what he's seen. He admits having already taken a special liking to this season's squad, which seems to have overlooked the fact they weren't supposed to be any good.
"These guys are so exciting," he said. "It's kind of like they don't know any better, and they're just going to go out and play hard. We need that quality."
By "we," Miller was referring not just to himself but to the team's fans. And he says the feedback from the faithful has been very positive so far.
"And the surprising thing is it's come very quickly," he said. "It really began during the 9-1 run, but then people didn't give up on us during the four-game losing streak."
As evidence that fans are feeling some revived interest, the Jazz sold out their most recent home game, Monday against the Raptors — a fairly remarkable feat, considering it was a match-up against a struggling team on a night when the Utes were also playing, against the No. 1 team in the country.
Even more noteworthy is the fact it was the Jazz's third sellout of the season. Last season they didn't get their first sellout until Dec. 29, and they didn't get their third until March 21.
Even more encouraging for the Jazz is the fact they annually see more interest from fans after Christmas. And Miller thinks people are starting to recognize that this is a pretty fun team to watch.
"Last year, we really didn't have as much to offer as we do this year," he acknowledged. "Karl and John did their thing, but we didn't have as strong a supporting cast. Consistency is still needed, but what's neat is that anyone is capable of igniting this team."
As for the Jazz future, Miller thinks moves have been made that will help the franchise dodge a serious slump.
"Last year I couldn't have said that," he conceded. "This year I'd say we can and believe it."
The key to that, of course, is for the Jazz to use their imminent salary-cap largesse to attract a cornerstone free agent or two. It remains to be seen whether they'll succeed, but for now, Miller is happy with the makeup of his team.
"Before the season started, I was talking to John and I said, 'About midseason we're going to be surprising some people,' " Miller said. "And John got serious and said, 'Larry, we're going to be surprising people before midseason.' "
Here's more from Miller on league-related topics:
Expansion. A few owners have expressed reservations about the NBA's planned expansion to 30 teams in 2004 with a return to Charlotte, but Miller said he can understand what the league honchos are thinking.
"The league felt very good about the market there, and the league hates to abandon markets," he said.
Concerns have been raised about further talent dilution, but Miller doesn't think that's a huge issue now.
"There were 23 teams when we bought the Jazz, and they added the next six in fairly short time," he said. "Clearly that did dilute the talent for a while, but to me it seems to have caught up."
As evidence, Miller points to the league standings, where — especially with the Lakers struggling — there appears to be more parity than in recent seasons.
"The East is looking stronger than it has been," he said.
Players and effort. "It's not the talent level anymore that's the problem, it's the effort level," he said. "If the effort's there, it's exciting basketball."
One reason the effort isn't there, Miller said, is that players are given accolades before they deserve them.
"We have elevated too many of our young athletes to stardom status, and they haven't earned it yet," he said. "There's a cockiness there where they don't respect the sport. They often have the technical skills before they have the emotional skills."
Miller says that becomes a problem when fans start noticing that there are guys giving half-efforts.
"I worry about the future of pro sports if we don't provide fans with their money's worth, and to me that means effort," he said. "Many of these players haven't learned yet what it takes to really do it."
As an example, Miller pointed to the Grizzlies' talented but misguided point guard, Jason Williams.
"I'm not a fan of Jason Williams, even though he's sometimes a fun guy to watch," he said. "But I heard him say, 'If I have to play basketball like John Stockton, I don't want to be in the NBA.' And he still hasn't gotten it. He has a lot of talent, but he hasn't got a lot of discipline."
While making it clear that he's not a media basher, Miller agreed that there are times when they're guilty of over-hyping young players.
"The media gets so hungry for substantive stories that they create a vacuum that sucks stories into it," he said. "They may get even hungrier than fans, just because of the nature of the business."