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Little expected of Jazz

Some experts think they’ll end up last in NBA

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MEXICO CITY — Making fun of a franchise in transition is not exactly the national pastime in Mexico, where tonight in Mexico City the Jazz open their eight-game preseason schedule against the Dallas Mavericks.

North of the border, however, taking potshots at coach Jerry Sloan's youthful rebuilding bunch seems to be the in-thing for pundits and prognosticators from sea to shining sea.

"Poor Sloan and the Jazz faithful are in for a culture shock," ESPN.com’s Marc Stein writes from back East.

"Don't look now," chimes ESPN Web site contributor Frank Hughes, Stein's Seattle area-based colleague, "but the upcoming season's version of the Jazz could be the worst team in NBA history."

Guesses as to how many games the Jazz might win in 2003-04 vary.

Athlon Sports Pro Basketball magazine suggests "the best the stripped-down Jazz can reasonably hope for is 30." Pro Basketball Preview says 21.

Then there is Hughes, who seems to be the most-pessimistic of predictors.

"Behind Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jerry Sloan, the Jazz has been the NBA's metronome, its sunrise, exhibiting professionalism and talent at the same time, making the playoffs every season, going to the Finals twice, placing the Wasatch Mountains on the world map," Hughes wrote recently. "Now, with both of those future Hall of Famers gone, the Jazz is going to continue its consistency. It is going to be consistently bad. And I don't mean like Los Angeles Clippers bad. I mean like the nine-win Philadelphia 76ers bad."

Those are stinging words heard loud and clear in Utah, where the Jazz have been perennial participants in the NBA postseason for the past 20 years — including 19 with now-retired point guard Stockton, and 18 with now-Los Angeles Laker Malone.

"I think we're gonna be a better basketball team," said Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's senior vice president of basketbll operations, "than people are giving us credit for."

Which really is very little, by the way.

Stein has the Jazz rated dead-last in his preseason power rankings. Ditto for InsideHoops.com, though it does so somewhat grudgingly, writing, "It seems wrong to have the Jazz ranked lowest in the league."

Still, so many do, in print, in opinion, and deep down in their hearts.

Some rank the Jazz lowest in the league, some lowest in the NBA's Western Conference, nearly all last in the Midwest Division. None offer much hope for a 21st straight trip to the playoffs:

The Sporting News, as penned by Deseret Morning News sports editor and former Jazz beat writer Loren Jorgensen: "Utah never has been in the NBA's draft lottery, but it will have plenty of ping-pong balls after this season."

Pro Basketball Preview: " … the Jazz don't have anywhere near the team needed to consistently win in the West."

ESPNInsider's Chad Ford: "(Utah) did salvage Keon Clark in a deal for a second-round pick, but he won't be enough to keep the Jazz from having the worst record in the league next season."

HoopsHype.com: "Utah's offense will not be a beautiful thing to see … Turnovers will be a constant problem … There is no clear go-to guy … Overall, the team lacks talent and depth."

ESPN.com’s Marc Spears, who also covers the Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post: "The last time the Jazz failed to make the postseason was 1982-83 when they finished fifth in the Midwest Division at 30-52. Considering their roster and how tough the Western Conference is, matching that mark from 20 years ago isn't a given for Utah."

Jim Feist's Pro Basketball Preview: "Utah fans should hang on their memories of last season, because it could be the last time the playoffs will visit Utah for a while."

Like O'Connor, Sloan knows how the Jazz are being disparaged nationally. And it hurts the man who has been at the helm in Utah for a decade-and-a-half now.

"I don't like to lose," Sloan said. "And, if anything, I don't like to be gouged in the side, so to speak. To me, that's motivation enough."

Motivation, that is, to prove the naysayers wrong.

"If you don't like to play, it doesn't make any difference what people say or do. It's not going to affect you," Sloan said. "But if you like to play, that's got to get in your ribs a little bit."

Ow.

That's the message Sloan delivered directly to his club — 12 players with guaranteed contracts, seven more seeking a roster spot — when training camp opened Wednesday.

Not that they needed to hear it.

Because even those new to Utah know full well what so many have been saying, and writing and predicting.

And they don't like it any more than guys like O'Connor and Sloan.

"Even though people are writing us off this year, we still have a chance to go out there on the court and show them wrong," guard Raja Bell, who signed with the Jazz this summer as a free agent from Dallas, said even before Sloan spoke. "So, it's all up to how hard you're willing to work in training camp and preseason, and prepare for what really counts."

It all starts tonight, in Mexico, where at least for one weekend the Jazz can escape a nation that questions their talent, their heart and their hope of repeating what came so regularly in the era of Stockton-to-Malone.

Jazz vs. Mavericks

WHEN: 4 p.m. (mountain time) today

WHERE: Palacio de los Deportes, Mexico City

TV: None

RADIO: KFNZ 1320-AM

NOTES: It's the Jazz's preseason opener … New Jazz guard Raja Bell played for Dallas last season … All 19 players in Utah's training camp traveled here.


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com