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Patient execution: After brief lull, Jazz return to NBA’s elite club

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So here they are again, the Utah Jazz have clinched a playoff spot and are about to clinch another division championship. With five games left in the regular season, they have already collected 51 wins and are once again among the elite teams in the NBA.

This has become routine for the Jazz; so routine that it's easy to overlook what the Jazz have just pulled off.

The Jazz have undergone a complete makeover the last few years, one that was so smooth and quick that it has gone almost unnoticed. In three short years they tore down one of the NBA's best teams and built another one in its place.

Remember all the years of misery they supposedly would have to endure after John Stockton and Karl Malone retired? It turned out to be a bump in the road.

Great teams don't reload this quickly. To wit:

• After the great Celtic teams of the '80s were dismantled, it went into a steep nosedive. Larry Bird retired in 1992, McHale retired in '93 and Robert Parrish in '94. Beginning in '94, the Celtics failed to make the playoffs seven times during the next eight years.

• When the stars of the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon era began to fade and retire in the '90s, the Rockets endured a 10-year span in which they failed to make the playoffs five times and exited the playoffs in the first round five times.

• As Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer neared the end of their careers, finally retiring in 1994, the Detroit Pistons suffered for it for the next 10 years ('92-01), failing to qualify for the playoffs five times and exiting the playoffs in the first round five times, exactly like the Rockets.

• After Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson left the Chicago Bulls, the Bulls failed to make the playoffs seven straight years.

Now consider what the Jazz have done. After thriving for nearly two decades with the John Stockton-Malone duo, the Jazz lost both players in 2003. The following season the Jazz were 42-40. A year later they slipped to 26-56, and the year after that they were 41-41.

In 2007 — a mere four years after the Stockton-Malone exit — they won a division championship with a 51-31 record, returned to the playoffs and advanced to the conference finals.

This season they have already equaled last year's victory total and are again atop their division.

The Jazz reloaded in just three seasons. They might have rebounded even sooner and avoided that one losing season and the .500 season if Boozer hadn't missed 31 games and Andre Kirilenko missed 41 games to injuries in 2004-05. Boozer wound up missing 59 games the following season, as well, and the Jazz still managed to win half their games.

Kevin O'Connor, the team's senior vice president of basketball operations, sportingly notes that injuries are part of the game, but the point is the Jazz had several pieces of the puzzle already in place three years ago.

"We felt like we were an expansion team (when John and Karl left)," says O'Connor, the architect of the Jazz's recovery program.

Both O'Connor and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan give the same answer when asked how the Jazz reloaded so quickly. The Jazz — especially owner Larry Miller, coach Jerry Sloan and O'Connor — had a plan and the patience to execute it."

"Larry stuck to the plan and Kevin stayed on top of it," says Sloan. "This is a patient, stable organization. There aren't a lot of people coming and going."

As a backdrop to this, it's important to note that the Jazz have been a model of consistency and stability for 25 years. They own NBA records for the most consecutive seasons of finishing with a .500 record or better, with 21. That's more than the great Auerbach Celtics (19), more than Magic Johnson's Lakers (16), more than the Celtics of the Larry Bird era (14).

They also own the NBA record for most consecutive winning seasons, with 19.

They rank third in NBA history in most consecutive playoff appearances, with 20, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers (22) and the Portland Trail Blazers (21).

Think about it: In 24 of the last 25 years, Jazz fans have seen one losing season. Along the way their team has ascended to the NBA Finals twice and the conference finals six times while winning seven division titles (soon to be eight).

Remarkably, the Jazz have built one brilliant team, torn it down and built another one while having only one lottery pick in the last 20 years and without getting anything for Stockton, who retired, or Malone, who signed as a free agent with the Lakers in one last desperate bid for a championship.

The Jazz decided to ride Stockton and Malone to the end of the trail, knowing they could have dealt them for a younger player against the future. They did the same thing with Jeff Hornacek a few years earlier.

Loyalty, stability and patience are the hallmarks of the Jazz, which makes them a rarity in professional sports. Both traits permeate the Jazz organization from top to bottom, and it has paid off handsomely in many ways.

When Jordan and Pippen left the Bulls, so did their coach, Jackson. He wasn't about to start over with a new team. He has made his reputation by taking over ready-made teams, and he wasn't going to sully his record with a lottery team. Chuck Daly also made a hasty exit from Detroit when his stars were nearing the ends of their careers, which started the Pistons' 10-year slump.

Not Sloan. When Stockton and Malone left the Jazz, he stayed behind for the rebuilding project. "Jerry stayed, and that's a compliment to him," says O'Connor. "He could have gone to another team, and he knew what was coming."

The patience has been reciprocal. When Sloan's team won only 26 games in '05-06, the Jazz never considered giving him the heave, although many fans wanted it and many other organizations in a similar situation would have obliged.

"I was lucky to survive those 56 losses," says Sloan. "Not many people would have in this league. They say in this league that when you get a job, start looking for another one. I never understood that."

Sloan has experienced this firsthand. He was given his first NBA coaching job in 1979 by Chicago. He had been a legendary player for the Bulls (they retired his jersey), but not even that was enough to earn him patience from the organization. The year after he took the Bulls to a 45-37 record, he was fired midway through his third season when the Bulls were 19-32.

"There was not a lot of patience in Chicago," he says. "It was a gut check, but it doesn't matter now."

It says much about the Jazz that Sloan has the longest tenure in professional sports — 20 seasons with the same team. Only the Atlanta Braves' Bobby Cox (19) is close. In third place is Jeff Fisher, with only 14 seasons as the Tennessee Titans coach, one better than the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan.

When it came time to give the old Jazz a makeover in the post Stockton-Malone era, the Jazz stability was rewarded again. Miller, O'Connor and Sloan had a plan: They would rebuild the Jazz only with players who still had their best years ahead of them — "players who would get better," says O'Connor. They would not sign players at the end of their careers just to help them survive the lean years. That was viewed as shortsighted.

They stuck with the plan even when others might have been tempted to abandon it for a quick fix after the 26-56 season. The Jazz had plenty of cash to pursue free agents, but they weren't rushing out to spend it.

"Everyone was saying, 'You've got all that money under the cap; why don't you spend it,"' recalls O'Connor. "But we wanted players who could better themselves and better us. We wanted to get to the elite level — that was the terminology we talked about. We couldn't do that with players who were temporary measures."

The Jazz tried and failed to sign Corey Maggette and Jason Terry. Not to be denied again, O'Connor offered Boozer a huge $70 million contract to lure him away from Cleveland — reportedly, $20 million more than the next highest bidder. Critics thought he overpaid, especially when injuries caused Boozer to miss 80 games in his first two seasons with the team. Fans and media wanted the Jazz to trade him. O'Connor stuck to the plan.

"It was not a consideration," says O'Connor. "We wanted to go further with it. We had 26 wins, but we didn't want to panic. We wanted to build a foundation with players who could continue to get better. We thought we could afford the first year or two (of Carlos' salary), and then we'd be right at market value."

That same season he also offered Mehmet Okur, a two-year veteran with the Pistons, a fat $50 million contract.

A year later, O'Connor made the most of the Jazz's lone lottery pick, snagging Deron Williams, the precocious point guard. Part of that was due to luck — the Jazz's only losing season in the last quarter century gave them the sixth pick in the draft. O'Connor traded the Jazz's No. 6 and No. 27 draft picks to move up to the No. 3 pick so they could draft Williams.

Last spring, O'Connor stole Paul Milsap in the second round. This season, O'Connor sent 30-year-old Gordon Giricek to Philadelphia for 26-year-old Kyle Korver.

In short, the Jazz have rebuilt the oldest team in the league into one of the youngest, with seven of the team's 14 players having played three or fewer seasons in the league. Only three players remain from Stockton and Malone's final season in '02-03 — Jarron Collins, Matt Harpring and Kirilenko.

"It comes from Larry," says O'Connor. "He was willing to accept the fact that late in John and Karl's careers we were going to let them play out their careers here and not get any trade value. Larry wanted it that way. We explained to Larry what was going to happen. The second thing is that he understood it was going to take some time. We live in an impatient world. He was patient."

Sloan agrees. "The philosophy is to stay with the people we have here," says the coach. "We're not fighting each other. If someone gets on me, it's not like they're going to get rid of me. We get along and that gives us a fighting chance. Everybody is doing the best he can do."

As for O'Connor, he can scarcely hide his pleasure at the team's quick recovery, but ask him if he is surprised by it, he says, "We feel fortunate about it, but we feel we can continue to get better."

E-mail: drobx@desnews.com