This archived article was written by: Robert Young
Coming into the 2003-2004 NBA season, the Utah Jazz were expected to finish near or at the bottom of the NBA standings. With the losses of future hall of fame players John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz were reduced to a roster of NBA no names and journeymen. Yet, under the leadership and guidance of head coach Jerry Sloan, the Jazz has exhibited the intestinal fortitude that have allowed them to not only to compete with, but also beat obviously more talented teams.
As of April 1, the Jazz stood at 39-36 and were tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have been particularly tough at home with an impressive 26-11 record at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.
Andrei Kirilenko is leading the Jazz. Kirilenko came to Utah from his native Russia three years ago. In his third campaign with the Jazz, Kirilenko is averaging 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He was also named to the NBA All-Star team for the first time in his career. In addition to Kirilenko’s brilliance, the Jazz have received significant contributions from guard Carlos Arroyo (12.7 ppg 5.1 apg) and forward Matt Harpring (16.2 ppg 8.0 rpg 2.0 apg). However, Harpring suffered a knee injury in January that required surgery and is expected to miss the remainder of the season unless the Jazz are able to advance deep into the playoffs.
The Jazz experienced one mid-season slump that caused concern for those in the organization. The Jazz even seemed to momentarily slip out of the playoff race. However, management was able to quickly remedy that problem with a few transactions. Via a trade, the Jazz acquired long time NBA veteran Tom Gugliotta from the Phoenix Suns and young European import Gordon Giricek from the Orlando Magic. Gugliotta was once considered one of the league’s premier players in the late 90s until health problems slowed him down. Giricek is a long-range bomber who has provided much needed outside shooting. The Jazz also signed center Mikki Moore. Roster space was made available for Moore when Matt Harpring was sidelined by injury. Moore, who stands seven feet tall, was initially signed to a ten day contract until the Jazz were able to find out the prognosis for Harpring’s injury. However, the enthusiastic and athletic play of Moore impressed the coaching staff and made him a fan favorite. He has since been signed to complete the rest of the season with the Jazz. The new influx of talent along with the much-improved play of reserve guard and NBA sixth man of the year candidate Raja Bell has enabled the Jazz to position themselves to once again make the playoffs. If the Jazz are able to succeed in clinching another post-season spot, they will tie for the current longest streak for consecutive NBA playoff appearances at 21 seasons. Ironically, the tie is with the same franchise the Jazz is competing with for the final position in this year’s playoffs: the Portland Trailblazers.
The unexpected success of this season’s Jazz team has allowed coach Jerry Sloan to finally receive recognition as one of the NBA’s premier coaches. In the past, Sloan was overlooked when it came to receiving accolades because he coached such talented teams. But this season he is the leading candidate for the NBA coach of the year award.
In other basketball news, on March 31 the University of Utah announced former coach Rick Majerus’ successor. Ray Giacoletti was introduced as the new head coach of the Runnin’ Utes. Prior to coming to Utah, the 41-year-old Giacoletti served as the head coach of Eastern Washington University for four years. In 2004 he led Eastern Washington to a 17-13 overall record, was named Big Sky conference coach of the year and took Eastern Washington to its first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Giacoletti takes over a Utah team that went 24-9 and was the Mountain West Conference champions. His first priority as head coach may be to re-recruit sophomore to be Andrew Bogut. Bogut had an outstanding freshman year for Utah and is considering entering the NBA draft instead of returning to the Utes. Giacoletti has already admitted to experiencing some culture shock. At the press conference when he was introduced as Utah’s thirteenth head coach in school history, Giacoletti was surprised by the media turnout. Jokingly, he said he was accustomed to speaking with just a few individuals during his press conferences in Cheney, Washington where Eastern Washington University is located.