IN SALT LAKE CITY stability is valued. The longtime owner (Larry Miller) stands behind the longtime coach (Jerry Sloan), who stands behind the time-tested offense (motion with back-picking by guards) that produces consistent results (sustained excellence, though no championship).
The prevailing prove-the-rule exception is Andrei Kirilenko, a wiry eighth-year forward known as much for his insecurity, crying spates and sulking as for his on- and off-the-ball defense, rebounding, shot blocking and passing. And as the Jazz gears up for what should be a contending season, there's an opportunity for more operatic behavior: Sloan seems likely to begin the season with Kirilenko, a starter for 142 straight games, as Utah's sixth man.
"I would be happy with coming off the bench," Kirilenko, 27, told reporters early in the preseason after Sloan had him doing precisely that. "It wouldn't hurt my ego at all."
Sounds good—so far. In truth, Kirilenko could easily look at the role not as a demotion but rather as a nod to his diverse skills. "The second group really lacks a creator," says backup forward Paul Millsap. "That's where Andrei would help a lot." Also, sixth man Matt Harpring's slow return from a right-ankle injury (an infection developed after surgery in mid-June) created a hole to fill.
Kirilenko found out in Beijing how heavy the burden of being a front man can be: He was the Russian flag bearer and leader of a team that lost four straight games. So bringing AK-47 off the bench sounds like a solid stratagem, and he says he's solidly behind it. Which means you'd better stay tuned.
A rival scout on the JAZZ: Carlos Boozer is short for a power forward [at 6'9"], but it doesn't hurt him. He has long arms, great hands and the best footwork of any forward in the league, and he's strong as an ox. When he sits on your legs and boxes you out, you don't go anywhere.... Starting Mehmet Okur on the perimeter creates awkward defensive assignments. Put a center on him, and he'll go well beyond the arc on pick-and-pops. You've got to switch out; if you hesitate, he'll pick you apart with his passing. But if you put a small guy on him, he becomes a very good post-up player. The problem is his defense: He can't guard a chair on the perimeter. To win a title Utah needs a more complete package at his position.... Deron Williams is at his best in the offenses that Jerry Sloan runs: pick-and-roll, floppy sets, reverse-ball and seal-back. He can play in the open floor too, but he's better with a physical style.... I love Ronnie Brewer. He's long and energetic and moves so well without the ball. He has big-time scoring instincts.
Ronnie Brewer's 55.8% shooting from the floor last season led all guards and raised his career mark to 55.1%, the highest percentage ever among shooting guards with at least 100 games played.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: F Andrei Kirilenko, F Paul Millsap, F-G Kyle Korver, F Matt Harpring, G Brevin Knight
Record: 54--28 (4th in West)
Points scored: 106.2 (5th in NBA)
Points allowed: 99.3 (13th)
Coach: Jerry Sloan (20th season with Jazz)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
THAT'S O.K. BY AK Utah's highest-paid player, at $15.1 million, Kirilenko has accepted (for now) a new role that suits his skills.
KENT SMITH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
MELISSA MAJCHRZAK/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH