The beauty of the Utah Jazz is not that they've summarily embarrassed anyone who suggested they'd be singularly bad without John Stockton and Karl Malone. The beauty is they've done it without embarrassing themselves by playing the frayed and familiar No Respect card.
In a day and age when even fans crow if their team does better than expected -- as if the fan, somehow, had something to do with the reversal of fortune -- the Jazz have let the misguided critics know how they feel and otherwise quietly gone about their business.
"I'm not going to make predictions like 'We're going to make the playoffs' or 'We're going to win a certain number of games,' " small forward Matt Harpring said. "It's still early. We've had a good start and we'll see where it takes us. All we knew coming in is that we'd play hard every night and in this league, if you play hard every night, you're going to have a chance to win some games."
Then again, you'd expect no less from a franchise that has long operated under coach Jerry Sloan on a plane that can't be defined by statistics or salaries or even wins and losses. The Jazz don't run precise sets, share the ball and play hard, never presume an outcome and prepare for every opponent because Sloan will shoot them if they don't or because this is the last stop on the NBA block for them or because a post-victory confetti shower is about as sexy as Salt Lake City gets. All of those factors may be true to some extent, but it's not enough to keep five foreign players -- counting Virgin Islander Raja Bell -- and five rookies so resolutely on the same page.
The primary reason? They all believe to do anything else would be disrespectful to their craft. When the Jazz lost in overtime to the Rockets last week, Sloan wasn't unhappy that they blew a fourth-quarter lead and missed free throws. He was unhappy that after Bell missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation, he let his disappointment distract him defending Cuttino Mobley.
"We felt sorry for ourselves and it showed, dramatically," Sloan said. "You have to be tougher than that."
"Jerry's thing is that it's a privilege to play in the NBA," says Rockets swingman Scott Padgett, who spent the previous four seasons with the Jazz. "Working hard is the way you pay for that privilege. They're probably practicing harder now that John and Karl aren't there."
Which, strange as it may sound, means they're better off with two of the 50 greatest players of all time elsewhere. That's no disrespect for what Pick-and-Roll 101 accomplished. Nor is it saying this squad will top last year's 47-win team, the last stand for Stockton and Malone. It's simply saying that the team couldn't develop its other talent as long as they were squeezing the last bit of production out of John and Karl. Practices were short and the tempo was slow to best suit two 40-somethings. The multiple variations of the pick and roll left all the decision-making primarily to two people; now they get out on the break when they can and run a pure motion half-court offense when they can't. It's allowed them to lose point guard Carlos Arroyo and power forward Keon Clark, both starters, to injury, and not miss a beat.
"John and Karl made our jobs easier, but sometimes we'd stand around and just watch what they did," Andrei Kirilenko said. "The new way is the only way for us to play as we are."
Stockton's and Malone's role as team sheriffs could have posed a bigger challenge to fill. The Jazz are unique in that they have a strict set of team rules, yet are one of the few in the NBA with no fine system. Talk on your cell phone in the locker room or the team bus, joke around in practice, purposely pull your jersey out of your shorts during a game, sport too much bling-bling or be late for anything and it won't cost you a dime. It would, in the past, get you a private audience with Stockton or Malone. Now the enforcers are Harpring, with an assist from Greg Ostertag. (A team official scoffed at Ostertag being mentioned as one of the team's leaders, but both Padgett and Harpring singled Ostertag out as such.) You'd think the message coming from one guy who has been with four teams in six seasons, and another who has been labeled an overpaid underachiever wouldn't carry quite the same heft as from two Hall of Famers. You'd be wrong. Again.
Of course, with all the new faces and foreign flavor on the team, the attention to detail can take you to some strange places. When the Jazz faced the Rockets, Kirilenko had his hair cut so it looked like a blond skunk's tail had been draped on his head. I asked him what hairstyle he was going for. "Mohawk," he said. For a true mohawk, I countered, the sides of your head have to be shaved instead of simply shorter than the band in the middle.
Two nights later, I caught the Jazz on TV. I'd swear Kirilenko had tightened up the sides, maintaining the Jazz credo that if you're going to do something, do it right.
Sloan wouldn't want it any other way.