But today, the Jazz occupies third place, behind the upstart San Antonio Spurs and surging Houston Rockets. Utah has lost seven of its past 10 games to drop to 34-24, and veteran coach Jerry Sloan is hoping it is not an irreversible tailspin.
His co-All-Star Game MVPs -- point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone -- carry the offense and it's beginning to take a physical toll. The players refuse to use their participation in the Olympics as an excuse, but Sloan sees a connection.
"Fatigue is definitely a factor," the coach said. "My best two players are tired, and when they struggle, we all struggle."
But Sloan realizes that if he cuts their playing time, the team could go on an extended losing streak and lose home-court advantage in the playoffs.
"We'll keep playing them and see what happens," he said. "Once we get a break in the schedule, we should be all right."
Said Malone: "Players are always bitching about not getting enough minutes. So I'm not going to start complaining about playing toomany."
Added Stockton: "I don't feel any more tired than any other season. Fatigue is always a factor over 82 games, but you have to play through it."
The real problem with the Jazz is a lack of depth. Veteran center Mark Eaton has become a diminished defensive force and frontcourt reserve David Benoit is still fighting inconsistency.
The offense is predictable, with everything geared to getting the ball inside to Karl Malone. Former Washington Bullets guard Jeff Malone, the team's principal outside threat, is having a down year. His scoring average has dipped to 15.0, five points lower than last season.
Sloan needs someone else to step up and take the pressure off his two All-Stars. Otherwise, they'll continue to play 40-plus minutes a game.
No Oscar performance
Jackson, who finally agreed to a guaranteed six-year deal worth $19 million, finished with six points, four assists and five turnovers in 26 minutes.
"He can already do a lot of things guys on our team can't do," said interim coach Gar Heard, who will be replaced by Quinn Buckner next season. "The thing that impressed me most was he really tries to find the open man."
Said forward Randy White: "I told Jim not to worry about the fans. I know there's a lot of pressure on him to play well. I told him the same fans who are on your case now will start cheering for you as soon as you start filling it up."
White is still waiting. A high lottery pick in 1989, he has been hearing Mavericks fans boo him during four unproductive seasons.
New Jersey Nets coach Chuck Daly, having just learned that he has lost point guard Kenny Anderson (16.9 ppg, 8.2 apg) for the rest of the season with a broken left wrist, is outraged that New York Knicks guard John Starks escaped with a $5,000 fine after knocking Anderson to the floor on Feb. 28.
"If Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or Patrick Ewing had been injured that way," said Daly, "there would have been an uproar."
But Knicks guard Doc Rivers said Daly should be the last one to protest. The veteran coach is best remembered for directing the Detroit Pistons' infamous "Bad Boys" to consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and1990, led by the intimidation tactics of Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas.
Rod Thorn, who doles out fines and suspensions as the NBA's vice president of operations, insists there was no reason to suspend Starks for the Anderson incident.
"I didn't see intent at all beyond the excessive contact. 'Intent' meaning something unnecessary and unsportsmanlike," he said after reviewing tapes.
But Daly and the Nets saw things differently, and their next encounter with the Knicks, April 21, should prove quite interesting. In the meantime, Daly will try to make do by juggling Rumeal Robinson and Tate George at the point.
Going to Blazers
If you've checked the recent box scores of the Portland Trail Blazers, you might discern a real change in the thinking of coach Rick Adelman.
It appears Adelman no longer believes he can seriously contend for a title with forward Jerome Kersey and center Kevin Duckworth as starters. Rookie forward Tracy Murray and Mario Elie have taken minutes from Kersey, and all-purpose sixth man Cliff Robinson has replaced Duckworth in the middle.
Look for both Kersey and Duckworth to be gone before camp opens next season.