The Utah Jazz enjoyed a 20-year run of success, making the playoffs every year from 1984 to 2003.
For the second year of that run, they drafted John Stockton 16th overall. For the third, they drafted Karl Malone 13th. No team before or since has managed to grab Hall of Famers in the draft in consecutive years despite being locked in what is normally Mediocrity Hell; the Jazz went 45-37 in 1984 and 41-41 in 1985.
13 years later, the Jazz made consecutive NBA Finals to cap off the prime of their two long-standing superstars.
And in 1997, Utah set the franchise record for regular-season wins and capped it off with a run all the way to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they ran face-first into Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the destroyer of dreams for a total of five Western Conference teams in six Finals.
Let’s take a look at the 64-18 pinnacle of the Jazz franchise and break down the record, the players, and the coach.
The On-Court Record
Utah went 64-18 in 1997 while putting up the second-ranked offense and ninth-ranked defense. Their plus-9.7 Net Rating ranked second in the entire NBA, topped only by Chicago’s historic plus-12.0.
The Jazz led the league in field goal percentage, hitting 50.4 percent of their shots. They were eighth in 3-point percentage at 37.0 and tops in 2-point shooting at 52.6 percent. And no team got to the line like the Jazz; their FTR was a whopping .389.
Even in 1997, a dominant enough low-post game could prove more efficient than a 3-point attack—Utah was dead last in 3PAR, but all those and-ones and dunks added up. Utah was third in the league in FT%, making 76.9 percent of their charity tosses.
This was the hallmark of the Jazz for two decades. Pick-and-rolls that got Malone a shot close to the basket and notched Stockton an assist. Lather, rinse, repeat until the other team got ground into paste. Then, on the other end, don’t let the enemy get a good shot and defend without fouling. Utah had the eighth-best opposing eFG% and held their opponents to the lowest opposing FTR in the league.
The Featured Players
Karl Malone led the team in points (27.4 per game, and that’s at a snail-slow 90.0 pace) and rebounds (9.9 per contest.)
John Stockton led the team in assists at 10.5 per game, and it was the first time since 1987 he didn’t lead the entire league—Mark Jackson averaged 11.4 dimes to top the list.
And in a typical example of the two-superstar model of winning team building, Malone had 7.7 VORP and 16.7 WS (.268 WS/48) while Stockton had 6.3 VORP and 13.6 WS (.226 WS/48.)
What people forget is just how good Jeff Hornacek was in his time with the Jazz from 1994 onward. In the 1995 through ’98 seasons respectively, Hornacek posted 3.9, 4.2, 3.9, and 3.6 VORP and 10.1, 10.2, 10.2, and 9.5 Win Shares. Minute-adjusted, that’s .179, .190, .190, and .185 WS/48. When your third-best player is posting better advanced stats than the best guys on some championship teams, that’s how 60-plus-win seasons happen, and Utah won 60 games in 1995 and 62 in ’98.
Rounding out the starting five was Bryon Russell (40.9 percent from 3-point range in ’97) and Greg Ostertag (7.3 points and 7.3 rebounds a game on 51.5 percent shooting.) Russell posted 2.5 VORP; Ostertag had 0.8.
The problem the Jazz had was a complete lack of bench depth; Adam Keefe was sixth on the team in VORP with 0.2 in 915 minutes. Keefe’s .118 WS/48 was the highest among the six guys who came off the bench and played at least 900 minutes. Antoine Carr posted .079 WS/48; the rest of the bench ranged between .052 and .059.
The Jazz managed to combine a Hall of Fame-caliber starting lineup with a bench you’d expect from a 30-win team and still won 64 games. By the playoffs, they’d shortened their rotation so far that Carr’s 14.4 minutes per game was the highest of any non-starter in the second round, and that would be a consistent theme throughout the postseason.
Against the Bulls, this would be Utah’s undoing. Chicago could go eight deep with impunity. Utah’s dropoff below the top four couldn’t hang.
Jerry Sloan made a coaching life out of running a simplistic “this is what we’re going to do, you just can’t stop it” pick-and-roll-heavy offense.
After Stockton retired and Malone played his final season with the Lakers in 2004, the Jazz fell apart, going 26-56 in 2005. Sloan recovered by rebuilding his roster around his coaching style, and by 2007 he had Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in the same system going all the way to the conference finals.
Once the league evolved out from under him, Sloan was done as a coach, with a little help from Williams complaining about his situation, but the legacy he left behind is one of a guy who found a system that worked, got Hall of Famers to run it, and went to two Finals and 11 50-win seasons in 12 non-lockout seasons (and a 37-13 record in 1999 that prorates to 61-21.) The low point for the Jazz between 1989 and 2001 was 47-35 in ’93.
That 2007 conference finals team deserves a shout-out; the core of Williams, Boozer, and Andrei Kirilenko had a solid four-year run between 2007 and 2010.
More recently, the core of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell went 52-20 in 2021, a 59-23 82-game pace. They fell in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in five years, leaving open questions about whether the team is built for playoff success, but the same was said of the Milwaukee Bucks before they won the title last year and of Chris Paul before he took the Suns to the Finals.
But the history of the Jazz is “20 years of Stockton and Malone, a couple of nice runs, and a whole lotta crap.” Because other than the three playoff streaks already mentioned, the Jazz missed the playoffs in the first nine years of the team’s existence first in New Orleans and then in Salt Lake City, missed the playoffs for three straight years from 2004 to ’06, and missed five times in six years from 2011 to 2016.
But in 1997, the Jazz hit the high-water mark, and could’ve won it all but for peaking at the same time as quite possibly the greatest team ever assembled in the form of the Chicago Bulls.
NEXT: Washington Wizards. You bring the gun, I’ll bring the Bullets, and we’ll go back to the age of disco to wrap up the series. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!