SALT LAKE CITY — Now that the Utah Jazz have shattered the record for the best start in franchise history, previously set by the 1996-97 team, maybe the time has come to discuss a suddenly relevant topic.
Is this collection of players equal to the team that featured two first-ballot Hall of Fame stars and reached the first of two consecutive NBA Finals? Taking it to the previously unimaginable level, are the current Jazz even better than those glory days spearheaded by John Stockton and Karl Malone?
Hearsay, some vehemently say, no way this group can match the most successful team in Jazz history. Maybe not, but it certainly is within the realm of realism to broach the subject.
The current version of the Jazz is no fluke, evidenced by a 23-5 start that has catapulted them to the best record in the NBA. Only a single defeat to the outrageously hot-shooting Denver Nuggets last month separated the Jazz from a 20-game winning streak.
"They have all the necessary components," said NBA analyst and former player Richard Jefferson.
With a foundation of two returning all-stars, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz were expected to contend for a top four seed in the Western Conference. But few forecasted they would be this good, to the point reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo labeled the Jazz as the best team in the West after they beat the Milwaukee Bucks last week for the second time this season.
Playing without injured starting guard Mike Conley, the balanced Jazz had four players score at least 25 points. Antetokounmpo finished with 29 points and 15 rebounds, but the Bucks never really had a chance to win the game.
"It looks fun," he said of the Jazz offense. "Like when I watch them play, it looks fun; it looks easy; It looks simple. For sure, they look like us last year, and man, when you're at that point and you're playing with that confidence, you're hard to beat."
Based off of playoff reputation, the Jazz team is no competition for the Stockton and Malone bunch. The two stars were in the midst of a playoff run they began together when Malone joined the team in 1985, one year after Stockton was drafted out of Gonzaga.
By the 1996-97 season, with Jeff Hornacek fully incorporated after being acquired in a trade in 1994, the Jazz were the best in the West for two consecutive years. Only Michael Jordan — and, as many Jazz fans hate to say, a few officiating errors — stood in the way of at least one NBA championship.
While Mitchell and Gobert continue to emerge as legitimate stars, their teams have come nowhere close to making the Western Conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals. They have reached the second round once and lost in the first round the last two seasons, prompting Mitchell to declare the Jazz were done with the early exits.
Mitchell's bold statement had better prove accurate this postseason. At this point, barring a horrendous run of injuries or COVID restrictions, anything less than advancing to the second round would be considered a major disappointment and render hollow any regular-season accomplishments.
In comparing the two Jazz teams, the current group has more diversified firepower. As the Milwaukee game showed, as many as six players can lead in scoring in any given game.
The Gobert factor also is a huge advantage that favors this year's team. Nobody on the finals team could come close to match his defensive ability, especially recalling that Mark Eaton had retired by then.
And then there's the advent of the game-changing nature of 3-point shooting. There's no comparison between the two teams, noting the drastic difference between basketball philosophies then and now.
The 1996-97 Jazz shot a total of 902 3-pointers, making 334. Bryon Russell led the team in taking 264 shots behind the arc.
Those numbers are laughable compared to the 3-point shots the Jazz have hoisted this season. The total already is well over 1,000, leading to an offense that is often unstoppable.
"They don't do just one thing really well," said Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, after his team lost to the Jazz last week.