Jazz a legitimate playoff contender, but Greg Ostertag still status quo

So we’re two-and-a-half months in and what have we learned, class?

Well, we’ve learned that Larry Miller was completely justified in questioning Carlos Boozer’s toughness, that the Jazz are much better than anyone expected without him?and yes, that Greg Ostertag still sucks.

Our favorite butterfingered, kidney-lacking oaf is back, at long last, where he belongs: in Jerry Sloan’s doghouse. It’s not that the team doesn’t need some help in the middle-they could always use another body to take up space, grab some boards and block a couple of shots.

It’s just that Ostertag?well, he’s the same Ostertag who drove us all crazy for nine years the first time he was here-slow, lazy and unmotivated with seemingly no sense of how to play the game of basketball.

Tell me again why it was a good idea to trade three players to bring him back?

Just the other day, I saw him take a 21-foot jumper at the top of the key with 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Just thought I’d mention that.

The man is averaging less than three points a game. Three. And he’s doing this, of course, while Jarron Collins is quietly having a career year. And by “career year,” I mean 6.1 points and 4.8 boards. We’re talking about a team that, in Boozer’s absence, has forced Mehmet Okur to play power forward and so has just three centers on the roster-Ostertag, Collins and Robert Whaley, who rarely plays and is typically on the inactive list.

And still, with every opportunity to play big minutes, Ostertag has proven himself unable to even get on the floor on a regular basis. He’s about as useful as Ben Handlogten in his prime. What a waste.

But even with the most noteworthy offseason addition from this year riding the bench and the most noteworthy (not to mention expensive as hell) offseason addition from last year nursing his hurty wittle hammy-wammy, the Jazz still find themselves just a half game out of first place in the underachieving Northwest Division.

Only here’s the thing: If they play their cards right, and if the T-Wolves and Nuggets continue their erratic play (though that’s looking unlikely for Denver, given Carmelo’s official surge into the NBA’s elite), the Jazz could run away with this division.

There’s a distinct difference between this year’s team and the 2004-2005 version. This group, at least lately, looks a lot more like the 2003-2004 version that, amid speculation it would break the league’s all-time record for futility, nearly snuck into the playoffs with a 42-40 record.

Since the healthy return of Andrei Kirilenko-who has firmly established himself as the best do-everything player in the league-the Jazz have been a team confidently on the rise, Monday’s ugly loss to the Clippers notwithstanding.

Players are buying in to Jerry Sloan’s “old-fashioned” approach. I mean, they went into Detroit and beat the Pistons last week-toppling them for the second time this season.

The point-guard play has been solid; the team looks to be on the same page (a complete 180 from last year’s messy bunch). Even Sloan himself has been handing out the occasional compliment.

But there’s something very different between this year’s team and the group that shocked everyone two seasons ago: The squad Sloan has to work with this season has got some talent.

Deron Williams has been going through a slump lately, but he’s clearly got the chops to be a superstar. As a unit, the point guards are doing just fine thanks to the solid play of Milt Palacio (who?) and Keith McLeod, and the occasional Jason Kidd impersonation from Williams, which should become more frequent as the season goes on.

And then there’s Kirilenko who has been slicing up opposing offenses and defenses like some possessed, svelte Russian Jesus.

And then there’s Boozer, who over the past calendar year has contributed exactly as much to the Jazz as I have. He reportedly re-injured, for the umpteenth time, that tender hamstring of his just last week, leaving the timetable for his return once again up in the air.

If only Utah had him in the lineup, the Jazz would have just about all they need-point guards who can set up the offense, a center who can score, a power forward to run the offense through, a small forward who can do anything and everything.

With the notable exception of a big-time scorer at the 2, the Jazz would have it all.

But even without Boozer or the presence that Ostertag was supposed to bring to the middle, the Jazz seem to be coming into their own. Though the 20-19 record might indicate they are just treading water, actually watching them play would seem to indicate otherwise.

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