The Best Utah Jazz Team of All-Time, 1998 vs. 2021
April 13, 2021
With three all-stars, 20 wins in 21 games and first place in the Western Conference at the mid-season break, the 2020-21 Utah Jazz have had an incredible early-season run. They have undoubtedly etched themselves in the minds of Jazz fans, and whether for better or for worse will be decided by the playoffs. Is it too early to compare this Jazz team to the back-to-back NBA Finals participants of 1997 and 1998? Probably, but what’s sports without argument? Sports Desk writers Frank Adler and Brian Preece jump in feet-first to fight the good fight and decide this once and for all — until July, that is.
PREECE: Let’s Go Back in Time
This conversation should start and end with two Hall-of-Fame inductees, two Top-50 all-time players, the second-leading scorer in NBA history and the man who holds both the all-time NBA assists and steals records — both unlikely to ever be surpassed. Unfortunately, I’m sure Frank will try to cook up some line of reasoning about how the 2020-21 Jazz are better than the most recent team to host an NBA Finals game in the state of Utah. So, I’m going to come out hot and shut this down before the conversation even gets started.
Stockton-to-Malone was, is and always will be the most famous phrase in Utah Jazz history. Conley-to-Gobert or Ingles-to-Favors just don’t have the same ring to them, let alone the historical significance. While I can accept an argument that the 1998 Jazz did not have as much overall depth, the top-end talent was inarguable.
Even with Karl Malone in his 13th season and John Stockton in his 14th, these guys were at or near the top of their game. Malone won the Player of the Week award three times that season and finished second to Michael Jordan in the MVP voting, and he won the league MVP in each of the 1996-97 & 1998-99 seasons as well.
Stockton’s game may have slipped a little to this point in his career — he had already earned 13th in the MVP vote and sixth in assists per game, and he would finish first in the league in both true shooting percentage (.628) and assist percentage (54.8). I’d also argue that Stockton’s numbers were severely limited, as he began the season on the injured list, missing the first 18 games of the season after a preseason knee surgery. It wasn’t until his 13th game of the season that Stock reached double-digit assists. He would go on to reach that mark in 21 of the remaining 52 games for the team.
The wildcard for the 1998 Jazz is another Hall-of-Famer, the winningest coach in Jazz history and the fourth winningest coach in NBA history, Mr. John Deere himself, Jerry Sloan. Sloan was as tough of a man as has ever been born, and that toughness was a hallmark of teams. Sloan was in the middle of a 23-year stretch at the helm of Utah’s only professional sports franchise, and he had the ultimate respect of his players and most of his opponents, Dennis Rodman claimed.
Coming off of their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, the Jazz opened the season at +600 odds to win the NBA championship. Without Stockton, they would start the season slowly by winning only five of their first 11 games. They’d find their footing a bit, winning six straight before Stockton returned. After an adjustment period upon the return of their point guard, Utah would sit at 19-11 in late December. From this point on, the Jazz caught fire, putting together two separate win streaks of seven games and another of 11 in a row.
Utah was a veteran-laden team, even beyond the likes of Stockton and Malone. Two-time Stockton backup Howard Eisley ran the offense with aplomb when Stockton missed games early in the year, and when Stockton would rest. “The Big Dawg” Antoine Carr and his signature goggles gave them valuable minutes off the bench at power forward and center. Jeff Hornacek was the sweet shooter that took Sloan’s offenses to the next level. Chris Morris, Greg Foster and Adam Keefe also played pivotal roles throughout the season. Youthfulness also plays a factor in the roster makeup, with Bryon Russell playing in all 82 games in his fourth season, and Shandon Anderson bringing explosiveness off the bench in year two.
The main problem with this Jazz team? A dearth of consistent production at the center position. Third-year center Greg Ostertag shuttled between the starting lineup and Sloan’s doghouse all season long. Recognizing a weak spot on an otherwise championship-worthy roster, the Jazz agreed to a deal at the trade deadline in February that would see them acquire Rony Seikaly from the Orlando Magic for Morris, Foster and a future first-round pick. Depending on who you believe, the deal fell through because the Jazz pulled out, balking at the idea of adding years to Seikaly’s expiring deal — or Seikaly flat out refused to report to the Jazz. Either way, the trade was ultimately rescinded and the Jazz finished the season and entered the playoffs, hoping they wouldn’t be hurt by their lack of a center that Sloan could trust.
After the Jazz tore through All-NBA centers Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal in the Western Conference playoffs, including a 4-1 series win over Robinson’s Spurs and the second playoff sweep in franchise history over Shaq’s Lakers, it looked like the failed trade might not come back to bite the Jazz. After all, their finals opponent, the Chicago Bulls, employed Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Joe Kleine at the position. If you asked yourself, “who?” as you read that list, all I have to say is, “exactly.” Alas, the one and only GOAT, Michael Jordan, still laced up the sneakers for Chicago and it was his experience that ultimately carried the Bulls over the Jazz.
In spite of not winning a championship, this has to be the best Jazz team ever. The team had two Hall-of-Famers on the floor, one on the sideline and another in Hornacek — who would eventually end up finding his number 14 hanging in the rafters of what will forever be known as the Delta Center.
Good luck trying to argue this one, Frank. I’m biased, but you’re starting from about seven points down in my estimation.
ADLER: We’re Living in 2021
As much as I respect the Jazz roster from 1997-98 and love listening to the stories of Jazz fans reminiscing about the good old days, the 2021 Jazz are simply a better team. The biggest advantage the 2021 Jazz have over the late 90s Jazz is how much the game of basketball has grown and adapted since the 90s. The 2021 Jazz are the poster child for new-age basketball. They attempt over 40 three-pointers a game and make about 17 of them. For comparison, in 1998 the Jazz shot eight threes a game and made three of them.
The Jazz from 1998 scored a respectable 101 points per game. This ranked as the third-best in the league at the time. The 2021 Jazz annihilates that number, scoring 116 points per game. Comparatively, there’s simply no way the 90’s Jazz could compete with the 2021 Jazz’s pace of play and scoring efficiency.
This year’s Jazz also have the best defender in Jazz history, Rudy Gobert. Gobert could play and thrive in any era of basketball just because of his ridiculous physical gifts. He stands at 7-foot-1 and can basically dunk without even jumping. Challenging Gobert at the rim is near impossible, and without the threat of pulling Gobert out to the three-point line, his impact just becomes greater.
The Jazz combines the great defense of Gobert with great ball handlers and stretch shooters the ’98 Jazz just couldn’t contend with. The likes of Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanović all hit the threes with incredible efficiency, and possess the ability to drive and finish contested shots at the rim. Even players as deep on the depth chart as Georges Niang can shoot threes better than almost anyone on the ’98 Jazz.
Realistically, the Jazz boast more depth than almost any team in NBA history. Clarkson is a hot contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award and even excluding his contributions, the Jazz are still rock solid in their rotation. And, while Sloan is obviously no slouch, Quin Snyder is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA today and seems on his way to win his first Coach of the Year Award.
The best way to judge which team is better would be to predict who would win a hypothetical game played against each other. In this scenario, the 2021 Jazz would have an unbeatable secret weapon — Derrick Favors. While I love Favors on the court and believe that he is the perfect backup for Gobert, it is not his on-court contributions that would give this Jazz the advantage. Favors played under Sloan, and by his own testament, Favors said that he learned quite a bit from the legendary Jazz coach. In a hypothetical game, Favors would have inside knowledge of Sloan’s coaching techniques, could relay that to Snyder and start the game massively ahead purely from a strategic standpoint. Mitchell also wears the number 45 in homage to the baseball version of Michael Jordan. Flashbacks to Jordan’s performance against the Jazz from Mitchell’s jersey would decidedly give the mental advantage to the 2021 Jazz.
Finally, while making the finals is incredibly impressive, the ’98 Jazz tragically came up short. The 2021 Jazz have yet to play in the playoffs, meaning their future is undecided and unknown. Therefore, there is a possibility, and a pretty big possibility, that the Jazz end up winning this year’s NBA championship. Since we know that the ’98 Jazz did not win, the 2021 Jazz’s unknown future is technically better than the ’98 Jazz’s unfortunate past.
Due to all of this airtight reasoning, it seems pretty clear to me that the 2021 Jazz are better than the ’98 Jazz. I sincerely hope that all the more seasoned Jazz fans know that the younger generation of Jazz fans, like myself, do have respect for the old guys. But the new guys are better, so you’ll just have to enjoy the ride and let go (a little bit) of the past.
PREECE: The Past Was a Blast
While I understand Frank’s reasoning, he’s deep in the cough syrup (glug, glug) on this argument. The fundamental question that has to be asked is this — are we arguing a one-game, winner-take-all between these two teams, or are we arguing who wins a seven-game series?
In a head-to-head, best of seven playoff type series, the ’21 Jazz would have huge advantages due to style of play, I have to agree there. Sloan’s teams were notorious for giving up the three-point shot because Jerry simply didn’t value defending the long-range shot. If we took our Stewie Griffin time machine and sent this Jazz team back to 1998, they would probably win a playoff series.
If Stockton and Malone had the opportunity to game plan against this Jazz squad for one game, aliens want to take us back to their home planet scenario, it could be a different story. The biggest advantage they would have is toughness and size. Gobert on Malone would be a fascinating matchup, with both getting the better of the other at different times. Mitchell would have an obscene advantage athletically, but we’ve seen this ‘21 Jazz team struggle with physicality on several different occasions this year. Sloan’s teams were built on toughness and out-manning their opponents. I can only imagine the stare downs Stockton and Ingles would have, or the incredible battle Malone and Gobert would have on the blocks. I will say one thing though, seeing this Jazz team make Ostertag’s head spin with passing would make me giggle with glee. Ostertag would no doubt foul out in the first half if Sloan gave him enough time to do it. I finish this with one note, Ostertag is the worst and he sullies every good memory I have of the Jazz NBA Finals runs.
ADLER: Impressive Resumes Don’t Outweigh Bad Plays
It’s certainly hard to argue against the resume of the 1998 Jazz. Sloan, Stockton and Malone are icons for a reason and the 2021 Jazz have not come close to reaching that level of acclaim. However, the 2021 Jazz are an incredibly smart and efficient team that matches up well against almost anyone, thanks to their deep arsenal of offensive weapons and their stingy bend-but-don’t-break defense.
For those reasons, I’m taking the 2021 Jazz even in a single game for the win. Despite my respect for the 1998 team, the 2021 team is simply too high scoring and too good for the 1998 Jazz, who in today’s terms, would be considered somewhat limited. And, as Brian already pointed out, the 1998 Jazz are playing with Ostertag. Jazz big men like Enes Kanter and Tony Bradley followed in the tradition of Ostertag. Thankfully, now we have Gobert, and Jazz fans can forget about watching these completely inept big men blow important games. This advantage at the center position might be enough to single-handedly tip the scales towards the 2021 Jazz.