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Power Forward 

The Jazz are ready to challenge for a championship'three years from now.

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The Utah Jazz are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. That was also the last time John Stockton and Karl Malone were live players, inside the Delta Center, instead of as statues standing outside an arena of a different name. It’s quite an achievement to go from losing the two cornerstones of your franchise to being back in the playoffs in the neighborhood of 50 wins and one of the best five teams in the league just four years later.


But while there is reason for optimism this spring despite a late-season slide, Jazz fans and many in the local media tend to have inflated expectations'and when the team doesn’t deliver, they overreact. If the Jazz don’t advance past Houston in the first round'or even lose to the best team in the league, Dallas, in the second round'expect hours of debate on local talk radio shows about packaging the next decade’s worth of draft picks with Andrei Kirilenko in a trade for Kevin Garnett.


Instead, it’s time for Jazz fans to sit tight and realize their team is on the right path to challenge for the NBA championship'in 2010.


The line between the upper echelon and title contenders is a distinct one. Getting into the latter group generally requires the one thing the Jazz lack at this point: experience. The current Utah roster features eight players younger than 27 years old. Three of them are rookies; two others are in just their second year. This is also the first year the core of this group has played a full season together.


NBA playoff basketball is a distant cousin of NBA regular season basketball. When it’s springtime in the association, thoughts of coaches turn to eight-man rotations, walking the ball up the floor and running half-court sets. The only way to figure out that different version of the game is to experience it first-hand. Also making things tough for the Jazz this year is the fact that the other four of the best five teams in the NBA'Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio and Houston'play in the same Western Conference with Utah, meaning that being the fourth or fifth best team in the league might not get you out of the first or second round of the playoffs this year.


But this isn’t the year to focus on. This is the year to celebrate a major improvement over last year while gaining playoff experience. It’ll be 2010 when Jazz fans can realistically expect the team to win a championship and be invited to the White House for a ceremonial meeting with President Hillary Clinton. By that time, the core of the team will enter the peak years of their careers after gaining experience in the playoffs in 2008 (conference semifinals) and 2009 (conference finals). The nucleus of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Millsap will be between the ages of 25-30 in the spring of 2010. The team’s shooting-guard problems might be even solved by then, if Jerry Sloan has figured out it’s OK to play Ronnie Brewer and/or C.J. Miles.


Meanwhile, elsewhere around the West at that time, the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash of the Suns and the Spurs’ Tim Duncan will be heading into, or already at, their post-prime mid-30s.


Winning a series each pressure-escalating level of the NBA playoffs often requires having gone through the experience of losing at that level the previous season. It’s hard to wait for something that’s three years away, but if Jazz fans can exercise some patience, the current group of Jazzmen could well pay off down the line. Just remember, John Stockton and Karl Malone had been playing together for more than a decade before they reached the NBA finals.


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