Almost Famous: The Jazz were beaten by Jordan and themselves
Sports history is littered with great teams that dominated their regular seasons only to fall short of ultimate glory. Our writers are paying tribute to those teams who were Almost Famous. After tackling MLB, NFL, and the NHL in the 1970s and in the 1990s, here's our first of two NBA editions.
This series has so far mostly honed in on specific teams that dominated specific seasons before falling short in the postseason, but in this case, we're going to look back at two Utah Jazz teams - the 1996-97 and 1997-98 editions - that served as the standard bearers for a sustained run of Jazz success that spanned 20 years.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers won more NBA games than the Jazz between 1983 and 2003. The impressive two-decade run saw Utah win 1,011 regular-season games and six division titles, while qualifying for 20 consecutive postseasons, winning 18 playoff series, and two conference championships. No championship banner, though. The Lakers hung six.
The Jazz missed the playoffs during the team's first four years in Salt Lake City after five losing seasons in New Orleans, and entered the franchise's 10th season of existence - 1983-84 - without a 40-win season to their name.
Then everything changed.
Adrian Dantley won his second scoring title to help Utah to a 45-37 record and a second-round playoff appearance in its first taste of postseason basketball. But it was what was to come in the next few months that truly propelled the Jazz.
Utah selected point guard John Stockton 16th overall in the 1984 draft, made another second-round postseason appearance in 1984-85, then drafted big man Karl Malone 13th overall in 1985. Dantley was gone a couple years later, and the Jazz built a perennial contender around Stockton's brilliant playmaking and Malone's physical dominance.
Stockton-Malone was as formidable a one-two punch as existed at the time, and the partnership yielded perhaps the deadliest pick-and-roll combination the game has ever seen, no matter how predictable the routine became.
The regular-season wins and individual accolades piled up. Both players were all-NBA mainstays through the '80s and '90s. Malone was a walking 25-and-10 who factored into every MVP race for 15 consecutive years. Stockton led the league in assists for nine straight seasons between 1988 and 1996.
Postseason success was harder to come by. It took the duo seven seasons together to reach the conference finals, then another five years to finally vanquish their Western Conference playoff demons and reach the NBA Finals.
The 1996-97 season was a magical one in Salt Lake City. Sporting new (and soon to be iconic) jerseys that paid tribute to Utah's mountain ranges, the Jazz won a West-best 64 games, which still stands as a franchise record. Malone took home his first of two MVP awards. The Jazz ripped off two separate 15-game win streaks and finished the season with a point differential (+8.79) that still ranks top 25 all time.
Utah finished seven games clear of second-place Seattle in the West standings, then went 11-3 through the first three rounds of the playoffs, culminating in the biggest shot in franchise history. Nearly a decade and a half of postseason frustrations were dispelled when Stockton's Game 6 buzzer-beater eliminated Houston in the West finals, sending the Jazz to their first finals.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, the team waiting for them in The Finals - the defending champion Chicago Bulls - just happened to be one of the few teams in history that could actually beat them. A year after their record-setting 72-win 1995-96 championship season, the Bulls returned to the 1997 Finals as a 69-win team with the fifth-best point differential ever.
The Jazz seemed up for the challenge, and had the ball with 25 seconds left in an even Game 1 before disaster struck, giving us a glimpse of the heartbreak ahead for Utah over the next two Junes.
The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays
Malone, whose "Mailman" nickname was borne of the idea that he always delivered on the court, went to the foul line for two shots with nine seconds left in a tied Game 1. That's when Bulls legend Scottie Pippen famously whispered to Malone: Mailmen don't deliver on Sundays.
Malone, a 75.5% free-throw shooter that season, missed both, setting the stage for a Michael Jordan game-winner only moments later.
Malone and the Jazz would show their resiliency, though, in rallying back from a 2-0 series deficit with wins at home in Games 3 and 4, giving Utah another golden opportunity in Game 5.
The Finals was still contested in a 2-3-2 format at the time, meaning the Jazz - who were 48-3 at home, including 10-0 in the playoffs - were primed to push the Bulls to the brink of elimination before the series shifted back to Chicago.
As it happened, Jordan showed up to Game 5 in horrendous shape, whether from the flu, an old-fashioned hangover, or food poisoning from tainted pizza. The Jazz coasted to a 13-point advantage through one quarter.
We know how the rest went ...
Between Malone's Game 1 free throws and an eight-point lead with 10:19 left in the Flu Game, the Jazz probably felt like they should've won the series in five games. Instead, they were headed back to Chicago facing elimination in Game 6, where the Bulls would end the series after rallying back from a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter.
A frantic Game 6 ending also included Jazz rookie Shandon Anderson missing a reverse layup with 30 seconds left in a tie game, which Utah hoop heads maintain until this day was a result of Pippen pulling on the rim:
With the heartbreak of '97 behind them, the Jazz returned wanting another crack at the Bulls in '98, believing they already had the goods to get the job done. In fact, the 11 players who played the most for Utah in 1996-97 all returned for the 1997-98 campaign under the continued tutelage of Jerry Sloan (who somehow never won a Coach of the Year award).
Behind Malone's dominance and Jeff Hornacek's shooting, the Jazz managed a respectable 11-7 start to the year despite the fact Stockton was sidelined by a knee injury. When their star point guard returned to the lineup, Utah finished the season on a 51-13 tear to match Chicago with a league-leading 62 wins.
The Jazz again strolled through the West side of the playoffs with an 11-3 record, culminating in a conference finals sweep of an early Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers squad.
Utah entered The Finals with home-court advantage - thanks to a 2-0 season series sweep of the Bulls - and a massive rest advantage. Sweeping the Lakers gave the Jazz 10 days off before Game 1, while the Bulls were forced to go the distance in a seven-game East finals against the Pacers.
It's easy to forget, more than two decades later, that the Jazz were favorites in this Finals rematch. That was reinforced when a Game 1 overtime victory gave Utah its seventh straight win, dating back to its second-round series against San Antonio.
"You want an opportunity to play the team that beat you last year and won the title," Malone said. "And in this business, sometimes you get your wish."
Unfortunately for the Jazz, that Game 1 win would be the peak of Utah's two-decade climb up the NBA hiearchy.
Malone's Finals resume continued to take a beating as the series progressed. He shot 5-of-16 in Game 2, and the Jazz blew another fourth-quarter lead.
Then came the embarrassment of Game 3, when the Bulls spanked the Jazz by 42 points; Utah's 54 points for the game was the lowest-scoring performance by a team in any game in the shot-clock era up to that point.
In the span of four nights between Games 1 and 3, the Jazz had gone from finally being able to see the mountaintop to being caught in an avalanche.
After dropping Game 4, Utah fought off elimination in Game 5 to send the series back home needing to win both games. One last fourth-quarter heartbreak awaited Jazz fans in Game 6.
The Jazz won nearly 68% of their games over the next three seasons and made five straight playoff trips in the wake of the '98 Finals, but never advanced past the second round.
Stockton retired in 2003, and a 40-year-old Malone played his final season in Los Angeles - where cruelly enough, the big man's career would end with his Lakers losing a lopsided Finals in which they were heavy favorites against Detroit. Utah was never the same.
As much as the balletic synchronization of Stockton and Malone's two-man game, Hornacek's sweet stroke, and Sloan's sideline stalking left an undoubtable legacy of excellence, it's paired with memories of Malone's missed free throws, Anderson's missed layup, and Bryon Russell's misguided trash talk. The Jazz always managed to shoot themselves in one foot while Jordan swept the other leg.
In the end, those Jazz teams may serve as the ultimate test case for one of sport's ultimate questions: Would players, fans, and organizations as a whole trade sustained success for just one precious championship title?
Joseph Casciaro is theScore's senior basketball writer