SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Their point guard is on crutches until Christmas. Their power forward has a sore knee and a bad attitude.

The Utah Jazz, the defending Western Conference champions, are not enjoying life at the top.

``This preseason has been tough,'' acknowledged guard Jeff Hornacek. ``We've had to deal with so much stuff this year that it seems like we didn't get much of an offseason at all.''

After stretching the Chicago Bulls to six games in the NBA Finals, the Jazz enjoyed a tremendous summer _ on paper. Five of Utah's six free agents re-signed with the club, and the Jazz snatched highly regarded guard Jacque Vaughn with the 28th pick of the draft.

``This offseason has been almost a complete success for us,'' vice president of basketball operations Scott Layden said. ``We're in exactly the position we need to be in to challenge for an NBA championship.''

Layden made that statement in September. But then John Stockton felt a twinge in his knee during Utah's first preseason game.

Stockton played, but the knee swelled up the next night in El Paso, and he sat out a game against Dallas. When the team returned to Salt Lake, an MRI revealed that the league's career leader in assists and steals had severely damaged non-moving cartilage in his knee.

The All-Star point guard had surgery that night, and doctors say it will be eight weeks before they know if it is getting better.

``I've seen teams torn apart over situations like this,'' Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. ``He's the coach of this team on the floor, and you can't replace somebody that important.''

Howard Eisley is the one who has to try. The career backup is being thrust into a starting role on a team that relies on the point guard to control the tempo and distribute the ball.

``It's a huge responsibility, but it's one I think I'm ready for,'' said Eisley, who as a free agent this summer spurned four teams to re-sign with the Jazz. ``I've always been prepared to step up and help this team.''

But ``Eisley to Malone'' just doesn't have the same ring to it, and Malone, the NBA's reigning MVP, has been more than his irascible self during the preseason.

At Utah's annual media day, Malone complained about his contract, openly questioned whether he would finish his career with the Jazz and criticized Jazz owner Larry Miller's decision to move training camp to Boise, Idaho.

In turn, Miller said Malone ``changes his attitude on these things from day to day.''

Normally, Malone's petulance is well-received _ even encouraged _ by the local media. But tempers are running short this year. Malone was lambasted in print and on the radio as a crybaby.

A week later, Malone called media members to an informal press conference at his house, where many of the differences were smoothed over.

``I'm not trying to start any fights here,'' Malone said. ``I just want to play some basketball.''

Malone also took several unnamed teammates to task for signing big-money free-agent contracts and then reporting to camp overweight and out of shape. It soon became obvious that center Greg Ostertag, he of the six-year, $36-million deal, was the primary target of Malone's wrath.

The big-brother, little-brother relationship the two have had the last two seasons now appears strained.

``I'm in the dumps. I haven't played worth a darn in the preseason,'' Ostertag said Monday after Utah's 98-89 win over Phoenix. ``I should be getting double-doubles in these games. If I can't dominate guys like (Horacio Llamas, who exchanged words and shoves with Ostertag during the game), I don't know what I'm even doing here.''

Malone sat out the final preseason game resting a sore knee. The Mailman has been reluctant to deliver a prognosis on his team's chances without Stockton's leadership.

``I'm not going to say we'll be as good as we were, because we probably won't be without Stock,'' Malone said.