Utah Jazz – Road to Contention

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors seemed destined to clash in the NBA finals once more for the 3rd consecutive year. The good news is that this is quickly evolving into a better version of the Bulls/Jazz matchups in the late 90s. The bad news is that it would seem that potential for a dramatic upset of either of these teams is lower than ever, especially with the defection of Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Warriors. The question then becomes who is a candidate to pull such an upset in the next few years, specifically in the Western Conference. I do believe however there are few teams, namely the Utah Jazz that have a specific and precise scenario where assuming good player development and making the right roster moves could lead to a chance at a title down the line. This post will detail how I believe the Utah Jazz will be ready to legitimately compete for a championship in 2018-19

The idea behind this post surged from the fact that Derrick Favors will be eligible for a Renegotiation & Extension on October 19th. This CBA provision allows a team and a player to jointly scrap remaining years on a rookie extension on the 3rd anniversary of the extension and agree to add on additional years. This plays a huge part in the following predictive salary cap scenario.

SUCCESS FORMULA

The OKC Thunder gave the Warriors a scare in the 2016 playoffs by pushing the then-defending champs to 7 games. They did so by bludgeoning the offensive board and having five defenders with long wingspan that were able to switch all ball screens against the Warriors shooters and ball-handlers. At times, they were able to line up Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams at the forward spots, effectively using three 7 footers and completely sealing the rim at times defensively. In the Finals, the Cavaliers were then able to reproduce the strategy to a certain extent. To combat small-ball, you must have defenders with wingspan, size, offensive rebounding prowess, able to switch out as any positions as possible and punish mismatches using their sizes. The particularity about the edition of this Jazz’s team is their depth and their versatility. Those characteristic is what leads me to believe they might be the antidote to the Warriors’ dominance.

TEAM’S CORE

I’ve identified the Utah Jazz’s core as the following 8 players that I believe the Jazz must retain at all cost:

PG: George Hill, Dante Exum

SG: Rodney Hood, Alec Burks

SF: Gordon Hayward

PF: Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles

C: Rudy Gobert

WHY KEEP THIS TEAM TOGETHER?

Looking at historical teams’ young core in the last 10 years, I see this current roster at a similar point in time as the 2010-11 OKC Thunder, 2011-12 Indiana Pacers, 2012-13 Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets or the 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers. It goes without saying that this group answers all the requirements to combat small-ball effectively. The shortest wingspan of this group are Hill and Hood at 6’9, making it more than adequate for ball-screen switching. Gobert, Favors, Lyles and Exum are all excellent rebounders at their position, especially on the offensive glass. Continuity also plays a huge factor here as Hayward and Favors have been with the team for 6 years now and internal growth is sustained when the core in place stays together for a few years. This roster can also adapt to any matchup. They can downsize while playing any of their bigs at center (Lyles can eventually grow into this role). They have guards that can create, score, drive and spot-ups in different lineups.

This team follows the 2004 Detroit Pistons model in that there is no to little drop-off from position to position. This is without counting on their young guys, specifically Exum and Lyles. I believe both of them have star potential, specifically Dante Exum. He will have to overcome his latest injury setbacks but he has all the tools to be an all-star PG down the line. In the case of Lyles, this era of the stretch 4 is perfect for him as he is a multi-tooled basketball player that will be surrounded by better players facilitating his growth and understanding of the game. Hood and Gobert will also continue to grow and have a small chance to be all-stars once they put together their career year. In order for this team to become a contender, they must find a way to retain all the incoming UFAs in this group and also ensure development of their young players to a high level.

NO STARS? SO WHAT…

One could say there are no stars on this team and that the warriors have superior talent at each position. I would answer that if you have eight players that are clearly above-average starters, the continued depth and MUCH superior bench will be able to sustain a high level of play in ways elite teams can only do so by staggering players. However, Staggering creates tiredness for those players and also often takes them out of their comfort zone in terms of regular minutes. Furthermore, having good bench units at starts of 2nd and 4th quarter can be deciding factor in the game by generating a run and also providing key rests for stars and starters. Here is each individual stat line per 36 mins that each player would require in my opinion for this team to be elite. All players would be playing around 25-32 mins:

 

PG: Dante Exum: 17pts-7a-6rbs

George Hill: 12pts-3a-3rbs

SG: Rodney Hood: 19pts-3a-4rbs,

Alec Burks: 13pts-4rbs-3a

SF: Gordon Hayward 19.5pts-5a-5rbs

PF: Derrick Favors 16pts-8rbs-1.5a-1.5bks

Trey Lyles 11pts-5.5rbs-3a

C: Rudy Gobert 13pts-11rbs-2bks

Hayward and Hood have showed good ability to make plays at the end of games. Quinn Snyder will also have quality guards available to him to create plays down the stretch. Exum will grow into that role and Favors has often showed the ability to get easy buckets of post-ups or simple pick and roll plays.

ROADMAP

The challenge becomes keeping this team together long-term. With the explosion of the salary cap, teams have been gifted with more room to operate while players can now claim much higher salaries individually. Here is a table illustrating my roadmap for this team. We will be looking at each year individually until 2018-19, when I believe this team will be ready for contention. Before doing so, I want to indicate a few key points.

NOTES

First of all, some veterans will have to be traded or renounced in order to save cap room. The Jazz have had a great drafting track record and have 4 first round picks in the next 2 years that are all used in this scenario to replace veteran players. All rookies were signed using 120% of the rookie scale as per current rules. The talks for the new CBA looks like they will be slightly changing those numbers, but for the purpose of this exercise, we will assume current rookie scale. Additionally, I ignored the veteran’s minimum contracts since it will always be available to them for buyouts candidates after Trade Deadlines. For each of the next 3 years, I wrote down team expectations and progress tracking. Salaries were used from BasketballInsiders.com database and upcoming figures were based on the latest league memo on July 2nd, 2016. I also added a historical comparison on a team since the lockout that I believe would be a similar comparison for each year. All max deals and future contracts are based on estimates

This projection was based on dodging the luxury tax until 2018-19 when the team is ready for contention. The tax bill that year will be quite extensive, but by staying under the tax until then, I believe the team would be making savings that could be used then. Also, none of the trade scenarios in the off-season should take place until free agents are re-signed.

2016-17 expectations: 4th Seed WC (possibly higher, 48-54 wins), competitive first round loss or win depending on matchup

Historical Comparison: 2011-12 Indiana Pacers,

Cap Sheet

Color Codes

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Roster Moves

  • Renegotiate and Extend Derrick Favors for a contract totalling $69.5M over 4 years with an Player Option on the 4th James Harden and Russell Westbrook have done similar moves. The logic behind this is to keep Favors’ salary low for one extra year beyond his current contract while showing him commitment and paying him extra money two years ahead of his FA year. The Jazz still have cap space available and using it in such manner might curtail current flexibility, but help ensure roster continuity down the line. Finally, this would only ask a $2.5 million sacrifice of potential earnings by Favors in his FA year 2018-19 if he were to simply test the market at the end of his current contract. The Jazz could also add that amount as guarantee that amount on the last year of his deal on top of the opt-out to ensure that in case of career threatening-injury, Favors would be made whole.

2017-18 expectations: Top 3 seed in WC, 2nd round, WCF depending on matchups

Historical comparison: 2013-14 LA Clippers, 2012-13 Golden State Warriors or 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, 

Cap Sheet

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Roster Moves in 2017 off-season

  • Re-sign Gordon Hayward to an estimated 5 years/157 million with a Player Option on the last year. The max contract would be worth $2 million more and the structure of his deal with no raises in year 2 which would be equivalent to a $2.2 million. sacrifice. Similar to the Favors extension, a partial guarantee for $2.2million can be agreed to on that last year of contract. In the case where Hayward insist on max contract or bust, renouncing Joe Ingles is also a possibility
  • Re-sign Rudy Gobert to a near max contract worth an estimated. With Giannis Antetounkoumpo extension, the Jazz can have good hope to re-sign Gobert to 5 year / $138 million with a Player option in the 5th Once again, the sacrifice asked from Gobert would be to either have the starting salary be about $1 million less than his eligible max or negate the Player Option on the last year. Both are unlikely, but definitely worth exploring seriously with Bouna NDiaye, Gobert’s agent.
  • A KEY KEY move is to come to an agreement with George Hill. A clear conversation must be had here. I believe Dante Exum will be ready to start at this point if he recovers properly from his injury. Hill represents the key piece, catalyst to this team’s championship depth. His priority at this point are not quite known. The Jazz could sell him on being the main guy off the bench as well as receiving an above average starter level of money. The contract offer to put forward would be 4 years / $89 million. If Hill insist on starting, then this whole scenario goes out to window. However I do believe that the familiarity with Quinn Snyder and the team’s system, the proper compensation and the chance to win at a high level will be enough to retain him.
  • Trade Joe Johnson to a team with cap space. The addition of Johnson will be a welcome sight to space the floor for the 2016-17 Utah Jazz. However, in order to keep this core together, sacrifices must be made and Joe is one of them. A good year for him should ensure that the Jazz can recuperate a good 2nd round pick or a heavily protected 1st
  • Waive Boris Diaw or Guarantee his contract and trade him into cap space. Similar to Joe Johnson, Diaw will be a cap crunch victim. If a team is interested, the Jazz should guarantee his low salary and trade him for a 2nd
  • Re-sign Joe Ingles to a 3 year 21 million $ deal. With the loss of Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles is the most important of those depth pieces that include Raul Neto, Jeff Whitey, Shelvin Mack as he can fill in in a pitch at 3 position. This contract is very similar in figures signed by Jeremy Lamb and Cole Aldrich.
  • Decline to match RFA offers on Christopher Johnson, Jeff Withey and Shelvin Mack. They are all 3rd stringer players that can compete for minutes on many NBA 2nd.Unfortunately, they will be cap casualties and the Jazz should decline any offer on.
  • Use their two 1st round picks to draft positional replacements for Joe Johnson and Jeff Whitey. A big guard/forward that can shoot along with a rim protecting C should be drafted with the plan to send them in the D-League to develop in order for both of them to contribute minutes towards the end of the current year and especially, in the following year. The core of this team affords them patience.

2018-19 expectation: 2011-12 OKC Thunder, 2013-14 Indiana Pacers

Cap Sheet

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Roster moves in 2018 off-season

  • Re-sign Dante Exum to a 4 year / $98 million. I believe Exum will be on the verge of being a near all-start player at the start of the 2018-19 season. The cap will also be higher per latest league estimates. With all those factors in play and considering he would be a slightly better player than Hill at that point, I believe this is a fair offer that would make both sides comfortable moving forward
  • Re-sign Rodney Hood to a projected max deal of . I think Hood will be a similar player in terms of level of play to Hayward at this point. By that token, they wil have no choice but to extend a max offer to t
  • Use two first round picks in 2018 to draft players in position to replace Shelvin Mack and Boris Diaw. Once again, drafting so late most likely would lead to having raw unproven draft picks more so than higher picks

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, there is significant data showing that tax teams are much more likely to be successful in contending for a title than otherwise. Owners are often convinced to spend resources when they can see they have legitimate shot at winning it all and seeing all the potential playoff revenue lining up will entice them to spend on a contending team. By being projected to be 40 million over the luxury tax, the final payroll in 2018-19 would be an estimated gastronomical $334 million for the Jazz. That would be a unfathomable number for a team like Utah in their current TV market. This leads me to believe that trading Hill along with one with a lower level player like Joe Ingles is strongly in play. The tax calculation is factored in on the roster of the team on the LAST night of the regular season and NOT OPENING night. A combination of all 3 moves would drop the Jazz below the projected tax line would advocate in-season trade more than anything in order to maximize the use of those players during that season. The estimated payroll would now be at $162 million, $32 million over the cap. It must be noted that it is the dreaded REPEATER’s TAX that is feared and that occurs when a team is in the tax more than 2 times over the span of eight years. The goal would be to keep this core to keep for the 2018-19 title and afterwards trade one of the Forward, wings and guards for younger pieces less establish on rookie scale deals to ensure cost-cutting and to provide a full platform to the Jazz starters at that point. Current players on the roster have room to grow and this could signify that a few of them are not retained because their skills.

What do you think? Feel free to leave comments below.

Piece by Josué Sédjro – Twitter: @JoshuaHemsky

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