The Jazz are sitting at one of those juicy intersections that make it both exciting and terrifying to be an NBA general manager. They are 17-8 since February 7, and they have the best defense in the league — by a mile — since dealing Enes Kanter’s slow feet and making way for Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert to clown fools at the rim.
They’re a young team learning the nuances of Quin Snyder’s offense amid clunky spacing, but Utah has scored just below a league-average rate for the season — despite missing Alec Burks for almost all of it. The sample size isn’t huge, and teams are figuring out new ways to attack the massive Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert frontcourt. League executives like to joke that any trend that pops up in March and April, like Utah’s rising defense, deserves extra skepticism, since so many teams are mailing it in.
Sill, the Jazz have something here. They probably don’t have a 50-win team with the greatest defense in league history, but it’s not unreasonable to see them pushing over .500 and chasing a playoff spot next season. Seven of their core rotation players are 25 or younger, and they’ll continue to get better.
All that youth raises a question: Has Utah arrived at a moment when they should think about trading their first-round pick, currently slotted at no. 11, for an established veteran who could help them make a leap now? Most league executives expect Utah to quietly suss out the market, though the Jazz, as usual, are mum.
It’s a brutally tough call for lots of reasons, and Utah in the end is unlikely to find a player in the sweet spot of age and skill set to make it worth their while. Remember: This is a small-market team with no history of luring big-time free agents, and their general manager, Dennis Lindsey, arrived three years ago from San Antonio. This is a group that values continuity and cap flexibility; they will not take trading a first-round pick lightly — even if their hot recent play has dropped that pick several pegs down the lottery.
The Jazz must also consider their place within the bloody Western Conference. This isn’t the East. Utah can’t reasonably hope that acquiring a solid veteran would tee them up for a run at a top-four seed. The eight current playoff teams could all be strong again next year, the Pelicans and Suns aren’t going anywhere, and Minnesota could make a huge win-total jump if they stay healthy.
The West is set to enter a state of flux, but it will not happen all at once this summer. The Mavs have three key outgoing free agents. The best players in Portland and Memphis are about to hit the market, and the Grizz are aging. The Spurs will undergo major roster turnover at some point, presumably before we are all dead. The Clippers, Thunder, and Rockets all face major free-agency questions over the next two years. The conference hierarchy could look a lot different in 2019, but it will take time, and some of the current juggernauts are set up for a half-decade run of strong play if they can keep their cores together.
The timetable is important. The Jazz want to peak in two or three years, and not in 2015-16. Utah will not flip its pick for some 31-year-old who will be creeping toward retirement by the time the Jazz get really good. The ideal trade target is a mid-career guy not much older than Utah’s foundational players and in the early part of a long-term contract. That’s a tough ask.
There’s also the tricky question of which position Utah should upgrade. They need a dose of 3-point shooting on the wing, especially if they are going to play Favors and Gobert together a ton, but they’ve invested about $25 million per season already on Hayward and Burks — plus a first-round pick last year on Rodney Hood, looking like a long-term rotation cog. That said, I get the sense the Jazz are fine with Burks working as a $10 million super-sub if they can find a shooter to slot into the starting lineup. Burks’s shooting has lagged behind his pick-and-roll work, and with the cap set to leap, paying that much for a killer sixth man won’t seem ridiculous. Flipping Kanter thinned out the frontcourt, but Favors and Gobert appear entrenched as starters, and you don’t deal the no. 11 pick for a backup.
Here’s the cold reality: If Utah wants to get good next season, it needs to upgrade at point guard. That’s tough to swallow, since Utah effectively used three first-round picks on two point guards, Trey Burke1 and Dante Exum, over the last two drafts. Burke has perked up in a bench role, but he’s shooting 37 percent and can’t guard anyone. Exum came out of nowhere to dish 12 assists on Wednesday, but he has spent most of this season standing around, looking confused, and launching spot-up 3s. In related news, he’s 19. Point guards need time to develop, and Exum projects already as a plus defender.
They traded two first-rounders to move up and get him.
Neither guy looks ready to be a starter on a good team in 2016, and Utah is ready to be a good team in 2016. But things are never so simple. Utah may not want to unnerve Burke and Exum by bringing in a competitor, and with Hayward around, the Jazz don’t really need a ball-dominant point guard. Hayward is like James Harden Lite in that sense — a wing who can run the show himself.
The Kanter deal left Utah with about $12.5 million in cap space,2 and they could open up about $4 million more by eating Trevor Booker’s cheapo non-guaranteed deal if it comes to that. They could spend some of that on a Patrick Beverley–style spot-up point guard — maybe even Patrick Beverley! — or spend a bit less on a top veteran backup, like Mo Williams or Jameer Nelson,3 who could play extended minutes all season. Use the rest of that cap space on a rotation wing (Jae Crowder, DeMarre Carroll), and bam — you’ve filled your needs without coughing up a lottery pick.
Not including cap holds on Joe Ingles or Jeremy Evans.
Nelson has a player option for 2015-16.
They could also go crazy and use all that cap room on a near-max offer to a free agent wing player like Danny Green or Khris Middleton. No one quite knows what the market for Wes Matthews will look like, but that murkiness opens the door for creative contract structures that could lure him away from Portland. Wing depth could be important for the Jazz if opponents try to stretch the Gobert/Favors combination by going small against them. Teams are getting braver in slotting a smaller player on Gobert, confident that Gobert can’t hurt them in the low post, and forcing the Jazz bigs to guard out to the 3-point arc. Utah needs to have rangier lineups in its bag to counter that — at least on some nights.
Keeping the pick is the most likely outcome, but Utah won’t arrive there without first kicking the tires on every possible option. Let’s have some fun and go through some places they might look:
Again: Utah may look at wing players before point guards, since you need two of them on the court at once. Bradley is perfect. He’s about the same age as Favors and Hayward, he’s content working for off-ball jumpers at the shooting-guard spot while Hayward works the pick-and-roll, and he would give Utah a third vicious defender in the starting lineup.
He’s also locked up on a nice contract through 2017-18.
The Celtics turned down offers of a late first-round pick for Bradley at the deadline, but perhaps a pick about 10 spots higher than that would tempt Danny Ainge. What if Utah tossed in Hood?
It’s a long shot. Boston has too many first-round picks as it is, and Ainge adores Bradley. The Celtics are more likely to package some of their own late first-round picks to try to move up in the draft.
Barnes has blossomed as a spot-up guy this season, and the Warriors will need to cut some money if they want to re-sign Draymond Green and avoid the tax. But the Dubs are set up to contend again next season, and they’re not sacrificing a starter for a late lottery pick.
Now we’re talking. The Nuggets discussed Lawson deals at the deadline, and sources at the time said Denver wanted multiple first-round picks. The 11th pick alone might not get it done, but if Utah included another asset — Hood, two future second-rounders, something — the Nuggets might think about going head-on into a full rebuild.
Lawson fits some theoretical Jazz criteria: He’s still just 27, he has already played at high altitude, and he’s under a team-friendly contract through 2016-17. But he’s kind of sputtering toward the end of a weirdly inconsistent season, and the Jazz would look askance at both Lawson’s on-again, off-again ankle issues and his recent DUI charges.
Watch the Kings on Lawson, by the way.
This would require a massive shakeup for the Pacers, who appear headed to the lottery themselves. But if Indiana senses that both David West and Roy Hibbert will opt out, they would have to at least consider hitting the reset button and building around Paul George and draft picks.
Hill would be a seamless fit in Utah. He has a ton of experience playing a secondary role around a star wing guy, and he has proven this season that he can soak up a heavier scoring burden if need be. He has played like a borderline All-Star, driving more, jacking contested 3s in big spots, and carrying an otherwise punchless Indy offense. He’s also integral to Indiana’s team culture — a hometown hero wildly popular among fans, and a locker room leader.
Lindsey knows Hill well from their San Antonio days, and Hill is locked up through 2016-17. He’s about to turn 29, so he may be at the high end of Utah’s ideal age range.
The Toronto Drakes
The Drakes have been a sub.-500 team with a bad defense for three months. That’s not quite an accurate representation of who they are, since they’ve dealt with injuries and lineup turmoil over that stretch. Still: There is a universe in which the current iteration of this team has peaked, and Masai Ujiri, the team’s GM, is an unsentimental sort unafraid of both risk and taking a short-term step back. If the Raps limp to the finish and flame out in the first round, no one should be surprised if they make a major change somewhere on the roster.
But the Drakes as trade partner illustrate how hard it will be for Utah to find the right trade match. Kyle Lowry works fine as a pinball point guard with range, but he’s 29, and the Drakes would want more than just Utah’s pick for the closest thing Toronto has to a franchise guy. Terrence Ross fills Utah’s need for shooting, but he’s not nearly worth a late lottery pick — especially as he approaches the end of his rookie contract.
DeMar DeRozan has the right combination of age and contract, but Utah has no room for a wing who needs the ball and can’t shoot 3s.
This might be my favorite theoretical trade match for the Jazz. If New Orleans misses the playoffs — not nearly a sure thing! — they will cough up a lottery pick for the third straight season. Recouping one such pick might feel good. In Jrue Holiday, they have a point guard snug in the Favors/Hayward age band, with experience spotting up alongside an alpha dog wing player in Tyreke Evans.
That experience cuts both ways from the Pellies’ perspective. The team has played well with Holiday and Evans on the floor together despite the skill overlap, meaning there is no urgent need to break them up. Anthony Davis and Holiday have meshed, and the Pelicans badly need a plus perimeter defender. But Holiday is making big money — about $11 million per season through 2016-17 — to chill on the wing as Evans and Davis control the offense. New Orleans might be able to redistribute its resources in a better way.
Playing with Hayward and Favors might bring the same bang-for-the-buck issue, but Favors isn’t in the Brow’s league as a one-on-one offensive option. Holiday’s chronic leg issues would make Utah queasy surrendering a valuable pick.
Ryan Anderson would be an interesting wild-card option if his contract went beyond next season. Spending big on a backup is risky business, as the Clippers learned in using their remaining salary flexibility on Spencer Hawes. But Utah could use another quality big even if they keep Booker, and especially if that big provides some legit shooting range. The Favors/Gobert duo is the bedrock of Utah’s defense, but the Jazz have to find a third big who can help Snyder stagger minutes. Booker might do the trick given another year to test his shooting range, and the Jazz could just use cap space on someone like Brandon Bass or Jonas Jerebko. If the Jazz and Raptors ever do talk, they could build some interesting megadeals in which Patrick Patterson ends up in Utah.
There are other possibilities, particularly on the wing. Any team doing due diligence has to at least ask about some of the starry names on rookie deals — Victor Oladipo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and others. Those teams would likely hang up the phone, or (justifiably) demand so much in return for Utah’s pick as to torpedo discussions immediately.
Finding the right fit will be hard, maybe impossible. But Utah should try. They’re ready for a seat at the adult table.