Solving Problems: Jazz Need Internal Growth
The Utah Jazz is a team going through transition and they seem to have lost focus. For a short while it looked like they simply picked up where the John Stockton and Karl Malone era ended with the drafting of Deron Williams and the signing of Carlos Boozer, but in less than a year both players are gone, Coach Jerry Sloan retired, and former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko is now an unrestricted free agent. For the Utah Jazz to return to form they need scoring, leadership and more frontcourt production – on a budget.
Less than a year ago the basketball world could count on the Utah Jazz to be poster children for consistency, intelligence, and grace under pressure. Now? It’s really kind of a mess. For the Jazz to return the NBA Playoffs they need leadership and they need a clear vision for success. Where will it come from?
The first issue that needs addressing is the reality of the point guard position. The role of the point guard is to initiate the offense and be a team’s coach on the floor. Deron Williams is one of the best in the league at doing just that, but it’s time to simply accept Williams is gone. Devin Harris is a solid point guard, but he is not Williams and will not be Williams. After a run of over 25 years with Stockton or Williams running the show, the Jazz will simply have to accept a lower standard.
This is not a dig on Harris. He is a good scorer, very good defender, and capable leader. He just isn’t as gifted as Williams, and yes, his injury history says he may very well get hurt again. Media and fans have been criticizing him ever since the trade for all the things he can’t do as well as Williams. It’s time to realize it doesn’t matter, and instead to accept the things Harris does to well and simply fill in the gaps.
Boozer and Kirilenko were also leaders, but Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward (the players who ostensibly have and will replace them) haven’t yet shown the same leadership skills. Jefferson won’t – at this stage of his career he will not suddenly become something more. But Hayward, he could be another strong voice. He was a leader at Butler and is no longer a rookie; it’s time for him to make his mark. If he proves the small forward position should be his and his alone it’s likely we see him taking on a larger vocal role as well.
Let’s assume Hayward steps up, and also that Raja Bell recovers from the injuries that plagued him last season and takes on a larger role as well – which is why they signed him in the first place. Who else takes a leadership role? They need someone in the frontcourt, and it’s not going to be Jefferson. It’s also probably not going to be Derrick Favors, another power forward Utah acquired from New Jersey in the Deron Williams trade. He’s still raw and needs to focus on developing his game before he gets to the point where he can thinking about being a team leader. Rookie Enes Kanter isn’t going to be that player either, and is even more raw than Favors and will have enough issues just making the transition to the NBA when the season begins.
Ideally this player would be veteran center Mehmet Okur. Heading in to the last season of his contract ($10.9 million) Okur is also coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered in the 2010 playoffs and a back injury (after his return last December) that limited him to only 13 games in 2010-11. In the games he did play, Okur didn’t produce anywhere near his previous levels, averaging 4.9 points on 36% shooting and only grabbing 2.3 rebounds in 12.9 minutes.
But is Okur capable of being a productive NBA player again? We shall see. He signed to play with Turk Telekom Ankara (in Turkey) while the lockout is going on and has already joined the team. His agent says he is healthy but rusty, so playing in Turkey will help get him in shape so he is ready to go if and when the NBA season does begin.
Can the Jazz count on him? That’s the (many) million dollar question. See, it’s not just whether or not Okur can again be a productive NBA player and team leader that is the question; it’s whether or not he can be a productive $10.9 million player. If he can’t the Jazz are kind of stuck, which leads us right into the next stage of analysis: free agency.
Utah has $57.0 million already committed to the 2011-12 season to only nine players. Given the salary cap for 2010-11, that’s about it for them. After they add in the first-round pick rookie scale contracts for Kanter and guard Alec Burks ($4.3 million and $2.1 million, respectively) then they have 11 players under contract and no way to add more unless they use cap exceptions – count the Jazz as one team who needs those exceptions if they want to fill out their roster with effective players. Even if a hard cap is introduced and salary rollbacks are made, the percentage of the cap will stay the same and the Jazz could end up stuck. This is why, more than anything, they have to hope Okur can return and be productive. With those 11 contracts totaling $63.4 million Okur is drawing 17% of the money being spent. They need that much production in return, in the frontcourt, to have a chance of competing.
Speaking of the frontcourt, here is where the Jazz should not have to spend any exception money they have available. Unfortunately, they may have to, given Millsap, Okur, Jefferson, Favors and Kanter, but the truth of the matter is Utah finished tied for 24th in rebounding percentage last season, despite Jefferson’s 9.7 per game and Millsap’s 7.6. Where will the improvement come from? Favors? Kanter? Will Okur return and step it up?
Then again, if they spend the money here, where will that player play? How would they fit in a rotation where Jefferson and Millsap should start while Favors and Kanter need the minutes to develop? The Jazz may just have to deal with it, because they really need the money for the backcourt.
Devin Harris needs help. He needs a backup anyway, but given his injury history that backup needs to be able to start if necessary. That means the Jazz need a veteran point guard who is capable but accepting of a reserve role. Unfortunately for them this is a horrible offseason for finding a veteran point guard in free agency at all, let alone a good one. Plus, there will be plenty of teams looking, so they may have to overpay for the available talent just to get someone into the role – or sign a cheap rookie and simply hope Harris can stay healthy. Bring back Ronnie Price? Or Earl Watson? Maybe take a look at someone like Sebastian Telfair or Chris Quinn? None of those names get anyone excited, but they may get the job done in a pinch.
Utah also needs a wing scorer. They have players, now, with drafting Hayward in 2010 and Burks this past June. Ideally those two players would become the starters at the two and three for a long time, both capable of shooting the lights out, handling the ball a bit, and driving to the hoop. The problem here is even if that proves true, they need backups. Bell is the obvious backup at the two, but turns 35 on Monday and has played just 74 games the past two seasons. C.J. Miles, whose $3.7 million option Utah picked up at the last possible minute, is very capable and can fill either slot, but is inconsistent. Favors and Millsap can each play the three, but it’s not ideal. Jeremy Evans, a second-year player with a non-guaranteed contract, is the only other person on the roster capable of playing the three.
Anthony Parker or James Jones could each be a good fit here, as could Kelenna Azubuike or Damien Wilkins. Again, these are not sexy names who are going to come in and turn the team around, but they will bring experience, work hard, and do whatever is asked.
It all comes back to Okur, his $10.9 million contract, and whether or not he can justify the dollar amount by his production. If he can’t then he becomes a major factor in holding the Jazz back, but if he can they may end up being just fine.
They could make a trade. Okur and Miles represent $14.6 million in expiring contracts, so if Utah really wants to make a splash they could dangle these and a first-round pick to see if any team wants to cut salary and trade them a truly reliable scorer on the wing, someone who can not only be productive but also be a good role model for Hayward and Burks.
The key is to be realistic. That package is not going to return an All-Star, and it may only return another large contract who doesn’t fit with his current team. Leandro Barbosa in Toronto? Trevor Ariza in New Orleans? Gamble on Travis Outlaw in New Jersey? Mike Miller in Miami? These are all players who could be options.
The other possibility is to sign cheap players and stand pat for one more season. It could result in another dip in the lottery and the shedding of that $14.6 million for the summer of 2012 (of course, if the lockout costs the season we fast forward to then and this piece has a different tone).
Money will restrict what the Utah Jazz can do to prepare for 2011-12. This means that even though they need more leadership, experience, frontcourt production, and wing scoring, they may simply have to rely on organic growth for one more season. This offseason will bring no easy answers.
Agree or disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments! Hit up Jason Fleming’s weekly chat at 8pm Eastern on Mondays.