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Utah Jazz: Tough, expensive decisions ahead for young Jazz

First Published      Last Updated Sep 02 2016 07:26 pm

Jazz » Franchise faces a salary crunch as new deals for its young, talented core loom.

Gordon Hayward hates early goodbyes.

But, once again, there the Utah Jazz forward was saying farewell to his teammates in mid-April after watching his team miss out on the playoffs this season for the fifth time in his six-year career. And it is understood that Hayward could be saying goodbye for good after next season. The Jazz's captain can opt out of his contract following next season, when a spike in the league's salary cap will mean Hayward could conceivably double his paycheck by becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

Rebuilding is a frustrating process, especially for a competitor like Hayward. So after clearing out his locker, Hayward was asked if the Jazz had shown enough progress to keep him around beyond next year.

"I think going from 20 to 30 to 40 wins, we're trending in the right direction," he said. "I just want to win and be a part of a winning team. I think we're headed that way. I'll cross that bridge when I get there as far as the contract."

Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, meanwhile, is already studying the road map to that bridge and beyond. The GM wears myriad hats — he is part talent evaluator, part market analyst — and he's on the precipice of a bubble. Years of more hits than misses in the draft have helped the Jazz amass an enviable wealth of young talent, and the time is coming soon when they'll need to be paid.

The Jazz have five players under the age of 25 who will be out of contract either next summer or the summer after that and headed for sizable raises: Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Danté Exum — the team's projected starting lineup for next season. Point guard Trey Burke, who was relegated to the end of the bench late in the season, has one more year on his rookie contract, too.

And these new deals will be negotiated as general managers around the league try to navigate a deluge of new revenue to the NBA that will dramatically increase the league's salary cap and, in turn, players' salaries. A new nine-year broadcasting agreement will bring in a reported $24 billion for the league. The influx will mean an increase in the cap from about $70 million this season to a reported $92 million next season and $110 million in 2017-18.

That's in time for the summer Hayward will be able to opt out of his deal. The forward — who signed a max deal with Charlotte worth about $16 million a year in the summer of 2014 only to have the Jazz match — would be an unrestricted free agent who could qualify for a max deal worth 30 percent of the cap, about $33 million a year.

That same year, Gobert will be playing on the first year of his new contract. A steal for the Jazz late in the first round in 2013, Gobert is set to make $2.1 million next season. After that, he could qualify for a maximum contract with 25 percent of the cap, or about $27 million. The Jazz can negotiate an extension with Gobert this year up until the Oct. 31 deadline; after that he would become a restricted free agent.

The following summer, Favors will be coming off what has turned out to be a bargain deal and will be an unrestricted free agent.

Hayward, Favors and Gobert are currently the Big Three in small-market Utah. But with salaries set to balloon, Lindsey and the Jazz front office will have to decide what they're willing to spend to keep them around. If all three players earned max deals — hardly an implausible scenario if their development continues on an upward trajectory — they would eat up more than $93 million in cap space. That's before any decision regarding Exum and Hood, both of whom come off their rookie contracts in the summer of 2018.

"I'm constantly thinking about that," Hayward told ESPN.com earlier this year. "Contracts are so short now. A lot of our guys are on their rookie deals, and they'll come up for extensions. It all might determine whether or not I stay in Utah."

The Miller family has stated its willingness to pay up to the cap but has generally shown the same abhorrence to diving into the luxury tax as the family's late patriarch Larry H. Miller. If that remains the case, hard choices must be made — think Oklahoma City in 2012, when the Thunder brass had to decide from among Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

Other rebuilding teams in recent years have also amassed young talent.

The Magic have locked up Nic Vucevic but have decisions to make on Victor Oladipo, who has one year left on his rookie deal, Evan Fournier, a restricted free agent this summer, and 2013 draft pick Aaron Gordon. The Minnesota Timberwolves, with youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and another high draft pick coming, will face a similar payroll pinch eventually. But few if any teams in the NBA will face the problem on the same scale as the Jazz soon.

The coming crunch impacts what the Jazz can and will do on the market this summer. The team has about $30 million to spend, but that only puts them in the middle of the pack in a summer when so many teams, including high-profile destinations like New York and L.A., will be flush with cap space. The Jazz will do their best to pitch one of the few top-tier free agents on joining an up-and-coming squad in Salt Lake City. But barring that, the Jazz front office knows that money will have to be spent wisely now, or they risk jeopardizing their ability to retain their own talent in the coming few years.

If the Jazz want short-term help, they could offer up a similar deal this summer to the one that lured Trevor Booker to Utah. The Jazz paid over market value for Booker in the summer of 2014, signing him to a two-year deal that was only half-guaranteed. That kind of deal would allow the Jazz to spend and maintain flexibility.

Lindsey doesn't have to make any drastic decisions this summer.

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Jazz salary outlook: Committed salaries

Player 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19

Gordon Hayward $16,073,140 $16,736,710*

Derrick Favors $10,983,333 $11,933,333

Alec Burks $9,904,495 $10,595,506 $11,286,515

Dante Exum $3,940,320 $4,992,385^

Trey Burke $3,386,598

Tibor Pleiss $3,000,000 $3,000,000

Shelvin Mack $2,433,334

Trey Lyles $2,340,600 $2,441,400^ $3,364,249^

Joe Ingles $2,250,000

Rudy Gobert $2,121,288

Rodney Hood $1,406,520 $2,386,864^

Chris Johnson $1,050,961

Jeff Withey $1,015,696

Raul Neto $1,000,000 $1,000,000

Team Total $60,906,285 $53,086,198 $14,650,764

*—player option; ^—Team Option. Source: basketball-reference.com

*—Trevor Booker is an unrestricted free agent

Salary Cap Space

The NBA salary cap is projected to be around a record $92 million this summer. From basketballinsiders.com, the best-case space scenario for each team

Los Angeles Lakers: $68.3

Dallas Mavericks: $59.2

Philadelphia 76ers: $57.4

Orlando Magic: $52.1

Boston Celtics: $51.4

Houston Rockets: $44.2

Washington Wizards: $43.1

Brooklyn Nets: $42.2

Charlotte Hornets: $42.2

Portland Trail Blazers: $42.2

Memphis Grizzlies: $41.5

Miami Heat: $39.3

Atlanta Hawks: $37.4

Utah Jazz: $34.5

Phoenix Suns: $33.8

New York Knicks: $33.4

Indiana Pacers: $32.4

Denver Nuggets: $30.7

Minnesota Timberwolves: $27.1

Milwaukee Bucks: $26.7

Sacramento Kings: $26.1

Oklahoma City Thunder: $25.0

Detroit Pistons: $24.1

Chicago Bulls: $23.4

New Orleans Pelicans: $22.6

San Antonio Spurs: $20.3

Toronto Raptors: $18.8

Golden State Warriors: $17.3

Cleveland Cavaliers: $15.1

Los Angeles Clippers: $10.5