Utah Jazz: They’re still here, but what’s next for Jefferson and Millsap?
By Bill Oram
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 26 2013 04:06PM
Contrary to popular belief, the Jazz did make a move by last week’s trade deadline — a gesture, really. Sometimes, inaction says as much as words. And by keeping around Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, for now at least, the Jazz definitely sent a message to their frontcourt tandem.
It’s just unclear what it was.
We haven’t given up on you? Maybe. We still don’t know what to do with you guys? Perhaps. We’ll sort all of this out when free agency hits? Certainly.
And while the Jazz (31-26) — with 25 games remaining, including Wednesday’s against Atlanta — insist they aren’t looking ahead to the offseason, all attention will be focused there soon enough.
"It’s just really on the back burner," Jefferson said. "Right now it’s all about getting to the playoffs. It’s all about advancing."
But when that ends, the Jazz will have as many as nine players entering free agency (Marvin Williams has a player option) and none more notable than Jefferson and Millsap. Two of the Jazz’s most likeable and reliable players, both could be gone. Both could, theoretically at least, return, although that option remains highly unlikely with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter waiting in the wings.
General manager Dennis Lindsey declined to comment on the Jazz’s approach to Jefferson and Millsap in the offseason.
On Monday, before the Jazz lost 110-107 in overtime to the Boston Celtics, Jefferson and Millsap both said they want to return to the Jazz.
Jefferson has enjoyed more team success than with the Celtics and Timberwolves earlier in his career. He’s refined his game and become more consistent. While it’s still a sore spot, he believes he’s improved his defensive game.
"Utah’s been the best thing that ever happened to my career," Jefferson said. "This team has been the best thing that ever happened to me."
Millsap doesn’t know what it’s like to play for any other team. He owns a home here that he bought with his first big contract. He and his girlfriend are expecting their third child, a daughter.
The Jazz likely would be interested in either Millsap or Jefferson at a certain price, but don’t expect the Jazz to throw all the cash they freed up by getting out of those contracts right back at Millsap and Jefferson.
The NBA, after all, is a business as much as anything, and Millsap said he has not had any conversations with the Jazz about what their thought process is going into the offseason.
"They’re as focused on this season as me," Millsap said. "I’m sure when this season is over we’ll have conversations about it, talk about it."
This summer will be key in the development of the Jazz. The franchise, in its first offseason with Lindsey calling the shots, will have upward of $40 million in cap room. But, unless Chris Paul or Dwight Howard take a sudden liking to crisp mountain air, the free-agent class doesn’t boast players the Jazz are likely to lock into long-term futures.
So if Jose Calderon, Kevin Martin, Stephen Jackson and Elton Brand don’t stir any emotion for the Jazz, it’s plausible that Lindsey and Kevin O’Connor could strip the Jazz to the studs, so to speak, and build slowly around Favors, Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Jeremy Evans.
The flexibility the Jazz will have under the new salary cap will become more valuable over time as teams feel more pinched by the punitive luxury tax.
"Kevin’s been doing this for a long time," Jefferson said, "and he’s going to do what’s best for this team. That’s why I never doubt anything Kevin do — he’s always got a plan."
But Jefferson stressed the importance of not letting free agency — and the prospect of another contract worth tens of millions of dollars — be a distraction for the Jazz.
"If you start thinking that far ahead, it takes your mind off what you need to do right now," he said.
Coach Tyrone Corbin said Jefferson and Millsap have set a good example with the way they’ve handled their pending free agency.
"Since training camp," Corbin said, "we talked about the number of free agents we have and how much of a distraction it could be if we allowed it to be. And they’ve found a way just of staying on point."