Monson: Don’t worry about the Jazz — even if they stink
By Gordon Monson
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Jul 09 2013 09:27AM
For Jazz fans worried about what in the name of bad basketball Dennis Lindsey is doing, here’s a bit of advice:
There’s no guarantee the road the Jazz are now traveling will lead them to real contention, but one thing is certain. The old path didn’t. And another, the old path wouldn’t.
Maintaining that former course — scratching and clawing to stay afloat, trading for or signing mid-tier veterans and nudging them toward conscientious effort and sound teamwork — would be a waste of time, at least if the Jazz ever want to climb to the top. Finding themselves somewhere on the sliding scale of good, which the club had pretty much mastered since Karl Malone and John Stockton left the building, but never sniffing great is a mistake of seasons gone by.
Now the Jazz are stripping the thing down to grow it back to where everybody around here wants it to be. The notion of safety no longer is in play. It’s time, they figure, to make some smart choices and take some smart chances. And even if that means the Jazz will lose considerably more next season than they typically do, big freaking deal. That should upset only those who love watching the team win 45 games every year, and then, if they squeak into the playoffs, get eliminated quickly.
Let’s examine what Lindsey has done thus far, and, if we speculate, his reasons for what he has done.
He moved up to draft Trey Burke. Nobody knows how good the point guard out of Michigan will be as a pro, but many scouts considered him the best point guard on the board. The Jazz needed a PG in the worst way.
He did not re-sign Al Jefferson. That’s a good thing.
He did not re-sign Paul Millsap. That’s a good thing.
Both of those veterans were asking for more in free agency than they are worth. But that’s just the start of it. Jefferson ended up with Charlotte, which needed low-post scoring, having finished near the bottom of NBA rankings in offense. But the Bobcats were even worse on defense, so Jefferson will cost them more than the $41 million for which he signed. Having Jefferson on the floor is like George Jetson running on a space-aged treadmill. The faster he goes, the farther behind he falls.
Millsap was usually a tough competitor, but last season, he kind of freaked, not getting the role he wanted. He worked hard for most of his years in Utah, and was productive. But he wasn’t what he wanted to be. He’s an undersized power forward not big enough to consistently lift the Jazz to the heights desired, not big enough to score over taller defenders, not big enough to defend the bigger forwards in the West, not athletic enough to play small forward. There’s a reason Millsap led the NBA, or was near the lead, in fouls committed every year. He wasn’t the guy the Jazz had to have, especially not for $10 million a year.
The Jazz knew where they would finish if they spent $25 million a season on those two players and played them long minutes: on the fringe of the playoffs. The ceiling was too low.
Beyond that, there are the young lottery picks needing more minutes. Karl Malone, after announcing he would join the Jazz, mentoring the big men, said the youngsters on the roster had more natural ability than he ever did. He was talking about Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. The time has come when they have to play, even when they look like lost puppies going up against grizzled dogs. The reasoning there is two-fold: 1) The Jazz have to find out what those two can do in order to know how much money to offer them in future years when their deals open up, and 2) Those two post players must develop. To develop, they have to get more time on the floor.
The same is true for Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks and Trey Burke. Can they play or can’t they? They can’t if they don’t. That’s the reason one Vegas sports book listed Burke as the favorite to become next season’s rookie of the year. He’s going to get time because he has to get time.
Underscoring that is the trade the Jazz pulled off with Golden State. They essentially gave up Kevin Murphy for Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush. That benefits the Jazz in multiple ways: It helps them move toward the minimum payroll, a baseline all NBA teams must meet. The Jazz had less than $30 million committed to their previous core, so they had to pay cash out to somebody. In this case, those collective players total $24 million, a tidy sum. But it’s all expiring money after next season. Which is to say, in acquiring those players, the Jazz have sacrificed none of the financial flexibility they so highly prize. Next offseason, when the free-agent market is a thousand times deeper than it is this time around, the Jazz will have resources. Just as importantly, with punitive taxes kicking in by way of the new collective bargaining agreement, some teams will be eager to unload good players with heavy contracts that they ordinarily would like to keep, but now they can’t afford.
The Jazz will be able to afford them.
And another thing: Jefferson and Biedrins are vets who will not rob minutes from the young players. Even if that is Tyrone Corbin’s natural inclination, to favor veterans, in those cases he can’t do it. They’re simply not good enough. Rush, coming off an injury that cost him all of last season, might be the exception. But in a limited dose, that’s OK, too. Rush is a 28-year-old shooter who hits 41 percent of his 3-pointers and can play defense, all at a spot where the Jazz are thin.
Moreover, the Jazz got two first-round picks from the Warriors — one in 2014, the other in 2017. That’s solid for a club that has to build through the draft. If, say, Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut get hurt next year, think about how high that first-rounder might be. Add in the Jazz’s own pick for 2014, and consider how deep the next draft is, and what Lindsey is doing here makes a mountain of good sense.
So, under this scenario, the Jazz have Burke, Burks, Hayward, Favors and Kanter to develop, alongside the promising size and mobility of Rudy Gobert — another bright move by Lindsey. They’ve filled out a portion of the league’s baseline salary requirements without forfeiting financial flexibility. And they’ve reserved room to pay whichever of the young players rise up, enabling them to keep the ones who are worth keeping when that threshold is crossed.
They’ve also preserved the possibility of gaining something in return for valuable expiring contracts before next season’s trade deadline. They’ve avoided creating an unhealthy environment in which more prominent veterans would be cutting the legs out from under the youngsters in the locker room. And if they don’t win a whole lot of games, they find themselves in prime position for a great pick in a deep draft.
All Jazz fans have to do is ease off — and enjoy the growth of the young players while the promise of improvement stacks up. This hasn’t been a habit for the club, so it’s not an excuse. It’s the only way the Jazz can contend. Lindsey will have to yet make wise decisions to make it happen. But the road to competitive prosperity is now open, even if a few gullies have to be bridged.
It’s the only way for a small-market team like the Jazz to go. A long reach for a shot at being great is better than a short one to keep the status quo. Lindsey and the Jazz deserve credit, not criticism, for coming to that realization.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.