“We all need to have a championship on our minds,” Rudy Gobert said.
A first-round playoff exit in five games to the Houston Rockets was the perfect reminder: While the Jazz have undoubtedly a better situation than most NBA teams — a 50-win season, young stars under contract for multiple seasons — there’s still a long way to go before the Jazz are truly elite.
With that desire to improve comes the responsibility of making difficult decisions about the team’s future. Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, and Ekpe Udoh are free agents this summer, while Derrick Favors, Kyle Korver, Georges Niang, Raul Neto, and Royce O’Neale have either partial or non-guaranteed contracts for next season. With those eight players, and their salary slots to work with, the Jazz have some flexibility about how they move forward.
O’Neale and Niang are likely safe, thanks to their on-court production that well surpasses their salaries for next season. The Jazz may be likely to move on from Sefolosha and Udoh, or at least, would sign them to deals for less than they made in previous seasons.
That leaves decisions on Rubio, Favors, Korver and Neto. Clearing Rubio alone would give the Jazz $13.8 million in cap space, while moving on from Favors would mean $31.4 million free. Cutting Korver would add an extra $3.1 million to the equation, and if the Jazz move on from all of those players, they could open up a maximum of $36.8 million in cap space, enough to give the Jazz room to sign a free agent to the maximum.
CAP SPACE JAZZ CAN GENERATE
Without Rubio: $13.8 million
Without Favors: $18.4 million (if Rubio signs deal for estimated $13M per season)
Without Rubio and Favors: $31.4 million
Without Rubio, Favors, and Korver: $34.5 million
Without Rubio, Favors, Korver and Neto: $36.8 million
Maximum salary slots
Up to 6 years of experience: (e.g., Malcolm Brogdon, DeAngelo Russell, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Julius Randle): $27.2 million
7-9 years of experience: (e.g., Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris): $32.7 million
If Jazz operate over the cap: $9.25 million
If Jazz go under the cap to sign a free agent from another team: $4.76 million
The Jazz have until July 6 to make a decision on Favors and Neto for next season, and July 7 to make a decision on Korver’s deal, which is guaranteed for $3.4 million of the $7.5 million total amount. Free agency opens on July 1, so the Jazz will have several days to communicate with free agents before they have to commit or move on.
Also available for the Jazz will be their mid-level exception, the amount of which changes depending on if they stay above or below the cap. If they stay above to keep their own players, they’d have $9.25 million to sign a rotational piece with. If they go below, though, to sign a bigger free agent with cap space, they’d only be given $4.76 million to bolster their roster.
At the top of the list of needs for the Jazz is scoring: the Jazz were held with an offensive rating under 100 in four of their five games against the Rockets, all losses. While the defensive side of things gave the Jazz an opportunity to win games against a talented Rockets team that pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven last year, the offense consistently let them down in clutch situations, thanks to an inability to make the shots Quin Snyder’s scheme provided.
“Adding a sniper at any position is something we're going to have to strongly evaluate,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said.
If that sniper is expensive, they may need to move on from Rubio, Favors or both. The Jazz tried to upgrade at the point guard position at the deadline, but were unable to complete a deal with Memphis for Mike Conley. They could revisit those talks, but are clearly frustrated with Memphis for how those talks became public — “Unfortunately, a team leaked something, and it was unethical,” Lindsey said.
Those talks, as well as his impending free-agency, meant that Rubio has felt unsettled about his spot on the team next year. “A lot of friends have asked me, 'Yo, where are you gonna play next year? Can I come visit?' I honestly have no idea,” Rubio said. “But one thing I’m gonna look [at] for sure is the best situation for me, with the coach and the team. … I want to be happy. I’m gonna try to find the best situation for me to perform and be happy.”
If that’s not in Utah, the Jazz will need to find a new point guard. There’s talent at the top of the free-agency point guard class — Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and D’Angelo Russell being the All-Star names — but any of those three would be the largest free-agent signing in Jazz history by some measure. The next tier of free agent point guards — Malcolm Brogdon, Darren Collison, or Patrick Beverley — are regarded as about as talented as Rubio, though might be better fits for the position next to Donovan Mitchell.
There’s also the option of moving Mitchell to point guard and acquiring a shooting wing instead. Terrence Ross, Danny Green, and Bojan Bogdanovic are among the free-agent possibilities.
The more acquirable talents might be at power forward. There are some top-tier free-agents available there, like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton, though those two may prefer to continue to be big pieces on their Eastern Conference rosters. Nikola Mirotic could be more available, and the Jazz have long had an interest in Mirotic and vice versa.
Just as there were with point guard, there are some cheaper candidates at forward, too. Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu will be a free-agent, as is Trevor Ariza. Paul Millsap could be an option if Denver chooses to move on.
Favors, though, is beloved in Utah, both among his fans who have grown fond of him during his eight years in a Jazz uniform and by Jazz executives who appreciate his extensive talents. “Derrick Favors isn’t a part of the problem, he’s part of the solution,” Lindsey insisted.
Free agency isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, too. Lindsey told 1280 AM that the Jazz have had players interested in coming to Utah in free agency, but, “We’ve had a lot of guys that have wanted to come. But, you know, they want $18 million and they’re worth six.”
Instead, the Jazz have chosen to acquire their top-tier talent in trades and at the draft, or sometimes — as in the case of Mitchell and Gobert — trades at the draft. “We have the opinion, usually it comes up, where if we don’t select No. 23, it could be a good asset.”
Speaking of assets, trades for the Jazz which acquires them an elite player may be hard to complete. The Jazz’s best assets are their young stars, but they don’t make any sense to trade to improve the team. But they can’t trade their free agents, and all of the players with non-guaranteed salaries count as $0 outgoing until their contracts become guaranteed. Meanwhile, Exum’s injury reduces or negates his trade value, and Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, and Tony Bradley aren’t the kind of pieces that figure to draw star talent in return. Their first round picks are among the Jazz’s most alluring trade chips.
Or, of course, they could keep their pick this season, which might be for the best given Lindsey’s drafting history. “Everybody’s panning the draft right now after the first couple picks. We’re looking at it, at No. 23, we’ve been studying that pretty hard the last few weeks and I like several of the players," Lindsey said. "Some of them create redundancy issues, but they’re good players nonetheless.”
It’s not the biggest offseason Lindsey has faced in his tenure with the Jazz — no leading stars are free agents, as in 2013 or 2017 — but it is one that could push the team to new heights.
"We have a very good team,” Lindsey said. “But, while we have a very good team, the results show that we don’t have a great team.”
Will the summer of 2019 be the year that changes?
JAZZ PROJECTED SALARY CAP TOTALS
Player • 2019-20 Salary
1. Rudy Gobert • $25,008,427
2. Joe Ingles • $11,954,546
3. Dante’ Exum • $9,600,000
4. Jae Crowder • $7,815,533
5. Donovan Mitchell • $3,635,760
6. Grayson Allen • $2,429,400
7. Tony Bradley • $1,962,360
8. Derrick Favors • (non-guaranteed) $17,650,000
9. Kyle Korver (partial-guaranteed) • $7,500,000
10. Raul Neto (non-guaranteed) • $2,150,000
11. Georges Niang (non-guaranteed) • $1,645,357
12. Royce O’Neale (non-guaranteed) • $1,618,520
13. First-rounder (own) (first-round hold) • $2,281,800
14. Ricky Rubio (free agent hold) • $22,462,500
15. Thabo Sefolosha (free agent hold) • $6,825,000
16. Ekpe Udoh (free agent hold) • $4,368,000
17. Naz Long (free agent hold) $1,443,842
18. Tyler Cavanaugh (free agent hold) • $1,443,842
Total $131.8 million
Salary cap $109.0 million