As the Utah Jazz prepared to tackle the offseason a year ago, the world around them was changing.
The Miller family underwrote millions in renovations to both Vivint Smart Home Arena and the Jazz practice facility and offices. General manager Dennis Lindsey had to figure out how to get through losing the Jazz’s biggest free agent out of a temporary office that got up to 100 degrees on a hot day.
Even for a native Texan, that gets uncomfortable.
“I don’t miss them,” laughed Lindsey in his new digs while lounging in a leather chair.
This offseason, the environment is much more stable — and so are the Jazz. Key players on this season’s team are under contract, and after a second-round playoff exit, the Jazz are dealing from a position of strength in a cap-squeezed market. While the Utah front office is still chasing the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to become a championship team, they can count on a lot of the puzzle pieces they already have to get there.
“We’re very pleased to have foundational pieces here … and that extends beyond Rudy [Gobert] and Donovan [Mitchell] in my mind,” Lindsey said. “When you get a window when you have a foundation and you have a starting point, it’s a good place to be, it’s an exciting place to be.”
Still, the Jazz have decisions to make, and they’re determined to gain ground on the NBA’s elite without surrendering any to would-be contenders. In an hour-long conversation, Lindsey touched on several of the franchise’s big issues this offseason:
Derrick Favors and Dante Exum
Restricted free agent-to-be Dante Exum was working out in the Jazz practice facility on Thursday morning, rehabbing his injured hamstring. While the 22-year-old point guard will spend part of his offseason in Los Angeles, Exum’s presence seemed to be a promising omen that the Jazz can retain the former lottery pick who has provided flashes of brilliance when healthy.
“With Dante, I was very pleased after we challenged [him], and he wanted to be challenged a year ago,” Lindsey said. “He’s maturing and quite committed to his health and his game. And this is a good place to help him improve both.”
Lindsey used forward-looking language when discussing both Exum and Derrick Favors, who both hit free agency in July. While the Jazz will have an opportunity to match any offer for Exum, Favors will be an unrestricted free agent and could leave Utah after seven seasons.
Lindsey expressed, at this stage, that he doesn’t want that to happen.
“Derrick has been very consistent in his want to be back — I think he understands what he has here,” Lindsey said. “And we certainly understand what he produces. His agent is a terrific person, and we’ve been able to carve out good deals for both sides. I don’t see any initial obstacles.”
Lindsey also acknowledged a significant chunk of the front office is working on hypotheticals. The Jazz will weigh signing both Exum and Favors against a bevy of options: Lindsey said Utah won’t sign them to be conservative, but because it grades out as the best possible options to keep the team competitive.
Internal player development
Free agency often gets the attention of fans, but the Jazz front office and coaching staff believe internal development is the key to their niche in the NBA.
Lindsey laid out some of the desires the Jazz have for their returning players. Going forward, Mitchell is the clear first scoring option, and the Jazz will tailor his offseason plan to help him develop as a high-usage player.
For Gobert, the emphasis continues to be on developing his lower body, which management feels is key not only to make him a more consistent finisher, but also for his health. Gobert missed a third of the season with injuries in each of his knees, and Lindsey called Gobert’s leg strength “a touch point on a daily basis.”
While Gobert has room to grow as a shooter and finisher, the Jazz are more concerned he continue to develop his fundamentals over adding fancy wrinkles to his post game.
Assuming Favors returns, the Jazz are hopeful he can be a stronger 3-point shooter, which he’s worked on with assistant Antonio Lang. Favors shot 22 percent from deep last season, but his development over the past two seasons makes Lindsey hopeful Favors could one day be a threat from the corner.
Lindsey was more brisk on other players: The Jazz are expecting a strong offseason from Ricky Rubio, since he won’t be burdened with the same national team responsibilities he had last summer. Lindsey hopes Royce O’Neale will further embrace his role as a “3-and-D” player. Assuming his return, Exum will work on stabilizing his health, and the Jazz would like to see him develop a midrange game.
Regardless of roster turnover, the Jazz feel internal development is a cornerstone of the franchise.
“We do believe in that,” Lindsey said. “It’s something we have to work really hard at to be a relevant club in the NBA.”
Coaching staff retention
Lindsey said he expects “a majority” of the Jazz coaching staff will return next season. While Igor Kokoskov has begun as head coach of the Suns, the Jazz aren’t expecting much turnover.
Lindsey declined to identify which coaches are being extended since the Jazz are in the process of negotiating and finalizing those deals, but Tribune sources indicated assistant Johnnie Bryant (who works closely with Mitchell and Jae Crowder) is receiving an extension.
While Lindsey said he didn’t necessarily expect to retain as much of the staff as the Jazz have currently entering the offseason, he was “hopeful” the team could figure out how to keep most of them. Both Lindsey and Snyder consider coaching stability a huge factor of the Jazz’s growth over the past few seasons, and Lindsey said he felt the new facilities designed for the coaching staff increase chemistry and idea-sharing.
When asked who the next lead assistant would be, replacing Kokoskov, Lindsey said that decision would be up to Snyder. But he added Snyder has gone to great lengths to flatten the traditional coaching hierarchy and maintain a democratic atmosphere in the coaching room.