It’s as open-and-shut as free agency gets.
The Utah Jazz had a plan to bring back the players from last season, aced the plan the first three days of negotiations, then made their contracts official the first hour they could on Friday morning.
By noon, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto were all sitting at the same table alongside general manager Dennis Lindsey, donning button-up shirts and anxious grins. The joint celebration was symbolic for a franchise that talks exhaustively about putting the team first — but everyone on stage looked ready for the next step.
“I bought into the program and I’m happy to be back,” Derrick Favors said through a wide smile. “I’m happy Dante’s back, I’m happy Raul’s back. I’m happy for them, proud for them. Just ready to get the season started.”
Only a few days into July, the Jazz have nearly fully reformed last year’s 48-34 roster — a rarity in an age where at least some turnover is the norm. Favors (two years, $36 million), Exum (three years, $33 million) and Neto (two years, $4.4 million) were the biggest question marks to return in the offseason, but quick deals backed the Jazz front office’s claims that the thing they most want to retain from last season is continuity.
Midway through last season, the Jazz rose from a moribund 19-28 record to fifth seed in the Western Conference, riding a defense-fueled stretch of dominance and red-hot rookie Donovan Mitchell to the second round of the playoffs. It was a run that sparked the intrigue of the NBA and the imagination of Jazz fans, and Lindsey said he didn’t want to uncork the lightning the team bottled up last season.
“Chemistry’s a hard thing to predict,” Lindsey said. “You can get five great people in a room together and not click for whatever reason. We didn’t want to overthink that.”
Of the free agents, Favors retains the biggest role: As the starting power forward and second-unit center, he enjoyed a renaissance season in 2017-18 while playing at his best health in years — a stat the Jazz illustrate by highlighting his career-best 165 dunks last year.
But there is also a question of sacrifice: While there is statistical backing that Favors pairs well with center Rudy Gobert in the regular season, the playoffs bring situations when Utah can only field one big. More often than not, that big is Gobert, and Favors heads to the bench.
Favors’ return is, in part, an acceptance of that sacrifice which costs him points, rebounds and other relevant statistical categories but helps yield wins. Lindsey said perhaps no one on the team gives up more than Favors in this regard.
The bigger picture is what swayed the 6-foot-10 Atlanta native to come back.
“I saw what we had and what we could accomplish in a full season when everybody’s healthy,” Favors said. “ I think we can build something special. That definitely went into my decision.”
Exum, a former top-five draft pick in 2014, has the most to prove, with a contract that will pay out on promise more than polish. Still only 22, the 6-foot-7 guard has length and speed that have tantalized for years, but injuries — including the shoulder injury that kept him out nearly all season — have delayed the payoff.
But over the last year, the Jazz and Exum grew mutual appreciation, Exum by tirelessly working his way back from his October surgery, and the Jazz by stressing the long view over rushing him to the court. It helped build the trust for both sides entering July negotiations that Exum could return on a contract that, if he can stay healthy, could be a valuable investment.
His defense on James Harden against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs (before suffering another injury) was part of that promise: He held the league MVP to just 3 of 12 shooting with four turnovers.
“I feel comfortable with this team, and they know what I can do,” Exum said. “It’s just get about getting comfortable doing that and getting the opportunity to do that.”
Neto was brought back as Utah’s third point guard, a steady playmaker and shooter who statistically improves the Jazz defense. His willingness to play any role on the team, including staying on the bench some nights, convinced the Jazz to bypass taking a point guard in the draft last month.
All three players pointed to the composition of the team as a big factor for coming back. Exum talked about how the strength of the Jazz is that “everyone is willing to listen.” The returning free agents hope that bringing back everyone will iron out typical early season chemistry struggles and make the Jazz an early contender in an increasingly fraught West that just added LeBron James.
Lindsey was even more deeply convinced of the team chemistry when Exum asked during his own negotiations how Favors’ were going.
“I had a list of questions I had prepared for, and I got one: ‘Is Fav gonna be back?’” Lindsey said. “The guys, they do care about each other.”
How long that commitment to continuity lasts is a big question: The Jazz have an opportunity to restructure their roster next year with several contracts expiring, including Ricky Rubio’s. Even among the players on the dais on Friday, Favors and Neto both have non-guaranteed deals for the second years of their respective contracts.
If the season goes well, the Jazz could bring them back. Otherwise, they could look for a more jarring change in what is expected to be a calamitous free agency period next year, thanks to a number of one-year deals that will saturate the market and a number of teams with cap space.
On Friday, hope reigned. Favors spoke not only of the deal he just signed, but the one he hopes he’ll hammer out with the Jazz after his next one expires — maybe the one that keeps him in a Jazz uniform for the rest of his career.
It’s perhaps a rosy image, but one that fit in with the day’s themes.
“When Kevin [O’Connor] traded for me in 2011, he told me from Day 1 he wanted me here for the long run,” Favors said. “He wanted me to retire here as a Jazzman. Hopefully it happens.”