Even for the NBA, the churning of the league’s superstars has been dizzying the past two offseasons. From Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Paul George last year to LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins and Kawhi Leonard this summer, big trades and free agency moves have animated some of the league’s biggest contenders.
But when it comes to overhaul, the Utah Jazz made a conscious decision to sit this one out. That strategy, while conservative in nature, is bold in how it cuts against the grain. And the Jazz are as interested as anyone to find out if standing pat and developing from within is enough to compete with the NBA’s best.
“I get it: It’s not probably the greatest or most sexy PR thing to come back with the same group, especially when we had some flexibility,” general manager Dennis Lindsey said earlier this month, when the Jazz re-signed Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto. “But we had to understand the associated upside with the continuity.”
While the Jazz have stressed their commitment to keeping the roster together — returning players account for 88 percent of last year’s minutes — Utah’s flexibility for the future remains intact. A number of contracts, including Ricky Rubio, come off the books next summer, and Favors’ second year is not guaranteed, potentially freeing up millions in 2019 to chase a stacked class of free agents.
The 2018-19 season can be better understood as an low-risk experiment: Was the 29-6 finish to last season an accurate reflection of what the current roster can sustain? Could this group develop enough to become a championship contender in an era overshadowed by the dominant Warriors?
“I think the Jazz played a pretty smart middle ground,” said Tim Bontemps, a national NBA writer for The Washington Post. “They kept this group together and kept their flexibility for the future if it doesn’t work out.”
Utah’s 2018 offseason blares continuity: The only rotation player they allowed to walk is Jonas Jerebko. Favors, Exum and Neto were all brought back in free agency, and Georges Niang, who got a multi-year deal, was a two-way Jazz player last season.
In that light, Utah has bought into the idea that locker room chemistry and continuity within Quin Snyder’s system are important and not worth tampering with. There’s hope within the organization that the same core group will be up to speed sooner than mixing in a lot of new players.
“We don’t want to be teaching guys to catch up with our system,” Exum said. “We had a lot of ups and downs. Hopefully we can continue from there.”
It’s certainly true that the winningest organizations value continuity. The Warriors, beyond their biggest stars, have kept role players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston through their run of three titles. The San Antonio Spurs, arguably the franchise the Jazz most closely try to emulate, have returned players who account for at least 75 percent of total minutes for 14 of the past 20 seasons. By contrast, teams that struggle — examples in recent years include the Nets, the Knicks and Lakers — are fraught with constant roster turnover.
But committing to a group after a hot streak carries a risk: After the Miami Heat went 30-11 to close the 2016-17 season, barely missing the playoffs, the franchise doled out four-year contracts to James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk. This season, Miami was a middling 44-38 team that was washed out in the first round — and now the Heat lack sufficient financial flexibility to do much about it.
That’s not what the Jazz have done.
“I think from their standpoint, they need to see is this going to be a team that grows into one that can go beyond the second round and beat one of the best teams in the league,” said Bontemps of the Jazz. “If they aren’t, and they need to make an upgrade or two to be the deep playoff contender, they’ve given themselves the ability to do that.”
ESPN recently reported that more than half of the NBA’s talent pool could be free agents in 2019. That includes All-Stars Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving as well as strong starters such as Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton. An influx of one-year deals this offseason — as players hope for a cap spike next summer — has only increased the potential for snagging a few helpful pieces next year.
Maybe it won’t be necessary. Jazz players have been spotted together throughout the summer, with seven of them sitting courtside at one Summer League game in Las Vegas. There’s an undeniable chemistry off the court that the Jazz hope can translate into winning games on it. There’s also a strong feeling about Utah’s youth: Even beyond Donovan Mitchell, who became a breakout star, Royce O’Neale and Exum still have room to grow, and Rudy Gobert (26 years old) is entering his prime.
But whichever road the Jazz choose to take next year — continuity or change — the path will be clear to move forward.
The Jazz keep their moves open for 2019
While Utah has kept the roster mostly intact this offseason, there will be a lot of possibilities for 2019 with expiring contracts and non-guaranteed second years. A look at the money the Jazz can move from the books next summer (2018-19 estimated salary included):
• Ricky Rubio, free agent ($15 million)
• Alec Burks, free agent ($11.5 million)
• Thabo Sefolosha, free agent ($5.3 million)
• Ekpe Udoh, free agent ($3.4 million)
• Derrick Favors, non-guaranteed second year ($16.9 million)
• Raul Neto, non-guaranteed second year ($2.2 million)