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NBA AM: Utah’s George Hill Dilemma

Ben Dowsett looks at several overlapping factors in George Hill’s free agency.

Ben Dowsett

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The Utah Jazz have seen a few of their marquee free agents hit the market in recent years, but this is different. Not since the summer of 2003, when Karl Malone’s search for a ring led him west to Los Angeles, has Utah faced this sort of franchise-altering summer.

Malone was days from 40 back then, though – still producing, but a far cry from his Hall of Fame self. Among Utah’s trio of current impending free agents, the elder statesman is 31. Those Stockton-to-Malone teams were already well past their glory days; Dennis Lindsey and the current Jazz front office have spent the better part of the last half decade building toward a team that still hasn’t reached its peak.

All things considered, given the state of the modern salary cap and player movement, one could argue it’s the biggest offseason in franchise history.

Gordon Hayward is the obvious tall domino, and headed into Saturday’s free agency period, his situation seems about as straightforward as anyone could have hoped. Hayward will meet with Miami, Boston and Utah (in that order), and is widely expected to make a decision quickly after Monday’s meeting with the Jazz. By the time fireworks are in the air on July 4, it’s probable we’ll know the franchise from which Hayward will receive his new max deal.

Hayward’s fellow swingman and close friend Joe Ingles would also appear to be a pretty simple case. Ingles was almost comically obvious about his desire to return to Utah during his exit meetings, and while it’s unknown whether or not he’ll consider signing an outside offer in restricted free agency, all the smoke signals point toward a return.

True to form for the franchise following several years of uncertainty, the point guard spot is once again the most complex situation facing Jazz management. And this time, there could be a whole lot more than just the starting 1-spot up for grabs.

First, consider the past.

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Since the day Deron Williams was traded to Brooklyn midseason in 2011, the Jazz had been floundering at the point by NBA standards. The list of guys who started games as a point guard for Utah between then and last summer was not pretty: Devin Harris, Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley, Mo Williams, John Lucas III, Trey Burke, Dante Exum and even Alec Burks (not a point guard).

The first several were stopgaps after Deron’s departure, followed by a notable misfire on a draft-day trade for Burke. Exum looked promising at times, only to have his entire trajectory derailed by a summer ACL tear before his sophomore season. In retrospect, the fact that those Burks-at-point lineups were actually relatively successful compared to many other choices just highlights how grim the situation really was.

It’s hard to say how a healthy Exum may have altered planning a year ago. But with the Aussie still finalizing his recovery and looking like a bit of a question mark – and with a win-now mandate that hadn’t really existed the previous year – Lindsey pulled the trigger and acquired George Hill prior to the 2016 draft.

Hill’s season couldn’t have started out much better, and couldn’t have finished up much more strangely. He was a legitimate franchise savior in November and December, propping the group up through a brief Hayward absence to open the season and posting legitimately ridiculous production.

A common statistic to evaluate a point guard’s creation compared to their carelessness is assist-to-turnover ratio. Hill was so stunningly efficient through the turn of the calendar year 2016 that his steal-to-turnover ratio became perhaps more appropriate to cite (it was nearly a dead even 1:1 ratio at that point, which is patently ridiculous for any volume ball-handler).

Hill had also sustained his first injury of the year by that time, though, a trend that would come to define his season. He’d go through five separate periods of the year where he missed at least three straight games, sitting for 36 contests in all between the regular season and playoffs.

Hill would return from one such stretch in time for the first round of the playoffs and post a monster series, including a plus-35 on-court figure while helping provide what proved to be the final nail in the Lob City Clippers’ coffin. He was back down just as quickly, though, sitting the final three games of a Jazz sweep at the hands of the eventual world champion Warriors.

Fast forward a couple months, and it’s already time to consider the future – where Utah’s cap situation looms large over everything.

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First things first: If future cap concerns are the only roadblock standing between the Jazz and retaining each of their three priority free agents at roughly market value, all three guys will likely be back in Utah next year. The Jazz would absolutely have several tough decisions looming over the next couple years in this hypothetical, but these are often overstated in the public eye.

Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors are the first big topics there. Hood and Exum are both up for rookie extensions after next season, meaning they could negotiate them starting this summer until late October (both appear unlikely to ink deals by that point barring some July craziness). Favors will be entering the last year of what’s mostly been a great deal for Utah, but with a big raise coming and a ton of other money possibly committed, the writing could already be on the wall for his future in Utah.

If moving Favors for little returning salary isn’t enough to loosen the belt, there are other options potentially available. It would cost an asset or two to get off Burks’ roughly $22 million owed over the next two years, but Utah has a few moderately valuable young pieces plus several future picks they could throw in to make this work.

Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson will both be off the books by next summer, at the latest. Diaw could even be cut for nothing before his guarantee date on July 15. Exum is no sure thing yet, and with 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell now in the fold as a combo guard with lots of potential, there’s not necessarily a guarantee that the Aussie commands long term money if he doesn’t show more in his fourth season.

It’s also not out of the question for the Jazz to swallow hard and enter the tax for a year. Utah won’t throw money around like crazy and enter repeater territory, but the ability is there to spend for a roster with a true shot to advance deep in the postseason. Ownership’s placement of the team into a legacy trust in January ensured that profits will be recycled into the franchise; popular players and deep playoff runs bring more profits, and a Hayward-Rudy Gobert combo is as popular and talented as the state has seen since the glory days.

There are enough levers to pull here to keep Lindsey from panicking about paying guys like Hill and Ingles their fair market value – if that’s the only concern, of course.

It might not be, and even the term “fair market value” might be more problematic than Lindsey and Co. would hope in Hill’s case.

Coloring this whole picture are failed attempts by the two sides to renegotiate-and-extend Hill’s deal back in the spring, a situation that would have added money to his 2016-17 salary while also keeping him in town for additional years without ever hitting the open market. The maximum Utah could have added to Hill’s contract in this case would have been roughly $88 million: about $13 million and change for 16-17, and another $75 million over the next three years.

It never happened, and the important questions now come from both sides. Did the Jazz ever come close to offering that much? This isn’t a team where even backchannel sources offer much clarity on negotiation details, but quiet chatter here and there indicates that perhaps the answer is no.

On the flip side, what was the threshold for Hill’s camp to accept? Did they even have one? If they were truly convinced he’d approach a max contract this summer, even $25 million a year moving forward might not have seemed like enough at the time for a guy who already spent several years underpaid.

As the summer gets set to open, though, the list of teams that appear primed to give out even that kind of money for a past-30 starting point guard might not be that long. Philadelphia and Brooklyn, both tossed around the rumor mill earlier in the year as teams with lots of cap who might want a veteran of Hill’s ilk, acquired blue chip young point guards in the last couple weeks. The Chris Paul domino has already fallen.

The Wolves have been rumored as a suitor, though they’d need to move Ricky Rubio first in all likelihood. The Spurs and a reunification with Pop always loom, but even that would take some cap maneuvering – certainly not unreasonable maneuvering, but worth noting nonetheless. There’s also no guarantee San Antonio values Hill enough to beat Utah’s best offer.

But maybe the most vital factor when it comes to Hill is also the one that’s toughest to gauge with even moderate accuracy: How he impacts Hayward’s decision. Both local and national outlets have indicated Hayward’s desire for a veteran point guard on the roster before he signs, with some reports mentioning Hill specifically and others staying vague.

Only Hayward himself truly knows how important a factor that is. The Jazz will certainly have a better idea than any of us, but even they could still be working from a place of partial uncertainty. If it takes coughing up a few million uncomfortable extra dollars for Hill to assure that Hayward remains, here’s wagering Lindsey and his team will pull the trigger. But it’s almost certainly not that linear, as rumors that Utah has been active on the trade market for a veteran point man would indicate.

Finally, we can’t forget to ask a pretty simple question that might get glossed over in all the other details: Does Utah truly want to commit the sort of years and salary it would take to get Hill back? Hill is 31, and has now missed big chunks of time in two of his last three seasons. Each individual injury he had last year felt random and relatively unlucky when isolated, but it’s also tough to imagine a 32-year-old dealing with fewer bumps and bruises on balance as he gets older.

Injuries are fickle and inexact, and it was a weird year there for Utah all around. The keen ear heard just the faintest whispers that it was perhaps Hill himself, and not Utah’s medical staff, who ruled him out of those final three games against the Warriors in May. True or not, it’s another little chunk of strangeness when it comes to Hill’s health. How to reconcile that with his obvious importance on and off the court is Lindsey’s challenge.

Got all that? Oh, and just in case there wasn’t enough uncertainty, remember that Hayward appears poised to make his decision relatively early in free agency. If locking up Hill before then is a prerequisite, the Jazz won’t have much time to get it done.

Rest as easily as you can, Jazz fans – it’ll all be over in a few days, good or bad. But as everyone sits in anticipation of Hayward’s decision, remember the other vital variables that factor into the equation.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Top Free Agent Decisions: The Northwest

With free agency coming up soon, it’s now time to look at some of the biggest decisions the teams from the Northwest division will have to make.

Matt John

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Two weeks ago, the staff writers at Basketball Insiders wrote a five-part series previewing free agents at all five positions this summer. With the draft now over, and free agency starting in a matter of days, we now turn our focus over to the most important free agent decisions each team in every division in the league will face this summer, starting with the Northwest Division.

The Northwest Division may have had arguably the tightest race in NBA history this season. Every division matchup counted this season, as only three games separated Portland, the division champion, from Denver, the only team in the division that (barely) missed the postseason.

Every single one of them will be looking for that extra oomph that will vault them into the league’s elite, but at the same time, a fair amount of them also have big decisions to make in regards to their guys that will hit the market this summer.

But which are the ones that you should really keep your eye on? Well, let’s start with the most obvious one.

Paul George – Oklahoma City Thunder – $19,508,958 (Last Season’s Salary)

Speculation surrounding Paul George’s free agency started last summer when it was revealed that the Los Angeles native wanted to leave the Pacers for his hometown team, the Lakers. Indiana granted only one of his wishes, as they sent his bags packing for Oklahoma City. George did just fine for a player of his caliber this past season, but the Thunder dealt with untimely injuries and there is a growing concern that George lacks the ability to close out games.

That won’t stop the Thunder from offering George the max, even with Carmelo Anthony opting into his deal. Convincing him to stay, however, will be the tricky part. A player as good as George will reel in plenty of interested parties, with the Lakers being the toughest competition. Many have believed that George to the Lakers is a foregone conclusion dating back to last summer, but the most recent reports indicate that George is leaning towards staying with the Thunder. The deciding factor may be whether LeBron joins the Lakeshow this summer, so stay tuned!

Nikola Jokic* – Denver Nuggets – $1,471,382

Denver opted to decline Jokic’s team option this week, which means he will hit restricted free agency. The play of “The Joker” should earn him a nice fat contract this summer given that his offensive repertoire makes him one of the league’s most talented young centers. Re-signing him would be a no-brainer, especially with the limited money available for potential suitors, but Denver’s in a sticky situation with their cap at the moment.

The team didn’t make the wisest investments when they gave big contracts to Mason Plumlee and Darrell Arthur following the cap boom, but the extensions they gave Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried beforehand have now come back to bite them. Pending any surprises, Denver will definitely pay Jokic, but the real situation to keep a monitor on is which player(s) the Nuggets will try to get rid of to avoid paying the tax, and what they’ll have to include in order to get rid of the said player(s).

Jusuf Nurkic* – Portland Trail Blazers – $2,947,305

Unless they have shown enough promise to warrant a nice payday, restricted free agents aren’t going to see a lot of green this summer, with Jokic and Aaron Gordon likely being the rare exceptions. Jusuf Nurkic will not be one of those exceptions. After a very exciting half-season for the Blazers in 2017, Nurkic had a very uneven follow-up season in Portland, so an eight-figure contract probably isn’t in the cards for now.

That isn’t helped by the Blazers’ current salary cap situation. The Blazers have tried like hell to avoid paying the luxury tax since they unwisely invested tens of millions in role players. Up to this point, they’ve been pretty sly at avoiding it by trading Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh off their payroll. Given that Nurkic arguably took a teensy step back this season, they’re probably not going to offer what he wants. Lucky for them, Nurkic probably won’t see any rich offers this summer from anyone, so the most likely outcome is he takes the qualifying offer.

Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – $12,000,000

After struggling with injuries and losing playing time over the last two seasons, Derrick Favors had himself a comeback season with the Jazz. 12.3 points and 7.1 rebounds isn’t a whole lot to brag about, but shooting a career-high 56 percent from the field should have raised some eyebrows. The cap crunch will hurt Favors’ chances of getting the same contract he received from the Jazz when they extended him, but his unrestricted free agency should make him a coveted commodity.

If his cryptic tweets indicate anything, Favors sounds interested in re-signing with the Jazz. Whether the Jazz want to re-sign him is another story. The issue with bringing him back is that he and Gobert do not space the floor much in a league that values spacing from bigs. Depending on what they do with Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, and Ekpe Udoh, the Jazz should have cap room this summer in a rare time where hardly anyone else does, so they need to spend wisely. They will get to decide whether or not re-signing Favors fits that description.

While none of the teams really qualified as a contender, the Northwest Division has some big names coming up on the free market this summer. Whether they decide to stay or go could not only impact their division but the entire league as a whole for years to come.

*Restricted free agent

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NBA Daily: Potential Free Agent Bargains

With the NBA’s free agency right around the corner, David Yapkowitz identifies some valuable players that could be had for a nice price.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is in the rearview now which means free agency is right around the corner—this coming weekend, to be exact.

With seemingly few teams having money to spend, it might not shape up to be as crazy a free agency period as some believe.

Already, several players such as the Los Angeles Clippers’ Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic, the Denver Nuggets’ Wilson Chandler and the Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Muscala have chosen to exercise their player options rather than test the open market. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony will do the same.

With little money to go around, some free agents are going to have to settle for whatever is left. There might be a few guys who end up signing bargain contracts, and here’s a look at some players who could end up on that list.

Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks – $1,471,382

One year ago, Mike Scott was recovering from multiple injuries and was seemingly on the borderline between being in and out of the NBA. He signed a one-year contract with the Washington Wizards last offseason and ended up having a resurgent year. He emerged as a key contributor for a Wizards bench that has been one of their weaknesses for some time.

He’s a stretch-four, a perfect fit for today’s NBA game. He put up career-high shooting numbers with 52.7 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent from the three-point line. He played well against the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. He’ll fetch more than the minimum contract he signed last summer, but again, it’s a question about how much. Plenty of teams could use a versatile shooting big man with solid defense.

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – $1,471,382

Seemingly buried on the Golden State Warriors bench his first two years in the league, Kevon Looney broke out this season and proved he could be a valuable option in the rotation. To begin this season, he was even behind rookie Jordan Bell in the lineup. It wasn’t until Bell went down with a brief injury that Looney got his chance.

With today’s game increasingly moving away from positions and big men needed more of an all-around skill set to thrive, Looney is perfect. He’s shown an ability to guard multiple positions. He can finish well around the rim and he’s active on the glass. One area he could improve on is developing a consistent jump shot, but that’s something that can come with time. Depending on what the Warriors decide to do with JaVale McGee and David West, Looney might be squeezed out from the team. He’s sure to attract interest though around the league.

Jerami Grant – Oklahoma City Thunder – $1,524,305

When he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers four years ago, Jerami Grant immediately became a solid rotation player. He continued his strong play after coming over to the Thunder in a trade about two years ago. His numbers may not jump off the stat sheet (8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds), but he does a lot of little things that bring value to a team.

In today’s NBA, he’s able to play multiple positions both offensively and defensively. He didn’t shoot so well from beyond the arc this season (29.1 percent), but the year before he connected on 37.1 percent of this three-point attempts. He has that ability to spread the floor. He made $1,524,305 this past season and he most definitely is in line for a bigger payday. How much bigger though is the question. His versatility would be a boost to any team.

Will Barton – Denver Nuggets – $3,533,333

Heading into free agency, Will Barton had the best season of his career. He put up 15.6 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting from the field, 37 percent from the three-point line and 4.1 assists, all career-highs. He was a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award but he also proved that he could start as well. Known for being a scorer most of his career, he really developed into more of a playmaker this season.

Barton would be an asset to any team looking to add some wing firepower and playmaking to their rotation. Close to the end of the season with the Nuggets making a playoff push, Barton was thrust into the starting lineup for the final 13 games. During that stretch, he put up 19.2 points while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. He’s proved himself worthy of getting paid, it just remains to be seen what those offers might look like.

Isaiah Thomas – Los Angeles Lakers – $6,261,395

A little over a year ago, Isaiah Thomas was the face of the Boston Celtics and a legit MVP candidate. The Celtics were then swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was revealed that Thomas had an injury that required surgery. After being dealt to the Cavaliers last offseason, he never really was able to fit in with the team and they jettisoned him off to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline.

He looked a bit more comfortable with the Lakers but ended up having to shut it down in late March due to lingering injury issues. He once was on the threshold of receiving a max contract, but that doesn’t appear to be so anymore. There’s no question about his value to a team if healthy. He did average 15.6 points and 5.0 assists in 17 games with the Lakers. It’s possible he opts for a one year deal to prove he’s healthy and then test free agency again next summer. In any case, provided his injuries are behind him, he could be a free agent steal.

It will be interesting to see how the free agent landscape unfolds money wise. The players on the list can all be capable contributors to a playoff contender. It just seems like most of the teams with cap room this summer are teams in the midst of rebuilding. These guys could wind up being contract bargains for a contender off the bench.

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NBA Daily: Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis Already Have One Thing In Common

Kevin Knox’s experience on draft night was eerily similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis.

Moke Hamilton

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Michael Porter, Jr. might be the next Kevin Durant, but he could just as easily be the next Greg Oden.

And if you’re searching for comfort in the wake of the decision of the Knicks to pass on the opportunity to draft the young man who was widely regarded as being the top prospect in the class of 2018, it is pretty easy to find in the fact that of all people, Jerry West decided that Porter wasn’t worth the risk, either.

While Porter might end up being a Hall of Famer, when it comes to drafting prospects, we might as well be shooting in the dark. We all knew that Markelle Fultz was the best option for the Sixers in last year’s draft, and 12 other teams clearly had no idea what Donovan Mitchell had in store for the league.

Heck, two years ago, as I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter, I predicted that the Knicks would select Emmanuel Mudiay with their fourth pick. Instead, they walked away with Kristaps Porzingis.

If I were the man making the call back then, with the information I had, I certainly would have drafted Mudiay. And you know what? That decision probably would have gotten me fired, and rightfully so.

The true moral of the story is that we simply can’t see into the future and all the analytics in the world won’t able to measure things like guts and heart. So as the Knicks pin their hopes on Kevin Knox, it truly will be interesting to see how the career arcs of he and Porter compare.

As for why we would single out the Knicks and make the franchise’s decision to draft Knox over him a personal one, quite a few people in the know relayed the same information on the Knicks and Porter going back to their date at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May—they loved each other.

Thereafter, there were reports that the Knicks were looking to move up in the draft, and Porter was on their minds. On Thursday night in Barclays Center, with the Knicks on the clock, their fans in attendance cheered for Porter, as they were hopeful that he would be selected to be the franchise’s next stud.

They were disappointed, and now, they’ll hope that Scott Perry’s decision to go with Knox ends up being the right one. It might be, just like Porzingis was the right pick over Mudiay, and it might not be, just like selecting Frank Ntilikina over Mitchell wasn’t.

Like it or not, though, the two young men will forever be linked, both in my mind and in the minds of plenty of other Knicks fans.

“That’s just motivation,” Knox said of the Knicks fans in attendance chanting Porter’s name.

“A lot of people want him to get to the Knicks, but I mean, it’s all good with me. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to get to work and ready to prove people in Summer League and prove people in the NBA.”

Knox’s experience on draft night was remarkably similar to that of Porzingis, and now, if you even so much as suggest trading the Latvian unicorn for a player such as Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans just might call for your head.

It’s strange how quickly things can change for you in New York City. At the end of the day, it comes down to working hard and earning the adoration of the faithful in Gotham City. Porzingis succeeded there, and there’s every reason to believe that Knox will, as well.

“They booed Porzingis (on draft night) and look where he is now,” the rookie remarked.

“They can chant Michael Porter all they want, but they got Kevin Knox, and I’m willing to work and I’m willing to get better.”

When asked, Knox would tell you that he and Jayson Tatum happen to have something in common. According to him, neither of the two really got an opportunity to show what they could do at the collegiate level.

With more opportunities and more repetitions, the sky truly is the limit for the 18-year-old.

“I think I can pretty much play all around the floor,” Knox said.

“I can handle the ball, pick-and-roll situations, make plays, make passes. I can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, get rebounds, push it coast to coast. So I think that versatility in the league is something that a lot of teams really need, and I think that’s something I can bring to the Knicks right now.”

Privately, to members of the Knicks organization, Knox has spoken highly of the spotlight that he’s bound to face in New York and believes that playing at Kentucky helped to prepare him for the type of demanding environment that he’ll be introduced to once the season gets underway in New York. And even without a bad back, the crushing expectations and heavy burden could cause a weaker minded player to crumble.

A FaceTime call with Porzingis on draft night went a long way toward giving the rookie the confidence that he’ll need to thrive in New York.

That the franchise’s pride and joy immediately reached out to his new running mate to congratulate him, welcome him to the team and give him some insight is a good sign. At the very least, it shows that Porzingis takes his responsibility as being the team’s lead man seriously.

At most, it could signal K.P.’s being pleased with the selection.

We’re about to embark upon the story of Kevin Knox. We’ve only seen the preamble.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t know how the final chapter will end based on what you’ve read in the first chapter. So no, the Knicks fans that wanted Michael Porter on their squad didn’t get their wish, but in the long run, they may end up being better for it.

Just like Kristaps Porzingis, Knox wasn’t received warmly by Knicks fans on draft night.

Hopefully, for the rookie, it’s not the last thing he and the beloved Porzingis will have in common.

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