Among the only truly valid criticisms of the Utah Jazz front office under GM Dennis Lindsey has been an overly conservative approach to team-building. They punted big cap space a year ago, the last summer in which that money was an advantage 25 other teams wouldn’t simultaneously enjoy, and the move followed a general trend of erring cautiously. “Skip No Steps” has been the Utahn’s version of “Trust The Process.”
The first couple weeks of the 2016 offseason have signaled a shift, one carefully designed in Lindsey-an fashion not to threaten the future his patient approach has laid the groundwork for. Joe Johnson’s reported signing is the second major move to address a specific area of need, and the two-year deal with a relatively tame dollar figure (given the insane market this year) keeps Utah’s core extension timetable on track. Along with a pre-draft trade for George Hill, the move indicates a clear commitment to a depth and, more importantly, a versatility they’ve long coveted under this management group. Tuesday’s reported trade sending Boris Diaw to Utah is yet another example.
Consider first the length in the current projected starting lineup for next season: Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert combine for a wingspan that averages over seven feet per player. Dante Exum’s 6’6 frame and 6’10 reach will come off the bench, with Johnson, Alec Burks and even Joe Ingles joining a cast of long, mobile, versatile wings. Trey Lyles and Diaw both bring traditional big size with three-point range and playmaking ability.
Coach Quin Snyder has worked to emphasize a five-man motor that can keep humming as parts are interchanged, and that power is now within his grasp with a talent and experience influx. It’s Snyder’s time to shine. The Jazz can shift looks in a moment, sometimes without even making a substitution. Each of the perimeter guys listed above can guard at least two positions, and Hayward, Ingles and particularly Johnson have all done bits of time at power forward (Johnson played 36 percent of his minutes there for Miami last season, per basketball-reference.com).
The Jazz can run space-heavy offensive units with the length to switch a ton on defense – think Hill-Hood-Hayward-Johnson-Gobert/Favors – just as easily as they can strangle teams with groups featuring Hill and/or Exum (a borderline elite defender as a rookie), one or two of the bigger wings and the towering Favors-Gobert duo. The Jazz now have four relatively like-sized perimeter players who create gravity from deep (Hill, Hood, Hayward, Johnson), two playmaking bigs in Lyles and Diaw, and two rolling, rebounding and rim protecting giants up front. They have the length to go “small” without actually playing smaller guys, and the shooting to put as much combined size on the floor as the league has seen in recent years. One can’t ask for much more flexibility.
It should allow for a reasonable amount of mixing and matching between starters and bench, though the mere fact that multiple guys who’d have been among this team’s best five in an injury-riddled 2015-16 season are now more supplementary pieces is a boon on its own. The lack of a starter/bench platoon could help mask one potential hang-up, though: Alec Burks’ role with this group has become less clear over the last several months, and further so after Friday’s developments.
We may not see them together much given Snyder’s newfound ability to plug and play within the right matchups, but Burks and Johnson occupy similar roles while on the floor – both need the ball and are primary scorers, and both are best suited to sixth man-type roles at this point in their respective careers. Johnson has the added benefit of a post game and better standstill shooting, and is a proven scorer who fits right in as a remedy for Utah’s consistent struggles down the stretch of close games last year. His addition, plus Exum’s return and the Hill trade, could make minutes sparse for Burks if he and Johnson don’t mesh well.
Add in Burks’ health issues – now three surgeries in a year and a half, with a few concerns lingering over whether he rushed back late in the year – and it’s fair to at least speculate whether Alec remains part of the long term plan. His trade value is low currently after another trip under the knife last month, but he has three years left on a relatively modest deal. He’s expected to be ready in time for opening night in the fall, and even a good month or two could rehabilitate his value some. The Jazz shouldn’t act hastily or assume anything, but it’s worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
These details will come into focus in the coming weeks and months, but the larger picture is already crystallizing. The Jazz have at once added talent to their most glaring areas of need and expanded their playbook in a long-coveted way. They have the funds to do even more if they want, or to potentially look at extending Hill if he’s interested. Hop on this train before the station is a distant memory; the Jazz will be a hot pick to leap next season.
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