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.
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.
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.
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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.
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