Rosters can fill up fast, even for teams who are deliberately passive in the free agent market — like the Utah Jazz.
Despite not signing a single player they didn’t have free agent or draft rights to retain, Utah now has 17 players under contract1 for 2015-16. Throw in the draft rights to second-round selection Olivier Hanlan, and there are 18 Jazz players vying for, at maximum, 15 spots.
It’s really premature to guess precisely which 15 will make it to the end-of-October roster; there’s a lot of summer basketball left, not to mention a vet camp in October where things like that get sorted out. For that matter, trades could happen between now and then2, or the situation could otherwise sort itself out. But it isn’t hard to see that, based on the current contractual lineup, some decisions could be coming between now and Halloween.
Thirteen of those players have guaranteed money. Elijah Millsap doesn’t, but his excusal from summer basketball and the constant praise he’s gotten from members of the Jazz brain trust seem to indicate that he might as well be #14.
That doesn’t even take into account the Brock Motums or JJ O’Briens of the world, and already there are some tough decisions ahead. For starters, I wouldn’t assume that anybody’s job is safe just because they have a guaranteed contract. Twice in the last 12 months, Utah has cut ties with players they still owed money: Carrick Felix and Ian Clark. They obviously aren’t philosophically opposed to eating some money in order to keep the guys they want around. That could be bad news for a player like Grant Jerrett, who saw just 26 minutes of action after being traded to the Jazz in February, and looked fairly timid in his 13 summer league minutes before departing due to injury3.
Another consideration is that the Jazz may want to keep a roster spot open as a means of cycling through players. After all, that’s how they found guys like Bryce Cotton and Chris Johnson in the first place.
Depending on the answers to those types of questions — will they leave a spot open? Will they waive anybody they owe guaranteed money? — the Jazz have somewhere between two and zero roster spots to play around with.
This is where the Jazz’s investment in a true farm team in the NBA’s D-League could partially help solve some problems. In fact, there are some obscure (and often misunderstood) player assignment rules that might make Jazz fans feel slightly better about some of their favorite non-guaranteed guys missing out on a spot on the final roster.
A rule first introduced in 2010 and then expanded two offseasons ago allows a parent club’s D-League team to protect up to four players who were waived from the NBA team’s training camp roster. For teams with full control of their D-League single affiliate — like the Jazz with their Idaho Stampede — that means that the parent club can essentially assign players that just missed the cut to their D-League team, rather than drop them back into a D-League draft that could land them on some other D-League squad. These players are called “affiliate players,” and Jack Cooley was one last season. After attending fall camp, the Jazz had the Stampede claim his affiliate rights instead of letting him disappear to Bakersfield or Westchester or Sioux Falls.
The way the rule reads on some websites — including the D-League’s own site — make it sound as though that works for any of an NBA club’s training camp cuts, but a league source told SCH that’s not exactly true. According to someone we spoke with in the process of researching this concept, the D-League rights to Cotton and Johnson do not belong to Idaho because they were called up from different D-League teams last season. Of the non-guaranteed guys, only Cooley can be assigned directly to Idaho, our source told us.
At any rate, the “affiliate player” rule only keeps a player like Cooley in the Jazz’s extended family, learning from hand-picked coaches who run Utah systems. What it doesn’t do is protect such a player from being poached by another team. Affiliate players are still considered free agents that can be called up by any of the 30 NBA teams. For example, Cotton was a ’14-15 D-League assignee of the San Antonio Spurs after he attended their camp, but when the Jazz called him up from the champs’ Austin affiliates, there was nothing the Spurs could do.
Similarly, there’s no way for Utah to send Cooley to Idaho and then shield him from being signed by other teams. He doesn’t have to agree to accept a team’s offer, of course, but the finances make it hard to turn down. Even just 10 days with an NBA team at the second-year minimum would pay Cooley $49.7K, nearly double what he could make plying his trade in Boise for the entire year.
Last season, the Jazz used some guaranteed money to engender a sense of loyalty among their fall roster cuts who were headed to Idaho. Cooley was one of them, pocketing $65K up front and then becoming the Jazz’s “affiliated player” designee according to the D-League’s website. But make no mistake: he was still in a position to accept a call-up from any NBA team that needed him, and at $5K for each calendar day he managed to stay on their roster, he’d have been silly to decline an invitation from another NBA franchise.
So, quick version: the only avenue the Jazz have to maintain exclusive rights to someone like Cotton, Cooley or Johnson4 would be to keep him. That means paying his NBA salary and, perhaps most importantly, burning up a roster spot.
The Jazz do have a mechanism where Olivier Hanlan is concerned, though. A new rule introduced in 2014 created a special class of affiliate player: the “draft list” assignee. Players for whom an NBA team has exclusive draft rights can be similarly assigned to a D-League affiliate, only these players are also protected from being called up by the other 29 NBA teams. So Hanlan can safely be stashed in such a way that his NBA signing rights remain the exclusive property of the Jazz.
There’s a catch, though: that rule only benefits teams that hold exclusive draft rights, and Utah loses those rights after September 6 if they haven’t put a required tender offer in front of Hanlan. That offer is only required to be a one-year minimum contract offer, though, and can be completely non-guaranteed. Still, Hanlan could simply sign the tender, forcing the Jazz to keep or waive him. That’s what KJ McDaniels did last summer, boldly betting on himself by scooping up the tender offer and getting to free agency quicker. But that was KJ, a projected first-rounder with intriguing tools. For Hanlan — for most second rounders, even — the most fortuitous route is probably playing along with the team that liked you enough to take you in the first place. Hanlan could force Utah’s hand a bit by accepting the tender, but it’s also unclear whether teams are beating his door down, especially given a summer league performance that has left a bit to be desired5.
At any rate, the Draft Rights rule probably makes Hanlan the most likely candidate to spend the winter in Boise, given that he’s the one player the Jazz can assign to their affiliate while still keeping his full rights for later.
Beyond that, I really don’t know where the Jazz decision-makers will land, and even they probably won’t fully know until well into fall camp. But one thing is clear: they have more guys they like than they can legally keep on the roster. While the D-League machinations do allow them to protect Cotton from the Reno Bighorns or Johnson from the LA D-Fenders, what they can’t do is preclude them from getting offers from other NBA teams … unless they just flat out find a way to keep them past October.
[Author’s note: Reporting by Ben Dowsett also contributed to this article.]