In Salt Lake City, all eyes are on Thursday’s draft – indeed, some have been there for months. Sure, we’re all plotting Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker trades and pretending to be experts on Joel Embiid’s navicular bone, but it’s easy to forget there will soon be another key step in offseason roster-boosting, with free agency beginning just five days later on Tuesday, July 1st. The Jazz have money to spend, and there are some pieces out there who can likely be had for reasonable money.
Let’s quickly review the facts: the Jazz have seven players signed for next season (Burke, Burks, Evans, Favors, Gobert, Kanter, Lucas). The team has options on three other players (Clark, Garrett, Thomas) and most observers assume they will re-sign restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. They also have the fifth and 23rd picks in the first round, plus the 35th pick in the second. Add all that up, and one can imagine 10-12 roster spots filled prior to free agency, leaving at least a couple spots on a 15-man roster.
They don’t have to be end-of-the-bench spots, either – Utah has plenty of money to spend. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Gordon Hayward gets a deal roughly similar to Derrick Favors’ (4 years, $48-50 million depending on incentives). The team will pay their two first-round picks roughly $4 million total if they keep both, and depending on which team options are exercised, payroll for those 10-12 players comes in at roughly $45 million. That leaves Utah plenty of room to sign a few players, with next year’s salary cap projected at $63.2 million.
So what does the team need? Without knowing Hayward’s fate and who the Jazz draft or possibly trade for, it’s an impossible question to answer definitively. But a few things are obvious: the 2013-14 Utah Jazz were a horrid defensive club, dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They weren’t a great offensive team either – 25th of 30 NBA teams – but it’s fair to say that whoever the Jazz draft, they will need to be solid on defense or at least show defensive upside.
Another clear weakness is three-point shooting, where they ranked in the league’s bottom five for both total makes and percentage last year. And don’t forget that two of their better outside shooters, Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams, are long shots to be on the roster this coming year. If both depart, the Jazz have an insanely young roster next year, so adding a few veteran guys will also be important, but another younger piece or two to develop along with the current core won’t be out of the question either.
In compiling the following list, I tried to be realistic. Sure, Chris Bosh and Eric Bledsoe would be great, but both are unlikely to make their way to Salt Lake City. So without further ado, here are six players I’d love to see the Jazz take a good look at. They’re in a rough order from most coveted to least, though circumstance could of course alter these designations.
Avery Bradley, 23, PG, Restricted Free Agent
What’s not to love? He’s super young, a great defender, and an above-average three-point shooter.
Unfortunately, however, Bradley’s value and potential are hardly a secret. The Celtics will likely match most offers that aren’t outrageous, particularly if they do manage to land Kevin Love and are in win-now mode. In addition, other teams around the league, including potentially more attractive destinations than the rebuilding Jazz, may make strong pushes to sign Bradley.
But let’s say he doesn’t sign early and other teams use up their cap space. If the Jazz still need a defensive wing stopper, why not make young Bradley an offer he can’t refuse, but one the Celtics might have to?
PJ Tucker, 29, SG/SF, Restricted Free Agent
Perhaps it’s not quite fair to say that Tucker – who started 81 games for the 48-win Suns last year – came out of nowhere, but before his last two seasons in Phoenix, he had played in Israel, the Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany.
But like so many who played under Coach Jeff Hornacek last year, Tucker was a surprise. He shot 39 percent from 3, had decent rebounding and assist numbers, and established himself as one of the top wing defenders in the league. The Suns sound like they very much want to keep Tucker, and he shows up on many lists of reasonably-priced 3-and-D guys that are so widely coveted right now, so if the Suns don’t, others will come calling. Why not the Jazz?
Patrick Patterson, 25, PF, Restricted Free Agent
If you liked the role that Marvin Williams played at times for the Jazz last year1, Patterson could be a nice replacement, plus he’s younger and still has room for improvement. He’s a very good pick-and-pop shooter, with excellent mid-range numbers. He’s comfortable behind the three-point line as well (he attempts about two a game and made 36 percent last year), and though he rarely gets fouled or posts up, these wouldn’t be large concerns given the role he’d play for Utah and a league trending toward shooting first and foremost.
Patterson seems to be at least an average NBA defender, hampered by so-so athleticism but aided by intelligence and good positioning. Depending on the draft, Patterson does seem to fill a need for the Jazz: a shooting big-man. It’s a niche several teams are looking to fill, but a decent offer might just be enough.
Kent Bazemore, 24, SG, Restricted Free Agent
Bazemore played sparingly his first season-and-a-half in Golden State before being traded to the Lakers and performing well in a couple months before a season-ending foot injury. He developed a reputation as an athletic slasher and open-court player with a decent three-point stroke (37 percent with the Lakers), and played solid defense. Perhaps due to relative inexperience, he also turned the ball over a lot.
It’s hard to place where Bazemore fits on the spectrum between diamond-in-the-rough and careless-athlete-who-can’t-settle-down, but his potential is intriguing. The Jazz would, however, have to make an offer big enough to pry him away from the Lakers, who have gobs of cap space of their own.
A second-round pick out of Kentucky in 2009, Meeks had bounced around the league before settling with the Lakers the last two years and surprising the team with his consistent outside shooting and effort on defense. A career 38 percent three-point shooter and an occasional slasher, Meeks is fairly one-dimensional offensively, with very low rebound and assist numbers. But he earned the praise of Lakers’ fans and coaches for his effort and consistency, and his age and talents certainly fit the Jazz’ needs well.
How much the Lakers will look to spend this offseason is uncertain. They’re already paying next year’s starting backcourt of Nash and Kobe nearly $33 million (!), and may not be able to spend too much more on those positions or be willing to commit too many years. Would the Jazz make a big enough offer for Meeks, a steady outside shooter to complement Alec Burks?
Gustavo Ayon, 29, PF/C, Unrestricted Free Agent
When he first joined the league, the Mexican big man was lauded for his defense and basketball IQ. The bloom has come off that rose a bit after several injury-plagued seasons, but Ayon still has value as a defense and rebounding big man off the bench. It’s not exactly clear how much the Jazz need frontcourt help, with Favors, Kanter, Gobert and Evans all signed for next year. But if they’re interested in adding one more defensive-minded big, they could do much worse than Ayon, who would probably come at a decent price.
OK, we can all go back to draft noodling for a few days. But on Thursday, if you find yourself despairing that the Jazz haven’t added the skills you covet, remember free agency. It’s right around the corner!