Every professional sports team has injuries during a season, it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, the best players on each team have the greatest chance of getting injured, because they usually play the most. Last season, the Jazz were quite fortunate when it came to injuries. While the Jazz did have a slightly above average number of games missed by all players, between Utah’s three best players, they only missed a combined 14 games (Hayward missed 6, Favors missed 8, and Gobert missed 0). What were the chances Utah would go another season with their 3 best players not missing any significant time? History says not good.
Understanding that, the question that was asked by many wise Jazz fans last summer was, “If one of those three players gets injured, how will the Jazz fare?” The answer, given Utah’s shallow bench, is truly grim. Sadly, now the Utah Jazz are living that scenario. It’s true that after having watched 17 games, we have the benefit of hindsight to know that the Jazz have a really weak bench. But many fans and analysts suspected that this was true well before preseason even tipped off. Dennis Lindsey probably did too, but he decided to bet big on current Jazz players (Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles, Chris Johnson, and Elijah Millsap), players Jazz held rights too (Raul Neto and Tibor Pleiss), and one minimum salary free agent (Jeff Withey).
As September rolled around, Lindsey went all in on Jazz players and almost entirely disregarded free agency.
If the Jazz limp to the finish line with a sub-.500 record or finish in another disappointing fashion, who is to blame? Surely it can’t lie on the active players (assuming they continue to play at their normal level). Even the end-of-bench players can’t take blame for accepting an offer sheet given to them by Utah’s front office. By the same token, the fault can’t land on Coach Snyder, who is being asked to win games with two rookies, two D-leaguers, a minimum salary contract player, and a bunch of sub replacement level players.
Does the blame then fall on chance, which caused Jazz players to get injured? Considering that chance strikes nearly every team equally over the course of several years, statistics say chance should get a pass on the issue as well. The only other remaining party is the front office, who is in charge of constructing the best possible roster.
Dennis Lindsey received league-wide credit for his masterful picks of Gobert and Hood, which he unquestionably deserved. He also has earned frequent praise for his impressive salary strategies, thorough draft process, and D-League talent digging. Dozens of analysts, writers, and rival front offices have lauded his impressive leadership and strategy for rebuilding the Jazz. Given this appreciation, should he not also be eligible for criticism for his failed bet this previous offseason?
To properly answer that question, an analysis of the 2015 free agency is necessary. Doing so will provide insight to whether Lindsey had a legitimate opportunity to bolster the bench this last summer. The two main areas the Jazz needed help in were backup point guard and backup power forward/center. Below is a list of big men that are arguably better than Booker and that were available over the summer.
Undoubtedly there are players in that list that readers think could/should be removed either because Booker could be better than them or they wouldn’t have considered signing with the Jazz. Fair enough. But even after removing those names, 7-10 players remain that are better than Booker and that were available on the market. The Jazz had ample cap space to sign each of those players (and probably two). Take Brandan Wright, for example. He signed for a measly $6 million per year with the Grizzlies. Couldn’t the Jazz have swayed Wright to join Utah for $7.5 million per year? Or $8 million per year? Maybe, maybe not. But going down the list asking that same question for each of those players, it’s hard to believe that every single one of them was unattainable, even understanding the “takes two to tango” principle.
It also needs to be noted that, while many fans are ready for a contender right now, the front office continues to hold long-term development in the highest regard moving forward. They’re cognizant of the low odds their current squad has at actually competing for a championship this season, and want to carefully balance getting their young group reps in a competitive environment with maximizing their future outlook. It’s fair to wonder whether certain players listed above or below would fit with a long-term approach while also improving things on the court right now. That said, the exact details therein are tough to gauge from the outside.
Some critics might question if each of those players fits the Jazz system. Most likely a few wouldn’t, but does Trevor Booker? As much as his fire and hustle is appreciated by coaches and fans alike, he can’t stretch the floor, he isn’t a skilled dribbler or passer, and he is undersized for his position.
These exact same questions could be asked about the point guard position, which was an even bigger hole in July before Trey Burke began to demonstrate that he could alter his game. Below is a list of point guards who were better than 2013-2015 Burke who were available in free agency this last summer and could have fit into Utah’s cap space without issue.
That list doesn’t scream revolution; in fact, some of the names are admittedly a bit underwhelming. But considering, for example, that Jeremy Lin was signed by Charlotte for a puny $2.2 million a year ($500,000 less than Trey Burke), the list starts to look better. For context, the Jazz still have more than $7 million in cap space, even after signing both Pleiss and Withey and guaranteeing Booker.
It should be noted that Lindsey likely inquired about several of the players in the above lists, but ultimately either Dennis was unwilling to increase the offer, or was rebuffed by the player’s camp. In case of the former, it means either Lindsey misread the free agency market or misread the quality of Utah’s depth.
So, the next time Lyles bricks an open jumper, or Booker pump fakes an invisible defender, or Snyder is forced to play four wings while the Jazz are trailing an inferior team, remember that they aren’t the ones to blame for the loss. Just as we praise players and coaches for strong performances but critique them for weak performances, so must we with the front office. And the fault for having a shallow bench (even in times of health) falls on the same man who stole Gobert from Denver and somehow snatched Rodney Hood with the 23rd pick. This time, however, Dennis Lindsey’s strategy may have backfired by passing on free agency. Apparently even the best can’t win them all.