The image of Dante Exum crumpling to the ground, writhing in pain was the one that most likely occupied most Utah Jazz fan’s thoughts and dreams — more like, nightmares — the past 24 hours. As the news broke, there was a discernible pall resonating throughout the Jazz community. While the extent of the injury is not known, many fear it to be an ACL tear, one of the most devastating things that could occur to an NBA player. Needless to say, all will be waiting eagerly for Exum and his family to return to Salt Lake City for further evaluation and subsequently, the prognosis.
Should it be anything besides an ACL tear, there would be tremendous rejoicing across the land. The reality, however, is that Exum could be out for the foreseeable future, potentially missing the entire 2015-2016 campaign. What are the ramifications, both short and long-term, should that be the case? What are Utah’s options? Here is one person’s take on the scenario, now that we have had the chance to digest this unfortunate incident.
First and foremost, this affects Dante Exum on a very individual level. Imagine working extremely hard to improve in your trade, only to have something that could temporarily take away your passion for a while. Having not experienced such a setback personally, it can be surmised that the emotional pain is equal, perhaps greater, than the physical. His well-being and morale have to have taken a major, major hit.
Exum had an up-and-down rookie season. He made his mark defensively, showing a maturity beyond his years. Exum displayed excellent position defense, solid lateral speed and good anticipation. He used his length wisely on that end of the court. Conversely, his offense was clearly behind his defense. Much has been said about his tentativeness at driving to the basket, and related, his lack of trips to the free throw line. Exum became largely a spot-up shooter, a role that he struggled with for much of the season. As a play maker, the rookie started to show slivers of his potential. While he deferred to the veterans, toward the end of the season, he was getting more and more comfortable setting up his teammates. Lastly, it cannot be ignored that the Jazz’s tremendous success post-All-Star break could be attributed partially to the way Exum fit in as the starting point guard, complementing the other four. There has been a cautious optimism surround his game this summer. He showed enough to tantalize the Jazz faithful.
By all accounts, Exum was having a very good summer. He has been working hard, adding strength to his slender frame. Like most of his teammates, Exum has spent most of the summer working with the Jazz’s coaching and training staffs to improve his game. While his summer league foray was stopped short, he showed a lot in that lone game. He was aggressive, both in creating offense for his teammates and for himself. This offseason is a big one for all the young Jazz players, including Exum. Were he to show some major improvement, that would propel Utah to new heights.
So, this setback is a major one. The Jazz could very well be without their starting point guard, thus affecting head coach Quin Snyder’s rotation. With Exum as the opener and Trey Burke as the primary back-up, the patterns at the one spot were going to be in place. Exum was in line to play a bulk of the minutes, partnering with Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward is setting the defensive tone to start games. Burke would then be an offensive spark plug off the bench. Things will clearly have to be adjusted. Burke most likely will go back to the role he occupied for one and half seasons — starter. Bryce Cotton and Raul Neto would then duke it out to see who would be back-up and the third point guard. If there is a positive, it will give Snyder a better look at some of the team’s youthful cogs. All three of the healthy point guards will be pressed into increased duty. The Jazz will have a chance to see what each might be capable of contributing now and in the future.
In the short-term, the Jazz may not lose much on-court production. Burke will be able to provide some scoring and facilitating. It is the defensive side of things that could take a big hit. The difference between Exum and Burke on that end cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the Jazz are now left with three point guards who are each on the shorter end of things. Exum’s size was an advantage.
The long-term effects are more of a concern. This not only sets back Exum’s progress, but it takes away a large block of time where he could continue to develop enhanced cohesion with the other members of Utah’s strong core. While the rest will develop together, Exum, who some view as the X-factor1, will be watching from the sidelines. He can certainly still continue developing a chemistry off the court with the rest, but it is hard to stomach this opportunity loss.
Without the full knowledge of the extent of injury and the recovery and rehabilitation time, it is safe to assume Dennis Lindsey, Snyder and company are doing their homework. They know the possible gravity of Exum’s situation and are probably weighing options on how to proceed.
It is safe to say that the entire Jazz organization, from the Miller family to the front office, coaches and players have the playoffs as the goal this season. The way things came together to close last year understandably instilled a confidence of what this Utah team is capable of doing. Even in an extremely competitive Western Conference, the Jazz figure to be a prime candidate to bump a team out and play on in late April.
With this in mind, the Jazz will want to walk the fine line between helping make the postseason a reality without sacrificing the future. Can they still be among the West’s best eight sans Exum? That remains to be seen, but the aforementioned confidence can go a long way. What can they do to ensure this happens?
They can just ride with what they have. Burke has shown that he is capable of running a team. While his shooting and decision-making can be spotty, he has experience as the starter. He does not turn the ball over much and can hit the occasional open jump shot. His name has been mentioned in various trade rumors, but the Jazz still seem quite high on Burke and his ability to be a contributor. Many reports have indicated that Burke’s offseason has been an intense one, with the focus on improving. He could have the chance to really show Utah and the rest of the NBA what he can do.
Cotton showed some exciting potential as last season waned and then again this summer. He is a player hungry for a chance to prove himself, and should Exum be out, he will get that chance. Perhaps he develops into a solid change-of-pace player off the bench. Neto is more of an unknown commodity. In his international play, he has shown a pass-first mentality, without much of an offensive game. The Jazz have always seemed high on him, so he too will be given opportunity.
Again, if each of this trio is moved up on the depth chart, development may be accelerated for them. That could help the Jazz figure out the roster for future seasons.
Additionally, Utah features a bevy of players more than capable of shouldering some of the ball-handling and facilitating load: Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles. One of Hayward’s greatest strengths — and he has many — is his court vision. The same applies to Ingles. The ball seems to flow more smoothly when he is on the court. Burks is underrated, and assumed the back-up point guard role his second season. Lastly, Hood was a point guard in high school prior to a growth spurt. Elijah Millsap also showed the ability to pass a bit.
The other option would be to trade for a veteran to help fill Exum’s absence. Names such as Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, George Hill and Dennis Schroder have been mentioned among Jazz fans. Each of these players has a lot of positives and could be very good fits, but as always when considering trades, the asking prices would be the major factor. Could it obtain such a player without giving up a young core player? The Jazz would have to weigh the ripple effects of such an acquisition, both on the court and as far as assets go. If a move was consummated, one of Utah’s point guards might have to be surrendered. Otherwise, a logjam would ensue.
There are not many impactful free agents remaining on the market — think Donald Sloan, Norris Cole, Luke Ridnour, Kendall Marshall and the sort. It would seem very unlikely the Jazz would add a free agent to the mix with three point guards already in the fold. If one is moved, then this avenue would make more sense.
From this writer’s viewpoint, it seems most plausible that, should the injury be as serious as most deem it, the Jazz will stay put.
In conclusion, this development is definitely not something the Jazz organization or fans wanted to emerge. But it is here. While we all await more news, there is a lot of consider in terms of ramifications and possibilities.