The Jazz kicked off their season on Wednesday with a five-point loss in Detroit despite 26 points from forward Derrick Favors. Favors was the first Jazz player since 2009 to drop 25 or more in a season opener.
But before we dive headlong into the NBA season, let’s cover off on a few random roster and personnel notes that will matter as the team ambles along toward what they hope is their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Another Day, Another Dollar
Guards Chris Johnson and Elijah Millsap are surely glad to have made Utah’s opening night roster. They’re also likely glad to be getting paid.
Starting Tuesday, both players are officially earning money, at a clip of $5,773 per day for Johnson and $4,971 a day for Millsap. By the time you read this, both guys will have secured roughly as much as a D-League player makes in a year: their daily rate for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, plus two days guaranteed pay related to the waiver clock1.
Because of Jeff Withey’s $200K guarantee, he won’t start earning incremental cash until the 36th day of the season, or December 1. At that point, he’ll be fully non-guaranteed until January 10, earning $5,572 per day. That means that by December 15, the date when most NBA players can be traded and therefore the de facto start of the trade season, he can be dealt as a non-guaranteed contract. An acquiring team could use his $947K cap number could be used to make trades work even though they would owe him $0 guaranteed2.
The Jazz may like him enough to make that point moot, but it’s the second straight year that Dennis Lindsey has timed a guarantee that way, so it sure looks strategic. Toure Murry’s 2014-15 salary guarantee ran out less than a week before last December 15.
Situations to Watch
These partial guarantees and day-by-day salaries are only important if you expect the Jazz the use their remaining cap space to jump on opportunities that may come up. Based on everything included in team salary today, they have $7.28M to maneuver with — plus they can finish a trade up to $100,000 over the cap without needing an exception. They can get up to about $9.8M if needed through waivers, but that number is shifting all the time based on the day-to-day earnings of non-guaranteed players.
Most people presume that if the Jazz were to seize an opportunity to use that cap space, it would likely be for a player to bolster the point guard rotation. If that’s the case, there are some teams to watch as the season gets going.
Atlanta already has a PG logjam on its hands, as reserve Dennis Schröder has started his “start me or trade me overtures.” Of course, the Hawks aren’t obligated to do either. There are plenty of recent examples3 to remind us that teams have all the leverage here. But if the Hawks should decide to entertain discussions about Schröder or current starter Jeff Teague, that could be of interest to Utah.
There are also some middling teams like Dallas and Milwaukee who are swimming in point guards. If someone like the Mavs or the Bucks come out of the gate looking underwhelming, they might start working the phones. Sacramento essentially has two starting point guards — Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison both closed Wednesday’s game — so if early losses start piling up, they may lose some patience.
And of course, there are several point guards the Jazz may be keeping an eye on from a health standpoint. We talked a lot over the summer about the likes of Jrue Holiday or Jose Calderon, but Utah would want to know that they’re a reasonable facsimile of their pre-injury selves before they started looking into those options.
Or, they may do what my SCH boss Andy Larsen has suggested: use that room to acquire a prominent player with a big-money deal, since they have money to spend against the 2016 cap.
Speaking of which…
Now that they’ve exercised all their rookie contract options for next season, Utah has $56.6M committed to 11 players, plus a likelihood of adding a first round draft pick, and three non-guaranteed players making another $3M combined.
So if nothing else changed between now and June 30, they’d open free agency with $30M in cap room and 15 players on their roster.
Moral of the story: expect something to change.
By now you’ve heard a lot about the “affiliate player” rule, a tag that NBA teams can place on training camp cuts so that their D-League team has first dibs. This is probably on purpose, but the Jazz have more players eligible for that designation than they can use.
They shouldn’t need the rule to keep tabs on Jack Cooley or Grant Jerrett. While transparent D-League rights rules are not easy to come by4, it seems as though Idaho already has “returning player” rights to those two. Bryce Cotton’s returning player rights are held by Austin, so he also wouldn’t count against Utah’s four allowed affiliate player designations.
But Utah also acquired and subsequently waived JJ O’Brien, Treveon Graham, Erik Atkins, EJ Singler and Phil Pressey. And the Stampede can only automatically claim four of them.
They might have done this in case one of the five was claimed off waivers or signed by another NBA club, but all of them have cleared now. So Utah must decide which of those guys is less of a priority in terms of keeping them in the extended Jazz family.
Wesley & Wishful Thinking
Mavericks guard (and Jazz alumnus) Wesley Matthews logged 26 minutes in Dallas’ season opener. I bring that up in this context because it’s a good reminder that injuries and rehab processes can vary widely based on a crazy number of factors. Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles on January 24, forty days before Matthews ruptured his, and yet Jennings isn’t expected back to Detroit’s lineup until sometime in December.
Relate this news to Dante Exum, who continues to rehab his repaired ACL, but for whom Utah still hasn’t announced a formal timetable. ACL rehab timelines can run the gamut, but recent encouraging news about the young Aussie indicates that he might be tracking to the front of whatever that range is. “X” is already pain-free and has been walking without assistance or a limp since the second week of October.
By most accounts, that’s ahead of where most people are five weeks after ACL surgery5. So let’s just say for argument’s sake that Exum stays ahead of the curve, and that he’s cleared for activity six months after surgery (seven months after the injury). That would be early March. Do we really think the Jazz would keep him on the shelf at that point?
I don’t have any inside information here, so this is 100 percent speculative and hypothetical. It just seems, assuming the re-injury risk creeps low enough at some point this season, that the kid would be better of next October if he’s come back and gotten a few reps. Even if he wasn’t in a position to help the team measurably in the playoff race, it would be better for 2016-17-and-beyond Dante to be in a position to play some minutes, basketball gods willing.
Just something to think about. It’s still likely we won’t see X until next season, but the Matthews return is a good reminder that people rehab differently and that you can’t apply one player’s timeline to another player’s injury. And if there was literally zero percent chance of that happening, it would have been easy enough for the Jazz to announce that instead of leaving an open timeline.