Salt Lin City? A Proposed Free Agent Target

June 8th, 2015 | by Matt Pacenza
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s hard to exaggerate how woeful the Jazz point guard play was last year.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that even with such poor production at PG, the Jazz by the end of 2014-15 were a playoff-caliber team in the loaded West. Improvement at point guard — even to just league average — could be the key move that propels this young and improving team forward.

However, I’m skeptical that the next good Jazz point guard is currently on the Jazz roster. While I’d acknowledge that it would be absurd to dismiss Dante Exum after just one season, it’s basically impossible to find a successful NBA player who started out his career with such minimal production. (See this list of all guards who played at least 500 minutes as rookies but had a PER of 7 or under.) I’d love it if Exum broke that mold, but that may not be realistic.

Smart analysts have already identified intriguing potential trade targets at PG for the Jazz. If those don’t pan out, what about free agency? Free agent PG rankings (see HoopsHype and Basketball Insiders) start with several restricted free agents most likely to stay with their current rosters (Brandon Knight and Patrick Beverley), a coveted unrestricted free agent likely to choose Miami over anywhere else (Goren Dragic) and a few guys who the Jazz hopefully have no interest in (Rajon Rondo and Reggie Jackson).

But there, at #6, a name jumps out. What if I told you that a 26-year-old point guard with an above average career PER — despite playing on some highly dysfunctional teams — is available? A guy with decent shooting and assist numbers and the ability to create shots for himself and teammates? A guy who can likely be had on a good contract for not too much money or for too many years?

Credit: ESPN The Magazine. Photographer: Joe Pugliese

Credit: ESPN The Magazine. Photographer: Joe Pugliese

I think the Jazz should think long and hard about making a free agency offer to Jeremy Lin.

I’m going to delve into some pluses and minuses about the Jazz acquiring Lin below, but before I do, I’d urge everyone to read Pablo Torre’s amazing ESPN The Magazine’s profile of Lin from this past March. It’s a terrific story and puts Lin’s recent production into an important context.

The Positive

Lin exploded on to the scene with seven excellent weeks of NBA basketball (Linsanity!) before a knee injury in March 2012 cut his Cinderella Knicks season short. It was brief, but it was fantastic:

Two up-and-down seasons with the Rockets followed, before last year’s frustrating run with the Lakers.

What’s interesting, though, is that while my perception of Lin is that he didn’t play very well in either Houston or Los Angeles, his numbers are actually pretty solid. Last year with the Lakers was widely characterized as disastrous — Kobe mocked him! Bryron Scott benched him! — but let’s compare a few of his key numbers to the Jazz PG production:

2014-15 TS% 3FG% AST% PER
Lin .539 .369 28.6 15.6
Burke .455 .318 25.0 12.6
Exum .457 .314 16.6 5.7

Those offensive numbers for Lin aren’t elite, but they’re solid. He remains an average PG on offense, even in a tumultuous season. Here’s a bit more detail:

  • Lin’s three-point shooting has steadily improved each of the past four years, from 32 percent to 37 percent.
  • Lin continues to draw fouls at a high rate, though these numbers declined some with the Lakers. He averaged 5.1 FTA per 36 minutes last year. Of the 100 guards who played at least 1,000 minutes, Lin ranked 14th in the league in FT rate. (Not surprisingly, Exum ranked dead last.)
  • Lin remains a solid distributor of the ball. His 6.4 assists per 36 minutes rank him 24th of the same 100 guards who played 1,000 minutes.

The Negative

Some key numbers for Lin are trending in the wrong direction. During that celebrated Knicks season, Lin’s game had a little Harden to it. He took mostly shots at the rim and from 3 and gave out a ton of assists. A few of those Moneyball ratios have shifted, unfavorably:

  • With the Knicks, 57 percent of Lin’s shots came within 10 feet of the rim — by last year, only 42 percent did. And Lin shot most poorly from mid-range, shots which he took more of last year. Very poorly. On long 2s, he shot just 32 percent, for example.
  • The shift in Lin’s game away from the rim towards the mid-range has led to a declining 2FG%. It was 47-49 percent with the Knicks and Rockets before declining to 44 percent last year.
  • Lin’s assists per-36-minutes have dropped from 8.3 to 6.4. That’s the difference between being an elite assist man — think Jeff Teague this year — to average at the position.

Now, while those trends are worrisome, it’s important to remember the widespread sense that the 2014-15 Lakers under Byron Scott weren’t well coached. The team famously shunned the 3-pointer, in an era when nearly every NBA team, including the Jazz, are taking more and more.

It’s reasonable to expect that with better coaching, Lin would take more shots at the rim and from 3, boosting his efficiency and production.

A couple other areas of concern for Lin:

  • His turnover numbers, while improving, continue to be high. Even during his Knicks run, Lin turned the ball over frequently during his daring dashes to the rim. The good news is that those numbers have steadily improved during each of the past four years, but his turnover ratio remains high: Last year, he turned the ball over on 13 percent of possessions, leaving him 64th out of 74 NBA point guards.
  • Reviews of Lin’s defense are mixed. He’s good size for a point guard, at 6’ 3’’, but isn’t considered particularly quick. He hasn’t played for terribly good defensive teams. The deepest dive on his defense was a post last summer from Fern Rea on Raining3s.com which concluded Lin is better than popular sentiment would believe, calling him “a tireless worker who makes up what he lacks in quickness and lateral movement with effort, size and smarts.”

Conclusion

Clearly, a trade for a young talent like Jrue Holiday would represent a stronger upgrade at point guard than signing Jeremy Lin. But if the Jazz strike out on the trade market, I believe that Lin at the right price would be a worthwhile gamble.

Lin’s value is low right now. What if the Jazz could get him for two years, $10 million? Signing Lin at such a modest price wouldn’t mean the Jazz were giving up on Dante Exum. Rather, Lin could step into the role that Trey Burke played late last year: coming off the bench to anchor the second unit offense. And on nights when the Jazz need more offense than Exum can offer, Lin could play more minutes and even close games. Lin is unlikely to play defense as well as Exum did by the end of his rookie season, but would be an upgrade over Burke.

The most likely scenario for Lin is that he never returns to his burst of success as Knick. However, even the Lin of the past three years would be a significant upgrade from the Jazz PG play the past few years.

Watching highlights of Lin also reminded me that he has a particular flair for passes to bigs — lobs and clever entry passes. Imagine Gobert and Favors on the receiving end of a few of those each night. Imagine a ball handling guard to take the pressure off Hayward on a few nights.

I also think it’s possible that Lin improves. I’m not one to put too much stock into intangibles, but after a rough season in the spotlight in Los Angeles, might mellow Salt Lake City and an improving Jazz team be a great environment to get back on track.

Matt Pacenza

Matt Pacenza

When he isn't writing about the Jazz, Matt Pacenza is an environmental activist, Arsenal fan and world-class blowhard about many matters. A native of upstate New York, with a background in journalism and nonprofits, Matt lives near Liberty Park with his wife and two sons.
Matt Pacenza

21 Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    I highly support this plan. I honestly would rather have Jeremy Lin than any of the trade options, if we can get him for anything close to that $5 million/year, even if we’ve gotta do a 1 or 3 year deal. We’d be able to shore up our biggest weakness without giving up any of our other assets. I don’t think we could do it unless we trade Trey first, though. He’s taken getting benched well, I don’t think he’d take getting even more benched quite as well.

    • Bill Schanze says:

      The largest problem the Jazz have in decision making for a PT Guard is that Burke isn’t worth anything in trade.

  2. UtahsMrSports says:

    Hate it. Sorry my friend, but I absolutely, 100% hate this.

    To me, it makes no sense to bring in a guy who is just reaching his prime and let Dante play the backup. I want the playoffs as much as anyone else, but I dont want to sacrifice some development of a high-ceiling guy like Dante in order to get there. I’d much rather have a mentor type guy who is on the wrong side of his prime, but who still has some gas in the tank.

    The list of 500+ minutes and <7 PER is concerning, but I am willing to let it slide since a) he is one of the two youngest players on that list and b) the rust he was coming off of. Add to this the defense that I saw him play.

    • Matt Pacenza says:

      I would argue that Lin takes Burke’s minutes, not Exum’s. But let’s say they split the minutes evenly: 24. Half the game isn’t enough for Dante to develop? As you note, he’s so young, I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect him to be dominating PG minutes when he’s 20, 21. If he gets to 30-35 minutes of competent play a game by the time he’s 22-23 years old, I’d have to think the team would be delighted.

      • UtahsMrSports says:

        great point, Im with ya now.

      • Mewko says:

        Nope. 24 minutes/game is NOT enough for Dante to develop.

        I’m hoping for him to play more than 26-27. He needs to play and match-up against the opposing point guard. Burke or Lin’s defense will not cut it.

        http://espn.go.com/nba/player/gamelog/_/id/4299/jeremy-lin

        If you look at Jeremy Lin’s game logs for 2014-15, it is very streaky. Streaky is not worth the trouble. All in all, it is a better % than Trey Burke, but you can’t depend on Lin. Better choice to depend on Burke. Trey Burke has a better chance at improving than Jeremy Lin does.

        And don’t forget the dark-horse: Bryce Cotton. He recently set a record in Santa Barbara, at the Jazz’s P3 facility. 45 INCH VERTICAL! He could step in if Burke declines, and become a rotational player.

        • Matt Pacenza says:

          I think you’re minimizing the gap in offensive quality between Burke and Lin. Let’s go back to that list of 108 guards. If you rank them by TS% (a number as I’m sure you know which brings all the shooting data, including 3s and FTs together) Lin ranks 34 out of 108. So he’s in the top third of all guards as a shooter. Exum ranks 96th and Burke ranks 98, so they’re both in the bottom 10 percent.

          So Burke would need to not just improve some, but a LOT to get closet to Lin’s worst season in four years.

          I’d love to see more of Bryce Cotton. I enjoyed the heck out of that late season spurt. Let’s say the Jazz do nothing at PG this off-season: I’d rather see Cotton as the backup as of now.

          • Patrick says:

            I am not an analytics fan. I live by the rule – “If you torture data enough, it will confess”. So, while TS%, etc etc might be a good talking point, here are my thoughts.

            Lin is good. If there isnt any option like when we drafted Burke (zero PG on team), then yeah – may be on a rent for a year. But Lin for Burke makes me cringe. Burke was atrocious last year, man. No kidding. But the guy is a leader. He was the only jazz player in NJ when we drafted exum – first player to congratulate his possible replacement. We havent heard a word out of him about his movement to bench. We are a young team. We need leaders. We are going to fall on hard times next year and we need strong minded players to pull us through. He is a strong person and I still believe can be molded on a great bench player.

            I would take my chances with Burke’s possible bricks vs Lin’s highly possible turnovers at late game situations.

      • CptAndrus says:

        If Dante can’t develop with a 24/24 minute split will he ever develop? Right now Dante is being given 24 minutes. if he needs more time to develop send him to Boise where he can be given 35 minutes a night. The Jazz do not need to give minutes to Exam that was last year. He needs to start earning those minutes: being productive, scoring, and stop being so predictable and scared on offense in short start using these physical tools he has been blessed with. Otherwise Bryce Cotton could use some of his minutes.

    • IDJazzman says:

      Exum absolutely gets a pass because of his youth AND of not ever playing at a high level of competition like all the others did on that list. This coming year for Exum’s offensive stats would be a better comparison with the guards on that list. Besides, the list concentrates only on offense. Exum is fantastic on defense, for his experience level. Exum will be the future PG, keep playing him as such, 30 minutes a game.

  3. Spencer says:

    Poor defender, below average shooter. Needs the ball in his hand to be effective. No thank you. I like what we have at pg.

    I say, leave it be unless this happens:

    Aldridge leaves. Portland realizes they will be in the purgatory of middle of the pack. They agree to trade Lillard for the Burks brothers and as many picks as it takes. If you are Portland you have to at least think about it. You can have Lillard or Burk and Burks, this year’s 12th pick and two future firsts. The Jazz Get a guy who would put them into contender status and lose nobody in the top 5 of the roster (Hood fills the Burks need.)

    • CptAndrus says:

      Nice dream, love to share it with you but I don’t smoke the funny stuff or at all, and I can not see Portland giving up on Lillard, not even for an all in move like the one you mentioned. Besides I question if Lillard and Hayward on the floor together is a win win. Their games distract from each other’s, they both need the ball late in the shot clock, making both less valuable. It would be a marriage that would need counseling from the start. And they would be forced to stay together for the sake of the draft picks. To me its one of those dreams that you enjoy but when you wake up you are glad that you are a wake, and it was only a dream.

  4. Imesa says:

    Exum is the youngest player on that list and most of those guys are from more than 10 years ago. Most of the rookies this year were under 10 points. But glancing at the list I see Dennis Schroeder who in his sophmore season is better that Lin. I believe Exum will too

  5. cw says:

    It’s totally weird that out of all the potential guards available that someone zeros in on Jeremy Lin. His time in the NBA is most likely done. He’ll be available all fall then sign a contract to play in Europe.

    And there is no way the Jazz are signing someone to start over Exum. There is no rush. They are not going to contend soon–I don’t know if they even make the playoffs–and they have a bunch of young players with potential. It makes the most sense to let them develop another year.

  6. joshg says:

    Ok show holes do the jazz need to fill this off season. improve PG play-either a starter or someone that can mentor exum, I am done with Burke-I agree he is great teammate and possibly a leader, but he can’t shoot. We need a stretch 4 and we need a backup 5-this could be one in the same. Hopefully the draft will fulfill one of these needs and then FA will fulfill the other. Yes we can make the playoffs next year, but I think we need to think about two years from now. What is going to help the team. I don’t believe the jazz are going to draft another PG in the first rd, so it becomes a trade or FA. Most likely a FA-I like Lin-it depends on his contract though. Who is a better option we can get for the price? I do like Cotton-his 36min avg is 42% FG, 35%3p, 4.1 reb, 3.4 ast, 18.1pts, but he is only 6’1 and 165lbs. we need another bigger pg. I think the stretch 4 will come from the draft, due to the fact we won’t draft a PG. We could get another wing player in the draft . I think fans are overvaluing booker’s worth at this time. I like him, but he is not a special player. He is an asset that we can trade, but don’t expect much in return.

  7. ishallakam says:

    Your list of rookie guards is a little concerning, but that’s just because you’re using PER, a stat that is notorious for being offensively biased. If you take a look at Win Shares, which is better balanced between offense and defense, the list is more promising. Here’s a list of rookie guards in the last 15 years who played 500+ minutes with less than 1 win share:
    http://bkref.com/tiny/tQPVN
    You see names like Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Shaun Livingston, and many other serviceable or better guards.

    • Matt Pacenza says:

      It’s a fair and excellent point. You’re right, when you factor in D, you do get a less troubling list. However, even with your list, MOST of those players who struggled early didn’t amount to much, right? When people say “I’m not worried about Dante,” I’m confused. We can and all should be optimistic — but if you’re going to be realistic, the most likely scenario is he continues to struggle, right?

      I hope that it goes without saying that I absolutely hope Dante bucks the trend. Would be delighted to be wrong.

  8. Lin’s interesting, though one does need to understand that he’s quite inconsistent, this past season he basically had 3 blah month then 2 pretty good months to end it.

    From a pure skill perspective, he’s biggest problem remains that he’s a poor ball handler for a PG. from my observation he gets into big trouble when teams focus their defense on him consistently.

    Still, for Utah, which could probably put a couple other solid ball handlers on the lineup with him, that helps.

    he’s not a great shooter by any means, in that , almost all his shots are strait up catch and shoot. he’s not the guy who’s going to be running off screens hitting 3s falling side ways, but then again, not many folks can really do that. it helps a lot that everyone plays him to drive so he does have a open shot most of the time.

  9. kwokwailai says:

    Based on RPM, I have made a comparison of Jeremy Lin, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Dante Exum in the last 2 season.

    Jeremy Lin
    2014-2015 @18th among PGs
    (ORPM 1.39 DRPM 0.27 RPM 1.66)
    2013-2014 @29th among PGs
    (ORPM -0.19 DRPM 0.28 RPM 0.09)

    Trey Burke
    2014-2015 @54th among PGs
    (ORPM -0.19 DRPM -2.52 RPM -2.71)
    2013-2014 @39th among PGs
    (ORPM 2.02 DRPM -3.25 RPM -1.23)

    Alec Burks
    2014-2015 @65th among PGs
    (ORPM -0.32 DRPM -2.72 RPM -3.04)
    2013-2014 @31st among PGs
    (ORPM 1.43 DRPM -1.68 RPM -0.25)

    Dante Exum
    2014-2015 @52th among SGs
    (ORPM -1.65 DRPM -0.12 RPM -1.77)

    ORPM: Player’s estimated on-court impact on team offensive performance, measured in points scored per 100 offensive possessions
    DRPM: Player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions
    RPM: Player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors

  10. Lin is Garbage!! says:

    Jeremy Lin is a joke! He doesn’t have a jump shot, he is not quick by anyone’s imagination and he is a high volume shooter not scorer!! We just need a guard to get the ball to Favors and Hayward. Exum is still a teenager so give him some time. A huge help this season will be the return of Alec who can play some PG. I’d rather take a shot on a D league PG than Lin. They come cheaper and with just as much effectiveness. HUGE PASS ON LIN!!

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