Free agency is a complex game of give-and-take. Offer too much or too soon, and you’ve spent your way out of potential assets whose situations become clearer in later days. On the flip side, too much patience puts you at risk of seeing your targets snatched up elsewhere, and the balancing games herein are heavily contextualized and require not only an in-depth knowledge of personnel league-wide, but also of a stupidly complex CBA and its various intricacies.
The concept of restricted free agency tosses in further wrinkles, especially for larger names commanding eight-figure per-year offers – the simple standard of incumbent teams receiving 72 hours to match any outside offer can create a multitude of issues for potential suitors. Jazz fans with their ear to the ground this week have seen an example of this firsthand, with a report from Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Cleveland is unsure about offering Gordon Hayward a max offer sheet and tying up their cap for three days1, a time during which they could potentially miss out on backup options should the Jazz match. The other side to this coin, though, is the obvious risk of either losing or overpaying a guy based on outside offers, another the Jazz could be experiencing firsthand if reports from ESPN’s Marc Stein on Hayward’s negotiations last offseason2 are to be taken at face value and Utah does end up matching a max deal or something close to it.
The Jazz have two more such situations in their infancy this summer, as both Enes Kanter and Alec Burks have a single year left on their rookie deals and will become restricted free agents next offseason if not extended by the time the 14-15 season begins. Kanter, with a larger salary scale due to his high lottery selection and coming off a disappointing season, appears a near lock to hit the restricted market.
But what about Burks? Coming off his best season as a pro despite very few positives around him, the young swingman generates a variety of opinions. On one end of the spectrum are folks like me who rate him very highly, with work to do on the mental side of his game3 but with the physical tools in place to be a hugely impactful NBA player if he makes the expected developments from a 22-year-old. Others point to various metrics that paint him as mostly average, and emphasize some of his issues on the thinking side of the ball (particularly defensively when away from the ball-handler) as serious concerns going forward4 for a guy who, in their minds, is nothing more than a head-down slasher offensively.
With the truth, as always, likely somewhere in the middle, it’s an interesting situation the Jazz have to at least take a look at before next season. Much will depend on their own internal assessment of Burks, and the argument for waiting another year on a commitment is bolstered somewhat by the train of thought that a new coaching staff may want more time to see him up close. But again, this carries the risk of either losing him or being forced to match a larger-than-preferred offer should he make another leap or two this season.
Is he worth the advanced commitment to keep this from happening? I wrote quite a bit on Burks during the season, including a February piece highlighting some of his strengths and weaknesses along with the areas he’s improved since coming into the league. I noted how, while he still has real work to do as a help and rotation defender, he’s shown marked improvements in even his weakest areas since coming into the league. He still over-helps on penetration far too often, but I continue to prefer this to under-helping as it at least shows an effort level and willingness to do his part. But he’s drastically improved elements like his defensive stance and positioning, as well as team-oriented defensive schemes like high hedges and icing side pick-and-rolls; on the ball, he was easily Utah’s best perimeter defender last year. I also find many of his mental hiccups (bad screen navigation, occasional ball-watching) to be due at least partially to less than optimal coaching, something Jazz fans everywhere are confident will improve going forward.
He’s thought of as a major threat on the break, but this perception is perhaps slightly overstated – per Synergy, he was both less efficient and less opportunistic (in terms of percentage of his offense) than one might hope given his speed with the ball. He wasn’t bad by any means, and an emphasis on more up-tempo play from Quin Snyder should help him here. He needs to improve his touch around the hoop, as he’ll get lazy and mail in attempts that should be close to automatic, but this again appears easily fixable given his immense athletic skill and the remarkable finishes we’ve seen from him at times.
Burks showed his largest year-over-year improvement last season in the halfcourt offense, where he made big strides in multiple areas. He improved his shooting from basically everywhere on the floor, including huge leaps from the 3-10 foot and 10-16 foot range, per basketballreference.com, despite a noticeable jump in his usage. He shot barely under 40 percent on corner 3’s, another area where he’s incrementally improved every year in the league. He needs some work as a distributor, but he’s made legitimate strides here each season – from an assist percentage (percentage of teammate field-goals assisted while on the floor) of 9.5 in his rookie year, Burks has advanced to 13.0 in 12-13 and 16.9 last season, again per basketballreference. He also turned the ball over less last season than the year before, a real accomplishment given his added usage and ball-handling responsibilities that were likely a bit too heavy for his skill set.
And of course, his calling card is how well he gets to the hoop. Burks led the Jazz in drives to the basket5 per game last year, per SportVU data on NBA.com, and was their only consistent threat to create his own driving lanes. Of 91 rotation players league-wide who attempted at least 200 drives, Burks checked in within the top 15 for points produced per-48-minutes on drives, narrowly ahead of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant and trailing elite penetrators like Tony Parker, Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague. These sorts of stats are obviously incomplete, but combined with an eye-test knowledge of his game, it’s easy to see where Burks’ biggest strength is.
He still needs major work on his selectivity offensively, as he was far too content to chuck away from midrange when defenses forced him there. The Jazz tweaked their pick-and-roll looks with him last year to try and clamp down on some of this, and increased offensive creativity from Snyder should do more of the same. This general issue for Burks remains his mental acuity on both sides of the ball, but it once again must be noted that he’s made real improvements here since entering the league, this despite a questionable head coach for the entirety of this period.
As far as the Jazz go, all the above particulars might end up coming down to a relatively simple question: do they value him and his potential significantly more highly than the market will? There’s obviously a ton of imprecise science going into that sort of decision, but it’s the sort NBA front offices are commonly faced with. How he’d fare on the open market is tough to gauge, but a few smart folks I talked to while preparing this piece pegged him in the $6-$7 million/year range, while a few others were a little higher on him. On yesterday’s SCH Podcast, editor Andy Larsen used a league comparison to contextualize things: Jodie Meeks, formerly of the Lakers, signed this week with Detroit for just under $7 million per season. Check out their splits from last year against each other – Burks is four years younger and had the higher PER, but Meeks shot the ball better and piled up bigger raw numbers on a chuck-tastic Lakers team. Are they worth similar amounts? It’s hard to say, especially given the league’s emphasis on 3-point shooting (and the fact that Meeks’ contract was for three years and Burks will be expecting four), but again, the main question isn’t what they’re actually worth, but what the market thinks they’re worth.
The Jazz could be at a real advantage here, especially if they rate Burks as highly as those in my camp. If they could get him for Meeks’ per-year figure or less this offseason and avoid the risk of him entering even a restricted market, I think they have to give it a look. Another mini-leap from him this season, easily possible in a new system that should better suit him, could place him in eight-figure territory and really stretch Utah’s ability to keep him if a large offer for Hayward is matched. The specifics here might be key, and the acquisition of Steve Novak’s salary today may tighten things even more, but it should be considered.
These are some of the toughest elements of managing an NBA franchise. On one end is a potential loss of an asset, and on the other is a premature commitment to a player who may or may not be deserving of it. But Lindsey and his crew have proven up to the task so far this summer, and the Novak trade is another savvy move. Can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.