Should Utah Extend Alec Burks?

July 4th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and general sports fanatic based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Nylon Calculus (Hardwood Paroxysm/Fansided Network), and can be heard on the airwaves for the SCH podcast and appearances with ESPN AM 700. With a strong background in both statistics and on-court fundemantals, he writes primarily as an in-depth strategic analyst. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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16 Comments

  1. LKA says:

    I think the player most screwed by Corbin was Burks.. Foye played in front of him then Hayward because Corbin had to have his buddy RJ play the small forward. Start the man at shooting guard this year and he will show his worth. They need to sign him as soon as possible because if they lose him he will be a headache for the Jazz years down the road. He fits in so well at the wing and can still play backup point if need be.As of today he is probably one of the better Jazz players. a four year 28 mill contract would fit in fine. I think the jury is still out ion Kanter.

  2. Vern says:

    As I heard on a radio program this past week.

    An advantage to not signing the deal now is that Burks can also be used as sign and trade bait next off season whether he progresses further or does not. Signing him to a deal now could prohibit a trade if he regresses. That said, I think his upside is significant and the Jazz should make the effort to get him under contract before the season starts.

    A side note. Given Kanter’s history. Mainly his loss of weight between his rookie and sophomore seasons, his ability to score the ball and his balls. I’m referencing asking young women to dinner on twitter. I think the Jazz would be smart to get him under contract also. I think his upside surpasses Favors. But I know that isn’t a popular sentiment and there will be those who discount the rest of this post. But I think Favors is shy and I don’t see shy guys, as a whole, being superstars.

    • krobbs says:

      Why do you think Favors is shy? Do you guys hang out much? I’ve actually heard the opposite on the radio from David Locke. However, I don’t disagree with your post. I think Kanter is still young enough to improve his defense and could put up Boozer like points and rebounds. While I disagree that Favora is shy, I haven’t seen anything showing that he has the has the personality to take over a game if necessary.

    • AG says:

      tim duncan?

  3. NordicJazzFan says:

    Nice analysis Ben. I was really feeling pretty low about Burks at the start of last season, especially his shooting, but he definitely proved me wrong. The angle I’m curious about and maybe you could address is the advantage to signing this off-season instead of next due to the projected rise in salary cap. Would locking him in at 7-9 million/year this off-season look like a great value come RFA time next year? He’s been injury free so far which I think is a big plus, and has that competitive fire that our team is so badly lacking. He’s also finally grown into his body which just takes time and hard work. To me there seems to be very little risk and good potential for a bargain over the life of a contract.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      The salary cap actually isn’t expected to rise significantly next season, it would be after summer 2016 when the new media rights deal is signed. That said, the main advantage is the one I mentioned: avoiding the risk of him hitting any sort of market whatsoever. If the Jazz are convinced he’s a part of their future and can get him on the lower end of that range, I certainly hope they look to lock him up and avoid a strenuous circumstance if he indeed has another breakout year. Now, with the Novak move from yesterday, if a maximum deal is matched for Hayward as well, this would likely be the last major move the Jazz would be able to make this summer – they’d be in the vicinity of the cap (within about $7-8 million), probably as close as the FO would be comfortable getting. But this would be fine with me, especially if he were on the lower end of that range.

  4. alec burks should the poster child of Utah. The guy has game! The most overlooked player by far. His ceiling is much higher than heywards!!! Do not let another “Wesley Mathews” situation plague the Jazz again!

    • Aaron says:

      Preston, I am so happy to see someone else say this. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills every time I read analysis or even listen to some of the radio “gurus” who overlook Alec every. Damn. Time. Burks might be one of the ten best finishers in the league, and to me seems like a good candidate to score 20 ppg next year and could make some All-Star games in his career. He was by far my favorite Jazz player last year, and I love me some Favors and Trey. Everybody just assumes Exum and Trey are the backcourt of the future, but Alec has developed a pretty good 3-point shot, and if he can improve his defense, I can see him commanding a salary at least equal to what Favors or Hayward is getting. Yes, for the love of God, let’s extend him, and hopefully he won’t be an afterthought for long.

    • JRS says:

      Alex Burks wouldn’t know an assist if it hit him in the face. The dude is the perpetual black hole. The other 4 players just stand around and watch when he has the ball, just like when the other black hole, Al Jefferson was planted in the post. He does nothing but shoot. Favors? Don’t even get me started. How many games did he have more fouls that points? Hayward – anyone that has played knows this kid has a ceiling off the charts. Had nothing to work with last year. Get him the right coach and the right situation and the sky is the limit. With all that being said will pretty much guarantee they will all be back.

      • Spencer says:

        JRS I think you may be overstating everyone here.

        Alec has dramatically improved his passing, and truthfully we need his type of offensive aggression from someone. That said, I hope Snider really works with him on decision making as he approaches the hoop. There are easily 2-3 assists per game (and 4-5 passes) to open players that would make him dynamic and a great value.

        Favors made great offensive strides, expect more consistency this year. Hayward also made great strides, mostly mental that should pay off this year and increase his efficiency. Jazz will likely match, but also likely be overpaying a bit.

  5. Mewko says:

    We should extend Alec Burks. I think this summer Enes Kanter will be traded, because Rudy Gobert gives us better backup center defensively. We will extend Hayward for 4 years/52 mil. Hayward will end up being the 3rd option 2015 and 2016, behind Burks and Favors. Hayward will be the fourth option in 2017 and 2018 with Exum breaking out. Hayward will be overpaid for his role the next 4 years, but he will take a paycut in 2018 to make way for SPEEDY EXUM MAX CONTRACT.

  6. Paul Johnson says:

    I’m not sure why the Jazz would want to trade Kanter this summer, when his value is at an all-time low. Give him some playing time this coming year, and see how he develops. If he develops like I think he will, the Jazz should want to keep him. If not, the Jazz can showcase him as a younger Al Jefferson, and get good value for him.

    • Mewko says:

      Well, the Jazz think Favors is a true center. If Kanter is unable to play power forward next to Favors, than he shouldn’t be here. I’m still high on his potential, and he’s going to want to get paid. He would be a great backup center, get us points off the bench. But he would want to get paid more than a backup center, and keeping Gobert would instill us a better defensive identity as a team anyway.
      The Jazz need a quicker guy than Kanter/Favors to play power forward, there’s stretch fours everywhere in the league now.
      I still think Kanter can go 18 PPG, 10 RPG, and if he’s lucky, the rest of his team will hide his defensive atrociousness. He should go to Indiana. They’ll mask his poor defense, and Kanter will give them offense.

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