By Brian Henderson, special to Salt City Hoops
Some news and notes on a busy free agency summer for the Jazz.
Utah Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor has been a busy man this summer. Though most of us were afraid he was asleep at the wheel at the beginning of Free Agency Season, Jazz fans ought to be excited about his success in countering the loss of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews. O’Connor has arguably made the team stronger than last year’s lineup. With the rescue of Al Jefferson from exile in Minnesota, and the return of fan favorite Raja Bell, O’Connor pulled off the impressive feat of keeping the team a viable competitor in the Western Conference for the upcoming season.
Still, the team has one glaring weakness. The Jazz need an agile and strong power forward/center to supplement Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur, of whom only Jefferson can really go head-to-head with the Lakers’ two seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. We know Okur doesn’t like to play on the low block. While Jefferson is 6’10” he is not known as a defensive specialist. Millsap showed a tremendous ability to play above his size, especially during the playoffs this year. But at 6’8” he’s just not big enough without help. Finally, while Kyrylo Fesenko may be a nuisance to opponents in the paint (and awesome in front of a microphone), he is not agile enough to be the answer.
Combined, the Jefferson-Millsap-Okur trio (Memo Millferson?) will keep the Jazz competitive in the West, but without another true big man in the mix, they won’t conquer the Lakers. And herein lies the problem. Skilled big men—never mind seven footers—are on short supply. Since the Jazz already scooped up one of the top 3 or 4 big men in this summer’s free agent market, the pool of available talent is slim pickings at best. This leaves the Jazz with only one viable option—outwitting rivals with an undersized lineup.
If this becomes the strategy, the key is Andrei Kirilenko, as suggested by Jazz play-by-play man David Locke. He argues, and I agree, that Kirilenko needs to have the best season of his career if the team is to have a chance to win the West. If there’s such thing as a “big enough” rotation-by-committee at the 4 and 5, it must include a monster season by AK47. Let’s hope he can surprise us all.
Wesley Matthews earned his opportunity for a big paycheck and took it, much the same way Raja Bell did when he left the Jazz in 2005 for a big free agent contract with Phoenix. As Hot Rod used to say, “No harm, no foul.” O’Connor called his move a business decision, and it’s difficult to fault the Jazz organization for not matching Portland’s astronomical offer to Matthews. It’s amazing to think that the man who entered the league less than a year ago as an undrafted rookie and the third best player on his college team is now the highest paid sophomore in the league. And he didn’t even make the Rookie-Sophomore game during All-Star Weekend. Matthews is definitely a special player and I think most Jazz fans will continue to follow him fondly throughout his career.
In the end it’s still a business, and the Jazz upgraded and saved some money with Matthews’ departure. By almost every measure, Bell offers what Matthews does at less than a third the price. He also brings NBA finals experience to this Jazz team who need that kind of Sherpa if they’re ever going to get to the NBA Finals summit. Bell said he wanted to be the guy to put a bounty on an opponent and “lock him down” with his defense. Welcome back, Raja.
[Infographic by Salt City Hoops contributor Chris Kirkham. You'll see a lot more from Chris in the future.]