The Jazz have a 6’11, gregarious, occasionally Santa-themed, oft-bearded Turkish elephant in the living room as they play out another rebuilding season.
Just as with burgeoning star Gordon Hayward last year, Utah faces the restricted free agency of big man Enes Kanter this upcoming offseason after they passed on extending him this summer. This means the team is operating within the same sort of layered context they experienced both last season with Gordon and in previous campaigns with guys like Paul Millsap and Wesley Matthews, only with the added wrinkle of a first year coach implementing a new system to factor into the arithmetic.
How to properly evaluate Enes both presently and with an eye to his potential future and role with the team is a careful enough balance. But toss in a couple extremely relevant dates1 and the fact that, barring a trade, 29 other teams will have a chance to toss potentially silly amounts of money at the big Turk come July and force the Jazz into tough calls. Big elephant spilling red wine everywhere, indeed.
Kanter himself isn’t making things any simpler recently. After a start to the year that had many writing him off as yet another sunk cost with uneven play, particularly defensively, Enes has put together a number of strong showings in recent weeks. SCH’s own Dan Clayton touched on his improvements generally last week, and despite a strange game team-wide Saturday night that curiously saw him play just a hair under 20 minutes, Kanter has indeed kicked it up a notch. He’s begun to slowly piece things together on the defensive end, finding little bits of comfort within Quin Snyder’s slightly more conservative approach and learning from his coach’s frequent teaching moments. He still has large warts here, some of which will never subside entirely, but his effort and fire are clearly there and he doesn’t appear to be openly thinking about his next move in such a painfully obvious way as many of us are accustomed to. He also put up a career-high point total last week versus New Orleans, and is showing an aggressiveness and comfort level with the ball that must make offensively-minded GMs around the league salivate.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. While process is absolutely a huge theme for this team, it’s very different than tangible results; the Jazz would love to see some of the latter to aid in what might be a difficult decision with regards to Kanter’s long term status, but have thus far mostly seen only the former. His shooting efficiency figures are actually down a bit from his season averages since the beginning of December, though still up on last year’s numbers overall, and he’s rebounding at roughly the same rate on both ends of the court in this period. Meanwhile, any improvements defensively haven’t translated to team results just yet, as his already team-worst (among rotation players) defensive efficiency figure while on the court has actually gotten worse in the last three weeks. The team overall has somehow regressed here over this period as well, and in all fairness Kanter hasn’t actually been the worst rotation player in that time, but it’s tough to get too overjoyed with a performance that, at least as far as the numbers go, really isn’t much of an improvement.
All of this is a way of saying that Kanter’s situation is a tough one, and one unlikely to reveal any end-all solution before the Jazz have to make a decision or series of decisions regarding his future. So with that in mind, let’s briefly look at Utah’s general options going forward:
A pretty unlikely scenario, for a variety of reasons. It’s rare to see any team give up real assets for a guy slated to hit RFA in just six months given the lack of full control they then maintain over his situation, and it’s unclear whether the Jazz would be able to bring back anything of real value. Teams like Memphis, Atlanta, and Washington are all at least pseudo-contenders or better in what’s currently as wide open a title race as we’ve seen in many years, and all might have both a desire for an upgrade at a third big position and a later first round pick plus the sort of mixture of cap fodder and veteran presence the Jazz would likely ask in return. But it’s so tough to evaluate how any of these front offices would view Kanter, and whether they’d even want to part with those sort of assets for what could end up being a six month rental.
Complicating the process to some degree could be Kanter’s agent, Max Ergul, who retains zero other NBA clients and could end up being something of a wild card. Teams can have issues dealing with solo agents they aren’t accustomed to working with, and there have been whispers that Ergul will attempt to squeeze every dime possible out of his most lucrative talent2. Don’t expect to see Kanter moved before the deadline unless the Jazz brass is more down on him than most of us had realized, or unless a godfather offer comes along.
Perhaps even more unlikely, if for no other reason than the simple rarity of this happening outside deals for megastars changing teams (a la the S&T Cleveland and Miami struck when LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010). The value returning would likely be even less than a midseason trade, and would essentially amount to a last-ditch effort to salvage some value for Kanter that could actually end up making Utah’s front office look a tad silly. It’s a vague possibility for technical reasons, but quite improbable.
If interest is light around the league in July, the Jazz could lean on Kanter to sign the one-year, $7.8 million qualifying offer they’ll offer him as standard practice. This is a very unconventional route to restricted free agency, and one that would see Enes become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. Pistons big Greg Monroe took this door in September, and he and Kanter share several on-court characteristics.
It’s tough to imagine Ergul (or Kanter, for that matter) accepting such a low figure, though the promise of UFA as the new TV money kicks in could tip the scales a bit. The Jazz would then get one more year to evaluate Kanter in this system and alongside his teammates3, though they would relinquish matching rights and risk losing him for nothing. This route also seems fairly unlikely given a number of factors, and the Jazz should probably plan on making a final decision on Kanter’s future in Utah by this offseason.
Far and away the most realistic scenario for the Jazz is simply to let the process that they in part chose to initiate this offseason play out. Utah still has a good bit of flexibility on their cap and a fully loaded stockpile of picks and cheap, movable contracts, and they can afford to gauge the market for Kanter with Rudy Gobert waiting in the wings. Monroe proved just how thin the market can be for Kanter’s sort of player, a power forward incapable of guarding centers who isn’t a true floor-stretcher in the vein of a Channing Frye, and Dennis Lindsey and the Jazz brass may count on a similar trend placing much of the leverage firmly in their hands.
But it only takes one (expletive), as they say, and Kanter’s offensive skill set has to be desirable to a team with a coach confident he can coax league average defense out of him. A brief canvas of some smart folks I talked to revealed a ridiculously wide array of offers some might be willing to tender him given the right team construct; from three years, $20 million to the same sort of four-year, high-$40 million figure Derrick Favors signed for last offseason. The new TV money set to kick in in 2016 may throw things like RFA into an absolute frenzy as teams race to be the first to exploit potential imbalances, and letting Kanter receive offers that might even top out higher than Favors’ number is a major crapshoot. How Enes compares to guys like Nikola Vucevic (signed for four years, $53 million starting next year), Kenneth Faried (four years, $50-plus million), or Tristan Thompson (also entering RFA this offseason) is also a topic that garners a wide array of viewpoints, with some opining he belongs in that class – or will receive an offer that says as much, at least – and others placing him firmly a tier below.
The Jazz relinquish some control with this approach4, but very little they weren’t already aware of after letting this previous offseason pass with no extension. They get the benefit of making their draft pick(s) beforehand, a process that could play a huge role in Kanter’s future. Names like Towns and Okafor, or Porzingis and Kaminsky a bit further down, have a great deal of potential appeal and would come at a fraction of Kanter’s immediate cost.
There are so many moving parts here, regardless of how the Jazz choose to proceed. Where the team feels it falls on the rebuilding timeline is a big factor5, as is how well Kanter continues to adapt to Snyder’s system over the course of the year. The TV money is a massive confounding factor that looms over any and all major salary moves for every team, and how it plays into Utah’s specific salary construct will be of paramount importance. Lindsey and his staff are in the rough stuff now – these sorts of decisions will become more regular and more important over the next few years as the Jazz attempt to claw their way back to relevance. It’s a fascinating game of give-and-take in this ever-changing NBA world, and it should be an intriguing several months ahead.