As the final days of the dreadful NBA offseason tick down, basketball fans everywhere are rejoicing. The dog days of summer are waning, and Utah Jazz fans are inching closer and closer to the team’s return. It is a joyous time.
As the Jazz approach media day and then, subsequently, training camp and preseason basketball, there are numerous questions that abound. How will Rudy Gobert respond to being the starter from day one, and are NBA teams ready for him? Will Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors continue their ascent among the league’s elite? Who will assume the starting point guard role in Dante Exum’s absence? Who then will be the main backup there? How will the rookie additions of Trey Lyles, Tibor Pleiss and Raul Neto fit into the picture?
So many questions, but ones that will be answered within the next month or two.
Today, let us focus on one big one: how will the end of the roster be filled? There are several Utah players battling for their NBA lives. While a lot of the attention will be directed toward the aforementioned story lines, who ultimately occupies the final vacancies will be one to watch. Yes, we are talking about the 13th, 14th and 15th men on the team — players who often will not be on the active list, or who may not seen a huge amount of in-game court time. That said, the dynamics of a team are constantly evolving. Injuries, prolonged shooting woes or performance issues and trades can all factor in. Exum’s unfortunate setback is a prime example. Even from game to game, foul trouble or match-ups can press an end-of-the-bench player into extended minutes. Every roster spot is important for the Utah Jazz.
It is safe to say that 12 roster spots are secure: Hayward, Favors, Gobert, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Trey Burke, Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles, Exum, Lyles, Pleiss and Neto. This dozen have guaranteed contracts, and for the most part, many of their roles are set. That leaves room for three more. While the Jazz have traditionally started most recent seasons with 14 players, so as to have some roster flexibility, things most likely will be different this season. First, Exum’s injury affects not just the point guard position, but the team’s overall depth. Head coach Quin Snyder will need all available men to be ready for the long NBA season.
Second, most of the candidates for these roles have minimal, non-guaranteed deals. This grants general manager Dennis Lindsey latitude. Utah could start the season with 15 guys, but depending on how things transpire or on who might become available, there is both roster and financial flexibility there. For example, should a potential emerge, or there is a player out there that might have more short and/or long-term potential, Lindsey could easily cut one of these guys with little financial hit.
In short, it behooves the Jazz to start the 2015-2016 season with a the fill 15-man lineup. Each of the players competing for their NBA livelihoods can make a valid case for why he belongs. Let’s take a look at each of them.
2014-2015 season: Withey spent his second NBA season with the New Orleans Pelicans. Given their big man depth (Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Alexis Ajinca), he saw sporadic playing time. Withey averaged 2.6 PPG, 1.7 RPG and 0.5 BPG in 7.0 MPG. Despite the pedestrian raw numbers, he sported a 17.6 PER and an impressive 5.3 BLK%.
Why: Withey has the most on-court experience of the bunch, and has shown that he can be a capable back-up center when called upon. He has an elite NBA skill in his shot blocking and overall defense. He has also displayed the ability to finish inside. Pleiss most likely will be the primary reserve center, but should he struggle, Withey is solid insurance as the third center. While he may never be a 20 MPG guy in the NBA, Withey can step in when needed. The Jazz brought him in late, but by many accounts, they really like his game. They probably would not have added him in the 11th hour if he did not have a very viable chance of making the squad. The fact that they inked him to a non-guaranteed pact for two seasons might prove to be a minor coup.
Why Not: He is limited offensively. But other than that, it seems likely that Withey is on the opening day roster.
2014-2015 season: Signed right after New Year’s Day, with injuries mounting, Millsap was pressed right into duty. After a pair of 10-day contracts, he became a rotation player and a guy Snyder counted on. His stifling defense was a welcome addition to a team that simply excelled on that end of the court post-All-Star break. Millsap’s lockdown abilities on the perimeter complemented Utah’s stellar defensive big men. He really struggled offensively, however, shooting just 34 percent from the floor and 31 percent from downtown. Millsap averaged 5.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG and 1.2 APG in 19.7 MPG.
Why: The premium for stalwart defensive swingmen is very high right now. Everyone wants their own Tony Allen or Bruce Bowen. Millsap really is fantastic on defense. His length, speed, timing and tenacity make for a solid combination. Millsap is a solid rebounder for his position and can pass the ball a bit. He is a hard worker and the Jazz love the Millsap family. His minimum deal could makes him even more appealing, especially if he can develop a consistent 3-point shot. 3-and-D guys are en vogue.
Why Not: His offensive game is so much further behind his defensive one. Millsap struggles with his jumper, though it could be fixable. He can occasionally get to the basket, but sometimes has difficulties finishing inside.
2014-2015 season: After spending much of the campaign with the San Antonio Spurs D-League affiliate, Cotton was a pleasant late season addition. in 15 games, he tallied 5.3 PPG, 1.0 APG and 1.2 RPG in 10.3 RPG. But he really turned in on to finish the season, chipping in 13.0 PPG with 48 FG% and 81 FT% over the last five games. Cotton demonstrating a nice shooting touch and a lot of athleticism. He brought excitement to the Jazz.
Why: With Exum out for the season, the starting and backup point guard roles are up for grabs. Cotton will have every chance to prove himself. He showed his speed and leadership during the summer league. While his sample size is certainly limited, he may be the most consistent shooter among the Jazz’s point guard trio. Cotton is crafty off the dribble and can get to the basket easily. He has a nice floater and could be a nice change-of-pace player off the bench. Cotton plays with great energy and moxie.
Why Not: Given his diminutive stature, he will always have his work cut out for him on the perimeter. Cotton may struggle against more physical guards. While he displayed improved quarterbacking skills, he has room to grow. If another point guard Utah likes becomes available, Cotton might be the casualty (though Burke will be most likely to hear his name in constant trade rumors).
2014-2015 season: Johnson split time between the Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. In his 12 games with Utah, Johnson was solid. He showed a heady demeanor on the court and shot the ball well. Johnson averaged 6.8 PPG on 48 FG% in 17.6 MPG, while adding 1.0 SPG.
Why: A three-year veteran, Johnson has solid experience. His summer league performance was very good, as he shot consistently well and even showed a nice court vision. Johnson was one of the that team’s leaders. He can handle and dish the ball, while also playing the passing lanes well. He worked hard this offseason. Johnson is a bona fide NBA player.
Why Not: His athleticism is not off the charts and he needs to show more of a consistent jump shot. Johnson had a bit of a slower 3-point release, but worked hard to change that. He will need to prove it on the court. It may come down to Johnson or Millsap for that back-up swing position.
2014-2015 season: Cooley tore the D-League apart, turning in some extremely impressive rebounding efforts. He was brought up by the Jazz on a pair of 10-day contracts, eventually signing for the duration of the season. He did not see much playing time, averaging 1.7 PPG and 1.6 RPG in 5.3 MPG.
Why: To say that Cooley plays hard is an understatement. He only knows one level of effort, and he gives he his all every second he is on the court. Cooley is a rugged rebounder and a willing defender who bodies up his opponent. He is willing to do the dirty work, whether it is absorbing a charge or getting physical with a taller player.
Why Not: He too is limited offensively and will need to work on his free throw shooting. He gives up a bit of height inside. It may be a numbers game for Cooley. With Pleiss and Withey aboard, it might be difficult for the Jazz to keep Cooley.
2014-2015 season: Jerrett was acquired in the February trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Due to a litany of injuries, he only saw time in eight games, averaging 2.0 PPG.
Why: Jerrett’s calling card is his shooting, though he has not had the chance to show consistency on that front yet. If he is to forge an NBA career, it will be as a stretch four. He does have a guaranteed deal.
Why Not: He simply is a mystery. Due to his lack of playing time, it is difficult to know what to expect from Jerrett. When he has played, he has seemed overmatched on both ends of the court. He has trouble staying with his man defensively and has not been able to demonstrate that shooting touch. Even though he in under contract, his deal is very modest. The Jazz have showed that they don’t mind eating the cost if they need to1.
We will operate under the assumption that Treveon Graham and J.J. O’Brien were brought on mostly with the Idaho Stampede in mind. Both are guys Utah admires and now they will have an extended look at them. Even so, they are major long shots to make the regular season Jazz roster.’
One small side note: the Jazz could perhaps make a trade involving some of these non-guaranteed players. They did that last summer, helping the Cleveland Cavaliers free things up financially. There are not that many teams in such a situation as Cleveland, so this is probably a long shot.
It will be interesting to see how things unfold over the next month. Snyder and the Jazz coaching staff will undoubtedly give each guy the chance to show what he can do. Who will end up making it? In this writer’s opinion, it will be Withey, Millsap and Cotton who make it. But a case could be made for each of the candidates. Eyes will be watching what happens at the end of the bench.