Halloween night came and went without Gordon Hayward and the Utah Jazz agreeing on an extension. While that was certainly disappointing, it may be the one tarnish is a very active offseason for the franchise. The summer of 2013 could go down as one of the most memorable, and perhaps in the long-term, most successful off-seasons in Jazz history.
It was the summer that Dennis Lindsey assumed the driver’s seat for Utah, with Kevin O’Connor taking more of an advisor role. While O’Connor is still very much involved, Lindsey was given the latitude of putting his stamp on the team for the now and for the future.
Prior to the NBA Draft, the Jazz seemingly worked out every potential candidate that could be around their three selection slots, as well as some who all prognostications had going outside the team’s ranges. All in all, over 80 prospects came to Salt Lake City for these sweat-infused job interviews—more than the team has ever brought in. Lindsey, O’Connor and company certainly did their homework. Ironically the Jazz obtained two rookies who did not come to Utah, but the front office’s preparation and effort was exciting and may continue to pay off in years to come (the Jazz worked out and liked during the process might become available someday).
On Draft night, the Jazz started out with picks #14, #21 and #46. They did not draft at those spots, but rather, in a whirling dervish of an evening of moves, traded all three picks to obtain three talented individuals who fit what the team is trying to do. Utah took their two first-round picks and used them to consummate a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves to move up to the #9 spot, enabling them to select point guard Trey Burke. Burke was viewed by many as the top point guard available, which was also the Jazz’s area of greatest need. He was a proven winner in college, a player with the penchant for big moments. He showed he could create, both for his teammates and others. While Burke has yet to see regular season action due to his finger injury, fans are excited to see what he will add to the youthful core the Jazz have assembled.
They next traded into the last first-round, snaring French center Rudy Gobert. Reports have circulated that the Jazz liked him so much that, had they kept their initial picks, might have considering using the #14 pick to draft him. It is already apparent what they saw in Gobert. It is early yet and the 7’2” big man has a lot to learn about positioning and the speed of the game (he fouled out versus the Brooklyn Nets in just 16 minutes). But his defensive instincts ooze with potential. While his blocked shots total is low, his presence alone alters opponents’ approaches close to the basket. Gobert has also showed strong rebounding skills. He’s not afraid to fight for boards, using his length effectively. The more experience he gets this year, the better his future becomes. Trading up to snag him already appears to be one of the Draft night’s winning moves.
Lastly, Utah traded for Brazilian point guard Raul Neto. In his limited summer league action, Neto showed some true point guard skills. While the two sides mutually agreed to hold off this year, it is largely believed that Neto will be in a Jazz uniform very soon—perhaps as early as next season. He can use this year to hone his skills. It was a low-cost, potentially solid-reward move.
As of July 1st, seven Utah Jazz players became free agents: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Randy Foye, DeMarre Carroll, Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley. When it was all said and done, six of them departed. The franchise decided that, while all these players contributed greatly, it was time to go a different direction. They turned to keys over to the young players, with high hopes that they will develop into a new era of Jazz basketball’s leaders and cornerstones.
With the conscious decision to not retain these veterans, the Jazz were left with ample cap room. Lindsey’s regime decided to use the space to make a big trade that would garner some valuable assets. On July 5th, they swung a deal with the Golden State Warriors to swap little used Kevin Murphy for veterans Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins along with unprotected first-round picks in 2014 and 2017. They also received two second-round picks and some cash (which essentially could have help offset the resources expended to obtain Gobert). The three vets combine for $24 million worth of expiring contracts, thus helping Utah maintain financial flexibility going forward.
While Jefferson ($11 million) and Biedrins ($9 million) have particularly onerous deals, Jefferson has been a pleasant surprise. He earned the starting small forward slot and through four games, is contributing 9.3 PPG and 3.8 RPG, while providing a veteran voice on the court. Biedrins suffered an ankle injury, and Rush made his debut versus the Nets, almost exactly a year from the date of his horrific ACL injury. Anything these three can add on-court will be additional value for the team. Rush could bring a 3-and-D ability to head coach Tyrone Corbin’s rotations. Naturally the three could also be used in midseason deals, although many teams possess similar expiring deals. The draft picks in the deal will loom large; given their unprotected nature, Jazz fans will once again have reason to carefully monitor Golden State’s scores each night.
The Jazz continued to be aggressive in filling out their roster, holding free agent mini camps and bringing in myriad others to workout in Salt Lake City. For a team that prides themselves on finding hidden talent, this was a subtle, but impressive investment.
Utah finished its on-court product by inking guards John Lucas III and Ian Clark, as well as forward Mike Harris. Clark was a summer league standout who had many suitors. The Jazz jumped on the opportunity and provided him with an offer he could not refuse. He’s someone to watch over the season.
While the talks with Hayward fell short, the Jazz were able to complete a four-year, $48 million extension with Derrick Favors. While Favors has played a secondary role, his immense potential on defense and the boards was undeniable. He offense has a ways to go, although he’s showing signs of improvement (his six-point outing in Brooklyn notwithstanding). To lock up a very young, mobile big man with what could be elite defensive abilities could be a coup in the long-run. His re-upping also bodes well for retaining other pieces or acquiring new ones. He is one of the cornerstones.
Off the court, Lindsey and the Miller family continued to be aggressive in developing and enriching their desired culture. Legendary coach Jerry Sloan was brought back in an official advisory capacity. Sloan was present throughout the Draft process and has been a fixture in Jazz practices. Having his voice not only adds to the basketball acumen of the organization, but has been big for the fanbase.
In a similar vein, the one and only Karl Malone was invited to be a coach for the young corps of promising big men. Favors and Enes Kanter both took trips down to be with Malone and then #32 was working out with all the bigs during training camp. It is evident that this partnership is already paying dividends, seen both in Favors’ and Kanter’s on-court improvements, as well as the respectful, almost reverent tones the duo speak of their experiences with the Mailman.
Likewise, Utah sent Burke and Alec Burks up to Spokane to learn under the tutelage of Malone’s partner in greatness, John Stockton. (It doesn’t directly reflect on the Jazz’s offseason, but how amazing has it been to see the excitement about Stockton’s autobiography? It feels like there has been more national publicity, more interviews and so forth than Stockton had during his illustrious career). These moves with Sloan, Malone and Stockton not only make basketball sense, but it helps connect the past with the now—something that is very meaningful to the fans.
While the Jazz lost beloved Jeff Hornacek to the Phoenix Suns, Brad Jones was promoted to assistant coach and former Utah Ute Alex Jensen become a developmental coach. Both are viewed very highly as young minds and workers who could one day be head coaches in the NBA. Lindsey hired Justin Zanik as the assistant GM, a new role for the front office. As a former agent, Zanik offers a new perspective, especially with future negotiations. Utah also bolstered their scouting and strength coaching group, hiring Bart Taylor and Isaiah Wright.
Lastly, the Jazz made some much-needed enhancements to the EnergySolutions Arena through the additions of their state-of-the-art Jumbotron and screens.
All in all, the commitment of the franchise, especially the Miller family, has been wonderful. Many efforts and resources are going into making the team one that will succeed on and off the court. Dennis Lindsey’s vision has been refreshing and while there will be bumps and bruises this season, the direction the Utah Jazz is going is an upward one.