Any discussion of Dante Exum’s knee injury has to start here: what a disappointing turn for Dante himself. The 20-year-old was excited to keep building on his early successes, and 2015-16 was supposed to be an important developmental year for him. He’s at a point where he definitely needs to expand his comfort zone and test his limits, and it’s a rough personal blow for him that he can’t do that for the next several months.
At the same time, it’s a blow for the Utah Jazz, who have to be thinking now about how they staff the PG for 48 minutes and, in particular, who starts.
The Jazz are in this situation partially of their own doing. Everybody knew going into this offseason that a point rotation of Exum, Trey Burke and Raul Neto1 was a shaky one in terms of proven ability. There appeared to be available avenues for upgrading the depth at that position in June or July, but the Jazz chose to bet on the improvement of their guys in the program. It’s not a bad philosophy, but the Exum injury highlights the cost of passing on some of those opportunities2.
But alas, they are where they are now. And that means trying to figure out who their starting point guard will be when the team kicks off its fall camp in under two months.
Let’s be honest: the single most likely outcome of this exercise is that Burke is the Jazz’s starting PG, at least in the immediate term. Even if the Jazz opt to bring in outside help, chances of acquiring starting-caliber reinforcements at this stage are slim. So it’s safe to bet that the simplest answer may be defaulting back to the guy who was starting for Utah until last January.
On a lot of levels, it would be fantastic if Burke seized the moment, improved his play and won back the support of Utah fans. Just 24 months ago, Burke was considered a core piece of Utah’s future and a boon for Lindsey, who had wheeled and dealt his way to Trey in the 2013 draft.
And really, Burke wouldn’t need to totally transform his game to be a nice help to the Jazz starters. It would be more about role acceptance and sustaining some defensive improvements. Simply put, he can’t keep using 25% of the team’s possessions when his True Shooting is 45.5%. As a Michigan sophomore, Burke sported a TS of .569 and still managed to assist 37% of his teammates’ buckets, and for his trouble he came away the Naismith Award winner, AP Player of the Year and an NBA lottery pick. If that Burke is hiding somewhere, now would be the perfect time for him to appear.
The basketball ramifications of Burke sliding back into the starting spot are plentiful enough to be a separate topic, and SCH will continue to explore that3. For now, suffice it to say he’s probably the incumbent choice at the moment. Unless something major changes between now and October 4, Burke is probably penciled in as a starter off the bat.
That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in — or a believer of — Neto. I have no idea if Neto will fulfill Amin Elhassan’s prediction and grab the job at some point, but I do think he’ll help the Jazz more than some are counting on. Neto is an honest-to-goodness point guard with excellent court vision and a dash of creativity and flair as well. He’s got good-but-not-great size at 6’2″, but he’s got a legit NBA build and has been starting and playing big minutes in a tough league that is notorious for parking younger players. Also, he’s a better shooter than last year’s flukey percentages4 indicate, and he’s very comfortable in various pick-and-roll scenarios.
Bryce Cotton probably has very slim chances of ever sniffing the starting lineup, but let’s talk Cotton for a minute. Though it seems contrary to say, the Exum mishap might have complicated Cotton’s chances of making the roster. The Jazz may feel like they need to add some outside help now, and if they do, they’re certainly not going to dedicate five roster spots to point guards.
The downside, of course, is that the Jazz have no way of maintaining Cotton’s rights if they cut him. He could be called up — or even claimed off waivers — by any NBA team. But let’s also not overstate what kind of a tragedy that would be. Cotton has had a nice summer, and before that he had a handful of impressive outings at the tail end of last season. But he’s still a borderline rotation player in even the most optimistic scenarios. His gumption and grit are remarkable, but he has an uphill battle, especially if the Jazz add a point guard from outside.
We can make pretty quick work of this section, because the crop is rather picked over. Here is literally every remaining free agent PG who ended last season on a roster, sorted by 2014-15 Win Shares.
There are some vaguely interesting names there, but probably none that would be able to reasonably contend for a starting job. So the answer to the starter question probably isn’t here.
Here’s what I’m absolutely positive the Jazz won’t do: overreact to the Exum news by making a panic trade. They won’t depart from the principles they’ve established, so if they make a trade in the next few weeks, it’s going to be the type of deal that they would have fit the plan pre-injury, too. So if a marquee acquisition that soaks up assets was not in the cards in June, don’t expect it now5
Fan chatter keeps coming around to guys like George Hill and Darren Collison. Each would absolutely be the presumed starter the moment he landed in Utah, but that’s also a statement of what would be required to land either of them.
Collison is definitely slotted behind Rajon Rondo on the Kings’ guardline, but Rondo isn’t exactly a long-term bet for Sacto6, so Collison is both their backup and their insurance policy. Aside from that, Rondo-Collison is a markedly better point guard rotation than Rondo-Burke7, so why would Sacramento agree to that without getting appropriately rewarded? They wouldn’t, which is why this probably costs more than the Jazz are willing to pay in response to an emergent need. If they could do it just by attaching seconds or even a late first to Burke, that’d be a nice get for Utah. I just don’t see Sacramento biting.
Hill is an even bigger pipe dream. All of Indy’s quality smalls aside from Hill are really combo guards8, so they can’t really deal Hill without getting a starting-quality point guard back.
All of this is why Garrett Temple9 is a more reasonable option, though I don’t think Temple would arrive as a favorite to start. Temple is a 3&D point guard who so far hasn’t played enough to really excel at the 3 part or the D part. But the potential is there, and fellow Spurs alumni Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey should know enough about Temple’s developmental mindset to bet on him improving.
The other nice thing about Temple: he wouldn’t cost much. He’s currently about the 7th PG/SG on Washington’s depth chart10 and the Wiz may simply be OK with not paying $1.1M to somebody buried that deep in the rotation. Technically the Jazz are required to give something up in a trade, but they could send back something that simply checks the box: a non-guaranteed player they would likely waive anyway, minimum cash11, or a top-55 protected pick designed never to be conveyed. At most, the Wiz could might ask for an actual second rounder, but even that’s not unreasonable given how many of those the Jazz have cached.
Mario Chalmers is another player who has come up as a salary dump candidate that could fill the need in Utah, though I question the basketball fit. I suppose the Jazz could do worse than a guy who’s played a lot of winning basketball in a winning program. And you could bring him off the bench as a designated corner shooter (42% career) while Rodney Hood or Joe Ingles handled more of the facilitation duties.
A quick scan of NBA depth charts reveals some other teams who may have point guards to spare. Certainly none of these deals would yield starters, so this list is more about adding rotation-quality depth to the position:
Dozens of names later, we still don’t know precisely which points will be starting for the Jazz, or even playing for them.
We know who’s not, and that’s going to continue to be really rough news for Exum, the Jazz and their fans.