Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Utah Jazz: the NBA's Model Tank

By now, most NBA fans understand the idea of flounder to flourish. Teams are resetting rosters and hitting rock bottom in an attempt to reach a championship level. The strategy, at its simplest level, makes sense; the worse you are, the better your chances of acquiring top talent in the draft. For teams like Utah, not exactly a desired free-agent destination, the draft may be the best chance at adding a superstar-level player to their roster. Superstars force their way out of Utah, not in.

Like so many other teams this season, the Jazz are seemingly playing the tank game and running the odds of a stacked 2014 draft class. However, unlike some other potential tankers (Philadelphia, Orlando, take your pick), the Jazz may be in the best position to leap frog from basement lottery to playoff team over the course of one season.

The first step for any team who wants to get worse, but ideally better in the future (sounds weird), is acquiring young talent. Utah has done a tremendous job of this. Their starting five next season projects to have an average age of 21.6. Gordon Hayward will be the eldest at 23, followed by Derrick Favors and Alec Burks (both 22), Enes Kanter (21) and Trey Burke (20).

Favors and Hayward entered the NBA in the season. Favors, the number three overall pick in the 2010 draft, was acquired in the infamous Deron-Williams trade. Another of Utah’s young pillars, Enes Kanter, was also added via that trade with one of the first round picks Utah acquired. He was also a third overall pick, the year after Favors.

The Hayward pick makes for a funny story. In January of 2004, Phoenix acquired a pair of first round picks (2004 and 2010) from the New York Knicks in a trade that involved Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway. Phoenix then flipped the 2010 pick in a trade the next month to Utah. Leave it to the Knicks to trade a first round pick that will only manifest itself after every other player involved in the trade is long gone from the league.

Trey Burke was also acquired in a trade. Utah sent the rights to their two first-round picks, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, to Minnesota in exchange for Burke on draft night. Rudy Gobert was also added in a trade on draft nigh for Erick Green (the 46th pick) and cash. Of the expected young group of starters, only Alec Burks was actually drafted with a Utah pick.

Hitting on mid-level draft picks is a way to expedite the rags to riches project. To an extent, Utah has done this. They have a nice collection of young talent, though none of them seem to be on the cusp of superstardom (Favors may be closest). It’s easy to nitpick now, but a couple fun facts: Hayward was selected one spot ahead of Paul George in 2010 and Burks was selected three spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard in 2011. Hitting on picks like that can make all the difference. And Utah fans know this, in consecutive drafts, 1984 and 1985, Utah acquired John Stockton with the 16th pick and Karl Malone with the 13h pick, respectively.

Regardless of past-misses, Utah does have talent. And all of them are still on rookie contracts. When your top players are all on these low-level contracts, finding cap space can be easy. Especially when your best two players from last season (and highest paid), Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, became unrestricted free agents this summer. Utah may have been able to acquire something of value in a sign-and-trade for either player, but they were content with letting them walk and creating flexibility with which they could work.

For bad teams, it is all about acquiring assets. All the young players Utah already has are assets. They’re watching them all, hoping one or two become stars, but they can also be trade-bait. Young talent on rookie contracts are attractive around the league as teams look for creative ways to maintain competitiveness while also dodging luxury-tax fees.

The Jazz were able to acquire even more assets following their involvement in a three-team deal with Golden State and Denver. Due to their newfound cap space, Utah was able to help facilitate the Andre Iguodala sign-and-trade to Golden State. In the deal, Utah took back large-contracts Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush from Golden State. None of these are very valuable players to Utah, but Golden State needed to shed salary for Iguodala. And for their services, Utah received two unprotected first rounders from Golden State. One in 2017 and a very valuable 2014 pick. The Jazz also received 2016 and 2017 second rounders from Golden State and a 2018 second rounder from Denver.

Biedrins, Jefferson and Rush’s contract all come off the books next summer. After Utah renounces the rights to all these players, thus losing their cap holds, they’ll again be flush with cap space next summer with which to work. They’ll likely ink two of their guys, Favors and Hayward, to extensions as the two can become restricted free agents next summer.

Finally, after all of that, the most important piece may still be coming. Even with all this young talent, Utah still projects to be bad next season. An unproven starting five with a rookie point guard usually doesn’t translate to a lot of wins. Meaning, along with the Golden State pick which likely falls somewhere in the 20s, Utah will have its own first round pick, giving them two more chances to find gold in a draft class that looks flush with it.

Imagine this: Utah flounders next year. Finishes with one of the five worst records in the league (a likely scenario). They get some luck, win the lottery. Snag Andrew Wiggins. Everyone is right about him. Championship.

I’m getting ahead of myself? Maybe. But as far as cellar-dwellers go, Utah is looking pretty good.


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