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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have found themselves at an important crossroads for the future. In one direction, the team can continue on their current path marked by internal improvement, development of young talent, and culture-building through time spent together on the floor.
In the other direction, the franchise is loaded with valuable assets in the form of future draft picks, expiring contracts, young talent and money to spend.
The Jazz are in need of a talent upgrade. Having won an encouraging 38 games this season, the team finished seven games out of the Western Conference playoff race — still nearly 20 percent of the team’s total wins this season from earning a playoff spot.
The Jazz roster was filled with players from the NBA’s developmental league, some of whom accounted for the team’s seven rookies who saw playing time this season. Of those rookies, only Dante Exum and Rodney Hood have guaranteed contracts for next season.
The team has money to spend this summer, well above $10 million when the salary cap for next season is set. But that money may have increased value this offseason as a lucrative new television broadcasting deal will create a dramatically increased salary cap in future seasons, giving most teams across the NBA’s landscape tens of millions of dollars to spend before reaching the salary cap. Where the Jazz have used conservative financial decisions as an asset in the past, every team in the NBA will soon have seemingly unlimited money to spend, severely lessening the value of cap space for small-market teams like the Jazz.
The Jazz roster was filled with players from the NBA's developmental league, some of whom accounted for the team's seven rookies who saw playing time this season. Of those rookies, only Dante Exum and Rodney Hood have guaranteed contracts for next season.
If the Jazz were to bring in veteran players with the extra money they have to spend this summer, they would risk altering the developmental culture built this past season by having so many young players on the roster. On the other hand, the Jazz would risk missing the playoffs by failing to add veteran experience to the league’s youngest roster. If the Jazz were to fall short of the postseason again next spring, they could be left trying to compete with other more desirable NBA markets for free agents, with out a financial edge.
The solution to the offseason issues may come in the form of a name most fans are already familiar with. The return of Alec Burks should provide a scoring punch to a roster that finished in the bottom half of the league in offensive production. Burks finished the season as the Jazz third-leading scorer at just under 14 points per game, but he appeared in only 27 games, missing the majority of the season due a shoulder injury that required surgery. In his last full season, Burks was the team's most productive scorer on a per-minute basis.
Until recently, it was thought that former Jazz draft pick Ante Tomic was likely to join the team this offseason, with the Jazz needing additional help in the front court and Tomic coming to a contractual standstill with the Barcelona team he plays for in Europe. However, news broke Tuesday morning from Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo that Tomic has reached an agreement to remain with his current club. The news places extra importance on the Jazz decision on draft night, whether they opt to improve their depth chart by adding a young player from the college ranks or by trading their first-round pick — likely the 12th pick overall — for a more proven player.
There are dangers to both scenarios. In recent memory, the Indiana Pacers traded the rights to the 15th overall pick for the promising George Hill. Hill has started over 200 games for the Pacers including the postseason — which may seem like a success, if only the 15th pick hadn’t materialized into Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that last 12th overall pick to appear in an All-Star game was Mookie Blaylock, who was drafted in 1989.
If the Jazz do wind up keeping the pick, look for the team to address the lack of depth in the front court and continued shooting woes. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, a senior and a 7-footer, might address both of the Jazz needs with one pick. In addition to his established offensive skill set, Kaminsky is already 22 years of age, providing a higher likelihood that he’s ready to compete physically at the next level compared to younger players with a higher upside.
Teaming Kaminsky with the more proven Jazz players in Burks, Gordon Haward and Derrick Favors — three players who are ready to help the Jazz win now — alongside improving youngsters in Exum, Hood and Rudy Gobert, and the Jazz may be able to improve this roster’s talent while sustaining the youthful culture that made this past season so enjoyable.