Jazz Made Changes, But Did They Get Better?
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Barring a surprise trade featuring one of the Utah Jazz top rotational players, it appears the additions of Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside, and rookie Jared Butler will be the most significant moves the team makes this summer.
Gay steps into a reserve role behind Royce O’Neale on the Jazz bench as a 15 year NBA veteran with $160 million in earnings to his name.
Entering his 10th season in the NBA, Whiteside will assume the reserve center minutes behind Rudy Gobert with career earnings in excess of $100 million.
The Jazz Offseason Set Up
In his first off-season as the top decision-maker in the Jazz front office, Justin Zanik was tasked with a tough job. Find a way to improve a contending team that is operating over the luxury tax in a small market.
Last week, Zanik made it clear the team had a road map to improve the roster this summer, and the willingness to spend money to achieve those goals.
“We have a plan, we always have a plan, and we’re going to go execute that to the best of our ability,” Zanik said. “[Team owner Ryan Smith’s] resources and commitment to spending are going to be at levels that we’ve never done with the Jazz.”
On draft night, the Jazz traded out of the 30th pick for the draft rights to Jared Butler, and two additional second-round picks. The move allowed the Jazz to land one of the players they had targetted on draft night, mitigate his injury risk by drafting him in the second round, trim roughly $700,000 off their books (plus additional luxury tax penalties), and partially restock their future draft capital.
Later that evening, the Jazz made another cost-cutting move, sending veteran Derrick Favors to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with a first-round pick to clear an additional $10 million off the books, while landing another future second-round pick in return.
Those moves were made to set the Jazz up with more financial freedom to execute Zanik’s plan in free agency.
The Jazz Offseason Plan
After clearing salaries to make their planned offseason spending more palatable, the Jazz checked the most important box in their summer to-do list, re-signing All-Star point guard Mike Conley to a three-year deal with roughly $70 million.
Conley helped the Jazz earn the top record during the regular season and his absence in the Western Conference semifinals was the main reason the team was eliminated in six games.
With those additions, and assuming the team will sign Butler to a minimum rookie deal, the Jazz roster currently sits at 12 guaranteed contracts, one short of the league minimum, and three short of the league max.
Here is what the team’s depth chart looks like today:
PG: Mike Conley / Joe Ingles / Jared Butler
SG: Donovan Mitchell / Jordan Clarkson
SF: Bojan Bogdanovic / Elijah Hughes
PF: Royce O’Neale / Rudy Gay
C: Rudy Gobert / Hassan Whiteside / Udoka Azubuike
Miye Oni has a non-guaranteed contract with the Jazz, while Trent Forrest and Jarrell Brantley were extended qualifying offers by the team.
Again, barring a trade, or any further minimum salary moves, this will be the general makeup of the Jazz roster this season. The question now is did the Jazz get better?
Are The Jazz Better?
The Jazz had no choice but to bring Conley back to the roster after having their best season of the last two decades. Without Conley, the Jazz would have fallen back into the pack of good-but-not-great Western Conference teams with little financial flexibility to improve the roster.
While bringing Conley back doesn’t improve the roster, it prevents it from getting worse. And, if the guard can stay healthy, especially in the postseason, he can increase the Jazz odds of winning a championship.
With two significant hamstring injuries in the last two seasons, Conley’s health is anything but guaranteed, but his presence is crucial to building off last year’s success.
Gay will enter the season as the biggest mystery addition for the Jazz. At this point in his career, the veteran forward is closer to the contributor that Niang was last season than when he was as the 20 point per game scorer in Memphis, Toronto, and Sacramento, but still an improvement.
Last season, Gay averaged 11.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists while shooting 42 percent from the floor and 38 percent from the three-point line.
Though Gay isn’t nearly the three-point shooter that Niang was for the Jazz, he brings added versatility as a ball-handler and shot-creator, can defend multiple positions, is a superior rebounder, and has veteran experience that the Jazz lacked from their second unit in the postseason.
He is however a higher-usage, lower-efficiency player than Niang who excelled in his spot-up shooting role with the Jazz. Niang had the third-best net rating on the team at +14.6 while Gay had a net rating of +4.5 which led Spurs.
Was Niang simply the beneficent of a great role on the Jazz coming off the bench and playing alongside Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, or did his hot shooting and lack of need for touches fill a perfect role for the Jazz?
Can Gay step into Niang’s role and improve it, or does his need for more touches alter the makeup of the team’s second unit?
His playoff experience will give the Jazz a much-needed boost when it matters most, but Gay’s fit with the roster may need a few months to settle in.
The Jazz wound up paying a steep price to unload Derrick Favors contract on draft night, sending a future first-round pick to the Thunder to unload the salary of a backup center.
Though fans were right to be critical of the team’s mishandling of their backup center position over the last two seasons, Whiteside may quickly remind them of why the Jazz were anxious to bring Favors back into the fold last summer.
In his heyday, Whiteside was one of the most statistically productive players at his position, averaging a double-double while leading the NBA in blocked shots over two separate seasons.
However, his lack of effort and poor fundamentals have made him one of the league’s least impactful defenders despite his gaudy stats. Though the box score may have said Whiteside and Gobert were similar at one point in their careers, Jazz fans will recognize the difference between great defense and empty stats as soon as Whiteside enters the rotation.
Furthermore, Whiteside isn’t a lob threat despite his size and struggled immensely transitioning from a starting center to a backup role under Luke Walton with the Kings.
That isn’t to say their newest free-agent addition can’t be more impactful than Ed Davis was two seasons ago struggled to put pressure on the rim in the pick and roll.
But, if Whiteside doesn’t show marked improvement from his performance last season, he could find himself out of Quin Snyder’s rotation in favor of less experienced players just as he did in Sacramento.
With perhaps the best guard rotation in the NBA already secured, finding a role for Jared Butler may be difficult. Snyder traditionally plays a nine-man rotation and between the team’s already established four guards, three forwards, and two centers, finding minutes for the tenth-man will be difficult.
Miye Oni served in that role for stretches last season, as did Trent Forrest, largely due to injures to Conley and Donovan Mitchell.
Butler is already a more well-rounded player than Oni and Forrest, though both players have an edge in experience and will be looking to show their improvements over the summer in training camp which could push Butler even further down the rotation.
A strong showing in the Vegas Summer League could earn Butler minutes, especially if the team finds a way to utilize Joe Ingles more off the ball, but asking the rookie to be an immediate contributor would be a tall task regardless.
Looking Back At The Roster Moves
Overall, the Jazz were wise to bring Conley back into the fold as they had little means of internal options to fill the void if he were to have left in free agency. That alone should keep the Jazz in the hunt for home-court advantage through the first few rounds of the playoffs in the West.
Gay brings experience that may be most valuable in the playoffs, and his versatility, length, and athleticism should be an upgrade over Niang, even if the Jazz miss his dead-eye marksmanship. There will be some disruption in the second unit’s functionality as they adjust to new personnel, but ultimately Gay should make the Jazz better.
Though Favors was clearly overpriced for his production on the team last season, Whiteside isn’t the upgrade fans had hoped for. Just as it has been in years past, the team’s backup center position may once again be the scourge of Snyder’s rotation.
Udoka Azubuike, Trent Forrest, and Miye Oni could provide internal growth, while Jared Butler adds intriguing depth, but all four are likely to open the season on the outside of the rotation looking in.
As of today, the Jazz added valuable experience to the rotation in Gay, and look a low-cost flyer on Whiteside. While the sum of their free-agent additions should be a slight upgrade, retaining Conley will ultimately be the most important move the Jazz made this summer.