As I watched the Jazz debacle in Madison Square Garden a realization came to my mind. I was afraid of the future of the Utah Jazz. It has turned into my greatest fear for the team. It isn't that the team will be contracted. It isn't that they won't win another game the rest of the season. It isn't that the Jazz will dump money this off season and get worse. My greatest fear for the Jazz is that they will stay the same.
It's time for Jazz fans and the Jazz organization to realize that this team isn't going to make the playoffs. It's not just that the Jazz aren't playing well. They aren't. But they also have a very unfavorable remaining schedule and the teams they are trying to pass don't. Look at the Jazz's remaining 18 games. Even if the Jazz played really well down the stretch, I could see them going about 9-9. It's a harder schedule than Memphis has. It is about as hard as Houston's schedule or the Suns' but they both have 3 more home games than the Jazz have.
I don't believe and I don't think the team believes in tanking. But I also wonder if the team doesn't believe in rebuilding. Kevin O'Connor was very careful not to use that "re" word at the press conference where he announced that he was trading the franchise player. "Retooling," he cleverly said. Let's not kid ourselves, Kevin. If this is retooling, count me out. There is very little that is fun about being a Jazz fan right now. They aren't winning. We don't have the playoffs to look forward too. And veterans are still getting too many minutes inexplicably. The Jazz have already traded its best player for draft picks and a promising big man in Derrick Favors. Since the Jazz didn't have the money or recruiting power to get the team to "the top of the mountain," it had to reverse down and get a running start. But if management doesn't take the franchise all the way back down, it will just be stuck in the same position with its wheels spinning.
If the Jazz want to ensure itself mediocrity for the next 5-6 years, then this is what management should do: keep the core of Millsap, Jefferson, Favors, Harris, Hayward and Evans and try really hard to get a player that can contribute in their first 3 years in the league through the upcoming draft. Then sign a couple of cheap free agents like Francisco Elson and Earl Watson and make another run at the 3rd seed. That's what fans want, right? Wrong. We want to build a contender for the title, not the playoffs. We aren't the Celtics or the Lakers. We can't trade for high-paid veterans to take us to the promised land. For a small-market, somewhat financially limited franchise like the Jazz, there is only one option.
BE HORRIBLE FOR A YEAR OR TWO.
It's not exactly an option. It's a must. The Jazz have to rebuild through the draft and to be able to draft the best players, they need to be a bottom team. Consecutive picks in the 10-14 range won't cut it. The Jazz can't be just outside of the playoffs. If the Jazz can get the Nets and its own pick in 2011 and also its own pick in 2012 along with Golden State's possible lottery pick, then the Jazz will either have talented young players to build a team around, or pieces to trade to get good players.
Before I go any further, I want to make a distinction. I said that I don't believe in tanking. I don't. But there is a difference between playing your youngsters increased time and sitting Al Jefferson or Devin Harris for an undisclosed injury. The second is tanking. The Celtics did it the year before they traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. It didn't work for them in the lottery. The Jazz just need to give the lion's share of minutes to Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Jeremy Evans. First of all, they deserve to play with their hustle and positive influence on team performance. Secondly, it's what the paying fans want to see at this point. It really is. Smart Jazz fans will appreciate the time to watch the future of the team grow, even if the team isn't exactly racking up w's.
The other thing that the Jazz need to do is clear a lot of cap space this summer. Andrei Kirilenko's contract is coming off the books, which is great. The Jazz are still tied to about $50-53 million next year on 8-9 players depending on what they do with the team option on CJ Miles' contract. That's still a lot of money tied to the team, no matter what the new CBA might look like. There are two reasons the Jazz need to clear money.
1. They need to have cap space to acquire other teams' assets. The Thunder have done this masterfully, acquiring draft picks and young players by taking on other teams' bad long term contracts. Think of the way they were able to "help" the Jazz by absorbing Matt Harpring's expiring contract.
2. The Jazz need cap space to sign free agents. How did the Jazz rebuild so quickly after Stockton and Malone left? They drafted Deron Williams, but first they signed Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in free agency to nice contracts. The Jazz aren't likely to draw the best free agents this summer, but they need that as an option in case a game changer comes along.
So how do the Jazz clear contracts from their pay roll? Well they need to make an honest evaluation of every player on the roster and see if they are worth keeping around at their current price tag. In reality, Jeremy Evans, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are the only untouchables with super cheap price tags. They stay, no question. Every one else?
Andrei Kirilenko- How much do you offer a guy like AK? Do you even want him back at all? He's a fan favorite and if he would play at $5-7 million that would be much more palatable, but it would also limit Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans' minutes. If I am Kevin O'Connor, I tell AK he can come back for the MLE, and no more. At least he can be a good contributor for a bad team. He's done it before.
CJ Miles- CJ has a $3.7 million team option. Before the season started, I would have said the team picks up his last year 100%. Now I am not so sure. $4 million is still a bargain for a guy who can win you games off the bench. But CJ also loses the team some games with his 1-10 shooting nights. I really don't know what the Jazz think about CJ these days, but if he isn't in the long-term plans, the Jazz probably shouldn't pick up his option. Tough choice.
Raja Bell- Most Jazz fans would trade him for a 24-hour flu right now, but he isn't a priority. He still only makes $3 million. It would be nice to be able to ship him to a team he can theoretically help, but the Jazz may be forced just to hold onto him. Unless the T-Wolves really want to take him without hurting our draft chances too badly.
Mehmet Okur- Okur will be paid $10 million next season in his final year of his contract. The Jazz can either let his deal expire or else try to trade him for a smaller, longer contract. Maybe the Jazz could ship Okur for some shooters or role players with smaller contracts. If the Jazz decide to trade another big man for relief, the Jazz may be forced to let Okur play out the rest of his contract and give them a legitimate center.
Devin Harris, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson- I am lumping these three together, because they make the most money on the team for people with more than one year on their deals. They each have two more seasons after this one. And I think one of them has to be shipped out for cap relief or pieces at other positions depending on what happens in the 2011 draft. For instance if the Jazz feel they are forced to take a big man like Jared Sullinger or Enes Kanter with the Nets pick, then they may feel they can move one of Millsap, Jefferson or Okur to make room for Favors and rookie X. Or if the Jazz get lucky and land Kyrie Irving, they could move Harris for salary relief, although this scenario is much more unlikely due to being thin at the point. But the real question? Is Millsap or Jefferson a core guy moving forward? I don't think either of them are. But with his cheaper contract and history with the team and the fans, I lean to sticking with Paul Millsap. He's not a franchise guy, but the young bigs need a good example. I know that I am a Paul Millsap apologist, but I promise you that if Jefferson and Millsap's contracts are reversed, I am telling the Jazz to dump Millsap's salary and hold onto Jefferson. But Jefferson will make $14 million next season, Millsap 8.2. If I am Kevin O'Connor, I give Jefferson away for picks and a trade exception, just like Minnesota did to us. Sorry, Big Al, but you deserve another shot at playing for a contender and the Jazz need to shed excess. Maybe Dallas would be interested in acquiring Jefferson for Jason Terry's unguaranteed contract and a first round pick. Maybe a team like Sacramento or Cleveland would like to take him on. Either way, he isn't the type of player who can single-handedly win you games. He's proven it with two franchises now.
In short, it is time to let management know that we don't want to keep floating and keeping our collective head barely above water. That's too tiring and unfulfilling. In this case, we need to sink before we can swim, because who knows? Maybe we'll find something of greater worth at the bottom of the ocean.