This year's conference finals provided an interesting number of dialectics. In addition to the standard East and West, we had big markets (Miami and Boston) and small (Oklahoma City and San Antonio), old school PG + post star attacks (Rondo and Garnett, Parker and Duncan) and wing oriented offenses (James and Wade, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden), and, of greatest interest for this article, divergent strategies in how to build a championship contending team in the NBA: free agency and megatrades (how Miami claimed James and Bosh and Boston netted Garnett and Allen) and the draft (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka were all drafted by OKC, just as Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili--and going back, Robinson--were drafted by San Antonio). Basketball gurus, would be and real, have argued their preferred strategy ad nauseam across all of sports media, very rarely admitting just how dependent any reasonable answer is on context and, well, luck.
I won't argue that the OKC/San Antonio method is superior, only that for the Jazz the alternative method is not really an option. Any Jazz fan who has identified as such for a respectable amount of time knows the probability of us bringing in a championship-making player or two through free agency or keeping one even if we did manage to trade for him. 0.0000276381995%, which is roughly the probability of being attacked by a bear, killing it with a bite to the jugular, and then dying from the ursine-mutated Ebola it carried. (For those who believe I underestimate the allure SLC exerts throughout the league, please recall Ron Harper's "You go play in Utah" enthusiasm and the Rony Seikaly saga, as examples.) Small market teams only real hope of earning a championship is to build through the draft because: 1) championships require superstars; 2) free agent superstars will always choose greater prestige, glamor, profitability, entertainment options, and team building resources of larger markets; and 3) in the modern era, superstars wield greater power in determining where they will and will not play than ever before, and fighting their preferences can destroy any residual team chemistry and get people fired (ask Stan Van Gundy) but is not very likely to convince an All-NBA First Teamer to echo Brigham Young's "This is the place." (At least, not in Salt Lake.)
So, if we want a championship, we get it through the draft--as the Jazz have already declared. By trading for Derrick Favors (practically a draft pick given how much further he had to mature after his rookie season when we obtained him) and drafting Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks, the Jazz have doubled down on procuring talented youth and letting them grow into what they might become. The result is a bright future that few dispute--yet, not many voices are warning the Thunder to look over their shoulders at the Utah Jazz. If the purpose of an NBA team is to compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy (and I believe it should be, and least in major part), then we want Durant and company having nightmares striated in green and yellow complete with cowbell accompaniment. To induce that, we need more than a four-horsemen of good players, even stars. We need at least one true superstar.
Derrick Favors might be him. He might the next coming of pre-surgery Amare Stoudemire, a 25 and 10 threat every night with a defensive presence Amare never exerted. That is possible. But it is less than certain, and if Derrick doesn't become our Durant/LeBron/Kobe/Duncan, we don't have one. I believe Hayward and Kanter can become All-Star caliber players (not perennials), and Alec might just reach that height as well when he peaks. But none of them are players who will be such a difference maker every team in the league will have to scheme to counter him, as every player on their roster is overmatched individually. To win it all we need that guy, The Guy, and we have one shot at developing one in Favors. Why not get another?
As we've already bought into the risk of investing in youth and developing them, I say we bet over the top of our current double down and go all in. I say the Jazz use their unique assets at this unique moment to go after the only core pieces we need--a PG of the future and a potential superstar on the wing--through the draft in the next two years. And here's the trade that sets us up to do it.
Utah Jazz receive: 2012 #8 pick, Raptors 2013 1st round pick, Jose Calderon, and Elton Brand.
Why Each Team Would Accept
Philadelphia is abuzz with rumors addressing two of their team's greatest liabilities: the similarity of Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala on the court and Elton Brand's massive contract. Doug Collins seems to be in a win now mood, and the talk of using the team's amnesty clause of Brand this year to pursue a major free agent supports that. This trade gives the 76ers everything they want. They switch Iguodala and his 2yr/$30,000,000 contract for a player just as good and much cheaper in Millsap (1yr/$7,200,000). Millsap is a significant upgrade on Elton Brand at this stage of his career, and the Sixers could dump Brand and his $18,000,000+ contract without losing their one time amnesty bullet. Turner gets badly needed playing time, Millsap makes the team better and more balanced than last year (and will be cheaper even when resigned that Iguodala was), and Kleiza even adds a three point threat at SF off the bench. To top it all off, the Sixers projected team salary for the upcoming year shrinks from $49,000,000 to (if my math is right) about $33,500,000, giving them cap space to pursue additional pieces and lock up their players for the future. All they give up is a contract they're thinking of amnestying, a player they're already shopping, and the #15 pick in this year's draft.
Most significantly, the Raptors get a player they desperately desire in Andre Iguodala (2yr/$30,000,000) without losing a player they wish to keep, such as DeMar DeRozan. To sweeten the deal, they have a valuable pick in this year's lottery in pick #15 with which to pursue a starting center and a very solid point guard, Devin Harris, to begin winning now. As a final incentive, if the current make up of the Harris, DeRozan, Iguodala, Bargnani, drafted center doesn't pan out, the team is set up with two first round picks in the 2014 draft. The team's salary projects to move from $41,000,000 to $49,000,000 with the entire difference about to come off the books after this year in Harris's 1yr/$8,500,000 expiring contract. All they give up is a player they've shopped in Calderon, a role player, and this year's pick, while exchanging a pick next year for the possibility of having two the year after.
Because this is what I really care about, I'll be more detailed and break the whole into components.
First, the Jazz get the #8 pick in this year's draft, which should translate into whichever PG they most like, Lillard or Marshall. Personally, I would take Marshall, as I believe he is a Stockton/Nash type talent when it comes to facilitating an offense. That gives us our PG of the future, who can play behind a very serviceable veteran in Jose Calderon. For those balking at the $28,000,000 in contracts we'd be taking on next year (that's right, Calderon and Brand will cost $28,000,000 next year, or more than Jefferson and Millsap's NEXT contract per year average combined), get ready for something cool.
Taking on these two huge contracts would be completely insane as we'd shatter the salary cap--if not for the Jazz's $10,890,000 trade exception they received in the Mehmet Okur trade. (Thank you once again, Brooklyn Nets.) The trade exception mandates that it be used on a player or players making below the total exception value by Dec. 22nd of 2012. We've got to use it this year and want to make it count for as much as it can. Guess what Calderon's salary is set to be this upcoming year... $10,561,985, and it's the final year of his deal. That's less than a $330,000 difference! We basically get Calderon to start for year, giving our PG of the future a year of adjustment, for a gift certificate (as Kevin O'Connor explained the trade exception). And after the upcoming season, his contract is up, leaving us free and clear.
Elton Brand will give us potentially the most expensive sixth man in history at $18,000,000 next year, but we'll be able to afford it. In fact, we'd go from a projected 2012-2013 salary total of $50,000,000 to about $47,000,000, given Calderon is basically free. Better, after one season all that becomes cap room. Not to mention that the 2012-2013 team of Calderon, Burks, Hayward, Favors, and Jefferson--with Marshall/Lillard, Carroll, Brand, and Kanter coming off the bench--would be a product I'd be excited to watch. That's a good team with playing time for the players who need it and players who should all easily accept their roles, unlike our experience this year. And, of course, the only contracts we would carry with us into 2013-2014 would be Favors, Hayward, Burks, Kanter, Lillard/Marshall and potentially Carroll. This trade costs us nothing in the cap space we've gathered starting after this year.
Finally, the great roll of the dice. This trade gives the Jazz three first round picks in next year's draft (assuming Golden State doesn't purposefully tank with what looks to be a respectable team next year): our own, the GS 1st, and the Raptors 1st. With any luck, at least one, or even two of those, will be in the lottery. (I think there is a real chance both GS and Toronto miss out on the playoffs, even with the Raptor's upgrades from this trade.) We then take those three first round picks and every asset on our roster with the exception of Favors, Hayward, and Kanter (yes, I'm including Burks) and put them all on the table with an eye toward making a package for a top 5 pick in the 2013 draft. 2013 isn't projected to have the same depth as this year, and the PG class looks even weaker (hence why we draft a PG at #8 this year rather than seek one then); however, there are a number of talented wings projected to come out, including one I would target for his franchise-player potential.
Draft Express currently projects Shabazz Muhammad, a 6'6" eighteen-year-old shooting guard, as the 2nd overall pick in 2013. (They give a safe projection of a James Harden caliber player.) He is already known for his willingness to play off the ball when needed and defend vigorously, and he has a great stroke with range. If he decides to come out (and he probably will), the Jazz would have a legitimate chance of trading for him prior to or during the draft. With three first round picks and even the possibility of Alec Burks, we could make a package attractive enough to reasonably procure anything but a probable franchise player, such as Anthony Davis. We could even overpay, if needed. I doubt the Bobcats (certainly the worst team in the league next year as well) would pass on the chance to pick up three or four quality pieces in one year, creating a team worth watching. (And after next season, they'll need it if they don't want Time Warner Cable Arena to implode from sheer boredom and despair.) Few other teams between picks 2 and 4 would turn down such an offer either, I expect.
This would make the 2013-2014 starting five of the Utah Jazz as follows: PG Damian Lillard/Kendall Marshall, SG Shabazz Muhammad, SF Gordon Hayward, PF Derrick Favors, and C Enes Kanter. Every position would be anchored in a lottery-grade talent. Two of those talents, Favors and Muhammad, possess superstar upside. If either of them reached that potential, the Jazz would have their championship difference maker; if both of them did, we might have our own Shaq and Kobe. It might even get OKC looking over their shoulders.
What would we give up? A player we all love and wish well who cannot be a part of our future because of his skill set and cost in Paul Millsap--who, by the way, has substantial trade value, but only until the trade deadline. He is our great asset and the key to making this, or anything else this year, happen for the Jazz. Moving him for this or another trade isn't an option; it's a logical necessity. Also, we lose a very good PG who will never fit our style and philosophy and who we have looked to move since day one, the 2012 festering wound known as Raja Bell, and a player I love and who will make a much better coach than he did a player in Earl Watson. We also lose our 2014 first, which should in no way be a lottery pick and at a time when we're going to want a few good veterans for specific roles rather than more youth. Not too bad a price tag for a championship team.
This scenario is far from certain, even if the trade were accepted. Whoever we take with the #8 pick might be a bust (unlikely) or merely serviceable (possible). We might not get Muhammad next year, or be able to trade for a pick that yields more than a very good but not superstar level prospect. Even if everything worked, the stars we groom might still refuse to sign long term and leave anyway.
But you don't outmaneuver 29 other teams without risk, and the risks here are, I believe, acceptable. Put him with the kind of talent the Jazz will boast, and I believe Marshall can lead the league in assists multiple times. If we missed Muhammad in next year's draft, we almost certainly could get another top 5 player, and Hayward's flexibility would allow us to target our top rated wing at either SG or SF, increasing the chance of landing a great fit. If we can't sign everyone, we'll have the time and experience with all the players to determine which are the best and best fit our needs, and build around them. Our own big three will be enough if those three are truly great. This gives us a genuine shot at truly great.
San Antonio showed how a small market team can best the league through great use of the draft (and one of the luckiest lottery slots in history); OKC has taken up that torch (though they had to lose 172 games in three seasons to do it). With this trade, the Jazz could be the next franchise to upset the natural order of the NBA, defying the traditional powers and possibly bringing home a title (or a few) in the process. Don't know about you, but I think it's worth Paul Millsap.