The Jazz don't have as much at stake in the decisions they make this season and the following offseason as Orlando did with Dwight Howard. However, there is a lot the Jazz can—and should—learn from this most epic of cautionary tales.
Accepting Nasty Truths
Howard was certain to leave. He’d made that knowledge crystal clear to the Magic many times; I only assume this was true even before the media broke the news. Instead of using that knowledge to act courageously and deal him for the best return they could get, the Magic waited and tried to talk him into staying long beyond there was any reason to believe it would work. They waited and the story broke. So, moral number one:
When the Jazz are at an impasse with a player, they cannot wish, beg, or intimidate the situation away.
The Jazz predicament is not the same, but in some ways it is similar. Both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will most likely be offered $10 million per year contracts if allowed to test free agency. Given the nature of the NBA, it is also a distinct possibility either or both will be offered more. The same teams reluctant to trade for equal value will grossly overspend when a player is on the market. Just look at the contracts for Jeremy Lin, Omar Asik, Nicolas Batum, and Andrei Kirilenko, for starters. It isn’t hard to forecast Millsap or Jefferson receiving a $12 million a year offer, given their near All-Star talent and relative youth—perhaps even more. This means if the Jazz have any desire to keep one of them—keeping both is an almost certain impossibility—they must accept that they may well have to overpay.
Are the Jazz willing to pay either Jefferson or Millsap $10-12 million dollars to remain on the team? Also, will they be willing to accept the role the Jazz envision for the offered money? The trade for Derrick Favors and drafting of Enes Kanter all but sealed the fact that Paul Millsap is not the PF of either the future or present for the Utah Jazz. Something similar can be said of Jefferson: it is unlikely the team used the #3 pick in the draft to try to get a good backup big. The object was for Kanter to start, presumably as early as next season or the season after. That means keeping Millsap or Jefferson would require not only overpaying but also that player’s willingness to accept—more, embrace—the sixth man role during a substantial portion of the new contract. There is very little, if any, evidence that either would be content to do that, even if the Jazz overpaid as incentive.
The Utah Jazz want something different from Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson than these players want from themselves. That is true right now, and will likely be true at the trade deadline or next summer when they hit the open market, when the team will be forced to deal with the situation.
If they aren’t before.
In and Out-of-House Problems
I’m not sure anyone knows how often Howard expressed his frustration and desire for a trade to the Magic before the media broke the story, but I assume it came up a time or two. Presumably, the organization tried to salve his feelings and convince him to stick around while keeping the dispute quiet. We all know how that worked out. I don’t recall exactly who broke the story or if a source was attributed, meaning I don’t know if someone from the organization let news slip, if it was Howard’s agent (who was confirmed to be the source of other leaks later in the process), Howard himself, or otherwise. What I do know is very early on in the process Howard’s position was clear: get me a better team or I’ll leave in free agency. Due to a slew of horrid contracts, the organization knew they had almost no ability to quickly improve their roster. They were at an impasse, but, rather than explore a trade before things became ugly, they tried to smooth things under while keeping the dispute quiet. Which leads to moral number two:
Contractual conflicts don’t remain in-house.
Players dissatisfied with their contracts have no incentive to go through long, difficult contractual disputes without gaining leverage by going to the media. Howard wanted a trade but was under contract, so when threatening to leave as a free agent didn’t move the Magic, he decided to use the media. What followed was a series of humiliating and leverage-destroying events for the Magic as they appealed over and over for Howard to stay while at the same time Howard told anyone who would listen he wouldn’t stay, didn’t want to play there any longer, and wanted to go to specific teams. The moment Howard said the names “Brooklyn, Dallas, and LA” Orlando lost almost the whole league’s worth of potential trade partners. Later, that list narrowed to only Brooklyn.
If the Magic had acted quickly and quietly, in the manner the Jazz did with the Deron Williams trade, they would have had all the leverage of a team dealing the second or third best player in the league practically out of the blue. Teams would have tripped over each other trying to better the price. By letting the conflict become a media firestorm, they ended up fielding legitimate offers from the only team that thought it could sign Howard long term—offers always offered with knowledge that Howard would likely end up in Brooklyn anyway if allowed to become a free agent. The Nets had incentive to trade for Howard, certainly, as they could then pay him more than any other team for a longer term, sealing his future with the franchise. But they had far, far less incentive to offer good value in return because they were the only major player in strong position to bid and would likely get what they wanted even if no deal was reached.
I doubt that either Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson are as petulant as the mental pygmy Dwight Howard has degenerated into this last year. That being said, disputes about their future prospects on the Jazz and playing time this season could create a similarly destructive situation. Consider if the Jazz do start the season with Millsap on the bench, as seems likely. If he plays significantly fewer minutes than last season and sees a corresponding decrease in his statistical performance, he isn't likely to silently watch his stock in coming free agency take a hit. He will take his concerns to the coaching staff, and when that doesn’t work higher up the chain. If that doesn’t work, he’ll take it to the press. A similar situation is possible with Jefferson, say, if twenty games in the Jazz discover their best all around lineup is Millsap at PF and Favors at C. Even if Jefferson continues to start, if his time were cut it would result in the same cycle as described above.
If a contractual dispute did fester until it blew into the evening news, the Jazz would be in a far worse position to salvage the situation than Orlando was with Howard. In spite of everything, the Magic were still shopping the second or third best player in the league, by many people’s assessment. That is incentive enough to try to deal, even if you know there is a real chance you may not have to if you’re the Nets. Millsap and Jefferson are good, but if the Jazz lost as much leverage as Orlando did with Howard they would be lucky to get more than a second round pick and a bench player, which makes the deal hardly worth doing. If pressed to give up more than that, teams would simply bow out and wait to try to sign their target as a free agent. After all, missing out on Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap in free agency is a blow, but you do have other respectable options. Not so when you missed out on Dwight Howard. So the Jazz had better be very well informed and realistic about the relative positions of the team and these two players, and if they ever see a true impasse with the possibility of getting messy, they should assume it will get out in the press quickly, limiting their options further.
We Don't Deal Players on Clearance!
The way Orlando handled the Howard situation, they really didn’t deserve a better end than they received. But they could well have had one. Luck and a few other unlikely developments, such as Houston deciding to mortgage anything and everything for the chance to trade for Howard in spite of his insistence he would not resign there, gave Orlando back some of the leverage they had lost through their own actions. Enough for Brooklyn to cobble together an offer of Brook Lopez and four first round picks from a combination of teams. So, moral number three:
When making a trade of necessity, pull the trigger on the best option available because you likely won’t get everything you hope in return.
I’m the first to say that Lopez plus four 1st round picks (most or all coming late given the talent of the teams dealing them) is not equal to the value of Dwight Howard. (Very little would be.) But that isn’t the question. The pertinent comparison is Lopez and four 1sts vs. Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, Nikola Vucevic and three 1sts. In that computation, the Magic got mugged and left on the side of the highway.
While it is true that giving a max contract to Lopez is a risky move given his rebounding and defensive liabilities, and the Magic would have had to do this to keep him, it still would have netted them a better player than anything they ended up with when they finally made the deal shipping Howard to the Lakers. For all his faults, Lopez is a young true seven-footer with a polished offensive game. Even modest improvement on the boards and as a defender would make him a likely perpetual All-Star talent. Finally, if the Magic really didn’t want him for that money, it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have worked a trade with a team who would happily pay a max salary. (I imagine Minnesota might have been keen and willing to offer something like Pekovic or Williams in return, or Portland always seems willing to make questionable moves.) In short, Lopez was a greater asset than anything the Magic ended up receiving.
Plus, four first rounders, even mostly coming from late in the round, is probably better than the three picks they did get, which are also likely to include only late round picks. You’d rather have the Bobcat’s 2013 1st, of course, but that was never going to be offered, or anything similar. By waiting they lost a first round pick without increasing the likelihood that any of the remaining three will be significantly higher than the highest of the four would have been.
Afflalo’s a good player, someone worth his money, in my estimation. He’ll never make an All-Star team, or threaten to do so. Harrington is breaking down and past his prime, so his greatest asset is the prospect of shedding his contract in a couple of years. Harkless and Vucevic might become something with just about the same probability as any #15 and #16 pick. And three mid to late 1st round picks is what it is. The Magic have possibilities going forward, but most of them come from how bad they project to be over the next few years and their own draft picks because of that. Lopez wouldn’t have changed that. (I don't think many would argue Lopez alone, given the Magic roster, would do much to lift them out of the league's cellar anytime soon.) I, for one, would rather have arguably the best true center under twenty four years old in the league, four first rounders, and the prospect of stinking it up a few years. Repeat: it isn’t fair value for Dwight Howard—but it’s better than what they got by waiting.
The Jazz should keep this in mind. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are twenty-seven-year-old near All-Stars. The Jazz probably aren’t getting that type of value in return for either of them, no matter how long they wait. We can likely get younger but much less talented, or as talented and older, or the uncertainty that comes with a high lottery protected draft pick. If so, that’s the market, and holding off a deal is unlikely to make conditions more favorable. So if there comes a time when a trade is the best move, it should be done for the best available return, regardless of equal value. If the market value for Jefferson or Millsap right now is no better than a likely late lottery pick, it makes more sense to take that than hoping for better and likely getting worse of even nothing.
Wait, but You Said…
In hindsight, Orlando really was undeservingly fortunate when it came to deals that crossed their desk for their disgruntled franchise player. Even after abdicating nearly all of their leverage, they received a respectable offer from the Brooklyn Nets. After turning that deal down, it’s impossible to believe they would get another given the circumstances, but it happened, courtesy of the Rockets. Houston blew up their team in a matter of days, all to scrap together the best package they could to fit the Magic’s demands. What did they come up with? Two first round picks that would likely be higher than anything else the Magic could get (or than they did get in the Lakers deal) as well as possibly two of the following players: Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson, Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones, Royce White, and Donatas Motiejunas. The Rockets also insist that a third first rounder was possible “if it got the deal done,” according to Sports Illustrated’s Sam Amick. Lamb plus a player and three picks, including some likely to be higher than other offers made possible? After turning down the Brooklyn deal? It should have been a no brainer. Instead, it became moral number four:
When an offer comes that can help the team, strike while the iron is hot.
The Magic didn’t, and the iron cooled courtesy of Jeremy Lamb putting up 20 points per game in summer league play. The Rockets expressed less eagerness to part with as many young talents combined with the picks as previously, and the talks never recovered. Too bad, as the reluctant Magic were probably soothed somewhat at the prospect of Lamb on their team after his summer league performance. But then, so was Houston, and the deal died.
Again, Lamb plus your choice of those other young players (Morris, Jones, and White all intrigue me) and three first round picks, or Afflalo, Harrington, Harkless, et al and three picks? To me, Houston’s offer is easily better. Maybe the Magic thought so too after the Rockets cooled on the deal, who knows. They’d dragged their heels too long to win the race.
The NBA is incredibly fluid. Situations, and teams, and players sometimes change fortune week to week. In the chance the Jazz decide to make a move this season before the trade deadline, they should steel themselves to make quick decisions if needed when deals are offered. If they see something they like, jump at it and make it happen. If they wait too long to see what else is possible, there is a real chance the option they liked initially will prove the best in the end, but by the time they realize that the move will no longer be doable.
Sometimes You Can’t Keep One Domino from Falling by Pushing Another Down
During the prolonged mess in Orlando, time and again the Magic sacrificed valuable assets to the sacred cow of “in the end, Superman will stay.” Team chemistry went early; credibility and authority of management in the organization followed; soon, support in the community began to cave. It got so bad that eventually others inside the organization began to push back—specifically, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. That Howard had a problem with Van Gundy and didn’t want to play for him anymore is no secret; neither is the knowledge that Howard had far more complaints than just the coach. He was going whether or not Van Gundy was with the team next year or not. But once more, in an act of remarkable delusion, the Magic chose to cater to the demands of Howard by firing Van Gundy. Now, Stan might not be the easiest guy to play for, but he’s universally acknowledged as a darn good coach. His proven ability would have been a great asset while rebuilding the team. Instead, the Magic provided yet another moral for the rest of the league:
Trying to Cater Too Much Creates Collateral Damage.
The relationship between Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard, and the Magic was already beyond salvage when Howard wrapped his arms around his coach and professed his undying love moments after Van Gundy went public with his knowledge that his star was harping to management about firing him. (It created the most hypnotically awkward clip in history.) So many of the moves Howard made, and the responses from the organization, poisoned any constructive future Van Gundy had with the organization. The Jazz would be wise to relate the situation to themselves.
There are clearly important players on the current Jazz roster significantly affected by how the team chooses to handle Millsap and Jefferson going forward. How would Derrick Favors, a young man clearly more comfortable playing power forward even though he can play center, respond if he was asked to play significant time at the five to provide time for Millsap at power forward? How long can the Jazz start Jefferson and play him major minutes without risking sending Kanter a message that he’s officially been branded a bust, or at least a disappointment? Will playing Millsap and Marvin Williams the majority of minutes at the three turn Hayward and Burks into competitors for time rather than teammates comfortable with and knowledgeable about each other in the same lineup? Will Jeremy Evans get a chance to show he can be a real contributor in this league while a member of the Jazz, or will he have to go somewhere else to show that, like Eric Maynor? What message would starting Millsap at small forward send to Marvin Williams, a player weighed down by unreal expectations who finally seemed to be getting a real break?
There is a lot more to the Utah Jazz than Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, especially in the long term. The team needs to keep in mind that what they decide to do with these two players isn’t the only choice that will affect the team now and in the future; how they handle the process of making the decisions is just as important. Just ask Stan Van Gundy.
If You Don’t Want a Sad Ending, Don’t Ask for a Sad Story
Currently, most people view the Orlando Magic with combined pity and amusement with a touch of disgust and a healthy dose of lapsed respect. It isn’t really fair, even with the mistakes the organization made. After all, it was completely impossible for things to get as bad as they did for the Magic without a uniquely despicable agent like Dwight Howard churning the filthy pot. But look back long enough, and it becomes clear that the team set the conditions for the whole horrible story through decisions of its own making. Hedo Turkoglu = nearly $24,000,000 over the next two years. Glen Davis = nearly $20,000,000 over the next three. Jason Richardson = more than $18,000,000 over the next three years. Howard’s conduct is clearly inappropriate and worthy of disapproval, but he was right about one thing: the Magic as constructed weren’t winning any titles, sooner or later. It wasn’t Howard’s childish selfishness that dictated that; it was poor decisions the team made back when they had Howard as a young, charismatic, happy, and dominant franchise centerpiece to build around. They screwed up, which set the table for all that followed.
The final moral to the Magic’s Dwight Howard Tragedy:
Bad contracts lead to bad trades you don’t want to make.
Signing a player for considerably more money than he’s worth hurts a team. Signing multiple players to such contracts, especially if they are among the highest paid on the team, cripples it. In that situation, all a team can do is pay out the bad deal they made or trade a bad contract for a piece that does little or no good but gets some financial weight off their back. Imagine if the Magic had had Turkoglu’s $12,000,000 in hand to pursue Deron Williams or another franchise changing star? The story would be completely different. But they didn’t.
The Jazz know what that is like. It’s painful to imagine what the Jazz might have been able to do if not for Andrei Kirilenko’s contract (or what Andrei might have been for the Jazz without that pressure). Right now, the team is completely unburdened of all such past decisions. The only players contracted for the 2014/2015 season are Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, and Jeremy Evans; all on rookie or otherwise affordable contracts; all young, providing the team a long opportunity to evaluate their development before investing significantly more money in them. Financially, the Jazz’s situation is about as pristine as can be.
That could all change with one unwise contract offer to either Millsap or Jefferson. Remember, in the Magic’s heyday Turkoglu averaged 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5 assists a game in a single season and won the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Bad contracts don’t usually look bad when they’re made; there are always arguments why the investment makes sense, in spite of X and Y. But it’s ignoring the X (being a tweener with defensive liabilities who makes his living with supreme effort more than overpowering talent) or Y (being the league’s biggest pick and roll bulls-eye on defense and a more-often-than-not offensive sink hole) combined with top dollar that makes contracts bad.
Some teams have to assume a lot of risk to make a tolerable future possible. The Jazz have a bright future already locked up under contract. Perhaps the worst thing they could do is hinder that future, as the Magic did, by signing a good player to a great contract because it seems reasonable at the time.
Putting Together the Puzzle
There is zero possibility that both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are both long term options for the Jazz at anything near their current salary. Favors has already displaced Millsap in the lineup, in all likelihood, and Kanter will likely follow suit with Jefferson in a season or two, certainly before the end of any potential new contract. If the Jazz have learned anything from the Dwight Howard saga, they will establish just what they feel each of these players are worth and exactly what their long term role would be to best help the team. (My assessment: given the Jazz roster and financial situation, it makes no long term sense to offer either more than $8 million per year specifically for the sixth man position, if that much.) They would then have a frank and honest conversation with each player about his sentiments about himself, his place on the team, and his goals going forward. Then, if at an impasse, the Jazz will acknowledge this and act on it in a timely manner.
Assuming either Millsap or Jefferson or both are unlikely components to a future Jazz team, the franchise needs to judge whether their value on the court this season is worth losing them as free agents next summer, as will almost certainly happen baring a Jazz offer of a financially unwise contract. If the team does decide a trade is the best option, they should act decisively, act so as to keep conditions from turning nasty, negatively affecting others in the organization, or losing leverage through leaks to the media. This means making a move as soon as negative momentum starts to build instead of hoping it will go away; it also means laying serious groundwork for all possibilities now. When and if the moment to make the move comes, then the team needs to act while being prepared for the reality that, in that moment, there will be plenty of reasons not to. It will likely be difficult to do. But when in that moment, they should reprise the historic rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” and tell themselves “Remember Orlando!” Then, try to act differently, even when it’s hard.