I’ve made no secret that I believe the Jazz would be best served by trading Paul Millsap. But there has always been a niggling in my gut when I’ve argued for it, thanks to an almost certain consequence of such a trade: the Jazz would try their best to resign Al Jefferson. And I’m not sure I’ve wanted that. In fact, I’m sure I haven’t wanted that.
But after some thought, I’m no longer certain.
I know Al isn’t popular in this neighborhood, and, truthfully, I think Paul is a more complete player. The idea of Paul Millsap as a Jazz sixth man for the next five years has me salivating. But the more I consider the question of which player the team should resign, assuming it will be one or the other (a safe assumption, I think most would agree), the more reasons I see for choosing Jefferson. This has me feeling a little icky inside, especially when I think back to any of the times last season when I watched the Jazz get pick and rolled into oblivion. But the reasons aren’t going away:
1) Keeping Jefferson allows him to start with Derrick Favors at power forward, and playing predominantly at that position seems to be a priority for our young potential-franchise player. While I think a Favors/Millsap duo would work as well—or better—it would not allow Favors to continue to mature at the position where he is most comfortable. (I’m assuming the team chooses not to play Millsap at SF a great deal, which I believe would be foolish and harmful to the team in both the short and long term.)
2) Enes Kanter is probably a few years away from starting, and having Jefferson as our starting center in that time would be about as well as we could do at the position. Even with his weaknesses, Jefferson is a probably a top five center in the league.
3) Millsap’s current trade value strikes me as far greater than Jefferson’s, partially due to his contract, partially because he isn’t the same defensive liability Jefferson is. Given how their respective careers have progressed, I think the sentiment across the league would hold that Millsap is also the more amenable of the two to the possibility of coming off the bench—if he feels his role and money are sufficient. As the more tradable, more flexible, and generally more desired of the two in a trade, moving Millsap gives the Jazz the greatest possibility of getting a worthwhile asset in return.
4) One could argue that after another year or two of improvement, Jefferson can overcome at least one of the glaring weaknesses that draw such criticism from Jazz fans: his passing. His AST% last year was 12.1, more than 2% higher than his previous season best, and 3.6% higher than his career average. With a training camp and more practice time this season to mesh with his teammates and get coached up by Ty, as well as with the bevy of new shooters the Jazz boast this season, there is reason to believe Al might further develop his passing ability out of the post. Should that happen, he may arguably become a legit (if not elite) #1 option: a good post scorer who isn’t so much a black hole. This would ease some of my concerns about resigning him.
5) Assuming Jefferson continues to play major minutes and produce as he has the last two seasons (or slightly better in some ways, such as passing), there is a decent possibility that a time will come sometime in the next few years for a more beneficial trade for the Jazz than is currently possible. His next contract will certainly not be for $15 million a year, as it is now, given the new CBA and Jefferson’s increased age. On his next contract Jefferson will likely be a more tradable asset than he is currently. (Millsap, on the other hand, will be making as much or more than he now does, meaning his trade value will probably stay the same or decrease.) If the Jazz resign Jefferson, they can take time waiting for a moment of rare opportunity, when a team expresses uncommon interest in Jefferson. If such never happens, fine; he can continue to start as he mentors Kanter. There is a greater chance that the Jazz swap Jefferson for a major asset in future years than now, and I’m not certain the same can be said of Millsap.
6) I don’t know how likely this would be, but if three years from now Jefferson did agree to be the Jazz’s sixth man, he would be a nearly unheard of asset: a high caliber PF/C coming off the bench. Assuming Kanter develops a strong enough game to deserve starting, the Jazz would have three very good PF/C’s. As front court rotations go, it would likely be the deepest in the league, and maybe the best.
7) Though Jefferson and Millsap are very similar ages (Jefferson is a month older), I suspect Big Al will have a longer shelf life than Paul. Let’s face it, Paul depends much more on athleticism and having a motor that goes to fifth gear than Al. Al didn’t have athleticism and a fifth gear (or a forth, or a third) to begin with. Jefferson is big, he’s got good offensive skill, and he’s big. Size typically ages much better than speed and athleticism, and so I suspect that Jefferson will contribute at a higher level longer than Millsap, who will almost certainly wring every ounce of game from his body earlier than the bigger, bulkier Jefferson. If either player offers long-term value, it’ll be Jefferson.
And most importantly, 8) I don’t hear many people expressing concern about Favor’s defensive abilities. The consensus seems to be he will be a game changing defensive presence; it’s his offensive potential that people question. As much as I love Millsap, he isn’t the type of player to mentor young guys in how to develop a highly skilled post game. Jefferson is. Where Millsap gets much of his offense through supreme effort and smart shot selection, Jefferson has as many post moves as anyone in the game right now. He may not be Hakeem Olajuwon, but making his own way on the offensive block is arguably his greatest skill—a skill that is incredibly valuable for two young bigs like Favors and Kanter. If the Jazz decide to resign either Millsap or Jefferson partially based upon their ability to transfer some of their game to our future frontcourt, it seems pretty clear that Jefferson is the choice in that regard. Any veteran player at any position can serve as an example of smarts and effort, Millsap’s great calling cards; only a polished low post weapon, such as Jefferson, can show someone else how to sharpen that part of their game.
Taken together, these factors force me to wonder, in the long term, would the Jazz be better off with Jefferson than Millsap? Let me phrase it this way: assuming the Jazz were to resign either Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson for any given contract (say something around $8-9 million a year) for two years beyond this upcoming season, at which point they were traded or agreed to a sixth man role, which player would leave the Jazz better off going forward? Please share your answers and why, because the more I consider the question, the more I start to think that Al Jefferson staying in a Jazz uniform could be the best move after all, in spite of that niggling in my stomach.