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A different take on Free Agency: What does the Player want

July 1st is usually the day NBA teams can officially sign free agents. Or at least that’s how I remember it, this year we are stuck with a lot of guys who are free agents and have no team to call their own. The usual procedure in Blogistan (my new word for all the blogs out there) is to wildly speculate on which guys we need on the team, and why. Numbers are thrown around, be them money, years, or statistics. People talk about upside and fit. Playoffs success and team chemistry are virtually guaranteed in these online free agent coups. One thing which I wanted to do differently is look at free agency not from the eyes of a fan, or the fevered desires of an overworked General Manager – but instead from the eyes of a player. I haven’t put on a jersey since high school, so this is going to be a stretch of the imagination here, but hey – it’s the lockout.

In this I’m going to be looking at just the Jazz Free Agents from last season: Andrei Kirilenko, Earl Watson, Francisco Elson, Kyle Weaver, Kyrylo Fesenko, Marcus Cousin, and Ronnie Price. They are all unrestricted free agents, and none of them have team or player options. (The Jazz did pick up the team option on C.J. Miles a few days ago.) What the new question is in this locked out NBA is whether or not these seven guys would want to sign back with the Jazz.

Let’s take a look . . .

The Game has changed

In previous off-seasons General Managers knew how much they could spend on a team roster. In previous off-seasons Players knew their market value based upon years and years of contracts under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). In previous off-seasons fans could easily speculate upon the marriage of both team and player with some meager level of sanity. This off-season the game has changed because no one really knows. Even in the case of a guy who may be willing to take a pay cut, like Andrei Kirilenko, what would have been a paycut in previous seasons may appear like he’s still overpaid when all the dust settles between the players and owners. Money is pretty much off the table here because no one really knows how much is going to be too much. As a result, the factors I look at here are going to be slightly different than they would have been in a more solid off-season.

Ronnie Price

  • Age: 27
  • Experience: 6 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 4 yrs
  • Last year’s Salary: $1.4m
  • Cost: Cheap (between $1.1m - $1.5m)
  • Playing time: 12 ± 3 mpg
  • Role: 2nd PG (Best case); 3rd PG (Worst case)

Point guard is one of the few spots on the roster where there is (conceivably) playing time that a hard working player could earn. Starter Devin Harris played only 31.2 mpg for the Jazz last season and averages only 34.2 mpg over the last three seasons. (Frame of reference: over last three seasons Deron Williams has averaged 37.2 mpg) Price is always counted out and pushed to the #3 spot on the depth chart but has fought hard to end the season as the #2 guy (beating out Jason Hart and Brevin Knight previously). With Earl Watson on the team he was moved to SG off the bench in the SWARM unit. If the Jazz do not get Watson back, Price’s hustle, intensity, and experience in the Jazz system would be valuable to the Jazz. Especially if Watson does not return.

Price went to university in Utah and may have developed some roots here. I don’t know where his wife’s family is from, so that may not be a factor at all (unlike it was with Rafael Araujo who was a bench guy whose wife was from Utah). Ronnie is loved here, and I’m not sure how many other teams in the NBA would want him / value him that highly. I like Price, and he seems like a smart guy. Maybe he’s saved enough money so that if there is no NBA this year he could still survive. Signing a one year deal in Europe doesn’t seem like a serious move for him either. Those are the ideas I have – but overall I think that the Jazz need Ronnie just as much as he may need them. This seems like a fit of symbiosis. The Jazz need a 3rd PG who knows the system and plays defense. Ronnie Price has found a niche in Utah. He’s also not going to break the bank.

I’d love to have him back – but it’s not about me. It’s about how would Ronnie see this. Well, if he gets offers to play somewhere else he’s going to have to seriously consider it – but I do not know how seriously he would consider leaving this western hemisphere. I don’t know if playing in Central America / South America is an option either – it’s not like he has roots there like some of the other players in the NBA do. Ronnie Price staying with the Jazz seems like a smart move for Ronnie Price. If for nothing else than for mutual stability.

Marcus Cousin

  • Age: 24
  • Experience: 1 yr
  • Years with the Jazz: 1 yr
  • Last year’s Salary: $0.03m
  • Cost: Dirt Cheap (below $1.0m)
  • Playing time: Less than 5 mpg
  • 4th C (Best case); only picked up if there’s an injury

If Marcus Cousin is offered a contract by the Jazz he’ll take it – in any other off-season except this one. Last year he barely made more money in the NBA than someone with a sociology undergraduate degree ($27k). He has played in 46 games in the NBA D-League for the Austin Toros and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’s not an NBA player. The NBA-D League is still going to be playing this next 2011-2012 season so staying there is probably in his best interest. He doesn’t have to move to a new country. He doesn’t have to sign a deal with a team that’s in a league that’s locked out either. I doubt we’ll ever see him back in a Jazz uniform anytime soon. And that’s probably better for him too.

Kyrylo Fesenko

  • Age: 24
  • Experience: 4 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 4 yrs
  • Last year’s Salary: $1.1m
  • Cost: Cheap (between $1.1m - $1.5m)
  • Playing time: Less than 10 mpg
  • 4th C (Best case); 4th C (Worst case)

Fesenko is one of the few European born, European citizens (remember that AK became a US Citizen recently) who is an NBA free agent. If he could get a look in Europe it would make sense for him to play there because right now there just isn’t playing time on the Jazz for him. And while other NBA teams may have more playing time available at center – they may just not be interested in Fesenko. Fesenko came from a lower level league in Europe, and as such, did not get the exposure or experience of playing against the best players. That said, playing in Europe he may be playing against a group of guys who are less dynamic like Dwight Howard. His bulk could be an asset to a team there, plus, well, you can smoke everywhere in Europe.

As a basketball player you want to play against the best. If the best aren’t playing (The NBA lockout), then it’s better to play – period. He’s been sitting for a few seasons and may actually like to play basketball again, anywhere. Returning to Europe and going against guys he can physically dominate may help get some of his mojo back. The only thing is how strong are the ‘pull’ factors to keep him here. He does like it in Utah. At the end of the season (before the lockout) he stated that he wanted to come back to the Jazz, and no where else. He does seem to have fallen in love with the American lifestyle. However, going back to Europe makes him that much closer to his family and his girlfriend though. If the lockout continues and eats up much of the season (or all of it), it only makes sense for Fes to sign in Europe if a team will take him. Playing in Spain would be better for him developmentally than going back to the Ukraine though – which would just be regressing back into old habits.

I think Fes wants to play in the NBA, but he doesn’t appear as adamant as Kanter is on this subject. Kanter also pushes Fes out of the minutes equation. I think he may go back to Europe to play one or two seasons before trying the NBA out again.

Kyle Weaver

  • Age: 24
  • Experience: 3 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 1 yr
  • Last year’s Salary: $0.05m
  • Cost: Cheap (between $1.1m - $1.5m)
  • Playing time: Less than 10 mpg
  • Role: 2nd PG (Best case); 3rd PG (Worst case)

Kyle Weaver was another one of our 10-day contract players this year. I don’t think signing him would mean breaking the bank – but I’m not quite sold on his ability to be a rotation guy in the NBA. He’s young. He has talent. He can hit the three. He’s also a combo guard – which is becoming increasingly important to stockpile on your NBA team now. I felt like the Jazz had said goodbye to him for good if they drafted a PG this year – but they did not. I think in a normal year the Jazz would invite him into training camp for sure. He knows the system a little bit better than someone coming in fresh. He’s also been humbled already by having to go to the NBA – Developmental league. I think he’d like to come up to the NBA again, after not making it in his first turn as a member of the Thunder.

The question on the Jazz’ mind is if they think he’s anywhere close to being able to replicate what Ronnie Price can do. If so, they would offer him a training camp invite and not outright sign Price to guaranteed money. Price is a family man, and I don’t know much about Weaver’s life. I do know that our team is super young, and Price is three years older than Kyle, and has been to the playoffs a few times. In the Jazz’ mind it really depends on how cheap they want to be. (Like selling guys like Eric Maynor and Ronnie Brewer to other teams for nothing) It would not be a basketball move to replace Price with Weaver at this point. Weaver has more upside, of course. But that’s not the question here, the question is what would Weaver do?

If the Jazz offered him a contract he’d take it and say thank you. This is a no pressure situation for PGs as he’ll be coming off the bench to contribute – not to play big minutes and be a difference maker. He’s also a D-League guy so he doesn’t have to move, and he doesn’t have to wait by the phone for an NBA team to call (which is Price’s situation).

Francisco Elson

  • Age: 35
  • Experience: 8 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 1 yr
  • Last year’s Salary: $0.8m
  • Cost: Cheap (between $1.1m - $1.5m)
  • Playing time: Less than 10 mpg
  • 4th C (Best case); 4th C (Worst case)

First of all, unlike all the other guys so far described, Elson has played in the NBA for nearly a decade. If he plays for another two years it bumps him up into a different retirement bracket and a different bracket for his minimum salaries for all future salaries (according to the old CBA). If he can play 2 more years in the NBA it would be great for him. It’s also a possibility as he’s not rounding out into a mentor role. He’s no longer the guy who can play 12 mpg for a Championship team. He played less than 10 a game for our Jazz last year. And the Jazz didn't make the playoffs. More than playing time is actually being healthy enough to play. Everyone makes fun of Fesenko for not being able to stay healthy, but Elson has played in 44.3 games on average the last three seasons. Fesenko (who doesn’t get into most games because he’s a healthy scratch) averages 41.0 games. There’s a big difference between being old and injured and being young and in the doghouse. Elson is now at that old and injured part of his career. If he wasn’t, then the Jazz wouldn’t have even signed Marcus Cousin at all. Elson wants to play in the NBA, despite being a European who has a valid European citizenship – and could return to his native land a hero and play out the rest of his years like a king.

The Jazz will need insurance because no one thinks Mehmet Okur can play a full season – or that Enes Kanter can either. (When was the last time we saw him play healthy?) Fesenko’s interests as a young player who needs playing time are best served elsewhere. And I think the Jazz brass would rather have Elson back anyway. If Elson can get a contract with the Jazz (say, a 2 year $2.3m total one) he would be foolish to say no to that.

Earl Watson

  • Age: 32
  • Experience: 10 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 1 yr
  • Last year’s Salary: $0.8m
  • Cost: Cheap (between $1.1m - $1.5m)
  • Playing time: 15 ± 3 mpg
  • 2nd PG (Best case); 2nd PG (Worst case)

Earl Watson signed on with the Jazz with the same contract that his agent got for Francisco Elson. Or more precisely, his agent was able to broker a deal for both guys with the Jazz; perhaps as a "if you want one, you have to take the other" type of deal. That would work well for both of them if they are a package as the Jazz need Earl Watson. The fans know this. The players know this. The front office knows this. This creates an imbalance in the relationship for sure. Earl Watson is a good player, probably a Top 50 PG in the league. Maybe even a Top 40. Who knows? He knows how good he is. And so do other teams. The last five seasons before coming to the Jazz he played 22.5 mpg, 27.9 mpg, 29.1 mpg, 26.1 mpg, and 29.4 mpg. Last season he played barely two more minutes than his 2nd year in the league – only 19.6. Sure, Earl is a good soldier and will play the minutes Jerry Sloan wants him to play. But Sloan isn’t here anymore, and Devin Harris isn’t Deron Williams.

Would Earl want to take one for the team another year, sitting behind a guy who isn’t an All-Star, and playing for a coach who isn’t a Hall of Famer?

It’s a slam dunk idea in the minds of us fans to bring Earl back but the question is does Earl want to return – and play for a team that may not even make the playoffs again. I know the Miami Heat could offer him the same money, and he’ll be a starting PG on a team that goes to the NBA finals. If I’ve thought about that I’m sure one of Earl’s guys have thought of that too.

You can’t say Earl Watson doesn’t deserve to play for a better team. Yeah, he’s not the perfect PG, and only shoots 33 3pt%, but he’s still a guy who can play more than half the game for a team and finish with good numbers. Maybe he doesn’t start in Miami, but he can sure as heck plug up their bench by running the offense with the 2nd unit so Chris Bosh doesn’t look so helpless anymore. (Wow, Earl’s traditional PG skills could help make Bosh a better player too . . . maybe I should start blogging for the Heat?)

Earl could very well stick with the Jazz – but as much as we may desire for it to be so; he does not have to.

Andrei Kirilenko

  • Age: 30
  • Experience: 10 yrs
  • Years with the Jazz: 10 yrs
  • Last year’s Salary: $17.8m
  • Cost: Mid-level (between $5.0m - $6.0m)
  • Playing time: 20 ± 7 mpg
  • 1st SF (Best case); 2nd SF (Worst case)

Andrei Kirilenko is the perfect storm type of Free Agent. He’s European and European Clubs want him. His number seems to be $5.6m – which is 31% of his last year’s salary. (Yes, 68.5% off!) You absolutely have to say yes to that, even if he continues to play fewer minutes, and never plays 80 games again. More playing time and opportunity for Gordan Hayward, Alec Burks and crew – right?

But it’s not about what we want. Or what *I* want – in my NBA 2K11 association I signed him for a 4 yr deal at $6 m per. It’s what Andrei may want. In a more reasonable year we’d have to fear him going to the Nets to reunite with one of his favorite Russians (Mikhail Prokhorov) and favorite Americans (Deron Williams). This year we may think that he may go all the way back to Russia – or who knows – sign for that $200k a month deal that Deron has in Turkey. (Apparently Kobe may get in on it too)

I know Andrei wants to continue being an NBA player – because when he goes back to Europe (and he wants to end his career there) he’s not going to come back. Maybe the lockout changes things, maybe not. He can afford to take time off of basketball for sure. Of course, he only has so many years of playing basketball left. He may decide to make a cameo in Europe for his next contract – but not make it a long term deal.

Does he want to come back to Utah? Utah isn’t a contender right now. He’s a vet. He has talent. And let’s be honest – this was never the right system for his talents. He’s the last remaining link to those glory years of Stockton and Malone, Larry H. Miller is dead, Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson both have retired – and all the other guys from that era are gone too. Andrei is the omega point for the best years of our franchise. He’s not the best, but he’s the end.

And if I was Andrei, it would be really hard to turn down a cushy contract in Europe for a year before coming back to the NBA.

What does the Player want?

The normal ideas of money, stability, and playing time are all thrown into the blender because of the lockout. A number of these guys could get one or two of the three by sticking with the Jazz. The Jazz isn't the perfect destination for any of our guys (let alone non-Jazz free agents who no longer have the opportunity to play for a Jerry Sloan playoff team, or play with Deron Williams). Right now, the probability of the next contract a player signs being a Jazz contract is high for only two out of the seven free agents: Ronnie Price and Francisco Elson. A number of guys could head to Europe, stay in the D-League, or wait for greener pastures in the NBA.

As a fan it's hard to see our team as anywhere but the top of the list for some free agents. But for a player, Utah (especially this Utah team) may not be the promised land.