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How can the Utah Jazz build around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell?

The Utah Jazz’s future is brighter than their current record.

When Gordon Hayward made his exit during the summer, the inevitable question was how could the Utah Jazz rebuild? The most obvious answer is they would rebuild in the aggregate. The hope was Utah could moneyball his production through a cast of misfit toys. Rudy Gobert would be the foundation that Utah would be founded on: stifling defense and discipline.

Utah had a promising young rookie in Donovan Mitchell that looked like he could provide a boost off the bench, but what has happened this year is much bigger than anyone imagined. Donovan Mitchell has gone from promising young rookie to rookie phenom to franchise cornerstone in less than half a season. Utah seems to have found a pair to build around much like they found Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer after the Stockton to Malone era. So how does Utah take these two cornerstones and pour some gas on this rebuild?

Expiring Contracts and Soon To Be Expiring Contracts

The Utah Jazz currently have $45M in expiring contracts. That huge number includes soon to be Restricted Free Agents Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, and Raul Neto. Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson exit the books with their combined $22.5M after this season. If Utah were to renounce the rights to all of their free agents in the offseason they would have approximately $66M in space to attack free agency.

In addition to those players Utah will have starting in the 2018 offseason the soon to be expiring contracts of Alec Burks and Ricky Rubio that combine for $24M. While they might not be the most attractive contracts right now with their production, next season when the salary cap stagnates they could be tantalizing.

The Utah Jazz did not double down on bad mistakes in the offseason. While Utah gambled on Ricky Rubio to try to lockdown Hayward (Spoiler Alert: It failed.), they didn’t try to overcompensate by selling the farm to the next highest bidder. Instead they punted. It’s been said many times how this is a punt year for Utah. That shouldn’t be synonymous with a lost year. Lost years are what Isiah Thomas did with the Knicks or what the Nets have been experiencing without their draft picks. It’s reverse mortgaging your house so you can return to the card tables. Utah decided that the sheer lack of options left in free agency in 2017 was not worth something drastic. So they punted. They signed low risk, high reward free agents on 1+1 contracts with the second year non-guaranteed. Those free agents turned into Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, and Thabo Sefolosha. What’s more is they have proved to be valuable role players on very team friendly contracts.

We talked about Dante Exum and Rodney Hood’s contracts, but let’s talk about their current roles. Rodney Hood seems to be a transient when it comes to roles in Utah’s offense. He starts, he comes off the bench, they have tried him as a facilitator, they have tried him as a Reddick-like floor spacer, and now he could be back to a starting job with Ricky Rubio struggling. It would appear that Utah is assessing his value in a number of ways in a punt year so that they can be prepared to offer what they feel his value is. Dante Exum is the wildcard of Utah’s free agency. Do they allow him to test free agency and run the risk of a one year deal with him? Or do they give him the Alec Burks treatment and gamble on his potential?

Approaching the Trade Season

Utah Jazz fans—probably still feeling the pain of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson leaving for nothing—will probably look at this trade deadline as the deadline for moving Favors. How could Utah allow Favors to leave for nothing only years after doing the same for Millsap and Al Jefferson? Has Utah not learned from their mistakes?

Once again, this is going to get into a lost year vs punt year philosophy. If Utah is truly in a punt year, they don’t want to pick up from their 2017 offseason unless there’s a good deal on the table. Trading Favors just for the sake of “he can’t go for nothing” could once again compound a bad offseason of not landing Hayward. Utah is already getting something really good if they don’t trade Favors: $12M in expiring cap space in a cash strapped NBA. Same goes with Joe Johnson.

So here’s where the value proposition for teams approaching Utah about a trade have to be: they must be offering Utah something better than $12M—or $10.5M in Joe Johnson’s case—of cap space.

The Utah Jazz will be looking to shore up their wing position or find a stretch big. Donovan Mitchell can play the point guard or shooting guard positions, and Utah has Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum—assuming they re-sign Dante—for at least another year. Utah will be looking for some help at those positions and to find a better—or in the case of Joe Johnson, younger—fit next to Rudy Gobert. Those available options?

Well ... they’re not a plenty. Many teams who are moving players seem to be moving the type of player Utah could offer: a back to the basket type big or an aging veteran.

  • Robin Lopez
  • Marc Gasol
  • Nikola Vucevic
  • DeAndre Jordan
  • Dewyane Dedmon
  • Nerlens Noel
  • Zach Randolph
  • Kenneth Faried

Once Derrick Favors is added to that large list, it’s easy to see that big men are available in surplus as teams dangle them all in free agency at the hope of nabbing a stretch four or above average wingman. Charlotte’s disappointing season has made their two wingmen, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nic Batum, available, but MKG would further suffocate the Jazz’s spacing (the Jazz also have a more team friendly MKG in Sefolosha), and Batum has had a difficult time recovering from injuries.

Orlando could once again be blowing it up in hopes of starting fresh. They have the young Jonathan Isaac that is a dream at the four position, but they have fellow youngster Aaron Gordon occupying it. Nikola Vucevic was supposed to be the big trade target, but now he’s expected to be out 6-8 weeks, significantly hampering his trade value. While it’s not likely that they’d part with Aaron Gordon, they might be willing to do it for a price now seeing as they need to find a way to move forward, but the price would be heavy.

Utah targets Aaron Gordon

Utah Jazz send:

Derrick Favors

Joe Johnson

2018 1st Round Draft Pick (Top 3 Protected) —> If not conveyed, unprotected in 2019

Orlando Magic send:

Aaron Gordon

Bismack Biyombo

Orlando is able to gain some much needed cap space and gain another potential lottery pick. Integrating a new player is never easy and without Favors and Johnson Utah could see a dip in the standings that makes the 1st round pick all the more valuable (7-10 range) for Orlando. Orlando could also use Favors past this year if they choose to re-sign him as a great veteran voice to help the team. I’d anticipate Orlando releases Joe Johnson in this scenario so that he can sign with a contender (hello, Cleveland or Boston) so that he can finally get that ring.

For Utah, they gain the perfect stretch big to pair next to Rudy Gobert and the #4 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to pair with the #5 pick of that same Draft, Dante Exum. They add athleticism to their starting lineup that next year becomes Dante Exum, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Aaron Gordon, and Rudy Gobert. Utah is willing to give up their first round draft pick in exchange for four years of Aaron Gordon next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They have to deal with a terrible contract of Bismack Biyombo, but it’s worth it’s weight in gold to find Rudy Gobert the perfect frontcourt partner.

Utah goes after Nikola Mirotic

Utah Jazz send:

Derrick Favors

Joe Johnson

Chicago send:

Robin Lopez

Nikola Mirotic

In this scenario, Utah is holding firmly onto their draft pick because they will not be able to sign Mirotic to a four year deal. Instead, they agree to take on some unsightly salary with Robin Lopez. For Utah, it’s not the worst thing as they can be rest assured that they don’t have to rush Gobert back from injury just to have him go down again. Utah takes on the bad salary as they can look forward to the offseason of 2019 as an opportunity to go after a big time free agent.

Chicago on the other hand is willing to unload Mirotic in order to unload their worst contract and continue their race to the bottom for a chance at Marvin Bagley or Luka Doncic.

Uh oh ... another trade with Denver

Utah Jazz send:

Ekpe Udoh

Denver Nuggets send:

Will Barton

Utah decides it’s time to bring Tony Bradley to the big leagues. Denver is desperately in need of a rim protector. Utah wants nothing to do with Kenneth Faried, but they do have a spare rim protector at an amazing price. But Utah wants a wing scorer. Will Barton is the price. Denver does this because they are desperate to stay in the playoff hunt to justify their free agency signing of Paul Millsap and terrible trade away of Donovan Mitchell. Utah does this because Denver is their good luck charm.

Free Agency

In a new era of the limited cap, Utah’s cap space is a great equalizer vs bigger market teams. While large markets will have the advantage of courting big free agents, they quite simply could not have the space required to make a push for one of them. Kevin O’Connor from The Ringer had this to say about the 2018 Offseason:

“Just five teams are currently expected to have cap space (Hawks, Bulls, Mavericks, Pacers, Lakers), according to projections by RealGM’s Keith P. Smith, though a handful of other teams could create space.”

If Utah were to find a way to wrangle up some additional cap space, they can join that small group of teams with only, perhaps, the Pacers rivaling their young core of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in terms of talent. But that’s banking on the Utah free agency curse that has only be broken by Carlos Boozer not rearing its ugly head. It’s a long shot option that Dennis Lindsey would have to be sure he could overcome by reading the tea leaves of the potential free agent market.

Targeting Jabari Parker

Say Utah gets enough cap space to pursue Jabari Parker. Here’s the scenario. Utah makes no trades during the season and renounces the contracts of Ekpe Udoh, Thabo Sefolosha, and Jonas Jerebko. They’re ready to go all in on Jabari Parker. They pursue Jabari instead of going after a big time free agent like Chris Paul. Jabari Parker’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, wants to do the Jazz a favor. The Bucks are hoping they can sign Parker for cheap because of injuries, but the Utah Jazz go after Jabari hard.

Bartelstein gives Utah first dibs as an olive branch for the Gordon Hayward fiasco. Utah goes all in: max deal, four years. Bartelstein advises Parker to take the offer because Utah has a great coach, great organization, it has some of Milwaukee’s old front office with Justin Zanik and David Morway there, and IT IS SO ON BRAND FOR PARKER. Jabari Parker signing with the team in the state where the home base of Parker’s religion is located would be so ON BRAND.

Jabari Parker then gets matched by Milwaukee, but not without Milwaukee waiting the maximum amount of time to cause Utah maximum discomfort.

Now there’s another scenario where Utah could try something very unique. They could try for the INCREDIBLY RARE double sign and trade with Rodney Hood sending Hood plus assets to Milwaukee in exchange for Parker. What would a deal like that look like?

Utah Jazz send:

Rodney Hood

Ekpe Udoh

Protected 2019 1st Round Draft Pick

2020 2nd Round Draft Pick

Milwaukee Bucks send:

Jabari Parker

Milwaukee is able to get a veteran rim protector in Ekpe Udoh to hold down the fort in the middle. Giannis Antetokounmpo is able to destroy teams at the four while teams are scared to death of Eric Bledsoe, Rodney Hood, and Khris Middleton raining it down from outside. Udoh is also a great defensive mentor to Thon Maker at a very affordable contract.

This whole scenario is entirely unlikely. The chances of the Utah Jazz landing a high profile restricted free agent are as high as Utah’s were when they landed Carlos Boozer. In other words, they’re incredibly slim.

Ride this season out and find the final piece in the draft

If you’re noticing a theme here, it’s that finding a piece to complete the puzzle that is building around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell is incredibly difficult. Dennis Lindsey might feel more comfortable working his magic in the draft as he has oft to do since he’s been Utah’s General Manager. It’s not if Dennis Lindsey will make trades in the NBA Draft, it’s when and with whom.

Dennis Lindsey draft trades:

2013 - #14 and #21 for Trey Burke

2013 - #46 and Cash Considerations for Rudy Gobert

2013 - Cash considerations for Raul Neto

2016 - #12 for George Hill

2017 - #24 and Trey Lyles for Donovan Mitchell

2017 - #30 and #42 for Tony Bradley

Utah likes to make moves on draft day. In addition their draft picks seem to turn out alright—especially when they come from Denver. Utah might look at the landscape of the Western Conference this year, look at their rash of injuries, and decide that they might be in play for a great draft pick this year and wait until then to make the magic happen. A chance at Marvin Bagley or Luka Doncic might be enough incentive for Utah to not push down on the throttle of a playoff push this year.

The good news is we have seen Dennis Lindsey display multiple strategies when rebuilding whether that is patience with a young core, accelerating talent acquisition through the draft by trading up, infusing veteran talent to take the young talent to the next level, executing patience in free agency when it doesn’t go his way, and convince free agents to take a chance on Utah like Joe Johnson, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, and Jonas Jerebko. Dennis Lindsey will have to put on a master’s class to hasten the rebuild after Gordon Hayward and take some significant risks that might not go his way. But the reward, if it works, for doing so is adding to a dangerous core of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell that Utah has luckily landed through the grace of Denver. The present may be frustrating, but the future is bright for Utah.