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Utah Jazz’s Front Office Strategy: Looking for a Blue Ocean

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What is the Utah Jazz’s front office strategy going into the 2017-2018 season?

Golden State Warriors v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz have been heralded as an impeccably run franchise by pundits, NBA players, and peers in other NBA front offices. They are known as being patient, good eyes for talent, and great at developing underutilized skills in players. The Utah Jazz however have a unique meteoric apocalypse opportunity ahead of them as they lost out on the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes.

We’re going to be talking about Blue Ocean Strategy. Before you groan and hit the refresh button, this is one of the strongest strategies Utah has. If you think this sounds familiar, it’s because I brought this up two years ago.

Blue Ocean Strategy describes how organizations should try to find a way to work in a marketplace that is free of competitors. Why am I using Blue Ocean Strategy for the Utah Jazz? Because they cannot compete on the same playing field with a good 80% of the league. They reside in one of the league's smallest market, they have limited cash flows, and are not near a beach.

Utah inherently has a disadvantage in the NBA market. Gordon Hayward’s exit from Utah is Exhibit 3,456 of that disadvantage. While Utah didn’t lose Hayward to a warmer climate, they did lose Hayward to a team with a storied history and championship pedigree. For years to come, Utah will be one of the have nots in a league full of entitled haves. So where does Utah go from here?

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

They must find the Blue Ocean. The part of the league that is being undervalued and doesn’t have as much competition.

Now that may sound stupid as Utah still has to play every team in the league at least twice, but we’re talking about the front office. How do they build a team and get the players they want rather than the players that are left over?

Two years ago when many were clamoring for Utah to sign a 3 and D wing like Demarre Carroll or Kris Middleton, I urged them to use caution. Why? Because a lot of 3 and D wings came from humble beginnings, namely the G-League. I urged for frugality in the free agent market that summer while looking at the often overlooked attribute: defense.

A focus on the defensive side of the ball can actually allow the Jazz to find players in their price range. Offensive perimeter players fetch a pretty penny. But defensive players? They can easily fall through the cracks. Ask Carroll, Elijah Millsap, or Bruce Bowen. This is where the mining of the D-League comes in. The Jazz will continue looking for the skill they can underpay for to fit their budget. This is their Blue Ocean. It's not Moneyball. It's finding a new playing field.

Interestingly enough, the Utah Jazz had a player they had signed as more of an afterthought: Joe Ingles. Undervalued and cut from the Los Angeles Clippers, he thrived under Quin Snyder and turned it this year into a big payday. His offense improved and his lockdown defense was part of the reason the Utah Jazz upset the #4 seeded Clippers in the playoffs.

NBL Media Opportunity Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

The funny thing about the Blue Ocean strategy is when you find a pristine Blue Ocean, people will follow. The Utah Jazz’s advantage of a verticalized G-League structure is becoming the norm in the NBA. Their hunt for overlooked prospects in the G-League is not unique anymore. They no longer have cap space to absorb expensive contracts to gain present or future assets. Utah’s once young roster full of inexpensive talent is not becoming much more expensive with Rudy Gobert getting an extension, Joe Ingles getting PAID, and Rodney Hood and Dante Exum up for extensions after next year.

So where does Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey and company go from here? Let’s evaluate.

Current Situation

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz are in a tough situation when it comes to cap space. They are almost 12 million dollars above the salary cap and only 7 million dollars below the luxury tax. If Utah was in the Eastern Conference they wouldn’t feel too bad about this roster at that price. But in the Western Conference Thunder Dome, there’s a possibility of paying 111 million dollars in salary not to make the playoffs.

The Utah Jazz lack a go to scorer. While many will cry out Rudy Gobert, there’s not a large body of evidence that says that. That’s a lot of money to be paying for not scoring.

The Utah Jazz’s identity is built on defense. What they lack in scoring punch, they more than make up on the defensive end. A quick survey of the roster shows the Jazz have not just above average defensive players, but elite defensive players. Rudy Gobert was almost Defensive Player of the Year. Joe Ingles stopped Chris Paul in the playoffs. Derrick Favors when healthy is one of the best. Ricky Rubio gets steals. Period. Thabo Sefolosha and his OMG wingspan. Donovan Mitchell and his OMG wingspan. Ekpe Udoh turned into a defensive monster in Europe. Dante Exum has defensive potential. This team is a defensive team.

As always, it goes back to money. Defensive players with limited offensive ability are undervalued in the NBA economy, yet the Utah Jazz are above the salary cap paying defensive players with limited offensive ability.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz are a team with a lot of veterans in contract years. All of their free agent signings—Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh—this summer are non-guaranteed after 2017-2018. Derrick Favors is in a contract year. Rodney Hood and Dante Exum are in contract years; albeit they are Restricted Free Agents. Joe Johnson is in a contract year. Beyond numbers, that’s a difficult coaching situation for Quin Snyder and a difficult game that Dennis Lindsey must play with all of these players agent’s wanting their guy to get minutes so that they can get paid next summer.

The Next Blue Ocean

Imitation Cap Space

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder

The Utah Jazz won’t have cap space for many years. Not if they pay Rodney Hood and Dante Exum big time money next season. So Dennis Lindsey found a way to manufacture cap space without having cap space.

When the NBA had the influx of money come in during the television money bubble last season many declared expiring contracts worthless. They were pronounced dead. No one needed them because everyone was making it rain in terrible contracts. Flash forward a season and everyone is feeling the hurt from those terrible deals. There are 20 teams above the salary cap in the NBA. One of those teams not feeling the pain? Utah.

But how? Dennis Lindsey’s team is $12 million above the salary cap. It’s what we mentioned earlier. Non-guaranteed contracts and expiring contracts.

The Utah Jazz have about $36 million in expiring/2nd year non-guaranteed contracts on their roster. If there is a tax strapped team this upcoming season that hits a rough patch, there might be a star player on the trade market. That team will want to have expiring contracts and additional assets coming back. Enter the Utah Jazz. They can either help facilitate a deal and get some assets for doing so, or they can actually acquire the star player with a mix of expiring contracts and young assets like Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, or even Donovan Mitchell.

[Editor’s Note: Before you riot, I’m not saying trade Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum or even Rodney Hood. Those are just possibilities.]

Dennis Lindsey knows that his team lacks an offensive weapon. To bring over an offensive weapon he needs the pieces to facilitate a trade and the right type of pieces that would ease the burden of a luxury taxed team.

One might also notice the Utah Jazz already have 17 players on their roster with one more two way contract to sign. They have to cut one player, or use that player in a trade. Once again, Dennis Lindsey is manufacturing cap space.

Defensive Identity

Golden State Warriors v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

While Dennis Lindsey is waiting for the right deal to come along, he’s made sure these new roster additions are not just great on the balance sheet, but fit the identity of the roster. Did you know that Utah now has 3 of the top 20 players in defensive rating on their roster? Those players?

#3 - Rudy Gobert

#11 - Thabo Sefolosha

#18 - Joe Ingles

Thabo Sefolosha also is rated as the #5 player in the league in defensive box +/-. He’s playing for $5 million next season and is non-guaranteed next season.

Ekpe Udoh who was arguably one of the best players not in the NBA and a defensive star in Euroleague is playing for $3.5 million.

Next Moves

Before Training Camp

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz are most likely done making any trades or additional free agent acquisitions until December. (Sorry Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving dreamers) There might be one more two way contract signed before training camp, but most likely Utah would like to hold off on that contract until after training camp to find another diamond in the rough like Joe Ingles.

One move that might make sense for Utah before August 31st would be a big surprise. That would be to release Alec Burks and use the stretch provision on him. Alec Burks’s remaining contract amount is at $21.8 million over the next two years. If the Jazz release him before August 31st they could split his $21.8 million over the next 5 seasons. That’s $4.36 million over the next 5 years. They could even decide to have that hit the salary cap like that. That opens up close to $6.5 million on their balance sheet.

If Utah chooses to release him after August 31st, then the Utah Jazz would be required to pay Alec his regular amount of $10.8 million this next season even though he’s no longer on the roster, then they could split his remaining $11 million over the next 3 seasons. That would be $3.6 million against the Jazz’s cap after this season.

Why would Utah do this? Alec Burks doesn’t figure to be in Utah’s rotation. Utah has to find minutes for Rubio, Exum, Mitchell, Sefolosha, Ingles, and Hood. That’s all before they get to Alec who hasn’t proven to be a plus player when he’s on the floor. If Utah were to trade Alec Burks for cap space they’d have to give up an asset like a draft pick for a team to do that. With only 10 teams with cap space, the rental price on cap space is STEEP. Releasing and stretching Alec would be a smart play for Utah.

December to Trade Deadline

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Depending on how Utah is faring in the Western Conference Fury Road, Dennis Lindsey will have a couple of ways to maneuver this. If Utah is underperforming, he has valuable veterans in Jerebko, Sefolosha, Rubio, and Udoh that he can move for assets to a playoff team that is looking for a consistent role player for the playoffs. Then Dennis Lindsey can go full youth movement and build momentum and cap space for the 2018-2019 season, and possibly parlay that into an 8th seed in the playoffs in things go right. If not, he’s looking a lottery pick with young talent that can be moved for a higher pick or add a good player to a young talented roster.

If Utah has seized on their defensive identity and has become a 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons-lite, Dennis Lindsey can then use the trade deadline as a time to seize on a team’s misfortunes. If there’s a team like Portland, New Orleans, Cleveland, or Charlotte that is failing to meet expectations and looking to start the rebuild, Dennis Lindsey can easily step in with expiring contracts and young talent to make a deal to bring over a star. Dennis Lindsey gets his Reggie White, and an opposing team gets relief from the luxury tax and a fresh start.