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2018 NBA Free Agency: Did the Utah Jazz Take the Right Approach?

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Roster turnover is fun, but the Utah Jazz were right to prioritize continuity this summer.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves the Trade Machine (myself included). Splashy free-agency signings are exciting. And generally speaking, roster turnover, especially in recent years, is what fans crave during the offseason.

It makes sense. In the absence of on-court action, front-office action has to suffice. For the Utah Jazz, the summer of 2018 wound up being all about bringing the whole team back, which may seem like no action at all to some.

And that’s led to a predictable topic of conversation around the internet: Was this the right approach to the offseason? Should the Jazz have signed some free agents? Or maybe a trade?

On top of the simple, “it’s more fun to pay attention to player movement” argument, there are some more substantive points to be made by the camp pushing for new acquisitions. The Jazz aren’t the Golden State Warriors. They can obviously get better. And in a league packed with teams constantly looking to improve, it’s easy to equate bringing back the same team with stagnation or even regression.

But if you step back and look at the totality of Utah’s circumstance this summer, this approach makes sense.

Continuity

Basketball Reference has a handy visual called Roster Continuity, which shows us the teams that have enjoyed the most continuity over the years.

The formula is pretty simple:

“Roster continuity is calculated as the % of a team’s regular season minutes that were filled by players from the previous season’s roster.”

Of last year’s 16 playoff teams, 14 had over 50-percent continuity. Among the eight teams at 80-plus percent, only the Denver Nuggets missed the postseason. Each of the last 10 NBA champions had at least 67-percent continuity. The average for the last 10 champs is 81.7 percent. And perhaps, my favorite illustration of this point, the 2010-11 Miami Heat had 45-percent roster continuity and lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, who were at 79 percent.

Of course, this could easily be explained away by saying these teams were already good, and thus, didn’t need a lot of turnover. But it’s almost a chicken-egg situation. Do they have continuity because they’re good? Or, are they good (at least in part) because they have continuity?

It’s not hard to see why the Jazz bet on the latter.

Coach Quin Snyder’s offense demands high-IQ players. And even for them, it can take some time to fully grasp some of the nuances of the read-and-react system. Ricky Rubio is a good example of this. From the beginning of the season through January 22, he averaged 11.1 points and 4.8 assists, while shooting 38.4 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three. Over the rest of the season, he averaged 16 points and 6.1 assists, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three. Once he became familiar with the system, and his role within it, he looked like a completely different player.

Signing or trading for a new player could expose the Jazz to another months-long learning curve. Instead, they seem to be banking on the familiarity the players gained with the system and each other.

In that same timeframe (January 23 on), Utah had two lineups with at least 194 minutes and a Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) of 22.1 (For context’s sake, the Warriors’ most-used lineup last season had a Net Rating of 10). One of those Utah lineups included Jae Crowder, who was acquired in February.

Giving those groups more time together in 2018-19 almost seems like a no-brainer.

Flexibility

This was a weird year for free agency. Because the players’ union resisted cap smoothing in 2016, free agents that summer hit the jackpot. Two years later, a bunch of the terrible contracts signed that summer put a squeeze on league-wide cap space in 2018.

Utah was one of the only teams that had the option to spend a little, but it would’ve had to do some combination of the following to get usable cap space: renounce the rights to Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, or waive the non-guaranteed second years for Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh. Such a drastic overhaul might’ve made sense if Kevin Durant or LeBron James had been in play for Utah, but of course, they weren’t.

Utah also could’ve used a mid-level exception (and honestly still could) to sign another depth piece, but there may not be anyone in this market who really pushes the needle at this point. At least not anyone who pushes it enough to sacrifice the continuity.

Plus, signing Favors to the deal they did (the second year is non-guaranteed) and keeping the rest of the roster basically the same keeps options wide open for 2019, a year that will have more gettable difference makers. As it stands right now, Utah could easily get to around $40 million in space next summer. And while the Jazz weren’t serious contenders for LeBron or KD, someone like Khris Middleton could really help. Or, if the Warriors finally eye a real shakeup, maybe Klay Thompson hits the market.

Of course, neither is a given, but Utah has at least given itself a chance in 2019.

Development

This may be the biggest reason of all for Utah to run it back. The Jazz have gained the reputation of a developmentally-minded franchise over the last few years, thanks in large part to Snyder.

Look at what that coaching staff has done for Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale, just to name a few. With their track record, it’s pretty easy to imagine a superstar trajectory for Donovan Mitchell. Dante Exum has shown enough flashes to think he can still be a starter.

Another year of individual improvement and development of team chemistry, on the heels of the 29-6 closing kick that got the Jazz all the way up to fifth in the West, will make Utah plenty dangerous again.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.