Right now the Utah Jazz are but a game ahead of where they were last season. But last season the team was not playing an inspiring form of basketball, and relied heavily upon free agents who would be moving on the next year. A coaching change later and things seem to be trending upwards again. But let's not forget who is the grand architect of this plan: Dennis Lindsey.
If you have been watching the NBA for a while you will recognize that the easy thing, or at least default position, is for a General Manager to create a very mediocre team that isn't a threat to a) win in the playoffs, or b) get better any time soon. This point is somewhat bolstered by anonymous sources who have revealed that a lot of front office employees around the league take a lot of vacation time during the season. (Or at the very least 'just aren't in the office right now')
Dennis Lindsey and his staff appear to be the opposite of the norm, they don't take weeks and weeks off of work. And they seem to be striving to make the Utah Jazz a winning franchise. I saw this firsthand when they flew 10+ people to the NBA Draft Combine years ago, including Jerry Sloan (who at that point wasn't even working for the team). Other teams sent parts of their web development team to get sound bites. The Jazz brought in a Hall of Famer (and many other scouts and front office types) to watch bubble 1st rounders fight for loose balls and get floor burns.
I cannot come to terms with the concept that such a meticulous front office would ever make a hasty decision. These are perfectionists who have spared no effort and no expense in order to get the best talent here. Few other teams hold free agent mini-camps, but Utah has been doing it for three seasons now.
And as a result, I have complete faith in the people who are making the decisions for who is and is not part of this team. And I have complete faith in their direction. It would have been the default position to keep older starters around and angle to be a 6th to 10th seed every year for another decade. Have Trey Burke learn under Mo Williams for a few seasons while Al Jefferson scores 20 points and isn't regarded as anything more than a big scorer on a bad team. The team would be winning games, but with a very low ceiling.
But that's not what Dennis Lindsey wanted. And as a result he committed this team to a full on youth movement (no doubt this must have been something he fought against the ownership with many, many times) -- and the team seems poised to finally start making baby steps back towards contention. I really believe that, and winning big road games against the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies while continuing to win home games against the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, and Oklahoma City Thunder kind of justify this belief.
The last time the Jazz were in the playoffs they were no contest for the Spurs, and the lasting image of I have that series is of Al Jefferson throwing the ball to Tony Parker and not even running back on defense. This season our team not only make the Spurs work, but beat them.
Putting the ball in the hands of the youth and having a coach develop and teach these players has been a master stroke by Lindsey. Quin Snyder is the right guy for this job. And I think it's clear that the players are getting better at an accelerated rate and responding to this coaching staff. There appears to be some sort of internal consistency with what you need to do in order to get playing time now. It's not just based upon how many birthday parties you've had.
So, let's look at every player the Jazz signed this year -- and all of their vital information in one place!
N.B. Picked in the 3rd round, #61 is code for "undrafted"
Ideally the top 6 players on this team are all lotto picks, and lotto picks taken in the last five drafts. This has never been the case for the Jazz. Jerry Sloan made it to the Hall of Fame by using great players, but also by getting the most out of second round picks. Lindsey has made a roster where 10 of the active players are 1st rounders -- and they cut two other 1st rounders earlier in the season.
The starting lineup, when everyone was healthy, at the beginning of the season was Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors. Today that lineup would have an average age of 23.34. This is a far cry from some earlier Jazz teams where the rookies were 24 years old. Sadly, injuries have thrown a monkey wrench into the situation, and Alec Burks had to have season ending surgery on his shoulder.
Somehow the resultant outcome has been even more injuries to shooting guards, and a new revolving door at the position. Out of the 25 total Jazz players this season from training camp till now, well, 13 of those 25 have been shooting guard qualified. Just crazy.
Regardless, the cuts the team have made this season have all been somewhat notable. Jack Cooley and Brock Motum survived Summer League and got training camp invites. Both were cut, but Cooley persists with the Idaho Stampede right now with some sort of relationship as a Jazz assignee, despite being cut. Dee Bost and Kevin Murphy were cut very early in the training camp process, and both ended up playing for the Stamps as well. (Though Murphy has now moved to Europe to finish out this season). The Jazz brought in actual rookie Tre' Bussey to try out against the Jazz, and then drafted him in the NBA Developmental League draft.
One camp invite and cut that really raised eyebrows was Dahntay Jones. He has been in the league for the longest, and while his abilities were at the diminishing return phase, he did not make the team. This is precisely the type of guy who would have started some games last season under Tyrone Corbin -- or so the legend suggests. Jones, a Dukie, didn't make it. Neither did Carrick Felix, though if he was healthy we don't know. The Jazz picked up Jordan Hamilton, gave him a contract, signed it, and then cut him in November. Those two wing players did not look like they would crack the wing rotation this year, but you never can predict injuries (unless it's something like avascular necrosis -- what up, Curtis Borchardt?).
There was one player who was signed out of the blue and has stuck with the team, and that's Joe Ingles. He is represented by the highest power group out of the Jazz agencies (ASM), and is also Australian -- so he fit the bill for a Dante Exum pal, and for a wing player. Do I think Toure' Murry is a better player? Yes. Do the Jazz coaches and front office? No. So while I may have my own feelings on the subject, I know that they know more about basketball than I do. And I respect and am okay with their basketball decisions.
The combo guard Murry might have seen some playing time this year if situations were a little different; but he was waived to make room for the revolving SG door: Patrick Christopher joined, got injured, and his 10 day contract wasn't picked up for another 10 days. Elijah Millsap and Elliot Williams are currently on their 10 day stints, and for my sake at least, I would be totally okay if the team just keeps them around for the rest of the season. I know it's only January, and it will be more costly to do it this way. It's just less book keeping for me if you sign them.
E and E will get a chance to earn that right as Joe Ingles is injured and probably shouldn't play in the next game. Alec Burks is out for the season, and Rodney Hood is going to miss the next game too. Having to defend the Golden State Warriors isn't fun for anyone -- but Williams and Millsap will get long looks in that game for sure. A solid performance there will give the front office some evidence in favor of keeping them. Or, you know, Ian Clark will have his revenge game against his former team (in the Vegas summer league). I'd be fine with that too. Go for 50, Ian!
At the very least they fill up a bench ravaged by injuries and battlefield promotions. Rudy Gobert is the obvious beneficiary here, but with Enes Kanter in a contract year we'll see how his agent feels about a diminish role. Kanter is saying the right stuff now, but we'll see what happens going forward. I don't predict a problem, but Jeremy Evans and Steve Novak already don't see the floor. Trevor Booker helps the team win now, but Gobert, Kanter, and Favors all probably should be playing 30+ mpg from here on out.
Last, but clearly not the least, we have Dante Exum. Exum could be our best player in three seasons. And he would be worth all of the pain and suffering of the last few seasons if he does live up to that potential. By how the lottery played out there should have been no way that the Jazz got this kid, except Dennis Lindsey is a wizard. He also picked up Rodney Hood out of nowhere, and he could one-day start for the team.
The bottom line is that this collection of players could one day be the most talented roster from top to bottom, in Jazz history. Sure, it's hard to replicate getting a Hall of Famer in the middle of the first round, like Frank Layden did when his son Scott singled out John Stockton and Karl Malone. But this roster is built through more detailed observation and analysis. It's a roster that isn't based upon luck or hasty decisions.
And in three seasons when our team is winning playoff games regularly you'll see why the slow and steady growth from youth was the better plan than band-aid veteran free agents and hopes for a playoff push.
Dennis Lindsey is a wizard. How else do you explain the magic he has brought back to this franchise?