The Utah Jazz decided to switch gears this off-season, putting the organic growth and development of NBA Draft picks on the back-burner in favor of winning now. Outside of the intrinsic reward of actually winning games and making the NBA Playoffs, I believe that the impetus for this switch is based around the desire to better court potential unrestricted free agent-to-be: Gordon Hayward. Hayward is the best player on the team, and was the only lotto pick to get both minutes and a secure role during his rookie contract. Losing him would really set the team back, and financially he has no reason NOT to opt out of his contract. As a result, courting the multi-millionaire means getting wins. He has money. He has a family. And he's the face of this franchise already. He doesn't have a very deep Playoff resume.
And that's why Dennis Lindsey and company went out and got 35 year old Joe Johnson, 34 year old Boris Diaw, and 30 year old George Hill to ensure that #PlayoffPush 2017 isn't a sarcastic joke.
Adding three veterans who still have good years and a good reason to play hard means having to play them legit minutes. We already know their contract situation (refresher here), with Hill and Diaw playing for their next one in the same contract year as Shelvin Mack and Joe Ingles. There is going to be competition. We believe that means the best players will reveal themselves, but recent history (Enes Kanter and Trey Burke) tells us that it ends up devaluing the players who lose out -- and you end up trading them away for peanuts.
Organic growth (aka. "Not skipping steps") is a longer process. It works if you trust that process, and the Philadelphia 76ers seem to have ridden out their dark period. The Minnesota Timberwolves have some great young players to build around as well. However, if you don't have a unified plan it may look like what the Sacramento Kings are doing. The Utah Jazz are trying to make that next step, from Lottery team to Playoff team. And the lottery picks they selected did not get them to the promised land, and nor did the Utah Jazz develop any of them into stars.
And thus, this is where we are. Veterans want to play. Young guys need to play. And the youngest guys are so raw they need as much experience as possible.
2016-2017 Roster: Age and Experience (Full Careers)
If the roster is organized with an absolute "win now" bias, one that favors the three new additions over the returning players, this is what we see. Yes, Jeff Withey and Chris Johnson have non-guaranteed contracts, so I don't know if they will even make the team. Furthermore, I'm listing Marcus Paige, Tyrone Wallace, Joel Bolomboy, and Ante Tomic here so we see all the pieces in one chart. It's possibly that at MOST two of these six players even make the team. It's likely that zero do.
- Joe Johnson: Objectively, HE is the star of this team. Johnson has played over 3k minutes per season, has started 94% of the games he played in over his entire career, is rarely injured, has been the leading scorer on good playoff teams, and has more individual hardware than the rest of the team combined. Over his 15 year career he has averaged OVER 36 minutes per game. When October begins (N.B. October 1st, 2016 is the date used for each of their ages) he will be 35. Many want him to be relegated to the bench -- when just last Spring he was dropped big buckets as a starter for the Miami Heat in the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs. Really? Really? Joe Johnson signed for one fewer year than he could have gotten for the chance to by someone's caddie? Really? Okay. Quin Snyder has shown that he's not guaranteeing starting spots to anyone. Saying Johnson isn't going to have a chance to start, months before training camp even begins, would be pretty silly.
- Boris Diaw: Diaw's motivation this season is going to be in question. He's not playing for a ring with the Jazz. With how this summer ends up he could finish it with another Olympic medal around his neck as well, and probably retire from representing Team France. Objectively he could be running out of cares. With the San Antoino Spurs he had a tough head coach in Gregg Popovich and lots of peer pressure to stay in shape. Will he decided to bundle up for the cold mountain winter he's going to now have to call home? With the Charlotte Bobcats he didn't care, and was almost out of the league. If Diaw isn't getting enough burn on the court I fear that he could find himself out of "Jazz shape." He does have a non-guaranteed deal for next season. So he and the Jazz coaches are going to have to find a sweet spot between "keeping him invested and motivated" and "playing him and not playing others."
- George Hill: Within the constraints of "winning now" there's no other point guard on the roster who helps you do that more than Hill can. Considered by some to be one of the best lead guards in the league it's very easy to see that Hill is going to start. It's also going to be hard to peg him in the starting line-up and have him play fewer than 30 minutes a game.
As an aside, is George Hill a "Top" point guard? He's somewhere in that 11th to 20th range by my estimation. But he's probably closer to 20th than 11th. (Players listed by 10 player group, alphabetically.)
Anyway, back to the issue of finding minutes for all of these players...
2016-2017 Roster: Age and Experience (2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16)
Looking at the last three seasons we see that there has not been much drop off at all, for these vets.
- Joe Johnson still plays over 3k minutes a season, even if he plays two fewer minutes per game. Of note is that over the last three seasons, regular and playoffs combined, he has started 100% of the games he has suited up for. And he has suited up for 90.7 games a season in that span. He may be okay with cutting his minutes down a little more, if concessions are made. I don't know if having his minutes cut to come off the bench for a lotto team is really what he has in mind, especially without much job security (two years instead of three).
- Boris Diaw is the opposite in many ways. Yes, he also plays in over 90 games a season (thank you Spurs), but he only starts in 16.7% of those games. He does still play 22.9 MPG though. Cutting 10 minutes off of that to get him to 12? I don't know if he's going to be happy with that.
- George Hill had his minutes go up from his career average of 29.40 to 32.63 mpg over the last three years. His 2.3k minutes per season over the last three also place him third highest on the team (after Joe and G-Time). He is a proven playoff performer, like Diaw and Johnson. And that starts with helping teams win enough games to make the playoffs in the first place.
The issue here is going to be sending Hood to the bench in order to placate the idea of this veteran bias. Johnson hasn't done anything to suggest he should be benched, and he has demonstrated (like dropping 28 on the Toronto Raptors last year, as a member of the Miami Heat) that he's objectively an upgrade. Snyder has benched guys in favor of upgrades many times. Trey Burke was benched for Dante Exum. Raul Neto was benched for Shelvin Mack. Alec Burks was benched for Rodney Hood. Enes Kanter was benched for Rudy Gobert. Not every time it's an older player making way for a younger player. Younger guys end up having to sit too.
But the adage we'll always here is "it's not who starts but who finishes" that matter. And honestly, Snyder will have the benefit of mixing up who finishes every game. I don't know if he's going to similarly going to be mixing up who starts. But we shall see. One thing all three of these vets have said is that they don't care about starting -- but you can tell that playing still does matter. (Except for maybe Diaw if he doesn't care anymore.)
So let's play around with the minutes:
This is my first pass . . . and honestly, you get plenty of guys playing power forward depending on the situation -- and you still have three guys checking in at point guard. Everything else is a jungle right now. Now remember that these aren't the only guys who will see the floor this year, this is just my estimation of what I'd be "okay" with for any given game this upcoming season.
- Point Guard: George Hill (28), Dante Exum (14), Raul Neto (6)
- Shooting Guard: Joe Johnson (12), Rodney Hood (10), Gordon Hayward (10), Alec Burks (10), Dante Exum (6)
- Small Forward: Gordon Hayward (22), Rodney Hood (14), Joe Johnson (12)
- Power Forward: Derrick Favors (18), Trey Lyles (14), Boris Diaw (12), Joe Johnson (2), Gordon Hayward (2)
- Center: Rudy Gobert (32), Derrick Favors (14), Trey Lyles (2)
This isn't specifically a "problem" but I have five guys playing power forward here. In a blowout with some in-equal foul calling maybe it works out this way. It has to be like this IF the other team goes small. Most teams are trying to do that right now anyway, so like I said, it's not a problem. It's strange to see Trey Lyles get minutes at center -- but he did that last season (mainly because of some injuries). At 6'10 with his rebounding ability I don't have a problem with it though.
I'm okay with finishing the game like this, in a blowout
Anyway, the Jazz have a problem they did not previously have -- they have quality depth. Perhaps too much quality. Last season the problem was that end of bench guys were expected to be rotation guys. This year there will be some rotation guys asked to be end of bench guys. In my estimation I didn't even have Shelvin Mack, Joe Ingles, or Jeff Withey getting a single minute of action. All three of those guys would be in contract years if they make the team.