If one were to write the worst case scenario after Utah Jazz had one of their most aggressive and win-now focused offseasons, this current timeline is as close as one would come to it. The Jazz gave their fans an inconsistent season that was more like a jarring Wild Mouse amusement park ride than an uneven roller coaster. Utah’s whiplash inducing year continued today as the news broke that the Chicago Bulls had the Utah Jazz’s General Manager Justin Zanik on its shortlist of candidates to become their new Executive VP of Basketball Operations.
From big winning streaks to lottery-esque losing streaks to two players from Utah in the All-Star game to Rudy Gobert becoming an international headline for testing positive with COVID-19 that ultimately forced the NBA to shut it down, the Jazz’s luck seems as consistent as the weather. Once the NBA season was shutdown, news of a fallout between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell hit headlines in a suddenly sports starved world that was grasping for breaking news and hot gossip. Donovan thought Rudy acted carelessly. Rudy was perceived as the guy who ruined sports and infected Donovan Mitchell and countless others despite no one knowing how and where Rudy even contracted the virus. That feud feels even more petty and small as the Coronavirus pandemic has forced most of the world to be stuck at their homes as infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have increased month after month while the biggest consequences Rudy and Donovan felt from the virus physically were mild cold symptoms and a larger UberEats bill.
Donovan Mitchell hasn’t done much to quiet the reports that everything is back to business as usual in multiple interviews. Rudy Gobert seems isolated from the rest of the team—even after Quarantine—in any of his social media posts. Both players’ omissions of the other at a time when they both contracted the virus makes the whole situation unnecessarily escalated.
Which brings us to the Justin Zanik interviewing with Chicago news. Somehow by some twisted and cruel basketball god, whenever a successful Utah Jazz era is reaching its untimely demise, the Chicago Bulls play a role. The Stockton and Malone era was ended by Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Jerry Sloan and Deron William’s discord reached the breaking point the night when former Jazzman Carlos Boozer and his Bulls were in town. Now with another locker room fault line rumbling the Chicago Bulls have entered the chat. Instead of a win, they want to take hold of the man in charge in Utah.
It cannot be understated what a delicate time it is right now for the Utah Jazz as a business. Like most businesses in America, the Utah Jazz—a legacy trust led by Gail Miller—have seen their business operations halted 100%. There is no revenue coming in, including highly sought after playoff money. There is no television money. There is no money, period. Their expenses are piling up as they have over $100M+ in payroll for just players alone before they get into expenses, loans, contracts, stale inventory, operating costs, and full-time employees. The Jazz will most likely receive some relief when player contracts are inevitably frozen in the same manner as a lockout. But that means nothing when money just stops flowing.
The LHM Group announced layoffs on Friday that included an estimated ~100 people in the Utah Jazz business arm alone. Those recently laid off joined the some 1,200 part-time workers who will be receiving their last paychecks from the LHM Group this Friday that includes the $200K donation from Rudy Gobert and the matched $200K amount from the LHM Group.
The financial pain of this stoppage in play is about to get worse. Looking at the league in China, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended play on February 1st and had a plan to return April 15th. The Chinese Government told them they would not reopen. This happens amid reports that China is severely underreporting cases and deaths. It had appeared China started flattening the curve in late February, but China is now battling the next stage of this pandemic. The United States is projected in best case scenarios to flatten it’s curve around Easter, in average scenarios it flattens at end of April, and some worst case scenarios see it finally flattening towards the middle of May.
While flattening the curve around Easter would be VERY encouraging news—and mean the Stay-At-Home orders are working—that does not signal that the United States will suddenly open the gates and turn on the engines of the economy in all sectors and in all states. The Asian countries held up as the gold standard for battling this pandemic are currently seeing a lot of their hard fought efforts being undermined as they try to return to some sense of normal while keeping infection rates low.
WIRED recently put out a story about about how Asian countries who did an admirable job fighting the first wave of COVID-19 are already starting to fight the next wave of spread. It’s proving more frustrating the second time around due to travel restrictions being lifted. As you’ll see, this is why the Chinese Basketball Association cancelled the rest of their season and why the NBA will more than likely not be far behind.
The real problem is that viruses don’t know what a border is. These countries are experiencing “reimportation” of the disease, infections that are the result of inbound travelers from places that aren’t winning their fight against Covid-19.
All these countries are, after all, on the same planet. In Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, a few earlier cases from China made it through the barrier and got into the community. That resulted, throughout February, in community infections, or “unlinked local cases.” Those were worrying, but the overall spread was still slow—until the pandemic went transnational, and boomeranged back around. “There were just a small number, and then they kind of disappeared,” says Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “But at the end of February and early March we started to get more imported cases from Europe. Hong Kong got a lot from Europe, the US, and other parts of the world, and Taiwan got a lot from the US.”
That poses a problem for the United States as it is the size of the European Union and no traveling restrictions between states. It allows for the infection once beaten in an area to return with increased travel. In places like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they’re battling those new waves.
The virus’s apparent return will spur different kinds of containment measures in different places. Hong Kong’s were already strict, though they’d relaxed somewhat in the first weeks of March. Now, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan have all instituted even stricter social distancing rules and immigration controls. Nationals who are allowed in can expect 14-day quarantines, in Hong Kong and Singapore monitored by smartphone app, though those apps’ efficacy may be doubtful. (Singapore’s numbers do seem to look better since officials started quarantining everyone coming in, rather than people from specific countries.) Singapore is also closing all schools and most workplaces.
These actions are from countries that were held up as the example for nations around the world to follow as to how to prevent the virus from having community spread in their countries. These were the A+ students. The United States as we know has community spread in every state while still very far behind other first world nations in testing The USA is in the mitigation phase, not the trace and containment phase. Right now the trace and contain phase would be amazing.
As NBA owners scrape and claw for any hope of reclaiming a sliver of hope—or revenue—for a season returning in the summer as they try to conceive less than ideal plans of everyone converging on one city—see above for how to create a second wave in a city that didn’t previous have high infection rates and rampant community spread—they will inevitably see that the season is over. They can have contingency plans for if this magically goes away in the summer, but by the time that scenario can happen they’re running into another problem as Brian Windhorst wrote a few days ago:
“There comes a point where you go too far and start looking at damaging two seasons, and that is what the NBA is trying to evaluate. They do have runway here, I do think that if they had to go into August or September to finish this season, but I’m not sure they feel confident about that right now, and a big factor is testing. We just don’t have the testing. At some point not only does there have to be a test that’s quick and can evaluate whether or not a player is healthy enough to enter a game, but you have to know whether you have the tests available so you’re not taking them away from people who need them, and so right now, that’s not here. If in six or eight weeks, if it is here, we can have a different conversation, but the league is preparing for that answer to be no.”
There is not enough testing to allow players to be protected from illness right now. Hell, there’s not enough testing right now to adequately provide care for most of America right now. In just my state of Idaho, I know firsthand of individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 who also have family living in the same house as them displaying the same systems. Those family members are being refused a test because it could take a test from an even more severe case. If the NBA goes barreling toward the goal of jumpstarting in 6-8 weeks it would prove to be an abject disaster. It would also disproportionately affect the next season.
The other problem is if they try to pick up the season at the playoffs in August or September, players will be out of shape. Their meal plans, strength and conditioning, film study, and so on are so disrupted. Coming back in August and September would be some bad basketball that would also be ripe for bad injuries due to the time off. It could also be cancelled once again as Dr. Fauci has repeatedly said that while we are currently focused on the first wave, we’ll see this crop up again in the fall months. Hard to make money when no one is allowed to attend it.
All of this is to say that the next time basketball is played it could very well be 2021. It is currently being rumored to return in June with all teams meeting in Arizona while playing in front of empty stadiums. But it seems pretty gutsy to bring that many players and personnel into one place where there’s a population that’s disproportionately older than the rest of the United States. My honest prediction is in March of 2021 after what is projected to be the end of a possible third wave. By that time—God willing—the United States should have widespread and quick testing that is available for everyone. We will have adjusted our workspaces to be more social distanced. More people will work from home. Classrooms will be smaller. Our nation could very well be on its way to naturally gaining a small form of herd immunity. Businesses will have had plenty of time to implement ways of screening people before entering with a verification of some kind that they have tested negative that day or week for the virus (or have already contracted it and gone through the required quarantine period).
In the time off, the NBA may play some form of Adam Silver’s tournament in December/January giving fans a chance to see some basketball and see their new free agent signings, trade acquisitions, and draft picks—albeit in a crowdless arena. The NBA’s team will have time to install the proper equipment needed for allowing fans in—appropriately social distanced, of course—to their arenas while making them compliant in a nation that still is without a vaccine. By the time April runs around, the NBA will start their new season right after March Madness finishes while playing in front of nobody or small crowds spaced out.
By the time the season ends in the fall, a vaccine could be introduced. There’s even a small possibility the NBA could come close to a moral victory 60% if arena capacity sellout in the last game of the NBA Finals. That’s still in the best case scenario of a vaccine arriving to market in record time with no hiccups and ramping up production in a country that somehow still can’t ramp up production of cotton swaps, face masks, face shields, and ventilators.
The Utah Jazz are staring down the barrel of hold onto your butts scenario. The LHM Group is looking at the prospect of a prolonged Economic Recession—and possibly a Depression—as the majority of their revenue is earned through auto sales in their dealerships and through providing financing through their own company Prestige. Not exactly the best businesses to be in while in a recession with no past pandemic precedent. Luckily, the Utah Jazz are in a legacy trust or by the time the NBA is able to earn a nickel, even Gail Miller would be thinking twice about an offer sheet for the sale of the Utah Jazz.
This economic outlook could be why Justin Zanik was so quick to click the link to the Zoom Meeting with the Chicago Bulls. The Utah Jazz have a projected cap figure of $118M in 2020-2021 with only 11 players, 8 of which are guaranteed. Next year’s luxury tax is currently set at $132M. But once the dust settles on the economic fallout from this whole shutdown, that could fall MUCH further down. Imagine if the Utah Jazz are above the luxury tax before they get to the NBA Draft or enter Free Agency.
The NBA will most likely waive the luxury tax and possibly the salary cap for such a gap year, but how many franchises will be in well enough financial shape to be ready to throw down money to compete once basketball is back? Justin Zanik hit the accelerator toward win now mode upon stepping into the GM role by trading for Mike Conley, signing Bojan Bogdanovic, trading for Jordan Clarkson, and signing Royce O’Neale to an extension. But how will a franchise that’s operated at such a loss for so many months react now?
If the NBA doesn’t pick up their season until 2021, the Utah Jazz’s decision concerning Rudy Gobert and his ability to negotiate a supermax deal is no longer a year away. It’s staring them right in the face. Rudy in this scenario would be almost 29 and would be finishing his final year in Utah at age 34. Is Utah ready to commit that amount of money to Gobert when they’re still a year away from being able to safely have their first sellout crowd again?
If the NBA doesn’t pick up their season until 2021, will Utah want to have Mike Conley’s max contract on the books? Mike Conley would be 33 when the season begins and 34 before the playoffs. The same would go for Joe Ingles much more team friendly contract that may not feel as team friendly once the salary cap reflects the actual revenue numbers from this season.
Another punch to the gut would be Utah’s best free agent signing since Carlos Boozer, Bojan Bogdanovic. He would be just about to turn 32 when the season would finally be back and now would be finishing out his contract at age 35.
Jordan Clarkson would be almost 29.
The only players 25 and under by that point would Donovan Mitchell, Jarrell Brantley, Juwan Morgan, Miye Oni, Rayjon Tucker, Justin Wright-Foreman, and Tony Bradley. If you’re thinking that Royce O’Neale would be near that. You’re wrong. He’d be almost 28 and his contract extension would now put him in Utah until he’s 32.
The Utah Jazz’s win now bill is about to come due much sooner than previously anticipated. Justin Zanik might be interested in Chicago because Chicago has a wider array of young prospects, a 32% chance of drafting Top 4, and doesn’t have an aging roster with an expiration date that just got moved up. He has the ability to build there in the near present while in Utah he could soon be asked to completely tear it down.
If Utah is playing in front of sparce crowds next season, the may talk themselves into jump starting a rebuild in time for what could be the deepest draft in NBA history.
Justin Zanik’s GM position could very well stay vacant for the next couple years as the Utah Jazz look to conserve costs. With the revenue trouble that awaits the Utah Jazz, there’s a very real scenario that we see Utah go into fire sale mode to cut the biggest costs from their business: their player payroll. Utah’s contention window may have slammed shut that night in Oklahoma City.
Before this pandemic many thought Utah could look significantly different again next season as they continued to shoot the gap on this wide open championship window. Now the Utah Jazz could look significantly different because there is no target to hit.
Somehow Utah’s contention windows are cyclical. They get lucky in the draft and find superstars without a top 3 pick, they develop diamonds in the rough to punch above their weight, and when they get close to reaching their potential, the Bulls are waiting there—either literally or symbolically—at the end of the line to let them know that time has run out.
Et tu, Brute?