Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
For those Jazz fans that have been living in a cave or under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a quick update to get you caught up:
Through Monday's contest against Miami, the Jazz have played 27 games and have the second-worst winning percentage in the NBA with a record of 6-21.
The statistics don’t look any better. The Jazz have been outplayed by their opponents in virtually every meaningful statistic: points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, rebounding, turnovers, assists, steals and blocks.
Now, before you go stark raving mad, here’s the good news: Nobody cares, and neither should you. This is the season of discovery. It’s the year of the youth movement. It’s a beginning point for the future.
In other words, this season for the Jazz is not about winning games. Virtually no one predicted the Jazz would make the playoffs or contend for a championship this year and, well, sometimes the experts are right.
If there was a Jazz player, coach, fan or front office member that was optimistic enough before the season to believe the Jazz would compete for the playoffs, surely they have adjusted their thinking after just six wins in 27 tries.
So, under the assumption that the Jazz have no chance of making the playoffs this season, what then is the purpose of the team’s final 55 games?
The purpose is for the Jazz to do everything they possibly can to set themselves up for future playoff runs and serious contention.
The target is the 2016-17 season.
Coach Tyrone Corbin has 240 minutes to give out per game. These minutes should be divided up with an eye toward the 2016-17 season. Every strategy the Jazz implement, every play call they make, should be done with an eye toward the future. Everything the Jazz do should be with an eye toward that season.
The 2016-17 season is three years from now and is the earliest anyone can realistically expect the next title-contending era of Utah Jazz basketball to begin. If the Jazz play their cards right and avoid major injuries, that season could be the beginning of a very nice window for the Jazz to compete for an NBA championship for a number of years.
Here is a glimpse of what the 2016-17 team might look like:
Center Enes Kanter: Kanter, the former third-overall pick, will be 24 years old and going into his sixth NBA season. Look for Kanter to be making $8-$12 million that season based on his current growth curve.
Power forward Derrick Favors: Favors, another third-overall pick, will be 25 years old and going into his seventh NBA season. Favors is already under contract for that season and will make about $11 million.
Small forward Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker: Assuming the Jazz are able to get one of the top three picks in next year’s draft, they should be able to land one of these two guys. Wiggins or Parker will be going into their third NBA season in 2016-17 and will still be on a rookie contract, making between $4-$5 million. To contend the Jazz will need their first pick in the 2014 NBA draft to be a top-10 NBA player by his third season.
Shooting guard Gordon Hayward: Hayward will be 26 years old and going into his seventh NBA season. Look for Hayward to be making $12-$15 million by then.
Point guard Trey Burke: Burke will be 24 years old and going into his fourth NBA season. He will be on the final year of his rookie contract that will pay him about $3.4 million.
Guard Alec Burks: Burks will be 25 years old and going into his sixth NBA season. Look for Burks to make $7-$10 million that season.
Center Rudy Gobert: Gobert will be 24 years old and going into his fourth NBA season. Like Burke, he will be in the final year of his rookie contract that will pay him about $2.1 million.
Top-13 pick in 2015 NBA draft: Plan on the 2014-15 season being an extension of the youth movement. Look for the Jazz to make big improvements during the 2014-15 season but not enough to make the playoffs. If they end up with a top-5 pick in that draft, consider this a sign that the current core is not good enough to compete for a title. The player the Jazz take with this pick will be in his second NBA season and should make about $2 million in 2016-17.
Warriors’ pick in 2014 NBA draft: The Jazz acquired the Warriors’ first-round pick in a trade this past offseason. The Warriors started hot this season but have cooled considerably, which is good for the Jazz. Right now the Warriors have the 12th-best record in the league which would put the Jazz’s pick around No. 18. The player the Jazz select here will be going into his third NBA season and will be making about $1.5 million in 2016-17.
Forward Jeremy Evans: Evans will be 29 years old and going into his seventh NBA season. Evans has been playing more minutes this season and is showing he can be an effective role player in the league.
The luxury tax threshold this current NBA season is nearly $72 million. It should go up over the next few seasons. Even if you take the high-end on all salary predictions for the players projected to be on the Jazz’s roster in 2016-17, it would only put the team at right around a $62 million payroll. This should leave the Jazz plenty of room to fill out the roster, re-sign Burke after the season and maintain sufficient payroll flexibility moving forward.
By no means is the Jazz’s rebuilding plan a safe bet to lead them to title contention. There are many potential obstacles in the way, some of which the Jazz control and some of which they don't.
The Jazz do not control, or at least do not fully control, player health, player development, and players like Hayward, Burks and Kanter choosing to re-sign with the team after their rookie contracts expire.
As real as those threats may be, the single biggest threat to the Jazz’s rebuilding plan is team management. The Jazz must make certain they do not get in their own way. The front office and coaches must be on the same page.
Dennis Lindsey, the team’s general manager, has to ensure that the coaches realize and appreciate that every minute given to players that are not likely to be major contributors for the Jazz three seasons from now is essentially a minute gone to waste.
The same goes for next season.
There is no long-term upside to the Jazz giving guys like Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams or Andres Biedrins significant minutes. The concept of any of those guys playing more minutes than any player that is more likely to be contributing in 2016-17 is nothing short of bad team management.
There should not be a single Jazz fan that wants to see, in any game, Jefferson play more than Burks, Williams play more than Kanter or Biedrins play more than Gobert.
The fact that the Jazz sent Gobert to the D-League is proof that fans could have legitimate reasons to worry about the Jazz getting in their own way.
Think about it. If the Jazz’s purpose this season has nothing to do with making the playoffs then it has everything to do with player development. Players develop by getting on the court in meaningful situations and learning the difference between doing things right and doing things wrong. For a vast majority of players this means learning some hard lessons and making a lot of mistakes.
Players cannot make meaningful mistakes that help them grow from the bench.
The Jazz make a mistake and get in their own way every time their coach worries about matchups with the other team this season or pulls a young player for making mistakes. The only long-term thing that makes sense for the Jazz is to give Favors, Burke, Hayward, Kanter and Burks 36 minutes per game. Gobert and Evans should get between 15-20 minutes per game. The other 20-30 minutes per game? Who cares?
If the Jazz follow that blueprint they will give the players of the future maximum opportunity to develop. They will also, as a convenient bonus, set themselves up for a top-3 draft pick next summer.
Every big move or small decision the Jazz make this season, and for the foreseeable future, must be preceded by this overriding question: How does this move make us better in 2016-17?
Nate Gagon is a published sports, music, and creative writer. He is also a wholehearted father, grateful husband and ardent student of life. He shoots roughly 94% from the free throw line and can be reached at: email@example.com or @nategagon.
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