The players are like everybody else. They saw what happened last season and they know that we know that we need some reinforcements. Come early July, we plan on being very active in the free-agent market. —Utah Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey
SALT LAKE CITY — If things go as planned for the Utah Jazz in the next couple of weeks, management probably won’t joke about returning injured players being their free-agent pickups as they’ve done in the past.
Though Utah brass like their young core — including rehabbing Dante Exum and Alec Burks, both expected to be healthy by training camp — the organization has an offseason objective of fortifying the roster.
That means, if possible, acquiring more talent via free agency and/or trades.
Securing veteran playmaker George Hill — whom ESPN’s Zach Lowe described as “a really good point guard” — was a good start for this playoff-hungry franchise.
But Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey has even more in mind. He's used words like "active" and "aggressive" in describing how his staff will approach the upcoming free-agency period.
In retrospect, Lindsey took responsibility for not having enough depth on the Jazz roster in 2015-16 to help Quin Snyder deal with the unexpected rash of injuries that the team experienced, including to Exum, Burks, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.
“We’re not going to sit here and alibi. Every single sports team has injuries,” Lindsey said the day after the team’s 40-42 season ended a couple of wins shy of a playoff spot. “Ultimately, I’m the most responsible up here on the dais — not Quin, not the coaches, not the players — about roster construction.”
The Jazz’s plan last offseason seemed to make sense. The team had finished the 2014-15 season on a tear, winning 21 of their final 32 games led by a dominating defensive surge.
Instead of rolling the dice on acquiring experienced free agents to bolster the up-and-comers, Lindsey & Co. opted to gamble on youth. Injuries — and a late-season collapse — made that plan backfire on a team that came oh-so-close but not close enough.
“The criticism,” Lindsey said, “is fair about low payroll and not addressing issues at the trade deadline. If there’s one criticism you could make that’s fair it’s that we erred toward chemistry, continuity and continued development.”
Then again, Lindsey pointed out there were statistical models that showed that the Jazz were more in the range of a 46-win team rather than a 40-win one. He liked the team’s positive point differential, that “to a man all of our players improved individually” and that the Jazz improved from 12th to seventh in defensive efficiency.
It excites Snyder to have the vast majority of that team returning. The only player on the 2015-16 squad who will enter free agency when it opens on July 1 (technically 10 p.m. June 30) is backup power forward Trevor Booker.
“I’m very comfortable with the number of returning players, the core that we have, the internal improvement in addition to some reasonable projections (for future success),” Lindsey said. “We’re not going to arbitrarily try to speed up the timeline or slow it down to be more process-oriented. Every season is quite unique. This (last) one was a little more disjointed.”
Lindsey foreshadowed last week’s trade for Hill at his end-of-the-season interview, saying the team would look at using some of its picks to get another veteran player if the opportunity presented itself.
In doing so, the Jazz filled one of their biggest needs going ahead.
While Exum remains the future at point guard for Utah, having the 30-year-old Hill on board for at least one season allows the young Aussie to gradually reintroduce himself back into the NBA game with much less pressure. Hill, who’ll be in his eighth season, also gives the Jazz an experienced player for the locker room, adds some offensive punch from the outside and puts another strong defensive player in the lineup.
The Jazz certainly don’t have a shortage of point guards for now. Counting Hill and the two late second-round selections — North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Cal’s Tyrone Wallace — Utah now has seven point guards to figure out what to do with this upcoming season.
The team’s biggest needs now include finding another solid wing who can defend and be an outside threat and perhaps a backup center who can stretch the floor.
It's possible the Jazz could fill those needs with current players in their system, through a trade or two, or through free agency.
Utah only has 1-3 roster spots open — depending on if it picks up contracts for Shelvin Mack, Jeff Withey and Chris Johnson — although that figures to change with the team’s need to thin out that packed point guard platoon. The most likely scenario would seem to be trading away Trey Burke, Shelvin Mack and/or Raul Neto.
Utah has plenty of money to use for a free-agent shopping spree, depending on what level of player it goes after.
With Hill, the team’s guaranteed salary for next year is $64.6 million. Throw in an additional $4.5 million with the contracts of Mack, Withey and Johnson, and the Jazz are still well below 2016-17’s projected salary floor of $84.6 million and far below the $94 million salary cap and $113 million tax level.
“We saw what happened last year,” Lindsey said. “We did have a young group. We were underneath the cap. We did get hurt. We fell short of one of our goals to reach the second season. Because of that, I think all of you and us expect that there’s going to be a lot of competition on our roster.”
To that point, Lindsey said he and Snyder’s staff are preparing themselves — and letting players know — that there might be nights when players are upset about not starting, not getting the ball as much as they’d like or not being a finisher.
The more choices, the merrier, right?
That’s why you could see the Jazz pursue free-agent wings who can compete for minutes like Jared Dudley (who, by the way, recently said he’d love to play for Utah on Twitter), Leandro Barbosa, Solomon Hill, Kent Bazemore or Evan Turner. Heck, maybe the Jazz will even get in the running for Manu Ginobili or Pau Gasol. It’s possible they could bring back guys who’ve worn Jazz uniforms, too, such as Booker or forward Marvin Williams.
And why not have a pipe dream and go after Kevin Durant and LeBron James?
Lindsey won’t give clues as to whom they’ll pursue, but they do have a list of guys they’re going to try to lure.
“If we do this the right way with the right character — and Quin’s such a good communicator — we’ll be able to manage the season better,” Lindsey said. “The players are like everybody else. They saw what happened last season and they know that we know that we need some reinforcements. Come early July, we plan on being very active in the free-agent market.”