SALT LAKE CITY — The Toronto Raptors are one win away from claiming their first NBA championship. Monday night they could be the champs or it could happen later this week. Or perhaps they’ll end up being the runner-ups if Golden State manages to wake up and win three straight games, including two in Toronto.
Whatever happens, it brings up the question — why can’t the Utah Jazz be the next Toronto Raptors?
We’ve heard the refrain for months, even years, that until the Jazz get a third big-name player to go with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, they aren’t going to contend for an NBA championship.
But what if they don’t need another top-line player to get there?
The Raptors are getting it done with one superstar and a collection of good role players, somewhat similar to what the Detroit Pistons did 15 years ago when they won a title over the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers featuring Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone.
Certainly Kawhi Leonard is one of the top 10 players in the league. Beyond that, you could argue the Raptors don’t even have a player that ranks among the top 10 at their respective positions.
Kyle Lowry is a solid point guard, who’s earning a max salary of $30-plus million, but at age 33, he averaged just 14.2 points this year, just below his career average. He’s a career 42.4 shooter and 36.7 from 3-point range and his career assist average is 6.1.
Marc Gasol has been one of the NBA’s top centers in recent years, but at 34 is clearly past his prime. Since being traded to Toronto, he’s averaged 9.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. Serge Ibaka played above his career numbers this year, but he’s not any better than Derrick Favors. Former G-League player Pascal Siakam is an up-and-coming player with a bright future, but still inconsistent.
So what can the Jazz do to take the next step and become a legitimate contender in the Western Conference?
The Jazz know free agents Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler aren’t walking through that door next month.
Some of the names being bandied about this offseason as possible Jazz gets include the likes of Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, D'Angelo Russell and Malcolm Brogdon.
If the Jazz could corral one of those guys, it would improve their team, assuming they don’t have to give up a key component from their current team. But realistically, the chances of getting one of those players isn’t great, especially the ones that can make a bunch more money by staying with their present team.
Because the Jazz aren’t likely to go over the salary cap as teams like Golden State have done, they may have to set their sights a little lower and grab a couple of free agents who will fit in with their culture while adding some scoring punch.
It looks like the Jazz aren’t holding onto free agent Ricky Rubio, whose inconsistent offense and defensive inefficiencies make him expendable. Utah is committed to Dante Exum for two more seasons at $9.6 million per year and if the former No. 5 draft pick ever lives up to the expectations of when he was drafted, he could be the answer as a backcourt mate for Mitchell. But Exum’s history of injuries and lack of improvement as an outside shooter tells you otherwise.
The available free agents the Jazz might want to take a look at include Terrence Ross, Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Trevor Ariza, Darren Collison, Seth Curry, Marcus Morris and Thaddeus Young. Some of those guys are wing players and some are inside players, which the Jazz may not need if they hold onto Favors.
Maybe what the Jazz could do is go after a couple of lower-tier free agents such as Danny Green and Patrick Beverley, who are both defensive-minded, not too old (31 and 30, respectively) and can take the load off Mitchell in the backcourt.
Green has nearly a decade of playoff experience and he shoots well — his 45.5 percentage from 3 this year was a career high on a career-high number of attempts — and has made the NBA all-defensive team. He also has that San Antonio connection the Jazz seem to love.
Beverley is known for his aggressive defense — remember how he hounded the Warrior stars in the Clippers’ first-round series in April? — who has also made the NBA all-defensive team. His career average of 9.0 ppg is not going to impress, but he’s a better shooter than Rubio (39.7 from 3 last year) and a better defensive player, though a bit undersized at 6-foot-1.27 comments on this story
Green made $10 million last year and Beverley $5 million. If the Jazz could sign those players for similar salaries, it would add up to the same as what they paid Rubio last year.
We’re just three weeks away from the start of free agency and the guess from here is the Jazz will make a few moves this offseason. But rather than get a big-time signee, they may be able to improve their team and get out of that No. 5 spot in the West with some subtle moves that don’t break the bank and mortgage the team’s future.