With July ending, the NBA free agency period is about over. While there are still a few notable names on the market, most teams have filled out their rosters for the upcoming season after giving out well over $2 billion combined in total contracts. The question is how much all that activity has really shifted the balance of power in the league. Because of the way the CBA sets things up, players don’t hit the open market until their third contract in the NBA. By that time, they have played almost a decade professionally and have put a ton of miles on their body.
Unless there is a 26-year-old LeBron James switching teams, the most important developments league-wide happen well below the radar and far away from the headlines. Younger players get better and come into their own while older players decline and get worse. Basketball is a young man’s game and there are hungry players gunning for more minutes and more touches on almost every team in the NBA. Internal improvement, more than anything else, is what ends up telling the tale.
That’s why the team that improved the most summer may have been the team that spent the least. The Utah Jazz stayed out of free agency, shelling out a little over $4 million, in large part because they didn’t have to. They have a very impressive young core that started to come together in the 2nd half of the season and they are trying to fill every hole in their roster internally. In the process, they could be showing the blueprint for building an elite team in the modern NBA. Draft size and speed at every position, emphasize tools over NCAA production and assemble a group whose games fit well together. Most important of all, be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Utah started putting this core together in 2010 and they are only starting to reap the rewards in 2015.
PG - Dante Exum (20) - I wrote about Exum last week. He’s a prime example of the importance of patience and the ability to see the forest through the trees when it comes to evaluating a young player. Utah could have looked at his up-and-down rookie season and panicked. Instead, they looked at his elite size and speed for his position, his all-around skill-set and kept in mind the inherent difficulty in going from Australian high school basketball to the NBA. The fact that Exum was able to survive at all as a 19-year-old rookie is a testament to how special a player he has a chance to be.
SG - Alec Burks (24) - Burks seemed to really be putting things together under Quin Snyder, which made his season-ending shoulder injury all the more unfortunate. Getting him back for a full season is a huge upgrade for the Jazz, who were starting the offensively-challenged Joe Ingles for most of the year. At 6’6 210 with a 6’10 wingspan, Burks has prototypical size and speed for a wing player and has steadily improved in his four seasons in the league. He came in as primarily a slasher and he has improved as a shooter, a distributor and a defensive player. Shooting and floor spacing was the biggest need on the Jazz roster and Burks’ return should play a huge role in addressing that.
SF - Gordon Hayward (25) - Hayward has had to take more than his fair share of licks over the last few seasons, almost single-handedly carrying the load for Utah on offense. The most impressive part of his growth has been the steady improvement in terms of production, efficiency and usage to where he is one of the best two-way wing players in the league. At 6’8 225 with a 6’8 wingspan, Hayward is a complete player who has proven himself as a primary option and who can swing between a number of positions on both sides of the ball. If Utah ends up making the playoffs, he looks in line for what could be the first of many All-Star nods.
PF - Derrick Favors (24) - Favors is another example of how patient the Jazz have been in terms of waiting on their young players. He came into the league as a 19-year old lump of clay with a ton of physical potential and not much else. It took him three seasons to be a starter and four seasons to become a good two-way player and he’s now a 24-year old headed into his 6th season who is quickly becoming one of the better C’s in the league. The biggest question in Utah going forward is how well the duo of Favors and Rudy Gobert can play together on offense, although smart rotation patterns means both should spend a good amount of the game as the primary rim protector in a four-out system.
C - Rudy Gobert (23) - The original plan in Utah was to have Favors and Enes Kanter as the frontcourt of the future. The presence of Gobert aka The Stifle Tower meant that wasn’t going to work out and it shows the importance of racking up a lot of draft picks (they gave the Denver Nuggets cash and a second-round pick for him at No. 27 in 2013) and taking gambles on guys with physical tools. There may not be anyone in NBA history who has played quite like Gobert, who checks in at 7’2 240 with a historic 7’9 wingspan. His presence in the middle helped turn the Jazz into one of the best defenses of the NBA, flipping the script on how young teams usually make their mark, and the sky’s the limit for him in terms of his impact on the game. Along with Favors, Utah is counting on Gobert to continue improving as a shooter and an interior passer and learning how to play off one another in tight spaces upfront. More shooting on the perimeter should help both as well.
PG - Trey Burke (23) - Burke has probably been their one miss in the lottery and perhaps not coincidentally he’s also the smallest and least athletic player in their core. Playing a role on a second-unit as an instant offense guy and secondary playmaker might be a better use for Burke’s skills, although he will need to improve as a long-range shooter. A guy with his size and speed isn’t going to make an impact in the NBA if he can’t challenge defenses from 25+ feet. The model for him at this point in his career should probably be DJ Augustin, another undersized PG taken at No. 9 overall who has carved out a nice career for himself as a 2nd-unit scorer.
SG/SF - Rodney Hood (23) - The Jazz are expecting a lot from Hood, who is coming off a really solid rookie season as a scorer and shooter off the bunch. Like a lot of their guys, the biggest plus for Hood is how big he is for his position. At 6’8 215 with a 6’9 wingspan, guys with his size should not be able to run off screens, shoot the ball from distance and create offense for himself off the dribble. One of their biggest needs off the bench is a two-way wing who can be a volume shooter from 3 and open up the floor for everyone else so Hood fits perfectly with what they are trying to do. Looking back on it, a plus shooter with his physical measurements should probably not have fallen as far in the draft as he did.
PF - Trey Lyles (19) - I wrote a lot about Lyles leading up to the draft. I don’t expect him to have a huge role as a rookie but I think he fits well with what Utah is building and he’s a perfect example of the market inefficiency they have been exploiting in the draft. The Jazz didn’t really care about his stats at Kentucky because they knew he was a PF playing out of position as a SF. Lyles is a very-well rounded player with great physical tools for his position and he has a good chance to become one of the best players in this draft from the No. 12 spot. He needs to improve as a shooter but his ability to play out of the high post, put the ball on the floor and make passes in tight spaces should allow him to complement Gobert and Favors.
If you look at this group as a whole, the first thing that stands out is how big they are. Burke is the only undersized guy. Everyone else goes 6’6, 6’6, 6’8, 6’8, 6’10, 6’11, 7’2. The Jazz have the size and physicality to compete on a nightly basis in the NBA on the defensive side of the ball, which is not something you expect to see for a team as young as they are. They are a Rocky Mountain version of the Milwaukee Bucks except with a lot more three-point shooting.
The second thing is how well all these young pieces fit together and how many options and different types of line-ups Snyder will have on a given night. On the perimeter, they can slide Exum and Hayward between three positions and Burks between either wing spot. They can bring in a smaller change of pace guard like Burke off the bench or a versatile, super-sized shooter in Hood. They have one of the most unique frontcourt duos in the NBA in Gobert and Favors and they can play them in more conventional line-ups with Lyles at PF or in small-ball line-ups with one of their 6’8 wings moving down a spot. Everyone in their core does something a little different and they all have their own unique role they can play going forward.
They didn’t bring in anyone notable in free agency because they didn’t want to block any of their young players. The only things they need on the market are finding veterans who can fit into small roles and complement what they already have. Soon enough, they are going to have to pay all of these guys and that’s what you really want to spend your money on. They knew Kanter was probably not going to be worth the contract his statistics warranted because they had seen him up close and personal over the last three years. That’s what’s so often forgotten in free agency - a lot of times you end up paying for guys other teams don’t really want, which is why they were on the market in the first place.
In a best-case scenario, Utah is going to be able to fill just about every hole in their roster in-house, with players they are intimately familiar with after drafting and developing them through their rookie contracts. They will have a group of guys who have grown and gelled on and off the court moving into the prime of their careers together. In a league where half of the rosters turn over every season, the Jazz will have a huge edge in continuity and culture. They don’t need to wait until declining players hit the open market because they are getting improving players right when they come into the NBA and they can coach them up before they have had the chance to develop a lot of bad habits. Salt Lake City may not be an attractive market in free agency but they’ve set it up so that it doesn’t have to be.