Utah Jazz: Molding the team for the future

Paul Millsap has nothing to prove to Jazz fans

The summer of 2013 is going to bring a lot of changes to the Jazz franchise. With Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Marvin Williams the only contributors returning for the 2013-14 season, there are holes all over the court for them to fill in what is shaping up to be a very top-heavy free agent class. This future uncertainty has fueled a lot of debates both around town and online as to whether the Jazz should trade either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, or maybe try to move both in a move to free up minutes for the next generation of tall guys РKanter and Derrick Favors Рor at least guarantee a semblance of a respectable roster for the future.

One thing is clear: keeping both Jefferson and Millsap doesn’t make much sense for the team moving forward. And let’s be honest with ourselves: finding a serviceable four is a hell of a lot easier than finding a two-way center like Al Jefferson – whose defensive numbers have slipped a bit this season, but is in the prime of his career at 28. The other free agent options at the center position this summer aren’t promising: outside of Dwight Howard and the never-healthy Chris Kaman, the center market in July is highlighted by Andray Blatche and the precarious knees of Andrew Bynum.

By comparison, there are a lot more intriguing power forwards on the market who could either start or more realistically, back-up Favors, providing his development continues to trend in the right direction during the second half. A small sampling of capable fours available this summer (that the Jazz could realistically sign): David West, JJ Hickson, Earl Clark, Carl Landry (who has a player option), and Elton Brand. All players who could be signed for under $10 million a year, leaving the Jazz with plenty of room for both a max contract, and some flexibility to fill out the rest of the roster.

It goes without saying I think the Jazz should not only keep Jefferson, but re-sign in the off-season. Big men who can rebound on both ends like Jefferson are hard to find – no matter how frustrating his constant pump fakes and inability to recognize a double team can be at times. Keeping him on the roster should be priority 1 for the Jazz – and by the same token, moving Paul Millsap before the trade deadline should be high on that list.

What the Jazz needs are guards under contract past this season: the starting backcourt of Williams and Foye will be unrestricted free agents after this season, as well as Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson, and Raja Bell. Foye should be an easy re-sign at $3-5 million a year, but finding two point guard replacements will be more difficult in free agency – a class that includes Chris Paul, restricted free agents Brandon Jennings and Steph Curry, and some second-tier options like Chauncey Billups, Jose Calderon, and Aaron Brooks.

With that in mind, fans of the Jazz should keep a close eye on the Toronto Raptors. If they decide to move Andrea Bargnani or Ed Davis to the Grizzlies as part of a trade for Rudy Gay (or elsewhere), the Jazz should inquire about Kyle Lowry, a player with borderline All-Star talents whose personality is clearing not jiving with the Toronto organization. As a starter over the past three seasons, Lowry has put up per-36 minute averages of about 15 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals a game – and under three turnovers, the most important number. Best of all, he’s only 26, and will be entering a contract year in 2013-14 (his $6.2 million salary becomes guaranteed in mid-July).

His defense and rounded game would fit perfectly with the size-heavy Jazz, who have some athleticism and shooting ability with Foye, Hayward, and Williams – three players whose inability to create space show the need for a point guard with great vision. It makes sense for the Raptors as well: Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray will both be unrestricted free agents, and will need to restock their line-up with some versatile power forwards to pair with Davis or Bargnani (whoever remains) moving forward. Assuming they’ve removed Bargnani from the books, it frees up salary for them to re-sign Millsap, who will probably be looking somewhere in the high end of $8-10 million when he becomes a free agent.

$6.2 million for a starting point guard also gives the Jazz room to sign a few shooters – a player like Nick Young looks intriguing on a Jazz team that’s great on the offensive boards with Jefferson, Favors and Kanter, catching passes from Lowry and a back-up like Tinsley or Jarrett Jack, another unrestricted free agent this summer. Some might be in favor of keeping Mo Williams, but at 30 years old with declining numbers, his inconsistent shooting and below-average defense at his position makes him a one and done candidate when the off-season arrives.

With only $17.8 million guaranteed on the books next season ($26.1 if you count Marvin William’s early termination year), the Jazz have a lot of player decisions to make over the next six months to shape their franchise for the next three or four seasons. The most important of these is the future of the team’s front court, which will shape the team’s identity for years to come. Trading Millsap is but one of many options the Jazz have, but for my money, flipping him for Kyle Lowry would be a step in the right direction.