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Ball Don't Lie

Utah Jazz stand pat at trade deadline, hang on to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, other expiring deals

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson impersonate the 2013 trade deadline. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Heading into Thursday's 3 p.m. EST NBA trade deadline, plenty of speculation surrounded which path the Utah Jazz would take. The team has been careful about its payroll structure in recent years, hitting the reset button during the 2010-11 season following the resignation/retirement of head coach Jerry Sloan by trading (then-)franchise point guard Deron Williams, who was in line for a big payday following the 2011-12 season, to the (then-)New Jersey Nets in exchange for 2010 No. 3 pick Derrick Favors, depreciating asset Devin Harris and a pair of first-round draft picks. They turned the Nets' 2011 first-rounder into Turkish center Enes Kanter; barring a major collapse by a seemingly playoff-bound team, they'll get the Golden State Warriors' No. 1 this year.

With the exception of center Al Jefferson, whose five-year, $65 million contract the team brought in prior to blowing things up, and versatile forward Paul Millsap, who's a pretty good bargain at the $8-million-per deal he got when Utah matched the Portland Trail Blazers' offer sheet for him back in 2009, the Jazz have largely controlled costs. They've relied on short-term, short-money veterans to play roles and sop up minutes, and chosen to bide their time until they could build around developing young players like Favors, Kanter, swingman Gordon Hayward and guard Alec Burks. Only those four players, 25-year-old jumping jack Jeremy Evans and 2012 second-rounder Kevin Murphy have contracts beyond next season; only those six players plus small forward Marvin Williams are presently on the books for next season.

Jefferson's a top-flight low-post scorer and defensive rebounder who might stink on defense, but never turns the ball over, can shoot from midrange and can go toe-to-toe with any post defender in the NBA. Millsap is a reliably efficient scorer and rebounder with improving range who, while not a great defender, is an opportunistic one who generates a lot of steals. They are both 28 years old, healthy and on expiring contracts. These are players (Millsap, especially) who, in theory, could have been helpful to contenders, and whose jettisoning at this year's deadline could have netted Utah a piece to add to that young core, while also opening up minutes for Favors and Kanter.

And yet ...

... they did nothin'. (Kind of like most other teams.)

There's been a lot of negative reaction to the lack of movement from Jazz fans — just check the mentions on the Twitter accounts of Oram, the team's beat writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, and SLC Dunk, SB Nation's Jazz blog — and that's understandable. Given the team's persistent, slow-boil build toward returning to contention, coming to this year's deadline with a pair of actual assets on expiring contracts — plus several other about-to-be-up deals (shooting guard Randy Foye, point guards Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley, wing DeMarre Carroll, working-his-way-back-from-injury Mo Williams and forgotten man Raja Bell) — seemed like a great opportunity to scour the league for players that could slot in alongside Favors, Kanter, Hayward and Burks.

This is why a lot of people got excited at the rumor of Utah flipping Millsap to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for third-year guard Eric Bledsoe, a dynamic young backcourt performer who, while certainly not a perfect point guard and floor general right now, appears to be a developing talent with worlds of potential that's being somewhat throttled due to limited opportunity in L.A. The problem is, that deal — along with others returning premium young talent or attractive picks — sounds like it might not have actually been on the table, based on first-year Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey's post-deadline chat with reporters, including the Tribune's Oram:

While Lindsey joked that the Jazz said "no" to 30 different trades, he declined to put an actual number on it. He said the Jazz were "very" popular in trade talks, but that they didn't feel any of the offers met a high Jazz standard.

"Our highest goal was something that would serve us well now and serve us well later," Lindsey said. "We were very strong in pursuing that but when we added it up there wasn't anything that was better than what we had." [...]

In recent weeks, the Jazz were rumored to be in talks with San Antonio, Phoenix and New Jersey, but a suggested trade that would have brought Clippers' guard Eric Bledsoe to town seemed to be most popular among fans.

Without getting specific, Lindsey said, "a lot of stuff that was out there was completely inaccurate."

This is the flip-side of having players in or near their primes on expiring contracts who are set to hit the market in the offseason — other teams don't exactly feel like they've got to knock your socks off with trade offers to get players they can sign without giving up assets in 4 1/2 months. Lindsey also talked about the importance of retaining the flexibility that Utah's worked hard to create — when their eight expiring contracts come off the books this summer, they'll have only a little over $26 million committed to seven players, affording them plenty of room to pursue talent in free agency or (more likely) in trade this offseason, as they add to their young nucleus with two (likely post-lottery) first-round picks. And Marvin Williams, 26, can opt out after this season if he wants; if he does, Utah would have less than $19 million committed and even more room to play with. (It's unlikely anyone will rush to offer him a multi-year deal to provide disappointing sub-league-average play, but hey, it could happen.)

Plus, y'know, they Jazz are playing well right now, having won five of eight and seven of 10 to improve to 31-24, a half-game back of the Warriors for sixth in the West and three games back of the Denver Nuggets for fifth. They just got Hayward back and healthy, Burks is starting to show flashes in increased minutes over the past dozen or so games, Mo Williams is about to come back from being on the shelf with a right thumb injury; led by two more months of Jefferson and Millsap, they're looking like a pretty sound bet to make their second straight playoff run and take in at least an extra two games of gate receipts before getting the salary-cap relief that was the goal all along. In the meantime, Jazz fans get to continue rooting for two guys who've been good soldiers pretty much throughout their stays in Salt Lake City; it's not like we're talking about malcontents who've pushed to be moved or claimed disrespect from a front office unwilling to commit to them long-term.

You hang on to two good players whom people like, who help you win and get back to the playoffs, and then you clear the decks to let the kids run the show next year and — once you've taken care of them (several of them, at least) with extensions, which Favors and Hayward will be in line for after next season — beyond. Considering how clearly frightened NBA teams are of getting on the wrong side of the balance sheet given the steep penalties for luxury-tax teams under the new collective bargaining agreement, especially the coming repeater tax, this doesn't seem like the worst plan in the world.

All told, it's not all that different a situation than the one that faced the Atlanta Hawks as they tried to decide what they wanted to do with Josh Smith; ultimately, Hawks boss Danny Ferry chose the same path. Unless, of course, Lindsey's plan is to use chunks of that $30-plus million in prospective cap space to re-up Jefferson and/or Millsap for multiple years. Re-upping one of them (preferably Millsap) would tighten things somewhat, but wouldn't be altogether awful; unless they were willing to take well-below-market deals, re-upping both of them would be disastrous, tying up far too much money in the frontcourt when the team desperately needs to find the future answer at point guard and more reliable outside shooting on the wings, and continuing to stall the progression of both Favors and Kanter.

The hope, if you're a Jazz fan, is that a front-office combination led by prudent-but-not-flashy senior VP of basketball operations Kevin O'Connor and GM Lindsey, who came out of the heralded San Antonio Spurs system under R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich, would be wise enough to avoid that prolonged glut. And that the Jazz don't hit a skid in the weeks ahead and wind up dropping down out of the West's postseason picture with nothing to show for their expiring assets. And you also hope Lindsey telling the truth about that Bledsoe deal not really being there, because man, that would've been fun, and not pulling the trigger would seem like a pretty big miss.

So, I guess, hope springs eternal in Salt Lake City.

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