Brad Rock: Standing pat will get Jazz near the top, but contending requires more

Brad Rock: Standing pat will get Jazz near the top, but contending requires more

SALT LAKE CITY — In order of seniority, the Jazz made their annual season-ending podium stops, on their way out the door on Tuesday. Locker cleanout day is actually liberation day for the players. That’s when they take the podium at Zions Bank Basketball Center, answer a few final media questions, and vanish into the offseason.

This year’s affair was different in the sense that it actually was summer-like outside. For the past four years, the cleanout came in spring, at the end of the regular season. But this time it occurred nearly four weeks later. The crocuses had bloomed and so had the Jazz, who reached the second round of the playoffs.

All they need now is to offer Gordon Hayward enough free-agent money to buy Liechtenstein, figure out whether to pay big bucks to an injury-plagued George Hill, and how to pay Joe Ingles in Australian (i.e. diminished) dollars.

Whatever currency is used for Hayward, he’ll make a fortune, in Utah or elsewhere. After his first All-Star season, he could command a reported $31 million annually. But Boston beckons. The prospect of playing in an easier conference, in a bigger market, for his former college coach, is one no one should dismiss.

At the same time, staying in Salt Lake would be easy. Under collective bargaining rules, he can re-sign with the Jazz for more money than any other team. If that’s not enough incentive, there’s this: The Jazz have finally become a force, following a protracted building process that dates to when Hayward was drafted.

With the Los Angeles Clippers expected to lose some stars to free agency, the possibility of Utah rising a rung in the West is good — if it can keep Hayward around.

“I’ll definitely have some time to think about it here in the next couple of weeks, and I’m aware of what’s going on,” Hayward said, “but it’s honestly not something I’ve thought about.”

In other words, mind your own business. He’ll be in touch.

At one time, maximum salary cap money for Hayward might have seemed risky, but considering his progress this year, not so much. He’s now a star. The only sobering note is that the chances of the Jazz winning a championship are still remote if the Golden State Warriors remain intact.

So if being good is good enough, the Jazz should stand pat and keep as many players as they can. But if greatness is the goal, they’ll need another star.

Hayward’s game has changed. He no longer tucks the ball like a fullback and blindly charges for the rim. His pull-up jumper has become deadly. Added strength has made him difficult to knock off balance when he’s in the air. In these playoffs he scored 20 or more points eight times in 11 games.

The Jazz will offer him the maximum, and he’ll decide.

“He was drafted here, came from that little, scrawny, shaggy-haired kid who wasn’t really playing, to an All-Star,” Ingles said. “I truly believe he loves it here. He loves the organization and obviously the team, and I think at the end of the day, it’s about winning.”

General manager Dennis Lindsey has done a nice job, given the resources. But convincing Hayward will be among his toughest tests. Yet Hill’s case is more complicated. The Jazz point guard believes he can make maximum cap money. That’s a high price for a smooth and calming player, but one who missed 36 games with injuries.

Should they go back to making do with what they can get at point, or try to turn Dante Exum into the starter? A healthy Hill next year would fix a lot of the Jazz’s issues. More injury absences wouldn’t.

In that light, the Jazz should make a strong pitch for Hill, but not a foolish one.

Comment on this story

The Jazz could become the third- or fourth-best team in the West by simply standing pat and getting healthy. At the same time, a four-game playoff sweep by the Warriors showed how far away they are from the top.

Jazz management broke up a team that was making the playoffs with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. This year’s team is different. It should return as a top-tier Western Conference entity. But the Jazz could be stretched to keep the free agents they have.

Asked what he would tell free agents, in order to attract them to Utah, veteran Boris Diaw quipped, “Great nightlife.”

Hayward knows all about that.

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Published at Tue, 09 May 2017 21:05:00 +0000