Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Frontcourt Change Is Needed In Utah

Both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are free agents this offseason. Photo via: Brownsville Herald. 

The Utah are sitting comfortably in the seventh slot in the Western Conference at 24-20. For the second straight season, the Jazz are on pace to make the playoffs, and for the second straight season, the Jazz seem like another easy opponent a top four seed could beat on. They just have the right group of talent to make the playoffs, but not for a real run. All that being said, it's not like Utah is a terrible team, they rank 11th in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency, and they rank 9th in the league in getting free-throws. However, for all of Utah's positives, it has a few negatives. Since the departure of Deron Williams, the point guard position has been in a massive flux. In past seasons, Devin Harris wasn't capable to provide a positive impact, and their current one year stopgap, Mo Williams, hasn't done much of anything this season.

Along with Utah's point guard issues, the Jazz have also been mediocre at both shooting guard and small forward. As he continues to develop, Gordon Hayward has had moments of brilliance  but he's also been an average defensive player, and that has limited his minutes in Ty Corbin's rotation, giving his starting role to Randy Foye. Along with Hayward, second-year player Alec Burks has yet to make an impact, nor crack Corbin's rotation as of this time. At small forward, the Jazz have struggled so badly since the departure of Andrei Kirilenko, the Jazz decided to trade Devin Harris' expiring contract to take Marvin Williams, who in typical Marvin Williams fashion, has been less then impressive in his Utah tenure.

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Even with deficiencies at shooting guard and small forward, the elephant in the room is the expiring contracts of star forwards Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. While the team has contended for playoff spots in the West over the past three years, the Utah front office has also shown a great deal of patience with their cap room. Other than the Marvin Williams trade, the Jazz have set themselves up to not only have cap space this offseason, but next offseason as well, leaving Utah with just 26 million dollars on the cap in 2013, and 10 million in 2014. . Now, as the months countdown, the Jazz have to decide to keep Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, or possibly, both.

Here's the biggest thing, the Jazz have to make a move before the offseason. According to SLC Dunk, the popular Utah Jazz SB Nation blog, the Jazz cannot move either Millsap or Jefferson in a sign and trade. This means Utah will either move their pieces, or lose everything in free agency. This changes everything. The Jazz now have to either extend or trade Millsap or Jefferson. Millsap probably has slightly higher trade value, due to being the better player, Al Jefferson has the size to intrigue a team who can use a center, but both could be tough to move, due to the fact their both expiring contracts. The Jazz should have a ton of options by the actual deadline, but the best option might be to move both Jefferson and Millsap, rather then keep one.

The Jazz have one of the better young big men sitting on the bench in Derrick Favors. At 21 years old, Derrick Favors has shown a ton of promise when he gets on the court. He still has a ton of ways to go as an offensive player, namely, scoring outside of 10 feet, but his PER 36 numbers are off the charts (15.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per 36 for Favors this season), he's also shown the ability to defend other power forwards. The next step should be finding someone who can play next to him at the center position. In the three seasons he's played opposite of Al Jefferson, the on/off court numbers haven't been kind to either, and it could enthrall Utah to find a perfect complement for Favors.

As I stated before, Utah will have some resistance in trades because of Millsap and Jefferson's contract situations, but in terms of value, both have some substantial value.

In the case of Al Jefferson, he's a low-post scorer with center size. At 6 foot 10, Jefferson not only has the size and strength to bang down low with other centers, but he can also pull it outside a bit. According to hoopdata, Jefferson shoots a staggering 73% on shots at the rim, but he also shoots 42% on shots from three to nine feet, and 42% on shots from 16 to 23 feet. For Jefferson, you're acquiring him for his offense. His defense? That's another story. In his career, Jefferson has been a below average defensive player. He's bad on rotations, and his defense away from the basket has always been lackluster. This season, Utah is eight points better with Jefferson off the court. That's all we need to know.

Regardless of the defense, Jefferson is still a commodity in the league. Teams like Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Dallas could all use his services for this season and the seasons after. New Orleans won't commit big money, while Dallas doesn't have the pieces to realistically entice Utah. The team that looks like a potential fit for Al Jefferson is the Milwaukee Bucks. Not only does Milwaukee have a point guard that could help Utah in Beno Udrih, the Bucks also have a young small forward in Tobias Harris that can entice Utah as well. In acquiring Jefferson, the Bucks could flank him with Larry Sanders, who could be the defensive play-maker to help him in the frontcourt. A trade of Beno Udrih, Epke Udoh, and Tobias Harris for Al Jefferson could intrigue both teams.

For Paul Millsap? That's the tricky part. He's a terrific power forward, Millsap currently has a 54 TS% while being assists on just 60% of his attempts. At six foot eight, Millsap isn't a great rebounder, averaging 7.7 per game, but he has an offensive rebound rate of 9.5, good for all power forwards averaging at least 30 minutes a game. Along with that, he ranks top five among power forwards in steals, blocks, and total defensive players. Overall? Millsap is one of the most underrated players in league. However, the bigger issue is that the league is flooded with great power forwards, thus making it harder to find THE team to move him to. If the Lakers wanted to move Pau, I could see Millsap, plus some pieces, moving to Los Angeles, but that's doubtful.

The two teams I continue to look at for Millsap's services are the Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns. The Bobcats lack an interior  scorer, and could not only use Millsap's scoring, but he could make Charlotte better if he re-signs after this season. Same goes for the Suns, who have four power forwards on the roster (, but none of them are any good. For the Bobcats, they don't have much to offer, but the Suns not only have Jared Dudley, a serviceable starting small forward, but they also has Kendall Marshall, who could potentially be the point guard of the future.

Most likely, I think Utah moves Millsap for a solid point guard or wing, and signs Al Jefferson to a respectable deal. In this puzzling offseason (the one that could be good, or mediocre), Al Jefferson might be one of the players who gets below market value. While Utah has all this flexibility now, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward will both be eligible for extensions next year. Hayward will get a reasonable contract, but Favors might get a large deal on the upside alone. The Jazz will certainly be players this offseason. The Jazz will have a ton of cap space, as well as two draft picks to deal with in the 2013 NBA draft.

For now, the bigger question for Utah is: Do you sacrifice this season and move Millsap, Jefferson, or both? I certainly understand keeping one, but both could create an interesting dynamic for this team. Certainly the team would be young, but it will also have ton of cap space to fill in the rotation, and keep head coach Ty Corbin happy. We'll see soon, the deadline is only six weeks away.

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