GM Raines Rebuilds: Utah Jazz
Welcome to Off the Ball Network's 2023 NBA offseason previews. These will be submitted as resume builders when I inevitably apply to the New York Knicks opening for GM after James Dolan takes on a full-time role as a vocalist in his band.
As the 'General Manager' for the team selected for the 2023 offseason, I will look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of where the team sits heading into the upcoming offseason. Following that, a few directions the team could take during the offseason will be given.
First things first, I take the seat occupied by a man who will not leave the GM seat for quite some time after a successful 2022 offseason, the Utah Jazz.
The Good with the Jazz
There is plenty of good with Utah hoops. The team was blown up last offseason, and even in the blow up, the Jazz showed inklings of a playoff-caliber team in the Western Conference.
At 37-45, they were 5 games back of cracking the play-in tournament. But the play-in was not the goal, as many had them in the Victor Wembenyama race. Now as the 10 seed, it is not as likely as many had in the preseason, but Utah still has the ninth-best odds as well as a plethora more of future picks, which brings me to the first point of GOOD with the Jazz.
Good #1: The Haul for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
In one of the worst trades in the history of all barter, the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to trade for Rudy Gobert and give up Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro, 2022 First-Round Pick Walker Kessler, four first-round picks and a 2026 first round pick swap. FOUR whole first-round picks in the worst trade involving the French since the Louisiana Purchase.
In the other trade, Donovan Mitchell was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Lauri Markkanen, 2022 First-Round Pick Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton, three-first round picks and two pick swaps.
Add in picks from the Royce O'Neale and Mike Conley deals, and the Utah Jazz are now sitting on 15 first round picks outright through 2029. Danny Ainge, the king of fleece, is back on his BS, and creating a lot of excitement surrounding the future of hoops in Utah.
Good #2: Walker Kessler and Lauri Markkanen
In an era of blatant tanking, it is nice to see a Jazz team that could have very well tanked for Wemby, compete in a tough Western Conference. That team that was shockingly competitive centered around Lauri and Walker Kessler.
Lauri Markkanen started the 2022-23 season on his third teams in three years. He has shown flashes of living up to the potential as the 7th pick in the 2017 draft, but nobody could have seen the career resurgence fans saw out of Lauri. At 25.6 PPG and 8.6 RPG, shooting 49.9% from the field, Markkanen was an All-Star starter, the Most Improved Player, and most likely will be an All-NBA team member. It feels safe to say Lauri is a franchise cornerstone for Utah.
Playing with Markkanen was the 7'-0" First-Round Center out of Auburn, Walker Kessler. Certainly he is not in the Rookie of the Year conversation, but he is a lock for an All-Rookie team, and maybe in conversations for All-NBA Defense teams. Averaging close to a double-double with 2.3 blocks per game, which was good enough for fourth in the NBA, Kessler will be a defensive anchor the Utah Jazz can build around.
Good #3: The Contract Situation
Entering the 2022-23 season, the Jazz's cap space outlook was going to be a mess. Mike Conley was set earn $24.3 million through 23-24, Michael Beasley had a team option of $16.5 million for 23-24 season, Jarred Vanderbilt had a non-guaranteed deal, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker was set to hit free agency at the end of this season.
Then came the Russell Westbrook trade. The Jazz were able to take on his expiring deal, buy him out and salvage another first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers. These moves cleared close to $45 million in cap space, and with only their young core of Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, and Walker Kessler on guaranteed contracts, the Jazz have limited in guaranteed salaries.
The Bad with the Jazz
There is not a lot of bad with the Jazz. They have taken a few calculated risks, trading for 2022 First Round Picks like Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler. Taking a chance on Talen Horton-Tucker has proved to work as he showed steps into becoming a piece on a playoff contending team, and Jordan Clarkson is still doing Jordan Clarkson things. But there is one question I raise about this team's future.
Bad #1: Is Collin Sexton Truly Part of This Team's Future?
I hate using injury to gauge a young players future, but a torn meniscus for a player that showed such explosive flashes during his days in Cleveland is worrisome. Add in that Utah is committing 4 years and $71 million to him, it is a wonder if he will get back to the 24 point a game scorer we saw in the 2021 season.
Sexton does have the ability of becoming one of the better microwave archetypes off the bench in the NBA, but that role is has been taken up by Jordan Clarkson, who has a player option through the 23/24 season. I do believe Sexton was paid to take over that role, but I still need to see more of pre-injury Sexton to fully believe the contract was worth it.
The Ugly with the Jazz
Like I said, there is not a lot of bad or ugly for the Jazz. GM Danny Ainge has taken over and inspired hope in Utah again. With that hope comes with some middling years, and with all the first round picks they have, I have to worry that they will fall in the dreaded 'No Mans Land'.
Ugly #1: Are the Jazz Going to Fall into NBA Draft 'No Mans Land'?
The Jazz this year have a 20.3% chance of getting into the top-four pick at next month's NBA Draft Lottery, and a 4.5% chance at the number one pick. If they do not hit in the lottery, they most likely will fall between 9-16, and this is where the worries start.
This is nothing the Jazz can really control without actively tanking to get into the lottery, but in a tough Western Conference with a growing team, there are going to be a lot of years ending between the 8-12 seeds for Utah, which is not going to be good enough for a lottery pick, and prioritizes hitting on those late lottery picks.
Minnesota's picks may convey into better picks as year's go down, solely because it is the worst trade in the history of barter. But with a budding star in Anthony Edwards, and Cleveland perennially growing into a steady playoff team, those picks too will most likely fall in the late lottery range.
Utah has shown they can hit on late lottery picks with players in the past, and with Ainge in the front office, he has shown capability in the draft as well. But Ainge's draft prowess was draft picks near the top with Marcus Smart in 2014 at 6, Tatum at 3 in 2017, and Jaylen Brown at 3 in 2016.
Who's to say Utah will not get any lottery luck, because it is random, and with more stabs at the lottery then most, they will get more cracks at it. But who knows how many stabs they will have inside of the top four...
Ugly #2: Is the Utah Market Going to Draw Free Agency Stars?
Utah has rarely been the big draw for a huge free agent splash. They signed a passed his prime Joe Johnson in 2016, and landed Bojan Bogdanovic in 2019, and really that is about it for big name signings in recent history.
This worry compounds on top of the draft 'no man's land' worry, because if they are not hitting on stars in that 9-16 range in the draft, where are the players to round out the roster going to come from? I like Lauri, Agbaji, Sexton, and Kessler, but for a team that has hopes of getting back to the playoffs, that will not cut it. So where do we go from here?
The 23/24 Offseason for the Jazz
With cap space, three first round picks in 2023, and a solid young core led by Head Coach, Will Hardy, the offseason has many different ways it can go.
Move #1: Cut Ties with Jordan Clarkson
Mentioned above, Clarkson is playing the role that one would presume the Jazz hope Collin Sexton would grow into. The former sixth man of the year was not traded this year after it was rumored he turned down his player option for 23/24, and after that he was still kept on the roster. But heading into this offseason, the Jazz should let him walk. He does not fit their timeline, and for what he will be asking for, it would not be worth giving.