Utah Jazz: Despite improvements, point guard once again major focus

Just like last offseason, figuring out how to proceed at the point guard position will be a major point of emphasis for the Utah Jazz this summer.

All throughout the 2015-16 season, one of the biggest issues facing the Utah Jazz was their lack of a solid and reliable point guard. With Dante Exum sidelined with the ACL injury, the point duties largely fell to Raul Neto, who earned his spot as the starter for much of the season, and the disappointing Trey Burke, who served as his backup.

Late in the season, the Jazz added Shelvin Mack after completing a trade with the Atlanta Hawks and he quickly worked his way into the starting lineup. Although he added a momentary boost to his new Jazz team, it wasn’t enough to propel Utah to the playoffs that year and it was evident that the team still was in great need of filling a major void at the point.

Thus heading into the offseason of 2016, resolving the point guard issue was a major point of emphasis and a topic that had Jazz fans all abuzz. Of course Dennis Lindsey and Co. did a phenomenal job of patching up the hole by trading for veteran point guard George Hill.

With that being the case, at the start of the 2016-17 season, optimism was high that the addition of Hill, coupled with the healthy return of Dante Exum could make the Jazz formidable at the point for the first time since Deron Williams had suited up for Utah. However, now that the season has come to a conclusion, hindsight tells somewhat of a different story.

Make no mistake about it, the Jazz certainly improved in that area. George Hill had a career year and he was masterful when on the court and healthy. Unfortunately, that turned out to be much less often than Jazz fans would’ve liked.

Aside from missing 33 games during the regular season (that’s just over 40 percent of the season) with various injuries, he also missed the final three playoff games against the Golden State Warriors with the toe injury that had plagued him all season long. Given what an uphill battle Utah faced anyway against Golden State, the absence of Hill for three vital contests all but sealed their doomed fate.

And while some might claim that Hill’s injury struggles make him less than crucial for the Jazz moving forward, the numbers don’t exactly back that up. Utah went 33-16 (.673) in the regular season in games that Hill played and just 18-15 (.545) in games where he sat. Hill was the team’s second leading scorer with a career-high 16.9 points per game on solid shooting percentages of 47.7 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from deep.

In the final three games of the series against Golden State, there’s no doubt that the Jazz could have made good use of Hill’s scoring and ability to effectively run the offense. Not to mention, he is a great defender and his length could have been very disruptive for guys like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

Then there’s Dante Exum who many supposed would be Hill’s backup throughout the season, but unfortunately that wasn’t exactly the case. Exum enjoyed a few stints as the first point guard off the bench as well as the starter on a handful of occasions when Hill was sidelined. However, overall Exum’s minutes were largely taken up (to the angst of many Jazz fans) by Shelvin Mack.

Playing in just his second season and the first after missing the entirety of 2015-16 with a torn ACL, Exum showed some bright moments, but also had plenty of instances where he struggled.

His ability to get to the rim confidently improved dramatically throughout the year, but his finishing touch needs a lot of work. His three-point shooting went up significantly in the second half of the season (increased by nearly seven percent following the All-Star break) but he still has plenty of room for improvement there as well.

However, the potential is certainly clear. Perhaps more than any other time this season, Exum showed that in full in the final game of the postseason as he provided an excellent spark off the bench with 15 points in 32 minutes. Nevertheless, he’s still very unrefined and it was evident that Coach Snyder had a hard time trusting him at times during the regular season.

So while the Jazz certainly got better at the point guard spot, with Hill suffering through several injures and also being an unrestricted free agent this offseason while Dante Exum’s ceiling is all but a mystery, once again the Jazz find themselves with some big decisions to make in terms of the point guard position. And they are decisions that could very well shape the future of the franchise.

The way I see it, Utah has three options at point guard for next season – re-sign Hill, go for a big time free agent to be the full-time starter or simply add a more economical veteran point guard in free agency who can further mentor Dante Exum as the Jazz look to turn the reins over to him.

As I already touched on, Hill was superb for the Jazz and helped them be a better team, but he obviously struggled to stay healthy. Nevertheless, it would be shocking if he had as many injury issues next year, so if Utah could keep him on board for a similar price as this season, it would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t an option.

Hill is going to merit more money in his upcoming contract, not only because of his solid play this season but also due simply to the recent enormous salary cap spike. The question is, how much more will he demand? When contract extension negotiations between Hill and the Jazz stalled during the season, it was reported that Hill would be expecting max or “near-max” money this offseason.

With health and age being legitimate concerns, Utah may very well decide that Hill simply isn’t worth that kind of investment as it would likely tie their hands on making much more of a splash in free agency this summer.

However, another wrinkle to the George Hill free agency question was added today when the Jazz point guard mentioned in his end-of-season interviews that Gordon Hayward’s decision will very much factor into his decision as well. He continued to say that Hayward has become like a little brother to him. If retaining Hill became the key to also keeping Hayward, it’s quite likely that the Jazz would be more than willing to hand over the necessary money to make it happen.

There’s still no guarantee that one would or wouldn’t stay without the other, though. So say the Jazz are able to secure Gordon Hayward, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Hill would stay as well. Jazz brass would need to closely consider his injuries, age, contract demands as well as how he fits with the team’s other offseason plans before coming to an agreement.

If a healthy George Hill who plays much like he did at the start of the season is able to be acquired at a price that is fair both to him and the Jazz, then simply keeping him on board is the logical and easy solution. If he opts to go elsewhere, demands more money than Utah feels comfortable with or is deemed too injury prone though, then the Jazz may need to look elsewhere.

And if they decide to find another permanent starter to replace Hill, then there will be a number of free agent point guards for them to choose from. Of course that free agent pool includes the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry.  But while it’s nice to dream about the Jazz being able to woo one of those guys, it’s not exactly realistic. Lowry’s the only one that Utah could potentially throw their hat into the ring for, but it’s still a long shot.

It’s more likely that the Jazz would have to instead look for a lesser tier point guard who would still be solid and fit in with Utah’s system. This tier includes the likes of Jeff Teague, Patty Mills, Rajon Rondo and the guy I’d like most for the Jazz if replacing Hill became necessary, Jrue Holiday.

Holiday’s shooting figures weren’t as impressive as Hill’s this past season, but he’s an excellent passer (7.3 assists per game last season) and quite frankly could very well benefit from a career reboot on a team other than the New Orleans Pelicans. Just as Hill was able to earn a career-high in scoring upon joining the Jazz, I could see a move to Utah having a similar effect on Holiday.

However, if Hill decides he wants to stay in Utah and the Jazz pass on him anyway, it will more than likely be for financial reasons and it’s probable that Hill and Holiday will demand similar-sized contracts. Therefore, it seems much more likely that the Jazz would stick with Hill rather than bring in a brand new point guard once again at a similar cost.

And if the Jazz decide to make a big splash elsewhere instead of at the point guard position, then they may opt to begin handing the reins over to Dante Exum while bringing in a more affordable veteran who could mentor the young Aussie before fading into the twilight of his career. The first guy that comes to my mind that fits that mold is unrestricted free agent Deron Williams.

Williams is one of the most polarizing players among Jazz fans and there’s no doubt that his return would be met with some mixed feelings. However, he’s clearly still capable of playing in this league as he’s been a great addition for the Cleveland Cavaliers and several rumors have indicated that he has a strong desire to end his career in Utah.

Personally, I love the story line of him returning to the Jazz to make up for his perceived errors, winning the fans back and pushing the team to new heights. That may be nothing more than a foolish fantasy, but it at least sounds somewhat plausible.

The point is, if Williams or a similar veteran of his talent and price range were added, it would allow the Jazz some much-needed flexibility at point guard. If Exum remains difficult to trust in extended minutes, then the newcomer could handle most of the starting minutes. Otherwise, hopefully Dante gets a good summer in and could come in and be effective right away for the Jazz and perhaps allow them to use that newcomer vet as a spark off the bench.

Of course each of these three options for the Jazz have their pros and cons, and some matters, such as whether or not Hill will opt to stay with the Jazz, are largely out of their hands and may end up forcing what they ultimately do. But it’s good to see that there are a variety of routes that they could go.

However things end up, though, it’s quite interesting to see that for the second straight offseason, figuring out how to best handle the point guard position is once again a major issue for the Jazz. George Hill has been great, Dante Exum may one day be great, but there are also dozens of factors to consider in between.

Whatever ends up happening, though, rest assured that Dennis Lindsey will be prepared to put this Utah squad in the best situation possible and that this rising team that burst onto the playoff scene this year is without a doubt here to stay.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com

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