Utah Jazz Editorial: Should the Jazz stay the course or follow OKC’s route?

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Paul George (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Paul George (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s swift but risky talent acquisition could lead them to having a phenomenal 2017-18 season. But is it a route the Utah Jazz should follow?

In case you thought this offseason couldn’t get any wackier, the Western Conference couldn’t get any more stacked, or even more stars couldn’t change teams this summer, the NBA delivered once again yesterday with the announcement that 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony had been traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Melo’s situation has been in the spotlight all summer long and to say it came to a surprising conclusion would be an understatement.

Anthony now joins 2016-17 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook and recently acquired All-Star Paul George on what should easily be one of the top four teams in the Western Conference, if not more. After losing out on Kevin Durant two summers ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to stay competitive last year and have clearly swung for the fences this summer and as a result have come up extremely big.

Rather than deteriorate, dwindle or seek to tank after losing out on former MVP Kevin Durant, the small market Thunder have instead opted to aim to remain as competitive as possible by pulling off consecutive blockbuster trades to bring in as much talent as possible.

These risky moves are in stark contrast to the normally conservative offseason moves and internal improvement of another small market team, the Utah Jazz. When the Jazz traded a draft pick for George Hill two summers ago, this was considered a “big move” for Utah, even though it pales in comparison to what the Thunder have just pulled off. The Jazz have long sought to grow from within by taking guys they’ve drafted and develop them into something special.

That was how they largely found success with John Stockton and Karl Malone, making a savvy trade or two where necessary to shore up the team. Although they never won the ultimate prize, that tactic largely paid off.

However, avoiding risky blockbuster trades and instead counting on internal development doesn’t come without its risks either. The Jazz handed the keys to the team over to both Deron Williams, then later Gordon Hayward, only to have both of them spurn them later on – the former was traded away to avoid an inevitable departure and the latter indeed opted to leave in free agency.

Nevertheless, after each of those occasions, rather than undergo a knee-jerk reaction like the Thunder have and seek to instantly patch up a gaping hole as quickly as possible, Utah has taken the slow, methodical approach to wending their way back to relevancy. All things considered, the Jazz made some savvy moves this offseason and could very well be poised to be a more effective team than people think. But to predict them as a championship contender or even on the same level as the now star-studded Thunder is very unrealistic.

And while I fully realize that trades take two to tango, and perhaps Utah’s lack of blockbuster trades has been an inability to find an appropriate suitor (not to mention that OKC was beyond fortunate to be able to pull of two such mind-blowing transactions to add such talent), it’s hard not to wonder which way is best – slow and methodical, or risky trades for instant improvement.

Of course, in the cases of the current Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder teams, time will reveal whose plan was better. Even if OKC brings in just one championship, unless Utah somehow puts together an unforeseen dynasty in the coming years, their path will likely be viewed as the clear winner. Even if over the long-term the Thunder don’t enjoy as much regular season success as the Jazz, that one championship would likely make it all worth it.

And therein lies the biggest risk facing the Thunder – their window to utilize this talented roster to win a championship may be extremely limited and go on to leave them utterly devastated. Although Westbrook has the option to sign a hefty extension with the Thunder, as his contract currently stands, he has a player option for 2018-19, thus he could become a free agent at the end of this season.

Paul George is in the exact same boat. The major reason why the Indiana Pacers parted ways with their franchise player was because his agent had made it clear that PG had every intention of signing with the Los Angeles Lakers as soon as he hit free agency. If George holds true to that, then he will presumably opt out of his contract at the end of this season as well.

Likewise, Anthony could also do the same, meaning that although the Thunder have a trio of formidable stars for this season, they could very possibly lose all three at the exact same time to free agency. And that would be an absolutely mind-blowing loss that could set the Thunder back for years to come. Given the track record for small market teams lately, it feels like that could actually become a devastating reality.

Even if two or more of them opt to stay next year and give the Thunder a further run at a championship, depending on whether they opt out of the last year of their respective deals or not, OKC could find themselves absolutely in over their heads as they try to afford three of the league’s top talents. Unless the Thunder capitalize on this spectacular one-year window to win a championship, they may find themselves ring-less and, very quickly, talent deprived.

Now on to the Utah Jazz. Say what you want about the gutsy moves of the Thunder, but one thing is for certain, their fans are in for an exhilarating year. Basketball junkies and die hard Jazz fans like myself feel the same about this year’s Utah squad, but that doesn’t mean we expect them to be in the title conversation.

However, the Jazz will remain competitive this year and, depending on how their still developing talent pans out, could continue to improve further in the seasons to come. While the Thunder are risking having one great year in exchange for several down years, the Jazz won’t have a spectacular year this year, but could steadily improve and stay competitive for several seasons until perhaps finally breaking into the title contender category.

Not only that, but just because Utah has and is largely known for playing it safe, that doesn’t mean that Dennis Lindsey won’t be willing to pull the trigger on a major deal in the not-too-distant future. The Jazz had to change course drastically with the departure of Gordon Hayward and although they weren’t exactly in a position to immediately replace the void he left, they have set themselves up to have the cap space to add some major talent in the two upcoming offseasons, whereas several other teams across the league find themselves handicapped financially.

Thus, it’s not unrealistic to predict that the Jazz could take somewhat of an approach similar to that of the Thunder. Utah’s 2017-18 could be like OKC’s 2016-17 in which they decided to bide their time in the wake of Durant’s departure, then strike while the iron was hot this past offseason. Similarly, the Jazz are largely sitting tight this year and next year could be their summer of bold moves.

However, if Utah goes that route, I hope that they avoid two things – first, completely forgoing the steady path of developing internal talent and second, making big signings that will only last for the short term. The Thunder are going to be very good next season, however, I have little confidence that they’ll be able to keep the band together all that long.

If the Jazz are going to pull the trigger on some big moves, I hope it will be free agent signings or savvy trades that involve multiple years left on contracts. It’s one thing to swing for the fences and hope to take advantage of a short but exciting window. It’s another thing entirely to make a strategic trade while not abandoning key principles of internal development, and thus setting up a team to be significantly successful for many years.

That is the route I’d like to see the Jazz go. They have several talented young players (three of which – Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum – are in contract years) that are facing a make-or-break season that will determine their long-term worth and fit win Utah. After this season, the Jazz should be able to make a very educated decision on which developing guys deserve to stay on the roster and which ones are necessary to part ways with.

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Once they’ve done that and fortified their team in just the way they see fit, perhaps they’ll be able to do a little bit of swinging for the fences of their own.

And when they do, ideally it will pay large dividends and last much longer than OKC’s knee-jerk, likely one-year window. The Thunder are in for an exciting year, but if all goes according to plan for Dennis Lindsey and his Utah Jazz squad, they will be in for an exciting future, that could last much longer than what could be an ultimately hollow 2017-18 season and ensuing offseason for Oklahoma City.