Friday, February 8, 2013

The Utah Jazz and the Curse of the Small Market

The NBA trade deadline nears and buzz about trade candidates and teams with cap issues/room has surfaced as usual. Living in Utah has given me valuable insight to the special concerns that "small market" teams like the Utah Jazz have in these situations. The hubbub surrounding the Jazz centers around the front court and specifically two players: Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.

It has been accepted among fans, analysts, radio personnel, and the general media that the Jazz cannot afford to keep both. Al is a legitimate NBA center who can score in the low post and often serves as the primary offensive option. Paul is a combo forward who can play both spots and is a statistician's dream, seemingly doing everything at an above average level.

The problem is that Al does not play good defense in almost any situation and Paul isn't a good enough defender to protect the paint for Al. Paul, on the other hand, does not dominate the game in any one aspect and has not shown the ability to carry his team offensively. These problems are compounded by the fact that Al and Paul play in front of young, athletic, but raw talents in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, both who need significant playing time to develop. Finally, both Al and Paul are in contract years (and are expiring contracts), and will eventually be paid by the Jazz or someone else.

Convention and popular opinion currently suggest that the Jazz need to trade either Al or Paul in order to A) increase salary cap flexibility that signing both of them would preclude, B) get back some good assets instead of letting either walk in free agency, and C) clean up the frontcourt situation to allow playing time to Enes and Derrick. So if the Jazz are forced to choose between either one, which should they trade?

The case for trading Al

I have watched "Big Al" as he is affectionately known as, since his early days on the bad Boston teams of the mid 2000s. Near the end of his run with the Celtics, he developed into a legitimate low-post threat, averaging 16 points a game on 51.4% shooting with 11 boards and 1.5 blocks in 33.6 minutes a game during the '07 season. We all know what ensued: instead of building the team around their new young center, the Celtics flipped him to Minnesota for an aging scrub named Kevin Garnett. In Minnesota, he continued to develop his game, focusing on the right block, and eventually, became an unstoppable offensive force. I watched him demolish Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, and many other centers with an array of step-backs, spins, and up-and-unders, becoming a guy that demanded a double team any time he got the ball in the post.

During the '09 season, in only 3 more minutes a game than '07 (36.7), he averaged 23.1 points on 19.5 shots and 49.7% shooting, 11 boards, 2.5 blocks/steals, with only 1.8 turnovers. Compare this to another Western Conference All-Star Center that year, one Yao Ming who averaged 19.7 points on 54.8% shooting, 10 boards, 2.3 blocks/steals, and 3.0 turnovers. The Wolves were bad but Al was ascending and about to enter his prime as a 25 year old center. Then, disaster. On 2/9/2009, Al tore his ACL in a meaningless game against the Hornets, an game he ended with 25 points and 14 rebounds. He came back the following year a shell of his former self and was eventually traded to the Jazz in the summer of 2010.

Since then, the Jazz have hoped fervently to see again the player I saw from that 2009 season. He is now scoring just under 20 points a game, averaging just under 50% shooting, with around 7.5 boards and 2.5 blocks/steals, which is respectable. But the difference between 17.1 points (his 2013 season so far) and 23 points (in 2009) can be distinctly palpable when a player serves as his teams primary offensive weapon. The Jazz offense lacks other shot creators or an ingenious offensive system, so instead they rely on their big man to set up on the right block and command double teams. But opponents are loathe to double team a player with the numbers he is generating. His offense declining, the defensive issues that have plagued his career have come to the forefront. His is unable to contain ballhandlers on pick-and-rolls, his post defense is mediocre, and he does not move around the paint well enough to alter shots.

I compared Al to a few other players, and the most telling comparison I could find was Pau Gasol. A few years ago (I'm throwing out the disastrous '12 and '13 seasons), Pau was a guy that averaged ~18 points on 53% shooting, 10 boards, and 2 blocks/steals. Besides shooting better, Pau also gets to the line ~5 times a game to Al's ~3x (average for the past three years in Utah). Pau is also a better passer, averaging ~3.5 assists/game to Al's ~2.5x. Neither is known for his defense or ability to protect the paint (something that Yao Ming was better at than you think). So the question is: can the Jazz win a title with a slightly worse version of Pau Gasol?

The case for trading Paul

It's hard to find a comparison for Paul Millsap. A 6' 8" 253 point combo forward with range and hustle. He's good at moving off-ball, he's a decent shooter from 20+ feet, he's a plus defender, and he's quick enough the team sometimes uses him effectively at small forward in a super-big lineup featuring Al, Derrick, and Paul in the frontcourt (hint: the Jazz need to play this way more often).

The problem with Paul is that he doesn't do anything particularly well. His best season was in 2011 during which he played alongside one Deron Williams for most of the year (it was also Deron's last good season; have fun in Brooklyn!). Since 2011, his points/game average has fallen from 17.3 to 16.6 in 2012 and 14.8 this year. His shooting percentage has cratered from consistently ~53% to 50% in 2012 and 47.5% this year. He gets ~8 boards a game, but that isn't transcendent for a PF. 2.5 blocks/steals is nothing special, though he turns the ball over less than 2x a game (around a 10% TO rate).

If you want to look at him as PF, he compares in my mind to guys like Antawn Jamison and Josh Smith. He is not the scorer Antawn has been, a guy that can average over 20 a night with 9 boards. But he also isn't a defensive sieve and for his usage numbers, does score very efficiently. But sometimes, an offensive needs a guy that can light things up and open the floor for his teammates. The comparison to Josh Smith is favorable, as Milsap is far more efficient, doesn't take stupid shots, and is comparable on defense. The problem is you're still comparing him to Antawn and Josh, two borderline All-Stars. He's not at the level of a Chris Bosh or Chris Webber, not to mention KG and Dirk.

If you want to look at Paul as a SF, I think he is comparable to a Paul Pierce of Shawn Marion. Shawn is another guy that moves well off the ball, doesn't have a huge usage (low 20%), is efficient (True Shooting, which incorporates FTs and 3s, around 55%), and is good defensively (a little better, actually). Shawn was close to a ring in Phoenix, perhaps getting jobbed by the refs out of one in 2007. In 2012, he caught on to Dirk (more on this later) and won the elusive title. Paul Pierce is known for his scoring but also plays good defense (one guy that could stay with LeBron). His usage rate is much higher (sometimes near 30%), but he shoots efficiently and doesn't turn the ball over a ton. But that usage is valuable: he assumes a greater role, averaging ~25 points in the years before the Big Three as he was the only consistent scorer on those bad Boston teams. Even today, he is the Celtic's number one option in crunchtime.

And there's the rub. Paul Pierce is better than Paul Milsap, and he still couldn't get it done. Those Boston teams were terrible, and Boston Paul needed to hook up with two Fall of Famers: one of the greatest defensive players and all-around power forwards ever, and one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game. Make no mistake: Al Jefferson is not Kevin Garnett and Gordon Hayward is not Ray Allen. Shawn Marion rode Dirk's historic postseason to a ring, but Dirk does not play for Utah.


This is the argument: EVEN IF 2013 Al Jefferson gets 20% better and morphs into 2008 KG and Paul Milsap gets 20% better and turns into Paul Pierce, the Jazz are still missing Ray Allen. And Ray Allen is a Hall of Famer. With the talent on their roster, I can't see them ever getting the improvement they need to compete for a championship. And that's where the curse of the small market team comes into play. It's hard to attract talent top-tier talent in free-agency. Trading for an established All-Star is already a rare and dicey proposition (hello, Philadelphia). Other small market title teams have only done it through the draft: OKC, Dallas, and San Antonio, and Houston in the '90s all drafted their best players. Dallas made some trades, that title doesn't happen if they don't draft a scrawny teenager from Germany in 1998. San Antonio tanked an entire season to get Tim Duncan. Hakeem probably should have won a title earlier. Kevin and Russell will likely get there. That is the value of a draft pick.

To me, the Jazz have only one choice in Al or Paul. They must trade them. Both of them. It isn't an either-or proposition. The current roster can never be good enough to win a title. I just don't see Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, or Alec Burks becoming that third guy. It's extremely hard to find a Hall of Fame player in his prime, and even to do so, you need young assets of your own, assets developed through the draft. I know the draft is a crapshoot, but that's why you need to give yourself as many shots at it as possible. The Jazz need to find some teams in playoff mode, and dump both Al and Paul for as many picks as they can get, and hope for a home run. In the process, they need to see what they have in their younger players (why I didn't like the Tinsley/Mo/Marvin moves). I like both of these guys. They play hard and are fun to watch. They compete (although losing by 40 at home to Houston is something no contender would ever do). But if Jazz fans want to be something more than playoff fodder in the bottom half of the bracket, they need to send both on to greener pastures.

Edit: I would note that if the Jazz were to trade one, as much as a scoring post is valuable, it would have to be Al. His PER is basically the same as Millsap's at around 21 (was 23 in 2009), but this doesn't adjust for defense. And I just love how hard Millsap plays. He just needs, much, much better players around him.

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