The Jazz have a unique way of turning problems into strengths. They're supposed to be a small-market team unlikely to recruit free agents, and yet they've gone 39 years with just two -- two! -- losing seasons. With this tradition in mind, the Jazz face their latest test: how to manage their quartet of big men?
They've assembled the deepest young frontcourt in the NBA with Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, who is the most promising of them all. The problem is money. Millsap and Jefferson, both 27, are going to be free agents in the summer. Can the Jazz afford to maintain their frontcourt in an expensive market that will pay Millsap and Jefferson eight figures each per year?
"The possibilities are always there," said Dennis Lindsey, in his first year as GM of the Jazz. "Is it realistic? We'll find out in time."
The 6-6 Jazz are positioning themselves for a run at a second straight appearance in the playoffs. Jefferson (15.4 points and 12.0 rebounds) and Millsap (15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) are their most productive players, while Favors (24.5 minutes) and Kanter (14.2 minutes) are in supporting roles.
The real question is whether they should keep all of their big men, and the answer is obvious. Their four-man rotation can't be maintained for the long-term. One of them must go.
And yet the Utah experiment of blending these four talents has been working surprisingly well. In other NBA cities this kind of rotation would be brimming with controversy and innuendo, with one player feeling slighted or another hinting of his desire to be the man. But that isn't happening here. Instead Jefferson works with 20-year-old Kanter on his low-post moves while publicly declaring that 21-year-old Favors will be an All-Star someday -- even though the two of them may force Jefferson's departure by the February trading deadline.
"I think it has to do with the type of people we are," said Favors. "Paul and Al, they're good guys. They come to practice, they work hard, and they help us out with a lot of stuff. Most of the credit goes to them because most guys in their situation would be pissed and saying, 'I'm not helping them.' Or they'd be going to the coach and GM."
The most obliging of all the Jazz big men has been Millsap, for whom the league should create a Self-Made Man award. Millsap was a second-round pick from Louisiana Tech (the school of Karl Malone, the ultimate self-made star) who has steadily transformed himself from an undersized rebounder in the paint to a sleek scorer with range out to the three-point line, where he is shooting 55.6 percent, good for fourth in the NBA. The improvement of his ball handling and virtually every other phase of his game has enabled the 6-foot-8, 258-pound Millsap to start at small forward against smaller opponents.
"I get to see the floor a little bit different -- it's a change," said Millsap of playing on the wing. "I'm glad I can get out there and see the court in a different aspect, as opposed to being under the basket a lot. I'm trying to help us win in that area."
Does he like playing small forward?
"I don't have a problem with it," he said.
He doesn't love it, which means, when he becomes a free agent this summer, he won't settle for having to adapt to it. He has worked too hard to settle, and there are going to be several teams in the market for a highly reliable producer like Millsap. He may never become a classic go-to scorer, but in some ways it's harder to find a player like him than to come up with an All-Star. Millsap is one of those rare players who serves only to help a franchise -- he improves every year, sets a high example of integrity for teammates and seeks to help a team in every way he can. He has applied his career to fulfilling the values established by Malone and John Stockton, and the Jazz should do everything they can to keep him, because they will be damaging their own identity if he should go.
Not only would Utah be unable to replace Millsap, but he might miss the Jazz just as badly. Many NBA teams are not committed to the values in which he and the Jazz share.
If Millsap stays in Utah as a power forward, then Favors must become a center. At 6-10 and 263 pounds, with a young body that continues to strengthen and evolve, he is capable of that move. The bigger question is whether the Jazz would be limiting his potential by shifting him to a different position. Coach Ty Corbin and his assistants have been working with Favors to develop his low-post footwork -- not in preparation for a move to center, but because it can separate him from Amar'e Stoudemire and other promising big men who never learned how to play with their backs to the basket.
"If he can get the footwork, with his athletic ability and the way that he can move on the perimeter, he'd be unstoppable in the paint area," said Corbin. "The way he explodes off the floor" -- Corbin snaps his fingers -- "that little footwork advantage of just getting him to move without actually moving would be huge for him."
Favors has been generating 9.3 points and 7.7 rebounds while playing in roughly half of each game. He has been working on a jump hook and a faceup jumper but has yet to decide on a go-to move in the post.
"I'm just playing naturally, just reacting," he said. "If they take away the right hand, go to the left; if they take away the left, go to the right. During the game I try not to think about it. When I get the ball in the post, [I] just make a move and go."
Favors moves through opponents like a defensive end that is impossible to block. He is explosive in transition and under the basket, he has soft hands and he has a hunger for the ball. He's another keeper because -- like Millsap -- he appears inclined to put in the work that will fulfill his illustrious potential.
Isn't it amazing how the Jazz move like trapeze artists from era to era without falling? From the departures of Stockton & Malone to the trade of Deron Williams and the abrupt "retirement" of Jerry Sloan (who continues to be in the mix for new coaching jobs), the Jazz have been able to avoid the extended collapses suffered by most franchises. Based on finances, geography and culture, the Jazz would appear to be among the least attractive franchises for players, and yet executive VP Kevin O'Connor has kept his team among the most successful in the league.
Here's one man's guess for how this plays out: They trade Jefferson at the deadline only if they receive an explosive perimeter scorer (which is a need) or a dynamic young point guard in return. But the Jazz won't have to make a deal, because their frontcourt depth enables them to survive Jefferson's departure as a free agent while using the cap space created to address needs elsewhere.
They re-sign Millsap as a cornerstone whose value to the Jazz is greater than it would be for any other team. They turn Favors into a center, which will enable him to flourish against that weakened position. And they bring Kanter off the bench as a 6-11, 267-pound project who is still finding his way after missing 2010-11 in an NCAA eligibility dispute and then losing 50 pounds last summer.
Then again, they could lose both Jefferson and Millsap; or they could yet decide to keep Jefferson as a low-post complement to the athleticism of Favors. No matter what the Jazz do, the likelihood is that this problem will once again turn out to be a good thing for them. The rest of the league is dying for talented size, and it's the team in Utah -- the franchise that shouldn't be able to compete -- that has more young big men than it can afford.