The Utah Jazz have a unique opportunity this July to remake their team around their two stars. Instead of dipping after All-NBA-caliber talent Gordon Hayward left the team to play for the Boston Celtics last summer, the Jazz rebounded immediately through the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell and another step forward from center Rudy Gobert. Now, due to a confluence of non-guaranteed and expiring contracts up and down their roster, Dennis Lindsey and his staff can navigate their way to more than $22 million in cap space to add to the Mitchell-Gobert core, or they can retain those players and roll their money over to 2019, when the market will be flush with high-end players.
Toeing the line between being under and over the cap will be the key for Utah this summer. While it’s sexy to cut their roster in half to get to near-max space, they’re under no obligation to do so and have none of the intense timeline pressures that some teams face when they have multiple stars already on the team. With Gobert under contract through 2021 and Mitchell just in the second year of his rookie deal, taking a year with a similar roster from 2017-18 and hitting 2019 free agency with roughly $50 million in cap space might be their best long-term play. Utah face two early decisions which may tip their hand between going for big cap space this year and waiting until next year: Dante Exum’s qualifying offer, which has to be tendered by June 30, and Thabo Sefolosha’s non-guaranteed contract, which fully guaranteed on July 1.
Tendering the $4.3 million qualifying offer to Exum puts his $15.0 million cap hold on their books and puts them back over the cap. They can unilaterally pull the qualifying offer to remove that $15.0 million anytime before July 13, but they’re also at risk of him signing it before they can do so and being stuck with his fully-guaranteed $4.3 million on their cap next season, which would put a dent in any big free agency plans they have this summer. Sefolosha’s contract, on the other hand, doesn’t have that wiggle room; he’ll either be kept at $5.3 million for next season or cut loose on the first day of free agency. The team and Sefolosha can come to an agreement to move his guarantee date back, as we’ve seen with a few players already in June, but he doesn’t have to concede that point unless it’s clear they’ll cut him if he doesn’t.
At the top of the heap is Derrick Favors, whose $18 million cap hold will be another flashpoint of Utah’s summer—if news leaks that they plan to renounce that, then it’s likely that they’re going the cap space route this summer rather than attempting to bring back Favors. However, unlike Exum, there’s nothing stopping Favors from simply leaving of his own accord. For the Jazz to stay competitive next season without breaking the bank in free agency, Favors would likely be part of the team; he and Gobert form a strong frontcourt partnership, especially in the regular season, when teams aren’t prepared for their bruising style. Favors’ ability to play backup center when Gobert sits brings extra value as well. There should be a deal to strike with Favors in Utah, as he falls right in that sweet spot of guys who will get squeezed this summer. Players who are not max or near-max guys and won’t get much interest from the teams with significant cap space but are clearly better than the mid-level exception will have a tough time finding money this offseason outside of their incumbent team, which may be the fate for Favors this summer. Fortunately for both sides, their goals are aligned—Favors will want a short-term deal to get back on the market in the next two years, when more teams should have money to spend, and Utah will want a short-term deal to ensure they have cap space to use in 2019 or 2020.
Re-upping with Favors will restrict them to the mid-level and biannual exceptions, which they’ll want to use for depth at the big man positions and possibly another guard, depending on Exum’s ultimate fate. Players ranging from Seth Curry to Fred VanVleet would be strong candidates to replace Exum, should Utah choose to move on from him. Like Favors, it might be best for both sides for Exum to either agree to a short-term deal or just take the qualifying offer, which at $4.3 million slightly underpays him for his on-court production but prices in his injury history well. After missing his entire sophomore season and all but 14 games of 2017-18, the qualifying offer gives Exum the chance to prove himself healthy and able to contribute for 82 games, with the added bonus of unrestricted free agency next summer.
2019 will bring with it quite a few names the Jazz will seriously pursue with their $50+ million in cap space: Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker would be phenomenal offensive fits at the point guard position next to Mitchell and Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard would give the team a third superstar on the wing. While not a traditional free agency destination, sheer talent and a chance to play with Mitchell and Gobert could win over one of these big names and land Utah firmly among the top teams in the Western Conference.
As with a few teams with possible cap space this summer, overextending themselves on a mediocre-at-best free agency class could hurt the Jazz’s chances of building around Mitchell and Gobert long-term. Still, if they can secure the signature of a top-flight player—Paul George comes to mind as somebody who would fit seamlessly into the Jazz’s system on both ends—they have the financial flexibility to be one salary dump trade away from bringing in a megastar. Patience will likely be the key to Utah’s summer, but the flexibility to add a third star to Mitchell and Gobert will certainly be tantalizing to big-name free agents.