In 2002/2003, during the final year of Stockton and Malone, the Utah Jazz went 47-35. In the first season after that, they went 42-40. Ostensibly, they hardly missed a beat.
Andrei Kirilenko was the star of that 2004 team. He led the Jazz in every category except assists - when his 3.1 assists per game was second only to Carlos Arroyo's 5.0 - and his dynamic play on both ends earned him a maximum contract with the belief that he would carry the Jazz front line for years to come. As we now know, he didn't. Nevertheless, for that one season, Kirilenko did truly carry a ramshackle cast of misfits and journeymen to a surprisingly strong season.
Utah didn't mean for Kirilenko to do this. They didn't assemble the roster they wanted. They didn't enter the post-Malone and Stockton era intending to have all of Greg Ostertag, Jarron Collins, Mikki Moore, Ben Handlogten, Curtis Borchardt, Michael Ruffin, Paul Grant and Keon Clark platoon at centre. They didn't really intend for Arroyo, a bit-part player the previous season, to lead the team so single-handedly in the backcourt. And they didn’t mean to have Kirilenko lead the team in three point makes. It all just happened. And it all happened because plans A through F didn't happen.
The 2003 free agent market saw many quality young players hit the free agent market, and Utah struck out on all of them. They pursued Brad Miller, but he opted for the fun and fortune offered by Sacramento. The Kings could offer those things back then.
They pursued Andre Miller of the L.A. Clippers, but he took Denver’s offer. They pursued a second Clippers restricted free agent, Elton Brand, but he eventually signed an offer sheet with the Heat – they later signed a third Clippers RFA, Corey Maggette, to an offer sheet the Clippers later matched. A previous offer sheet the Jazz had given to Jason Terry also got matched – ultimately, in a summer in which they had half of the salary cap to work with, Utah’s complete free agency haul read Ruffin, Handlogten, Grant, and Raja Bell.
Wasn’t quite the plan.
With no one else left to strike out on, Utah maximised their cap space the other way. In what became fairly standard procedure in the years hence, Utah avoided overpaying the last few Vladimir Stepania-type free agents on the market, took advantage of concerns other teams had about the luxury tax (still in its relative infancy), and used their residual cap space to take on bad deals for assets. They got a first round pick and a second round pick for taking Glen Rice from Houston (shipping out the unwelcome John Amaechi in the process), gained a second round pick for taking Keon Clark from Sacramento, and later turned Clark and Handlogten over to Phoenix, in exchange for Tom Gugliott's large deadweight contract, two further first round picks and one more second.
Of all the players mentioned in the above stanza, only Handlogten played another NBA season; it came with Utah after re-signing there. For the cost of a few million dollars in salary, and a couple of months of redundant cap hits that merely absorbed space they weren’t going to use anyway, Utah acquired six essentially free draft picks.
By not being able to sign anybody to big money, Utah allowed themselves to load up on draft picks, even if they were accidentally too good to tank their own. By striking out with their 2003 cap space, Utah inadvertently preserved it for 2004, whereupon they scored Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in a more successful free agency market. And by preserving it for 2004, they were able to secure the front line of the next few seasons. There were mistakes along the way – re-signing Arroyo for four years and $16 million, while letting Mo Williams leave for only the three year and $5.28 million offer sheet Milwaukee gave him. Yet precisely because of these mishaps, they rebuilt their team.
This is not just a cheesy story told at a weird moment. This is all relevant to the current Jazz. History has done what it loves to do best and repeated itself.
Utah headed into this summer with almost two maximum salaries worth of cap flexibility, and yet they made no effort to sign players with it. Almost as quickly as free agency began, Utah committed to burning their cap space on the Warriors’s castoffs, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson, a combined $20 million cap hit with some first rounders to offset the cost. Burning $20 million of cap space on Biedrins, Jefferson and Brandon Rush is about as identical to burning $20 million of cap space on Gugliotta, Rice and Clark as you can get.
The difference is, or should be, the end result. The 2003 edition of this strategy culminated in the 2004 draft selections of Kris Humphries, Kirk Snyder and Pavel Podkolzin. Snyder went to a psychiatric hospital, Humphries lasted two seasons before being traded for Rafael Araujo, while Pavel lasted about seven minutes before being traded for a pick that later became Linas Kleiza. Stocking up all the assets meant nothing when said assets were wasted – with Kirilenko (and, to an extent, Boozer and Okur) taking up all the cap flexibility without living up to the money, and the supposed young core not working out, the 2004-05 season that followed was much worse than the one which was designed to be bad. A wasted season had to follow before Deron Williams arrived and the rebuild finally began.
This time, it’s different. It is the same situation, but it’s not. This time, Utah have gotten the young quality BEFORE hoarding the cap space.
Rather than a youth movement of Kirilenko, Arroyo, Collins, Borchardt, Raul Lopez and DeShawn Stevenson, Utah boast real, legitimate prospects at every position, not just one. They won’t tread water with retreads and accidentally win 42 games with veteran cast-offs like a decade ago – this year, if they win 42 games, it will be on merit. And they can. There is enough talent there to do it. And with all the expiring salary and acquired picks to compensate it, the Jazz have one of the rosiest futures around.
Utah have again let a late playoff seed roster walk away, and again replaced them with the dreggy discards of different late playoff seeds and a couple of young hopefuls. They have followed pretty much the same strategy in 2013 as they did ten years earlier.
This time, though, it was done deliberately. And better.