Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT

Beautiful music

Jazz assemble free-agent class Lakers and rest of NBA would die for

Posted: Tuesday July 13, 2004 1:53PM; Updated: Tuesday July 13, 2004 6:05PM
Free E-mail AlertsE-mail ThisPrint ThisSave ThisMost PopularRSS Aggregators
Bruce Bowen; Carlos Boozer
While his ethics may be in question, Carlos Boozer's skills aren't, which prompted the Jazz to offer him a home in Utah.
Chirs Coratta/Getty Images

A year ago, Karl Malone left the Jazz to join the Lakers because he wanted a chance to win a title. If he's serious about his intentions, he might want to think about going back.

Malone's departure, coinciding with the retirement of John Stockton, left Utah with what, at the time, many considered the worst team in the league. Less than 12 months later, the Jazz have a better roster than the Lakers, and if Malone wanted to return, he'd have trouble getting on the floor. Of course, we all know about the Lakers' implosion by now (enjoy the second Lamar Odom era, Angelenos), but the next biggest, and much less reported, story of the summer is how Utah has transformed itself into a Western Conference power.

The Jazz have done it by being the exception to the rule in 2004's insane free agent market. Any analysis of winners and losers from this summer seems superfluous, because in three years, nearly everyone who signed a player is going to be a loser. You can already look ahead to 2007 and envision NBA execs scratching their heads while they ponder questions like, "Whose idea was it to give $39 million to Hedo Turkoglu?" and, "Did we really guarantee four years to Antonio McDyess?"

In stark contrast, the Jazz are free agency's undisputed winner. After hearing for years that free agents didn't want to play in Salt Lake City, Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor and company have shred that theory to tatters with a series of quality signings. Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer, Carlos Arroyo and Gordan Giricek all have committed to inking deals with the Jazz once the moratorium is lifted on Wednesday. And O'Connor isn't done yet -- among others, he's expected to have an agreement soon with Utah swingman Raja Bell.

But it doesn't matter what the fifth card is, because O'Connor has already pulled four aces. To me, there are three key reasons why the Jazz succeeded in free agency where everyone else failed:

They went young

The Jazz are the one team that signed players this summer who might actually see them be worth the length of their contracts. As an NBA coach once told me, "Teams don't make mistakes on money. They make them on years."

Giving a six-year guaranteed deal to any non-superstar in his late 20s or early 30s is inviting near-certain salary-cap suicide. It was bad business five years ago when the salary cap went up every year due to increasing revenues. But in today's climate, where the cap is virtually flat from year-to-year, it's (channeling Bill Walton) horrrrrible business. The cap doesn't project to change much for several years, especially since the next TV contract is likely to be smaller than the current one, but the standard player contract includes 12.5 percent annual salary raises, so a bad contract hammers teams more with each passing year.

Teams can hope all they want, but the laws of nature --- and in particular, aging -- are inviolable. Fast forward to 2009 and imagine a 35-year-old Steve Nash, a 34-year-old Adonal Foyle or a 33-year-old Rafer Alston playing anywhere near their current levels of productivity. Yet the Suns, Warriors, and Raptors, respectively, decided to take the plunge and ink those players to deals that are generous even in year one. By year six -- if not much sooner -- each will be carving out a giant hole in his team's salary cap.

Mehmut Okur
With Shaquille O'Neal headed to Miami, Mehmut Okur's size and feathery touch should propel the Jazz far out West.
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Contrast that with the Jazz. All four players they signed are young enough that the Jazz won't get stuck with a nasty surprise if  their guy suddenly ages in dog years two seasons into the contract. For instance, Boozer is only 22 -- by the end of his six-year deal, he'll still be younger than Nash is today. Okur is 25, so he'll be 31 at the end of his deal, and as a center, he's playing the position that tends to age the best. Arroyo turns 25 in three weeks, so he'll be nearly 29 when his deal expires, while Giricek (27) will still be 31. In other words, the Jazz aren't taking any chances on paying declining guys into their mid-30s, a lesson too many other teams have failed to learn.

They were reasonable

Utah wisely avoided the funny-money disease that afflicted the rest of the league. Boozer is an All-Star power forward in the making, so $11 million a season for him is hardly outlandish -- in fact, it's still less than what Nash got. Okur's deal is very reasonable too -- six years, $50 million, which, believe it or not, pays out at the same annual rate as Foyle's deal with the Warriors. I think it's safe to say the Jazz will get more bang from the same buck on that one.

The real bargains came in the backcourt. Arroyo agreed to a four-year, $16 million deal, which is amazingly cheap considering the money other teams are throwing at lesser players like Alston and Derek Fisher. One of the most underrated players in the game, on a per-40 minute basis, Arroyo averaged 17.9 points and 7.1 assists in 2003-04, dwarfing the numbers of Alston (13.0 and 5.8) and Fisher (13.1 and 4.2). Giricek, at four years and $13 million, also came inexpensively, especially in this market. Look at it this way: He's not much worse than Turkoglu and came at a third of the cost.

They fit the system

Here's the best part for the Jazz: All four guys fit perfectly into Utah's system. Giricek and Arroyo, of course, were restricted free agents who are holdovers from a year ago. As for the newcomers, neither, Boozer and Okur -- despite both being rising stars -- dominate the ball, which should allow them both to snap right into the Jazz's motion offense.

Additionally, each of the new additions has the size to play the Jazz's uniquely physical style. Under the fierce Jerry Sloan, Utah is basketball's answer to mud-wrestling. It led the NBA in both fouls and opponents' fouls by phenomenal margins, so it pays to have some beef on the front line. The only difference now is that it's talented beef, whereas before it was something called an Ostertag.

Boozer and Okur join a cast that was much better to begin with than people realize. Spaghetti-armed small forward Andrei Kirilenko is a legitimate superstar along the lines of a Jason Kidd or Ben Wallace -- he can dominate the game without scoring. He'll team up with Boozer and Okur in what may be the best frontcourt in basketball. Then there's Matt Harpring, who nearly made the All-Star team two years ago but now will have to go to the bench because there's no room for him in such a talented lineup. Finally, first-round draft choices Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries add more zip to a second unit that lacked punch a year ago.

Add it all up, and the Jazz have left their competition in the dust. Jerry Sloan had to use smoke and mirrors to win 42 games last season. This year, he has enough talent to match up with anyone. One year after Malone left for the bright lights of L.A., the Jazz are better than the Lakers at four of the five positions. Like any team at this point of development, Utah has some nagging question marks -- outside shooting being the most prominent -- but O'Connor has maneuvered the Jazz into a position where they can reasonably expect to win 50 to 55 games. The Lakers only wish they could say the same thing.