SALT LAKE CITY — The first half of Dennis Lindsey’s summer of angst went surprisingly well. Thursday night’s draft was more productive than he could have hoped.
But Friday ushered in Part II of his gut-wrenching offseason workload. That includes, among other things, negotiating with free agents George Hill and Gordon Hayward. Lindsey must convince them the success they want is within reach in Utah.
Asked which is harder between drafting and free agency, the Jazz general manager ran a misdirection play.
“I think they all are hard,” Lindsey said, “but it beats working with a shovel or a pipe wrench. So I’m not ever going to complain about that.”
Fair point, but if you use a pipe wrench, you don’t have to answer to a fan base of millions.
In some ways, Hayward is the easy part. The Jazz can pay him tens of millions more than anyone else, over the life of a maximum contract. The decision is out of the Jazz’s hands. If baked beans and Red Sox comp tickets matter that much to him, he’s gone. Far trickier is the matter of signing Hill. He too is looking for a maximum contract. Reports say in his first-ever foray into unrestricted free agency, Hill could sign for as much as four years, $132 million. This puts the Jazz in the tenuous position of paying Hill like a big star or trying to keep the costs reasonable so they can pay Hayward, and any others, without feeding the luxury tax monster.
Although Forbes magazine recently said Jazz owner Gail Miller is worth a tidy $1.2 billion, the team has often said it doesn’t intend to pay luxury tax. So the simple answer is for the Jazz to make Hill a strong offer, well above the $8 million he made last season, but not a ridiculous one. They reportedly tried to lock him up last winter at nearly three times his salary, but nothing happened. Some have speculated he can command over $30 million annually.
That’s a lot of investment for someone who played in only 49 games last season.
Hill struggled to stay healthy, which is where the issue gets thorny. Should the Jazz sign a less-talented (and less-expensive) guard, but one without health issues?
Whatever the case, the Jazz have options. There are numerous good point guards approaching free agency, and others who have been mentioned in trade rumors.
Such a move could be risky. Hill’s player efficiency rating via ESPN ranked him the 13th best point guard in the league last season, well below No. 1 Russell Westbrook but ahead of Ricky Rubio, Derrick Rose and Tony Parker. The issue is how much it’s worth to retain a player who missed 40 percent of his regular season games. The Jazz won 67 percent of the time with him in the lineup, 55 percent when he was sidelined.
He also missed the last three playoff games.
Could the Jazz win as many games by signing a veteran guard who isn’t as good as Hill, but has better durability? It’s a hypothetical situation, because Hill could be injury-free next year. But 82 games with a solid-to-good point guard might get them farther than 49 games with an injury-prone Hill.
Meanwhile, do the Jazz want to commit several years ahead, at maximum salary, to the 31-year-old Hill? Last year was a breakout season, but it also could have been his best. John Stockton’s player efficiency rating peaked the year he turned 32 (Hill turns 32 next May) and declined thereafter.
“We are and we will continue to evaluate George Hill as our incumbent free agent. George is going to have an incumbent advantage,” Lindsey said. “… In the meantime, we do have flexibility with cap space until June (July) 1, and then we have a few assets that will help us if we make a trade. My best guess is that we’ll go into the free agency market. It’s no secret that somewhere in our lineup we’re going to have a veteran point guard.”
He’s not talking about Shelvin Mack, Dante Exum or Raul Neto.
Whether the veteran is Hill or someone else remains hazy. There’s no doubt Lindsey’s hope is to keep Hill. It's still the team's best option. But the urgency isn’t the same as Hayward, who is a franchise player. The Jazz shouldn’t break the bank to keep Hill, just make sure it’s open for business. He missed enough games to make them cautious. If the price gets too high, they should find someone with lower miles and/or lower cost. Talent only matters if it’s on constant display.