Just as with teammate Enes Kanter, it was somewhat surprising to see that the Jazz are talking extension with Alec Burks. The shooting guard has made just a dozen career starts, and with this summer’s addition of No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum and retention of free agent Gordon Hayward, it doesn’t seem like there will be many starts to go around in the years to come, with Trey Burke already firmly entrenched. Still, Burks is a 23-year-old former 12th overall pick who’s coming off a season of noticeable improvement, and the Jazz have no shortage of financial flexibility for seasons to come.
The Andy Miller client was one of many young players on the Jazz who took on an expanded role last season, but his increase in production outstripped his increase in minutes. Burks set career-best per-36-minute marks of 17.9 points and 3.5 assists while recording a 15.8 PER, also a career high. He maintained strong three-point shooting, a part of his game that had been a question mark coming out of the University of Colorado, nailing 35.0% of his attempts from behind the arc, just a tick below the 35.9% he made in 2012/13. His markedly improved 45.7% field goal percentage overall was chiefly the result of better mid-range shooting, as Basketball-Reference shows he significantly increased his accuracy from 3 to 16 feet away from the basket. Burks has also defended well, as the Jazz have given up fewer points per possession when he’s been on the floor compared to when he’s sat in each of the past two seasons, according to NBA.com.
The Jazz only have about $36.5MM in commitments for 2015/16, a number that should swell to about $40MM once they pick up their team options on Burke and Rudy Gobert. That would give them max-level cap flexibility beneath the projected $66.5MM salary cap for that season. Extensions for Burks and Kanter that together add up to no more than $10MM in annual salaries would take Utah down to roughly the sort of cap room necessary to sign a restricted free agent to a max contract. The Jazz are much more likely to attract the sort of free agent who’d warrant the 25% max than a veteran who could make 30% or 35% of the salary cap, since star free agents have never clamored to go to Utah. Still, it will be quite difficult for the team to attract even a player befitting the lowest version of the NBA’s maximum salary, particularly if the Jazz end up in the lottery again this year, as expected.
The Jazz have instead used their cap space in more unconventional ways in recent years. They essentially rented it to the Warriors in 2013/14, as GM Dennis Lindsey agreed to take on the inflated contracts of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush for a slew of draft picks. Lindsey and the Jazz did the same on a smaller scale this summer, garnering a pair of second-round draft picks in exchange for absorbing close to $4.3MM combined in guaranteed salary for Steve Novak and Carrick Felix. Eventually, Lindsey will have to decide whether securing the draftees the team has brought aboard over the last several years is more important than acquiring picks to bear fruit in years to come.
Utah isn’t at that point yet, and it probably won’t be until at least the summer of 2017, when the rookie deals of Burke and Gobert are set to expire and Hayward can opt out of his contract. An extension for Burks would almost certainly carry through that summer. No one knows just what the salary cap will look like at that point, but Lindsey and the Jazz have to be thinking ahead.
An extension that runs three seasons instead of the standard four would at least allow the Jazz to move on from Burks in the summer of 2018, when Derrick Favors is due to hit free agency. The same could be accomplished if the Jazz include non-guaranteed salary in the final season of a four-year extension for Burks, though all four of the seasons on the extension that Quincy Pondexter signed last year with the Grizzlies are guaranteed, a point that Miller would surely bring up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jazz would counter with the idea of giving Burks more than the $14MM total that Pondexter is receiving in exchange for a non-guaranteed season. Utah would also be wise to try to frontload the salaries so that the majority of the cost comes while the team still has plenty of cap flexibility.
Lindsey and the Jazz seem willing to commit to their young talent if those players are willing to bet that their market value won’t escalate significantly in the years to come, and while that sort of agreement is elusive, it’s worthwhile for the Jazz to pursue it. Last year’s extension with Favors looks reasonably team-friendly compared to the max offer sheet that Hayward scored in restricted free agency, and surely Lindsey has that dichotomy in mind as he sits at the negotiating table with the agents for Burks and Kanter. It still seems unlikely, based on the history of rookie scale extensions, that the Jazz or any team would strike a deal with a player who doesn’t seem to have superstar potential, but Burks is on an upward arc, and Utah appears eager to keep him from free agency if it’s feasible. Other teams will surely be watching how these negotiations play out to gauge whether they, too, should consider granting rookie scale extensions to a wider range of eligible players.