Plenty Of Questions Surround Paul Millsap

Nine games into the 2012-13 NBA season, there is a situation brewing that could have both short- and long-term ramifications for the Utah Jazz: the play of Paul Millsap.

Utah’s 6-8 starting power forward has made huge strides in his game ever since entering the league as a late second round pick by Utah in the 2006 NBA Draft. He was always a great rebounder, as evidenced by his leading NCAA Division I in rebounding for there straight seasons, the only player ever to do so. But he’s added so many more skills to his toolkit, particularly in the past couple of season, that he figures to be one of the top free agents on the market in the summer of 2013.

While Millsap has stated his preferred destination next season is Utah, his decision not to sign an extension with the Jazz is telling. He perceives his value in the coming market, behind perhaps only Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala and Utah teammate Al Jefferson, and wants to see what the market will bear. His play so far this season is reflecting that perception.

For starters, it’s looking like as Millsap goes, so goes Utah. In four victories the Jazz have posted this season, Millsap is averaging 17.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and a block per game. In Utah’s five losses, some of those averages drop remarkably: 14.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and one steal per game. Only Millsap’s block rate shows an increase in games lost at two per game.

With point guard Mo Williams leading the team in scoring and Al Jefferson leading in rebounds, Millsap may not exactly be the team’s sole most valuable player, but his performing well is obviously key to Utah’s success this season.

Also, particularly last season, Millsap’s play on the road was a major concern. This season, however, he’s playing better on the road than at home. Again, look at the averages. In Utah’s three home games, Millsap is averaging 12.7 points on 46.7 percent shooting from the floor and 66.7 percent from the free throw line. He’s rebounded well in Salt Lake City, pulling down 12.3 boards per game, and he’s also dishing three assists per game. By comparison, Millsap has been incredible on the road, scoring 17.8 in Utah’s six road contests, with 50 percent shooting from te field and 73.1 percent from the line. He’s also hit 8-of-11 3-point shots away from EnergySolutions Arena. His rebounding drops off to 8.3 per game, and his assists to 2.3 per game, but he’s blocked two shots per game on the road against 0,7 at home.

It’s still very early in the regular season. But if Millsap’s numbers continue to hold, particularly on the road, he may be in line for a big raise next summer, perhaps even a maximum offer. Utah may have to choose between Millsap and Jefferson, and one of them may be traded by or before February’s trade deadline in order to avoid losing the player with no return in 2013.

That’ll be a tough call, considering Jefferson is still Utah’s top rebounder overall, and he’s third on the team in scoring average, just a hair behind Mo Williams and Millsap at 15 points per game — a tough call indeed.

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Preseason Promise And Questions For Utah

We’ve all heard it over and over: The preseason doesn’t mean anything. But is that really true? With the 2012-13 NBA regular season set to start, is there anything that we’ve learned about the Utah Jazz from their preseason performance? I think there’s plenty.

For starters, the offseason move the Jazz made to acquire Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye will pay dividends.

With Mo Williams at the point, Utah was consistently able to push the ball up the floor quickly, allowing for more easy transition baskets. Also, his 3-point shooting should give the Jazz a potent option on offense in the halfcourt that they just didn’t have last season.

Marvin Williams gives Utah plenty of athleticism on the wing, and he’ll have the opportunity to do things with Utah he never had with Atlanta.

Foye’s shooting came on later in preseason, and Jazz coach Ty Corbin was able to use Foye and sophomore guard Alec Burks in a combo-guard backcourt in reserve that showed some interesting results and could prove quite handy while reserve point guard Earl Watson continues his rehab.

Also, the work Enes Kanter put in during the summer was for real. My concern with Kanter ever since he was drafted was whether or not he was worth a No. 3 overall pick over Toronto rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, and Kanter’s rookie season didn’t fill me with confidence. I also thought Kanter should’ve join Turkey’s national team for Eurobasket qualifying. But the workouts he did to get in shape for the season and the skills he picked up working with NBA legend Kiki Vandeweghe really showed during preseason. He averaged nearly a double-double in Utah’s eight preseason games, playing hard in all of them, and showed improvements in defense, rebounding and offense, particularly with his mid-range jumper. Now my biggest worry about Kanter is whether or not Corbin will play him 20 minutes per game in the regular season like he did in preseason.

Fellow big man Derrick Favors had a slower start to preseason than Kanter did, but he defended well throughout, and by the last few games of exhibition, his offense looked more ready for the start of the season as well. Again, with veterans Al Jefferson, Utah’s best and most consistent player last season, and Paul Millsap both looking to take a major share of minutes in the frontcourt, playing time for Favors may also be a challenge.

While the start of the regular season brings promise, it also brings questions. With regards to Jefferson and Millsap, both will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With their contracts, among others, coming off the books, the Jazz will be looking at a lot of salary cap space next summer. But Jefferson and Millsap will also be among the top free agents available on the market, and Utah may not be able to retain both players.

A trade during the season for either player is a real possibility in order to ensure getting value in return, and it’s a situation that will bear watching between now and February.

Also, Utah is going to need to get more from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward this season. Hayward has shown incredible potential, and his defense is particularly underrated. But just as it was with C.J. Miles, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, consistency will be Hayward’s challenge. He has the ability, but he needs to be assertive with his role on the court, and performing well consistently, particularly on offense, will help him define that role with this team.

On Wednesday, when Utah opens the regular season agains the Dallas Mavericks, we’ll see what carries over from preseason and what questions start to get answered — and what new questions might emerge.

Jazz Players Come With Big Expectations

It’s been awhile since the Utah Jazz have made a move this offseason, so it’s a good time to look at some of the big moves the team has made to date.

In addition to re-signing some of its own free agents, namely guard Jamall Tinsley, swingman DeMarre Carroll and forward Jeremy Evans, the team has acquired through trading and free agency point guard Mo Williams, swingman Marvin Williams and guard Randy Foye.

For Mo Williams, it’s a sort of homecoming, as he returns to the team that gave him his start during the 2003-04 NBA season. While it remains to be seen if he can do a better job than Utah’s previous starting point guard, Devin Harris, who went to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Marvin Williams, statistically he does look like a pit of an upgrade.

Comparing career stats, Mo Williams is slightly better with his overall 3-point shooting percentage (38.7 percent to Harris’ 31.5 percent), free throw shooting (86.9 percent to Harris’ 80.1 percent) and rebounding (3.0 boards per game to Harris’ 2.4 boards), while the two are dead even in overall shooting percentage (44.1 percent) and assists (5 per game). But Williams is coming off an L.A. Clippers team where he played a reserve role behind Chris Paul and alongside Chauncey Billups last season, although he did very well as a starter for the Clips and the Cleveland Cavaiers in 2010-11.

His chance to be the prime floor general for an NBA franchise will be highly scrutinized, but the veteran point man ought to do very well for Utah this season.

Turning to Marvin Williams, there’s a lot for Jazz fans to be happy about in his coming to Utah. Statistically, he’s a big upgrade over Carroll at the starting small forward position, with career averages of 11.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and nearly a steal per game. Those are numbers the Jazz wold love to get out of that position, at least as a starting point.

Marvin Williams’ big challenge in taking over as Utah’s starting 3 will be in giving the team the kind of hustle and gritty play that Carroll did as a starter — and will likely continue to give off the bench. While his numbers are decent, Marvin Williams has suffered under the reputation of an underachiever with Atlanta. He’ll get plenty of opportunities in Utah to develop a new rep, but it’ll be up to him to make it happen.

In Randy Foye, the Jazz are getting a solid backup player to boost their bench, particularly with reserve point guard Earl Watson working to recover from knee surgery. Foye considers himself a shooting guard, but he can be a serviceable combo guard who Utah head coach Ty Corbin can interchange between backcourt positions as needed.

Foye likely won’t cut into starting off-guard Gordon Hayward’s minutes, but the short-term loser in the rotation may be Jazz reserve guard Alec Burks. Foye’s career numbers are better than the upcoming sophomore’s, and if the Jazz are focusing more on winning now than developing young talent, Burks may have to wait a bit to see if Foye sinks, swims, or plays more as a reserve point guard.

The new acquisitions may or may not be the last moves the Jazz make this offseason. But Utah’s Vice President Kevin O’Connor and new General Manager Dennis Lindsey have many more decisions ahead of them. Chief among those are the expiring contracts of big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Millsap reportedly turned down an extension offer from the Jazz, which means he will be testing the market as an unrestricted free agent next season. The Jazz would have a lot of cap room next season with both contracts off the books, but after Dwight Howard, who will likely re-sign with his new team, the L.A. Lakers, Jefferson and Millsap will be among the top free agents of the summer of 2013.

The Jazz would have more money to try to lure one or both of them back, or they could trade them this season — maybe even this offseason — to be sure they get some value out of the players’ departures.

Mo Williams Traded To Utah

Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor announced Friday that the team has acquired guard Maurice “Mo” Williams from the Los Angeles Clippers, pending the outcome of a physical, as part of a four-team trade in which the Clippers receive forward Lamar Odom from the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets receive the draft rights to the Clippers’ 53rd overall pick from Thursday, Furkan Aldemir of Turkey, and Utah sends the team’s trade exception to Dallas.

The Jazz obtained the trade exception in a deal with the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets along with a future second-round pick in exchange for center Mehmet Okur on Dec. 22, 2011.

Williams, a 6-1, 195-pound guard out of Alabama, is entering his 10th NBA season and has appeared in 589 career games with 432 starts, owning career averages of 13.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 30.4 minutes with Utah, Milwaukee, Cleveland and the Clippers. He has also played in 41 career playoff games with 25 starts and averaged 12.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

This past season Williams saw action in 52 games with one start for the Clippers, averaging 13.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 28.3 minutes and helping L.A. to the best record in franchise history and a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals.

The 29-year-old native of Jackson, Miss., was originally selected by Utah in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft with the 47th overall pick. In his rookie season in 2003-04 with the Jazz, Williams appeared in 57 games (no starts) and averaged 5.0 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 13.5 minutes.

His best statistical NBA season came with Cleveland during the 2008-09 season, when he averaged a career-high 17.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists and hit 43.6 percent from three-point range in 81 games (all starts) and was named an Eastern Conference All-Star before helping lead the Cavaliers to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.

This move, coupled with Utah’s picking up of its option year on the contract of Jamaal Tinsley, the 6-3, 197-pound point guard also entering his 10th NBA season, gives Utah four veteran point guards on its roster, with Devin Harris and Earl Watson rounding out the group.

Williams’ agent has already alluded to his client’s desire to start for Utah, which puts Jazz head coach Ty Corbin in a position to choose between starting Williams and Harris at the two guard positions and moving swingman Gordon Hayward to small forward or letting Williams and Harris battle it out for the starting point guard spot, which would leave way fewer minutes for Watson and Tinsley, both of whom stepped up for Utah at different times last season.

There is also the possibility that Utah might be looking at dealing one of its four points, with Harris being the most likely option to be moved, particularly if he’s uncomfortable with the prospect of coming off the bench.

Utah’s first big move of the summer has already opened the door to a world of interesting options for the team, and it’s very likely only the beginning of player offseason movement in Salt Lake City.

Utah Has A Short Shopping List

While the teams still in the NBA Playoffs grind toward the 2012 NBA Finals, Utah Jazz fans are thinking of two things right now: free agency and the draft.

With Utah carrying already more than $50 million in salaries (assuming they pick up their option on reserve guard Jamaal Tinsley), making a move for an A-list talent in this summer’s free agent market would be tough to do without a trade. But as to outright mid-level talent, there are a few options the Jazz might consider. Anyone who thinks they know of a certainty who’s being targeted is lying to you, because Kevin O’Connor is perhaps the most tight-lipped executive in pro sports, much less the NBA, but here’s a short list of who I’d like to see Utah go after.

Why would Utah want a center when they already have Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter? Well, for starters, Omar Asik represents the one thing Utah doesn’t have right now, a true 7-footer. While I remain open to the idea that Favors and Kanter might still get bigger, I haven’t seen X-rays of their growth plates, so I think Utah ought to get someone into the rotation who can augment the defense and toughness the Jazz have with the little extra length they still don’t have. Basketball is still a game of numbers, and every little bit counts.

Having finished his second season in the NBA, Asik’s still got plenty of upside himself. His rebounding average compares pretty well with Favors and Kanter, and he could be a solid second unit contributor with either of those players, especially since he doesn’t have to have the ball to be effective in the game, but he can still score inside when needed. His free throw shooting does leave a lot to be desired, but his 1.67 blocks per game in this year’s playoffs is also on par with Favors’ average of 1.5. Put those two together in a lineup and you’re plugging up the paint in a way few teams can match.

Asik is a restricted free agent, and the Bulls would be likely to match an offer made to him precisely for the reasons I’ve listed. But he’s worth making an effort to get.

Although Goran Dragic did well at the latter end of the season as a starter for the Houston Rockets at point guard, and the Rockets have expressed their willingness to get him back, it makes more sense in my opinion for Utah to pursue him over, say, Steve Nash. Dragic is good enough to push Utah’s Devin Harris for a starting spot, and he’d be great in the second unit in case Earl Watson’s rehabilitation takes a wrong turn. He’s an unrestricted free agent, so Utah wouldn’t have to worry about anyone matching an offer he’d accept from them. Of course, there’s always some risk involved, but his career-high averages of 11.7 points and 5.3 assists per game are pretty good for his age and make him a prime second-tier free agent target.

At 6-10, Ersan Illyasova looks to be more of the same as far as what Utah already has. But he brings the potential of a 3-point shooting combo forward along with him to whatever team he signs with. True, he’s had what’s called a “contract year” this season with career highs of 13 points, 8.8 rebounds, 45.5 percent 3-point shooting and 49.2 shooting from the floor overall, but he’s still got some upside at 25 years old and could be a great addition to Utah’s emerging young core at an affordable price.

The 7-1 Spencer Hawes gives a lot of what Utah would gain with Asik, only with more polished offensive skills. Although he’s most likely returning to Philadelphia, with whom he’s made a nice contribution during the playoffs after missing a sizeable chunk of the season due to injury. He’s an unrestricted free agent, although he’d probably fetch above mid-level salary range. Still, a sign-and-trade to get him might not be out of the question.

Most of Utah’s best free agent options have been with their own free agents. The Jazz will likely make a qualifying offer to the 6-10 2012 Sprite Slam Dunk champion, and although it’s been tough to find minutes for Jeremy Evans in the rotation, I think there is still a lot of potential for him to be a combo forward who can give the Jazz versatility in quicker lineups at the 4 and length at the 3.

Like I said, it’s a short list, and it’s a bit sketchy. But there’s still a long way to go until July when the free agent signing period begins. These guys are a good place for Utah to start.

Jazz End Season On A High Note

The Utah Jazz entered the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA regular season without a whole lot of expectations from the basketball world at large. While die-hard Jazz fans were excited about 2011 draft picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks and still buzzing over the acquisition of young post presence Derrick Favors and talented point guard Devin Harris the previous season, most pundits figured this season’s Utah team to be mediocre at best.

Utah finished the 66-game slate with a record of 36-30, edging out the Phoenix Suns for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference and being swept by the West’s top-seeded San Antonio Spurs — not a glorious season, certainly, but still a good lick better than mediocre.

So how did a team without a true center that finished the 2010-11 season with a dismal string of losses after the retirement of its Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and the trading of its All-Star Deron Williams turn itself around and earn a playoff spot?

Offensive production certainly played a big role. Fueled by a home-heavy schedule in January and peaking in April for a fantastic run to the playoffs, the Jazz finished the season with a team scoring average of 99.65 points per game, fourth-best in the league, and shot a solid 45.6 percent from the floor. They also posted a respectably low turnover average of 14.18 per game. Utah also excelled on the glass behind big men Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Favors and Kanter, averaging 44.18 boards per game, third-best in the NBA.

Defensively, Utah left a little bit to be desired. Behind the skills and muscle of its big men and rangy swingman Gordon Hayward, the Jazz blocked a lot of shots, 5.83 per game, fourth in the NBA. But going up against teams that had more actual length, the Jazz had nearly as many of their own shots sent back, an average of 5.68 blocks by their opponents. Behind Millsap’s career-high average of 1.8 steals per game, the Jazz were able to do well in that department with 8.26 steals per game. But the team allowed its opponents to shoot nearly as well from the floor as they did, with an opponent average of 45.3 percent, and the Jazz also gave up a higher percentage of 3-point shots than they hit, 34 percent to 32.3 percent.

While there are those who would vigorously contend this point, I maintain that Utah’s lack of a true center was one of the reasons it didn’t fare better this season. The 6-10 Jefferson was clearly the best and most consistent player the Jazz had this year, averaging 19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, and with his advanced post moves, deft shooting touch out to 18 feet and rebounding skills, he was often center enough despite giving up an inch or two. But also quite telling were his struggles against the L.A. Lakers, with two 7-footers on their front line in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the Portland Trail Blazers, first with Marcus Camby and then Joel Przybilla, and the Indiana Pacers and their big center Roy Hibbert. In three games against the Lakers, Jefferson shot 30 percent from the floor; against the Blazers, he shot 33 percent over three games. In Utah’s game against the Pacers, Jefferson was 35.3 percent from the floor.

Alongside the 6-8 Millsap in the starting lineup, the Jazz often found themselves giving up length. They made up for it with heart, hustle and a good deal of muscle, especially with Favors (also 6-10, but with an enormous wingspan, and I’ll grant that he may not be finished growing) and the 6-11 (in sneakers, 6-8 3/4 without shoes) rookie Kanter (who could also add an inch or two as he ages). But this season, there were times it just wasn’t enough, particularly in the playoff series against the Spurs. While pundits touted Utah’s size advantage, I maintain it was a myth. With 6-11 Tim Duncan (who used to be announced as a 7-footer when he played for Wake Forest, I swear), 6-7 muscle chunk DaJuan Blair, 6-11 (maybe 7 feet, depending on who’s doing the measuring) Tiago Splitter, and even 6-10 Matt Bonner, San Antonio didn’t have any problems complementing Tony Parker’s penetrating drives with some punch in the post and their own presence on defense and the boards.

Inconsistency at the point was also a weakness for the Jazz. Harris started the season poorly, improved greatly in February, dropped off a bit in March, then he picked up just in time with a stellar April that saw him come up with some big game-winning shots in Utah’s stretch run to the postseason. But it’s clear they needed more from their starting point guard than what they got, and that will be something for Harris to think about this summer.

Still, the future looks bright for this franchise. Young players Favors, Kanter, Hayward and Burks should just continue to improve, and Utah may be able to make a key addition or two in free agency. Despite not having a first round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, the Jazz will have their second-round pick, No. 47 overall, to pick up a sleeper or use on an overseas prospect, and I’m holding out hope that 7-2 center Ante Tomic decides to come over to Utah with his current contract with Spanish power Real Madrid set to expire.

These are all developments to keep track of this summer, because for a true hoop addict, there is no offseason.