A little over eight weeks ago, before the Golden State Warriors summarily swept them out of the second round of the playoffs, you could squint at the Utah Jazz and see the outline of a team that might spend the next five years angling to lose in the conference finals, rather than in the first or second round. You can’t really do that anymore.
It’s been a pretty brutal offseason in Utah! After five years of patient rebuilding, they both made the playoffs and won a series for the first time since 2012, and came into the summer with as much promise as any young team in basketball. Now Gordon Hayward—the best scorer and second-best player on last season’s team—has left to play for his college coach in Boston; George Hill, one of the most balanced two-way point guards in the NBA, is off to Sacramento; and barring some kind of blockbuster trade no one expects, nobody in particular is coming to replace them. To say that the Jazz have been decimated by free agency would be an understatement: They lost a hell of a lot more than 10 percent of their forces yesterday. It would also be incomplete: Free agency smushed the Jazz, yes, but it had help from the CBA.
The Jazz made offers to both players. They had the money to re-sign both. They had at least as good a team as either could hope to join elsewhere. They had the momentum of a 51-win season on their side. Both players just wanted to play somewhere else. Hill chose the goddamn Kings, for chrissakes.
This really isn’t supposed to happen to young, up-and-coming playoff teams, the kind built around a drafted core of talented players, the kind that bides its time and conserves its money until the young cocks are ready to shine, the kind that mostly nails the draft for a solid half-decade. They’re supposed to be able to add pieces, to reload around that core; they’re supposed to lavish huge extensions on those homegrown teens as they fill out their potential; they’re supposed to be able to give their dang fans at least one offseason of fantasizing about the move or moves that push them over the top. They’re not supposed to watch two of their top five players, including the face of the franchise, leave for not-even-all-that-sunnier pastures, for no reason less humiliating than “This town is really dull.” They’re not supposed to have to console themselves with stuff like “Yeah but we re-signed Joe Ingles” and “But uhhh we still have Rodney Hood.”
An irony here is that the Jazz got screwed in large part by the very same labor-market controls ostensibly designed to protect smaller NBA towns like Salt Lake City. This is an indirect consequence of the salary cap and max-salary system, which tends to flatten the actual, on-paper contract differences between competing free-agency bids for players of real consequence. The phrase “all other things being equal” was invented for situations like this, in which multiple employers are making broadly similar contract offers to a player, leaving him to base his decision on more meaningful distinctions between them. Distinctions such as, for example, “Which of these teams has my college coach?” and “On which of these teams will I get a larger on-court role?” and [clears throat for 45 straight minutes while staring daggers at the Utah Jazz], crucially in the case of a max-contract player like Hayward, “Which of these cities will give me exponentially greater media exposure, creating opportunities to make up in endorsement contracts what the max-salary system prevents me from collecting in actual basketball income?”
In Hayward’s situation, in particular, you can see how the cap-and-max system at best does nothing in particular for little markets like Utah, and at worst actively hurts them. According to all the reporting, his decision came down to the Jazz, Heat, and Celtics; when you factor in that the cap-and-max system, by design, prevented any of the three from offering him truly irresistible contract terms, his choice appears perfectly logical. The contract offers more-or-less canceled each other out, leaving Utah—the actual, geographical place—as a millstone around its own neck, bidding against a middling team in an attractive destination (Miami), and an excellent team coached by a friendly and familiar face in a larger and more appealing market, both of them in cupcake divisions in a cupcake conference. Why the hell would he have chosen to stay in Salt Lake City?
No system will protect a market like Utah from handsome, talented, rich, ambitious, horny youths generally not wanting to go live in the Mormon Vatican in the middle of the desert for years and years. But that’s just the thing: The “It’s Utah” tax exists and will always exist, but the cap-and-max system, by its very design, bars the Jazz from being able to actually pay it. And so they’re stuck in this purgatory for as long as it takes for the universe to spit out a great player or three who actively want to spend their careers in Utah (hoops-playing snowboarders, maybe?), or one player so great he can carry the Jazz to glory before his first contract extension runs out.
It’s not the worst place to be. Barring a serious injury to terrifying monster Rudy Gobert, or to two or more of his teammates, the Jazz will remain a safe bet to make the playoffs in 2018 and beyond. But the long holiday weekend’s free-agency bloodbath serves as a grim reminder of all that works against Utah’s hopes of ever reaching the top of the NBA and staying there—of all the ceilings they had to punch through just to splat into the Warriors and crash back down.