Utah Is the Best Free-Agent Destination LeBron Will Never Consider

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 30: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers is defended by Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz in the second half of the 104-101 win by the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Let's get a couple of things straight at the outset: LeBron James isn't signing with the Utah Jazz, but he should probably think about it.

That's right. The Utah Jazz.

Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers have the allure of Hollywood and a basketball history rivaled only by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics have that tradition, a spot in the Eastern Conference and assets galore. The Houston Rockets have James Harden, Chris Paul and a reasonable expectation that they could've beaten the Golden State Warriors this year. The San Antonio Spurs are the Spurs. The Philadelphia 76ers have one of the most exciting young cores in the league (and again, East). And the Cleveland Cavaliers play at home.

There are plenty of sensible options out there for LeBron. Some are ready-made title contenders with James. Some are brimming with youth, new challenges and a chance to rule the league for a year or two after the Warriors' window closes. The Jazz would give LeBron both.

The current cornerstone of the organization, Rudy Gobert, is 25. The future cornerstone, Donovan Mitchell, is 21. And when those two were on the floor this season, Utah outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, per the league's website. The Warriors outscored opponents by an even 10 points per 100 possessions when Kevin Durant and Draymond Green shared the floor.

And in the weeks-long closing kick of 2017-18 that took the Jazz from lottery-bound to the playoffs, the Gobert-Mitchell duo was even better, posting a plus-15.6 Net Rating. Throw Joe Ingles in to make it a trio, and that number climbs to 17.6.

And there's your core. Gobert, Mitchell and Ingles. No, in terms of name value, it doesn't stack up to Harden and CP3, Simmons and Embiid, or Gregg Popovich. But that's a trio that could keep LeBron at the level of a legitimate contender now—and for the next several years.

The group already closed the season with the second-best record in the league (29-6) from January 24 on. It upended Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the first round of this postseason. Then, it took a game off the top-seeded Rockets in Houston before running out of gas and injuries caught up to it.

After all that success, it would make sense for Utah to stand pat this offseason and continue to let this group grow organically. But, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale put it: "Utah needs another shot creator anyway.

"That's what this team missed the most—and still pines for—following Gordon Hayward's departure: from-scratch shot creation. Head coach Quin Snyder's egalitarian offense masks much of the absence, but the Jazz placed 21st in field-goal percentage on drives and 29th in efficiency when using three to six dribbles."

James obviously checks those boxes. Even in his age-33 season, he was second in field-goal percentage on drives (minimum 100 attempts) and fifth in effective field-goal percentage when taking three to six dribbles before shooting (minimum 100 attempts).

But there's little value in further explaining why James fits in Utah. It's LeBron James, arguably the best player in NBA history. It would be hard to find a team where he wouldn't make sense. Instead, let's look at how the Jazz fit LeBron.

He's never played with someone like Gobert. The closest thing might be 2016 Tristan Thompson, who posted a 1.3 Defensive Box Plus-Minus, an 18.4 Total Rebounding Percentage and a 1.8 Block Percentage, per Basketball Reference.

Gobert's career lows in each of those three categories are higher than Thompson's 2016 numbers. He's led the league in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus in each of the last two seasons—and by sizable margins. In 2017-18, the distance between Gobert and second-place Andre Roberson was about the same as the distance between Roberson and 10th-place Joel Embiid. Utah surrendered 7.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor, and that's a pretty typical mark for his career. He's a defense unto himself.

Utah's Defense...
DefRtgOpp eFG%Opp OREB%
...When Gobert is ON the Floor97.74919.6
...When Gobert is OFF the Floor10552.120.7
NBA.com

And that's exactly what LeBron needs at this point in his career. The Athletic's Nate Duncan put him on his "No-Defense Team," a dubious distinction that Gobert would almost certainly preempt in 2018-19. The difference between the back-line defense of Gobert and Kevin Love would be about as glaring as the difference between Utah's regular and city jerseys.

And Gobert wouldn't just help LeBron on defense. He's also one of the league's top rim-runners. According to Basketball Reference, six players put up at least 200 attempts in the range of zero to three feet from the rim and hit at least 70 percent on such shots in each of the last two seasons.

Gobert and LeBron are two of those six. That pick-and-roll flanked by the shooting of Ingles and Mitchell would be a nightmare to defend.

And that brings us to Ingles. Exactly 100 players have attempted 500-plus threes over the last two seasons. Ingles' 44.0 percent from deep trails only Kyle Korver's rate in that group, per Basketball Reference. And among the nine two-man lineups in which LeBron logged 500-plus minutes this season, the Korver-James combination had the best Net Rating, at plus-11.4.

See the connection? LeBron thrives with a great shooter to kick out to following his drives. Ingles can replicate the shooting and then some. He's six years younger than Korver, nearly tripled his Assist Percentage and his defense essentially neutralized JJ Redick and George in back-to-back postseasons. Redick posted a minus-3.4 Offensive Box Plus-Minus in the 2016-17 playoffs. George posted a minus-0.8 Offensive Box Plus-Minus in this year's first round.

Finally, there's Mitchell, perhaps the most intriguing reason of all for LeBron to join the Jazz. In December, he called the Rookie of the Year contender a "young king," and he had the following to say a couple of weeks later:

LeBron wasn't the only player to take notice over the course of the season. All year, big-name players, from George to Paul to Dwyane Wade, sought Mitchell out after games against the Jazz. And the players association voted him the league's top rookie:

Mitchell is already using his newfound status throughout the league for the good of his franchise. In a recent episode of The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski, Mitchell talked about recruiting stars, including Paul George, to Utah. The next day, he tweeted a picture of himself and George with the caption "#NationalBestFriendDay 👀 @Yg_Trece"

Mitchell may know as well as anyone what Favale explained. He shouldered a huge load for a rookie, posting a 29.1 Usage Percentage. And his effective field-goal percentage dropped over 3 percent in the playoffs, while his attempts per game jumped from 17.2 to 22.1. Who better to alleviate some of that pressure than LeBron?

He and Mitchell would fit together just fine. The latter has drawn comparisons to Wade throughout his rookie campaign, and it's not hard to see why:

Donovan Mitchell vs. Rookie Dwyane Wade
PER GAME
PlayerSeasoneFG%TRBASTSTLPTS
Donovan Mitchell2017-180.5063.73.71.520.5
Dwyane Wade2003-040.4754.04.51.416.2
ADVANCED
PlayerTS%OBPMDBPMBPMWS/48PER
Donovan Mitchell0.5411.3-0.21.10.09516.7
Dwyane Wade0.5300.90.41.30.10317.6
Basketball Reference

Wade was LeBron's right-hand man for the first four of his eight straight Finals appearances. And the early hang-up between those two was the lack of spacing available to two ball-dominant drivers. Mitchell is way ahead as a deep threat, as he posted a three-point percentage nearly four points better than rookie Wade's on nearly 500 more attempts.

Now, the reason Mitchell, Gobert and Ingles are the only players whose fits with LeBron have been analyzed here is that Utah might not have much left on the roster after that. To get the cap space necessary to land LeBron, the Jazz would have to clear a bunch of hurdles.

If he signs a max deal with a new team this summer, it will start around $35 million per year. To get to that exact amount of cap space, Utah would have to trade Ricky Rubio's expiring contract and the No. 21 pick for no incoming salary; waive the non-guaranteed deals of Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh; and renounce the free-agency rights to Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto. Or, at least, that's one path.

Utah could play around with some of those moves to create space in slightly different ways. Getting off Alec Burks' contract (also expiring) would be huge. If Exum signs for around $7 million, he might be able to stick around. The Jazz might even be able to keep him and Sefolosha if they find a way to unload both Rubio and Burks. But with cap space so crunched around the league this summer, trading even one for nothing could prove challenging.

The other path is the opt-in-and-trade Houston used to acquire Paul last summer. But Utah may not have the requisite trade sweeteners to make that enticing for Cleveland (provided LeBron doesn't mandate Utah being his next destination).

Long story short, it's hard but not impossible to make LeBron-to-the-Jazz work under the cap.

Ideally, Utah would be left with the following, plus exceptions and minimum-salary slots to fill out the roster:

2018-19 Utah Jazz
PGDonovan MitchellDante Exum
SGDante Exum/Royce O'NealeRoyce O'Neale
SFJoe InglesThabo Sefolosha
PFLeBron JamesJae Crowder
CRudy GobertTony Bradley
Salary-Cap Projections via Salt City Hoops

After all that, it's probably worth repeating: LeBron James is not coming to the Utah Jazz. But again, he should at least think about it.

Utah was plus-64 in four games against the Warriors this season. It has one of the only defenses in the league that can make Golden State work a little bit. And adding LeBron to that mix would make it an instant title contender.

He posted a league-leading 24 Wins Over Replacement Player last season. Swap those in for the number the Jazz hypothetically lose in the above scenario, and you're looking at a 55-win team. And that's not even factoring for the development of Mitchell or how much better Utah was in the second half of the season.

Mitchell and LeBron alone would make the Jazz a problem for the rest of the league for years to come. "Stockton to Malone" got the Jazz so close in the '90s. "Don to Bron" might actually put Utah over the top.

      

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.

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