Utah Jazz 2024 NBA offseason preview: Time for the franchise to decide on a direction

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 29: Lauri Markkanen #23 of the Utah Jazz looks on against the Orlando Magic during the third quarter at Kia Center on February 29, 2024 in Orlando, Florida. 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 Rich Storry/Getty Images)
Will the Jazz sign Lauri Markkanen to a contract extension this summer? (Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images)

2023-2024 season: 31-51

Highlight of the season: The surprising evolution of Keyonte George and his ability to handle consistent point guard minutes.

With a lot of losses and a lot of upcoming decisions to make. The team finished 5-25 over its final 30 games after what was mostly a fairly competitive season. Lauri Markkanen played All-Star-caliber basketball for the second year in a row (23.2 points, 8.2 rebounds), Collin Sexton bounced back from a forgettable season, and Utah’s three first-round selections all showed signs of life — George most of all.

Utah’s late-season collapse did coincide with Markkanen and forward John Collins both missing time due to injury, however, the franchise wasn't in position to make a serious move in the Western Conference even if it had been healthy. Second-year head coach Will Hardy made an investment by handing the point guard keys to George, who came out of Baylor as primarily a shooting guard. Whether George will be the long-term point guard remains to be seen, but Hardy’s decision to let the offense run through the 20-year-old will assuredly make him a more determined playmaker moving forward, regardless of which position he ends up occupying.

Before the season, the Jazz rolled the dice on Collins, acquiring him via trade, in the hope they could rebuild some of his value after he’d grown replaceable in Atlanta. While Collins would often struggle defensively, he did get a chance to be featured more in the offense, while boosting his rebounding numbers for the first time in years. Whether the Jazz showcased him enough to make other teams interested in his services remains to be seen, but the remaining $53.1 million on his contract is sure to prove problematic.

A broader discussion needs to take place within the front office this summer. Due to Markkanen’s modest compensation of just over $18 million, Utah will find it impossible to extend him outright due to the NBA’s 140% extension limit on veteran contracts. To retain Markkanen long-term, the Jazz will need to renegotiate his contract and use cap space to hand him a significant raise.

This might appear as the logical next step, however, Markkanen turns 27 in May, and the team is nowhere close to being good enough to compete in the playoffs. Keeping Markkanen long term presents a series of overarching questions about the state of the franchise, which direction to go in, and whether it makes sense to spend the next two to three years waiting for George, Brice Sensabaugh, Walker Kessler and Taylor Hendricks to improve to a level where they can make a real run — if they even can.

In many ways, Utah’s decision to lean into youth this season was puzzling given how committed the Jazz seem to be to Markkanen, which is going to make this summer all the more intriguing.

Their biggest need will be determined by which direction they wish to go. If the Jazz have intentions of being competitive next season, they will need an actual veteran point guard who can lead the offense. If they’re rebuilding, they won’t have specific needs, looking instead to acquire young players and draft assets to eventually get back to relevance.

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge told reporters at the conclusion of the season that Keyonte George isn't the franchise point guard they're looking for. "I'm still not sure he's a franchise point guard. I think he can play point guard, but I think that he can play with another guard playing the point and he can play off the ball." The Jazz have two first-round picks and an early second-round pick and could be targeting playmakers like Kentucky's Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard or Serbia's Nikola Topić, or draft some size alongside Walker Kessler in Purdue star Zach Edey, Kel'el Ware of Indiana or Oso Ighodaro of Marquette. — Krysten Peek

Draft picks: Nos. 10, 29 and 32

Should Utah relinquish the rights to both Talen Horton-Tucker and Kira Lewis Jr., which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, they could enter the summer with well over $30 million in cap space. Should they find a taker for Collins that would be willing to absorb a significant portion of his salary into cap space, even more money will be freed up.

What that money should be spent on falls into one of two lines of thinking. The Jazz could look to make upgrades by being aggressive on the free agent market and hope to re-sign Markkanen in 2025, or they could take care of the Finnish forward this summer, forgoing upgrades and signing their All-Star to a near-max deal as they use the available cap space to renegotiate his deal.

Financially, the Jazz find themselves in a good spot. Their books are generally clean and they don’t have a single dollar committed beyond the 2025-26 season, meaning they can go in whichever direction they choose with several options at hand.

Key free agents: Talen Horton-Tucker (UFA)

Picking a direction and sticking to it. No one would bat an eye at the Jazz for looking at the strength of the current Western Conference and coming to the conclusion they might as well sit this one out for a few years while they tinker with their roster. With the Grizzlies coming back into the picture next season, and with the Spurs likely also making moves to get better, taking a long-term approach wouldn’t be a bad decision.

Invest in their youth movement. The Jazz have draft picks for days and ample cap space to use in the years ahead to form a competitive roster. I expect Ainge to find new homes for Collins and possibly Jordan Clarkson and Sexton, which could open up minutes for Kessler, Hendricks, Sensabaugh and George. — Dan Titus