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The NBA lockout will likely last for months, might stretch into next year and could erase the entire 2011-12 season. If the work stoppage lingers, hundreds of millions in revenue will be lost as the league burns down two dangerous bridges: alienating working-class fans while failing to capitalize on the surge in momentum created by an exciting 2010-11 campaign.
Some will benefit from the labor war, though. And out of the 30 NBA teams whose operations were frozen Thursday as soon as the league closed its gates, the small-market Jazz could take one of the largest leaps forward.
Longtime Western Conference foes such as the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio and Dallas are led by aging All-Stars who will only grow older as the work stoppage bridges July with August and possibly stretches into the fall months. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant recently underwent surgery to address aching knees. The Spurs' Tim Duncan just completed his 14th season the 35-year-old center was an NBA sophomore during the league's 1998-99 lockout. The Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion have cracked the 33-year barrier, while Dallas could lose key players such as Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and J.J. Barea to free agency as soon as the NBA reopens its doors.
Utah's age isn't showing. The Jazz's core is composed of Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Devin Harris all of whom averaged at least 15.2 points last season and none of whom exceeds 29 years. Sixth man C.J. Miles just recorded his sixth season as a professional, yet is only 24. But Utah's biggest coup comes in the 21-and-under bracket. The Jazz's Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks were all selected with lottery picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Favors and Kanter have All-Star potential, while Hayward has the ability to become an all-around stud. However, the latter is the only one old enough to legally drink Hayward is 21, while Favors, Kanter and Burks are 19.
"We're at different levels. … We've got a maintain, a small growth and a big growth," Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor said before the lockout. "And the age difference is [structured]."
Youth is promising, but money can buy just about anything in the NBA even under a radically restructured collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is what owners are pushing for and what led to the current lockout. Whether the new CBA features a hard salary cap set at $45 million or a flexible cap with a median of $62 million, the Jazz are positioned to emerge from the work stoppage in a stronger financial position than the organization has been in during the past several years.
Part of the reason O'Connor traded former face-of-the-franchise Deron Williams was to increase the organization's flexibility heading into a volatile and uncertain labor situation. To compete with the NBA's best during recent seasons, Utah was forced to spend lavishly, going above the salary cap and breaking into the luxury tax. The new CBA and increased revenue sharing are expected to aid small-market teams such as the Jazz. Utah cannot command a 20-year, $3 billion television deal like the Lakers did in February, while everything from big-money sponsors to sold-out luxury suites are harder to acquire in Salt Lake City. But NBA commissioner David Stern has constantly referred to improved parity as a cornerstone of the league's labor ideals, and the Jazz could reap new rewards.
"If you're a team and you make good decisions, no matter which market you're in whether you're L.A., New York or Utah you can still be competitive on the playing field, you can put together a winning team and you can turn a profit," said Larry Coon, a salary cap expert and ESPN.com contributor, describing a best-case scenario for the new CBA. "And right now, a lot of teams are in markets where they just can't generate a profit."
The removal of Andrei Kirilenko's albatross-like contract will also aid the Jazz's bottom line. As will the fact that Jefferson is the only remaining athlete on Utah's roster earning major NBA money. He tops Utah's 2011-12 payroll at $14 million, is only under contract for two more years, and is vying with Millsap and Harris as the Jazz player most likely to be traded once O'Connor is allowed to again use his cellphone for NBA-related deals. Veteran reserve center Mehmet Okur is set to make $10.8 million next season, but he's in the final year of his deal and unlikely to command another long-term extension. No one else on the Jazz's roster makes more than $10 million per season. Stars such as Millsap ($6.7 million) and Harris ($9.3 million) are affordable in the NBA's upside-down financial world; young guns Favors and Hayward barely make a dent in the vault; rookies Kanter and Burks cannot sign contracts until the lockout ends.
"Flexibility is much, much more precious when you have new rules coming in, because it just gives you the opportunity to do whatever is going to be best," said Tom Penn, ESPN NBA analyst and salary cap expert. "There's real confusion and concern about the unknown not knowing what the landscape is going to be."
Utah is entering the great unknown with open arms. The Jazz are expected to have 11 players under contract whenever the 2011-12 season tips off, with a payroll totaling about $62 million. That amount is set to dip down to about $49 million in 2012-13. Then the Jazz hit financial nirvana. Barring extensions, everyone from Jefferson and Harris to Millsap and Raja Bell come off the books in 2013-14.
At the same time that the NBA is reorganizing its economic structure toughening the salary cap; leveling the playing field with increased revenue sharing a small-market Utah franchise that struggled to get over the hump from 2006-10 has the potential to again be a major player. The Jazz will have multiple options, and O'Connor could be looking at a view he and the organization have long desired: a level, even playing field.
"Those teams like the Jazz that have lined things up to expire and have flexibility gives you a much, much better chance to rebuild your roster in the new world," Penn said.
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The Jazz are expected to have more financial flexibility and trade possibilities once the NBA lockout ends than the small-market organization did under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Utah's 2011-12 payroll is at the middle of the league's proposed $62 million flexible salary cap, while stars such as Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Devin Harris are under contract for only two more seasons. The Jazz are also overstocked at the power-forward and center positions, allowing the team to survive if Millsap and/or Jefferson are traded. In addition, Utah's Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks were all selected with lottery picks in the 2010 and 2011 drafts, but none is older than 21.
Part of the reason Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor traded former face-of-the-franchise Deron Williams last season was to increase the organization's flexibility heading into a volatile and uncertain labor situation. Williams is set to make $16.3 million next season and holds a player option worth $17.7 million in 2012-13. The Jazz received Devin Harris in the blockbuster trade for Williams. Harris' combined salary the next two seasons: $17.8 million.