The Irish poet Oscar Wilde once wrote, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” If that’s true, then fate may have intervened to do the Utah Jazz a significant favor in the form of an unanswered prayer this offseason.
We now know, via reporting from The Athletic’s Tony Jones, that the Jazz shifted their focus to Croatian forward Bojan Bogdanovic as a free agent target only after Nikola Mirotic opted to leave the NBA for Spain’s ACB league. “Bogey,” for reasons we’ll explore shortly, was in essence the backup option, activated only after the gods failed to deliver Mirotic to Utah’s roster. And here’s the thing: the Jazz are way better off with Plan B than they would have been with Plan A.
Mirotic would have been a fine addition as a complementary specialist, and his shooting creates a gravitational pull that could certainly have helped clear the lane for Rudy Gobert rim rolls and Donovan Mitchell drives. But Bogdanovic is every bit the shooter that Mirotic is, and brings much more offensive dynamism to the table than his European peer. He’s also better on the defensive end. Frankly, it’s a bit odd that Bogdanovic wasn’t the top target all along.
It’s a moot and minor quibble about an offseason that has gone extremely well for the Jazz. The reality is that Utah had already vaulted itself into contention with the Mike Conly acquisition, and the club was bound for elite status almost regardless of who they slotted into that stretch forward role. But Bogdanovic is a far better overall player.
Last season, he scored more points, shot more efficienty, was healthier and defended far better than Mirotic did. He was the number-two option on a 49-win playoff team, and actually inherited the role of primary scorer after teammate Victor Oladipo got hurt. In the playoffs, Bogdanovic maintained his scoring1 while Mirotic played himself out of the Bucks’ postseason rotation. Mirotic played sparingly against Detroit’s twin bigs in the first round, and by the Conference Final series aganist Toronto, his shooting woes2 and shaky defense made him unplayable. He saw just nine minutes in Game 5 after being demoted to a reserve role, and he didn’t play at all in Milwaukee’s elimination loss.
Yet raw production figures scarcely tell the story of just what Bogdanovic brings to the Jazz that Mirotic can’t. The former is just a more complete and dynamic player.
Bogey has the tools to carry a playoff offense. He is a spot-up threat much like Mirotic, but he can also generate offense off the bounce, create out of the pick-and-roll and do so much more. He gets to the rim (37% of his shot attempts) as often as he fires from deep (34%), whereas Mirotic is strictly a bomber — nearly three fifths of his shot attempts came from downtown.
In short, Bogdanovic is another player who can put pressure on the defense, Mirotic is the type of player who benefits from such pressure. For example, you’re just not going to see Niko put the defense on its heels like this.
And while both guys are deft at dancing around off-ball screens, Mirotic just doesn’t have the same bag of tricks once he gets the ball. Watch Bogdanovic catch, pause for a second to freeze the help, then shimmy down past two defenders for a crafty finish at the rim.
In general, Bogey just has more of a creator’s mindset, which is why he’s always surveying the floor. He’s great at reading the defense when he comes over a pick on the catch or on the dribble. In an instant, he’s able to process what the defense is giving him and pounce on it.
He only gets that shot off because the Pels respect his ability as a driver. He sees them drop back to deny the drive and instantly makes the right decision to pull up.
Honestly, that combination of pull-up ability and slicing finishes is more than a little bit Haywardesque. And that diversity of creation ability shows up in the way Bogdanovic uses his possessions.
Bogdanovic has shown the ability to score and create in a variety of ways. A much greater chunk of the possessions he uses (with a shot, free-throw trip or turnover) come on plays where he’s the designated creator, or where he’s carving out his own opportunities with off-ball movement. By contrast, Mirotic is a bit more dependent on others setting the table for him, or on being the endpoint of play types that are typically in the baileywick of a traditional big man.
Another stat that shows the distinction in how these two find buckets: 70% of Mirotic’s shots go up without a single dribble, whereas 59% of Bogey’s field goal attempts come after he has put the ball on the floor.
And that’s fine. Elite catch-and-shoot threats are valuable in their own right, and Mirotic is certainly that. But if you can get a guy who does that AND can be a threat in other ways, why settle? For that matter, even Mirotic’s real specialty — spot-up shooting — is something that Bogey has been better at lately. Mirotic knocked down 38% of his catch-and-shoot threes last season; Bogdanovic netted 45%. He’s better there, he’s a more diverse threat elsewhere, and he doesn’t come with the same defensive limitations.
So why did the Jazz wait to pursue Bogdanovic until their plans with Niko fell through? According to Jones’ reporting, it was about opportunity cost.
Bogdanovic’s market value was higher, so Utah knew he would cost most or all of the cap space they could free up by waiving 8-year Jazz veteran Derrick Favors. On the other hand, Mirotic would come just cheap enough that the Jazz could reserve a small amount for another player, likely a guard. Jones tweet mentioned a specific target, and given his comment that the difference in salaries would have essentially created “two room exceptions,” we can surmise that it would have been someone they thought they could nab in the $4 to 5 million range3.
Guards Garrett Temple, TJ McConnell and Danuel House all had positive Wins Above Replacement last season and ultimately signed for between $3 and 6 million, so that’s a good place to start. So did Jake Layman, but he was a restricted free agent at the time the Jazz were making this decision.
There’s also a possibility that someone they liked was willing to take room exception money to compete for titles with the suddenly more legitimate Jazz, but wound up getting more to sign elsewhere. The next tier up in terms of guard pay in this year’s free agent market includes Derrick Rose, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, Seth Curry, George Hill, Pat Beverley, Jeremy Lamb, Tomas Satoransky and Cory Joseph, along with RFAs Delon Wright and Tyus Jones. Those guards all signed for somewhere between $7 and 12 million for next season, but who knows — maybe one of them was willing to negotiate at the $4-5M price point to play with a contender.
Of the unrestricted free agents we just listed, Pat Beverley and Jeremy Lamb were the most valuable by WAR, but they also are both starters, so it’s unlikely they were taking paycuts to play 16-20 minutes per night. The best of the rest: Satoranski, CoJo, Ellington, Rose, Temple and Payton.
Here’s why this exercise still doesn’t convince me that Bojan shouldn’t have been Plan A all along: on a roster that already has Mitchell and Conley, I’m not sure any of those guys adds enough juice that I’d take Mirotic over Bogdanovic to make it happen. Sure, those pricier guys like Ellington, Sato and CoJo are solid contributors in starter-minute roles, but the opportunity to make a real impact would have been scarce while playing behind Utah’s star guards. And in the meantime, they would have compressed the minutes for rotational guards like Dante Exum and/or Royce O’Neale.
And in either scenario, Utah still would have had the room exception to sign Ed Davis and the minimum salary slot they used on Jeff Green. So really what this comes down to is: all other things being equal, would you rather sign a Mirotic-Ellington4 type of combo, or sign Bogdanovic and ride with the reserve guards you have on the roster?
For my money, that’s an easy call: I’d take Bogey-Exum or Bogey-O’Neale over any realistic Mirotic-guard combo, and that’s primarily a statement on how much better Bogdanovic is and how much dynamic ability he brings to the Jazz. With Mirotic and one of those guards, you get two solid role players. With Bogdanovic, you get a borderline star, someone who averaged 21 a game from February on when the scoring mantle fell to him.
Utah’s current depth chart has them starting three guys who have carried an offense, plus Gobert who is a top-15 player in his own right. I’m just not sure that a slight upgrade on who their 7th or 8th man is makes it worth giving up that type of star depth at the top of the roster.
In fairness, there are other reasons that might have contributed to their calculation on whom to pursue first. For example, Mirotic is more of a pure PF — a position of need as Utah moved away from Favors — whereas Bogey is kind of a hybrid SF/PF type. They also may have not realized just how gettable Bogdanovic was until Mirotic’s U-turn forced them to look for contingency plans.
But overall, it’s not hard to make an argument that Utah’s Plan B should have been Plan A from the beginning. Bogdanovic isn’t a perfect player, but he will be able to contribute in more ways than anybody else in that price range was realistically going to provide.
Nice stuff costs what nice stuff costs. There’s a reason a $17 million player costs $17 million and a $13 million player costs $13 million. While there’s some abstract merit to maximizing every dollar in a capped environment with finite resources, it’s almost never a good idea to choose two decent role players over a single real difference-maker. The Jazz almost over-engineered this decision into such an outcome.
The benevolent basketball versions of Oscar Wilde’s gods (and Mirotic) did them a solid by saying no. They will ultimately be happy it worked out the way it did.
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