In the end, Greg Miller said Wednesday, he went with his gut.
The owner of the Utah Jazz said in a telephone interview that he decided to OK the trade of All-Star guard Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets because of his increasing belief that the Jazz could be caught empty-handed in the summer of 2012 if Williams decided not to re-sign in Utah, as other teams have found themselves in the past year.
“The concern that we as a franchise have had all along is if you look at what happened with LeBron James in Cleveland, and Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix, and Chris Bosh in Toronto, there seems to be a trend developing where those marquee players get away,” Miller said. “In the case of those three teams there was very little at the end to show for it. I was very concerned that the same thing would happen to us if Deron left.”
Utah traded Williams on Wednesday to the Nets for rookie forward Derrick Favors and point guard Devin Harris, and two first-round picks. One of the picks is New Jersey’s unprotected first-rounder next year; the other is a 2012 first-round pick originally acquired from the Golden State Warriors. The pick is protected through the first six picks of the Draft in 2012 and 2013, and through the top seven picks in 2014. That means that the pick will go to Utah if the Warriors do not finish with one of the six worst records in the league in 2012 or 2013, or one of the seven worst in 2014. If none of those scenarios occurs the first-round pick turns into second-round picks in 2014 and 2016.
Miller said he and general manager Kevin O’Connor had conversations over the past few months both with Williams and his representatives, and that Williams was non-committal about his future every time. He didn’t say he was definitely leaving, but he didn’t say he was definitely staying, either. And the Jazz were increasingly worried that Williams would walk.
“At the end of the day, I never heard him say he was going to stay or go,” Miller said. “Just going with my gut, I just felt like he would likely be moving on. The opportunity to make this trade caught us by surprise when NJ called (Tuesday) and asked if we’d be interested in doing the deal. Kevin called me yesterday afternoon … we decided this would be a great opporunity for the Utah Jazz to preserve the value of Deron Williams by trading for these four, essentially, first round picks, and control our destiny, which I wasn’t sure we would be able to do with Deron.”
Miller said he called Williams personally to tell him about the trade.
“As far as I know it was the first he heard of it,” Miller said. “He just said, ‘All right, I appreciate it.'”
Miller said he didn’t have an “overt” conversation with Williams about his future this year, but didn’t get the sense that Williams would make a commitment going forward.
“I think we’ve done everything we can to make him feel welcome and respected,” Miller said. “Our hope would obviously be to keep our marquee player. But absent strong feelings that that feeling was reciprocal, we had to gamble … there’s just so much uncertainty out there with so many things. But we just felt with all the uncertainty and ambiguity out there this was the best way to control our destiny. It was a way for us to preserve the value. Rather than just let Deron get away from us and have nothing to show for it, it gave us some assets to work with, some resources to work with going forward.”
The Jazz had liked Favors before the draft but couldn’t figure out a way to move up to take him, and he was selected third by New Jersey. Harris has a chance to resucitate his career in Salt Lake City after falling out of favor with the Nets. The constant trade speculation involving him as the Nets tried to make a deal for Carmelo Anthony also affected his play.
Asked several times if Williams had prompted the Jazz to move him with any kind of objectionable behavior, Miller said no. Local media in Salt Lake City said after Jerry Sloan‘s sudden resignation earlier this month that one of the key factors in Sloan’s decision was a deteriorating relationship with Williams. The two had several verbal confrontations, including one Feb. 9, the night Sloan decided to retire. After thinking about it overnight, Sloan announced his retirement the following day.
“There have been a lot of people since Jerry’s departure who seem to have a need to make a villain out of somebody,” Miller said. “I honestly don’t feel that. I wish Deron Williams the absolute best. He was great for the franchise. We’re not excited to see our marquee player get away from us, but again, given all the uncertainty about his future and his willingness to stay, I felt this was the right thing for our franchise to do.”
Some Jazz fans have been upset by the news of the trade, Miller said, but have been mollified somewhat when they understand the team’s philosophy and concerns about Williams’ future.
“Frank Layden told me a long time ago, the players come and go, the coaches come and go, but the franchise remains,” Miller said. “That means to me there’s never — I won’t say never — but it’s a very rare circumstance with the Utah Jazz where a player would be untradeable. If I felt we could improve the franchise long term, even if he’s a marquee player, I would do it. That’s a general statement. It doesn’t apply to any specific player.”
Miller said he was not swayed at all by the Nuggets’ ability to extract four players, three future Draft picks and cash from New York in exchange for Anthony, and that it was the Nets who approached Utah about the trade. But he also wasn’t shocked about the proposal, and after talking about it with O’Connor Tuesday he quickly gave the go-ahead. Nor, Miller said, was he worried that Williams’ potential trade value would decrease as the summer of 2012 approached and teams knew Utah would be under increasing pressure to resolve the situation.
“I don’t think that entered into it,” he said. “We’re not really ones to speculate. That’s why we did what we did, because it actually reduced the speculation. We didn’t really look too far down the road. We just knew we had a good deal in front of us and we might not get a better opportunity to get value, and this would serve the franchise going forward.”
The Jazz will reduce their payroll somewhat by making the deal — Williams will make $16.3 million next season, compared to the approximately $13 million combined that Harris and Favors will make — but Miller said financial considerations had nothing to do with the trade. And he committed that the team would continue to spend money on players in the future.
These have been a seismic few weeks for Greg Miller, who’s been running the team the past couple of years after the death of his father and the family patriarch, Larry H. Miller, in 2009. But Greg Miller says he is excited about the franchise’s future. He has a strong bond with new coach Tyrone Corbin, and he thinks the Jazz will still be a factor in the Western Conference.
“I think we’re younger,” he said. “I think we can still be a playoff contender. I would expect us to make the playoffs. And I think that we’ve got a very bright future. I feel very at peace with this. I think we’ve done the right thing for the franchise, that we’ll look back on this day and be glad we made the trade. I have no malice or bad feelings of any kind with Deron Williams. I appreciate what he’s done for the franchise.”