Monson: Jazz trading for Mike Conley edges them toward real NBA championship contention

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) drives against Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Mike Conley is coming to Utah.

And the Jazz are substantially better today than they were last season and the season before and the season before that.

With the West wide open, with a point guard of Conley’s capabilities, having lost none of their key components in the deal, the Jazz might even make the Western Conference finals — or go beyond — led by an exciting backcourt of Conley and Donovan Mitchell.

Remember how Mitchell and Rudy Gobert talked, long before this move, about winning a championship? They’ll talk more now.

Let’s beam up on the big-screens in our brains for a moment this image — Conley working the pick and roll with Gobert and others. The veteran point guard last season was seventh in the NBA in points per game created out of the pick and roll, according to Synergy Basketball. And let’s say he plays off the ball, when Mitchell is handling, as the Jazz shooting guard often did last year, or when the ball is popping around the perimeter the way Quin Snyder likes it done. Conley had an effective field goal percentage of 76 percent on open catch-and-shoot jumpers.

How useful would that have been this past postseason, when the Jazz repeatedly created unguarded shots — and couldn’t convert?

Now, they can.

Conley also led the league in points per game on floaters.

Ricky Rubio, bless his team-loving heart and soul, could never do that. This move is what the Jazz offense needed. Conley is not a great 3-point shooter (36.4 percent), but he’s a major upgrade over what the Jazz previously had — Rubio made just 31 percent. Conley averaged 21.1 points last season, with 6.4 assists. He averaged fewer than two turnovers a game, a stat important to the Jazz considering their tendency in 2018-19 to fumble and bumble the ball away on important possessions. Rubio averaged 2.6 turnovers, and scored a mere 12.7 points.

In addition, Conley is a better defender than Rubio, more able to stay in front of his man, more able to allow Gobert the time necessary to get in proper position to protect the rim.

Consider this Jazz starting lineup: Gobert, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Mitchell, Conley.

Not bad, not at all.

The fact that the Jazz had to give up only Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, and a couple of draft picks — including this year’s No. 23 — makes the swap even more advantageous. Nobody was overly excited to see Favors shipped out or let go, and now he won’t be, at least not as part of this deal.

The downside that make some folks nervous is Conley’s age. He’s 31 and will turn 32 in October. Weird Scooby snack: Conley’s birthday — Oct. 11 — is the same as LaVell Edwards’ and Steve Young’s.

Also, he has battled injuries, only once in his 12-year career playing in all 82 regular-season games. He played in 70 last season, only 12 the previous year. Other than 2017-18, though, he’s played in the vast majority of games.

As for money, he’ll make $32.5 million this next season and $34.5 million in 2020-21, with an early termination option that final year.

There’s some risk to the deal, then, but reward, too. One thing that was abundantly clear — the Jazz were not good enough as previously constructed. They could have sat in place and won 50 games a year for the foreseeable future. But they really want what they say they want — to contend for a title.

If this move blows up on them, if Conley gets hurt, you must give the Jazz credit for not being passive, rather for taking a strong shot. Truth be told, they should have done this deal at the trade deadline, but … we’ve already hashed through that.

Whether adding Conley gets them where they aim to go is a question still without an answer. But it does get them closer. No longer will they be in a position to sign a big-name free agent this offseason, if they ever were really in the running to do so, but they may add another decent player to the mix to bolster their cause.

Conley is excited about the prospects of a deep playoff run with the Jazz. As a respected veteran, he deserves that opportunity. He tweeted out that he would “give all I have to the Utah Jazz and Salt Lake City.”

However this turns out, the Jazz are proving they are determined to win — win big — and sealing this deal, which is to be finalized in July, is an indication that they really believe they can achieve exactly that.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.