The Jazz are taking their shot.
After looking around the NBA’s landscape — where the dynastic Golden State Warriors seemed suddenly vulnerable, where the Toronto Raptors made history after one bold trade — the Jazz decided that now would be the best time to strike.
So on Wednesday, they agreed to a franchise-altering deal. Out go Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen and Kyle Korver, as well as two first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies. In comes Mike Conley Jr., a veteran point guard the Jazz have fancied for years now, most publicly at last February’s trade deadline.
And the reasons for their appreciation are obvious; Conley is one of the league’s most talented point guards. He’s a scorer, a player who averaged 21.1 points per game last year. He’s a shooter, making 37.5% of his career threes and 36% last year, on over six attempts per game.
Conley also figures to fit in well with his new teammates. He’s a fantastic pick-and-roll player who should mesh with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors diving to the rim, and a smart passer who will find Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles open. He’s even a bulldog defender, though at 31, has become more “above-average” and less “elite.” The 6-foot-1 point guard has two more years left on his deal, at $32.5 million next season and $34.5 million for 2020-21.
Off the court, Conley’s been recognized as one of the NBA’s most consistent contributors to his community. He’s donated millions to Memphis charities, including $1.2 million to the Grizzlies Foundation, and another $500K to sickle-cell research.
If that’s to continue in Utah, he might need a geography lesson, though. Upon learning of the trade, Conley tweeted “Time for another chapter! Excited to give all I have to The Jazz and the city of Utah!”
Conley quickly fixed the tweet, but it reminded fans of Karl Malone’s similar foul-up when first arriving in Utah in the summer of 1985. Mitchell, too, gave the new guy a pass in a welcome tweet.
In order to acquire Conley, the Jazz gave up significant assets. Crowder was the team’s minutes leader at the power forward position, and lineups with Crowder next to Gobert were the team’s best. He also served as the team’s feisty and combative soul, never one to shy away from an altercation.
Korver, now 38 and in his second stint with the Jazz, played a valuable role as a shooter off the bench, until a late-season knee injury eliminated his effectiveness in the playoffs. He is mulling retirement, though currently seems to be leaning toward a return to the NBA. Allen, the team’s first-round pick last year, looked like a bust until a late-season surge. Then, though, he performed well in the G League playoffs and even scored 40 points in a meaningless final NBA regular season game.
Most valuable to the Grizzlies, though, are the draft picks they’ll receive. No. 23 in this year’s NBA draft will be Memphis’ — though because the trade won’t be officially approved by the league until July, the draftee will wear a Jazz hat on stage and in front of cameras Thursday night.
But it’s perhaps the other first-round pick that might matter more. The pick is structured so that it conveys to the Grizzlies in 2020 or 2021 if it falls between No. 8 and No. 14 in the draft. After that, the Jazz only keep it if it is in the top six in 2022, the top 3 in 2023, or the No. 1 overall selection in 2024.
While it’s unlikely that the Jazz would convey the pick in 2020 or 2021 — they’d have to miss the playoffs — after those next two years, things are a little bit less certain. The Jazz seem most likely to send their pick to Memphis in 2022, but that’s potentially a more valuable draft, as it could be when the NBA allows high school seniors to once again be drafted. Rudy Gobert’s contract expires after 2021, as does Conley’s. The Jazz are taking a risk here, to be sure.
Because the deal involves taking Conley into the Jazz’s salary cap space, it won’t be able to be completed until at least July 6, when the NBA’s moratorium ends. It also means that the Jazz will renounce the free agent cap holds for Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh, almost assuring their departure from the team. The news left Rubio in an introspective mood, as he tweeted “... it’s time to just be happy. Being angry, sad and overthinking isn’t worth it anymore. Just let things flow. Be positive.”
The structure of the trade also limits the Jazz’s free agency cap room. Come July, the Jazz will have only the small mid-level exception, a total of $4.7 million per season, to spend on free agents. Any other free agents who wanted to come to Utah would have to sign for the NBA’s minimum salary.
That is, unless the Jazz waive Derrick Favors before July 6, which would add about $17 million to their cap space this summer. That’s not enough for a max free agent (so no Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, or D’Angelo Russell in Utah), but could be enough for a player, or multiple players among the next tier. Still, this seems unlikely: the Jazz structured this deal in this way in order to keep Favors on their books.
And that’s because a core of Conley, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors, and Gobert is — at this stage — perhaps the Western Conference’s most formidable. The Warriors are talented, yes, but Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson could both miss the season with devastating injuries. The Lakers have LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma, but no other role players. The Houston Rockets are squabbling; the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets haven’t proved they can reach the mountaintop.
The next two weeks could change everything — recently, it seems like each day has brought a major change in the NBA — but as is, the Jazz look ready to make a run for a title next season. As ESPN put it, they’re officially “in Finals contention."
For Jazz fans, it’s been 20 years since a championship felt this close.