Though the Jazz had interest in acquiring point guard Mike Conley long before Wednesday’s trade, the timing of the deal was still significant to many analysts.
After all, with the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson dealt significant injuries in the NBA Finals, there is now a perception that the Western Conference is more up for grabs than it’s been in years, and that teams will be seeking to take advantage of this window of opportunity.
And so, it is against that backdrop that many NBA observers have praised Utah for making a move team leaders see as a major step toward title contention. Furthermore — some of those analysts have come out and said it does exactly that.
In a longform examination of the trade, ESPN.com basketball writer Zach Lowe opened by writing, “In trading for Mike Conley, the Utah Jazz announced themselves as a legitimate contender to make the Finals next season.”
He was not alone in his opinion.
“Welcome to the championship chase, Utah,” agreed Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. “By acquiring point guard Mike Conley from the Grizzlies, the Jazz will immediately solidify themselves as one of the leading Finals contenders in the Western Conference.”
Is there actually something to that, though? Or is it reactionary hyperbole about a franchise that pundits frequently laud as smart and a player many of the same people have consistently labeled underrated?
While the Jazz have made progress these past several seasons, they also were drummed out of the playoffs by the Houston Rockets in the first round just a couple months ago. Can this deal really change that much?
After all, the Warriors will still have a former MVP in Steph Curry and a former All-Star in Draymond Green. The Rockets, in spite of all their reported dysfunction, will still have James Harden. The Nuggets, who finished second in the West, have their whole core set to return save perhaps for free agent forward Paul Millsap. The Blazers, who advanced all the way to the conference finals, return Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were a lottery team a year ago, but now boast perhaps the league’s most talented player duo in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and a plucky Clippers team has long been tied to Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
How can Conley vault the Jazz past all that?
For some talking heads, it’s as simple as Conley being a more gifted scorer than the man he’s replacing, in Ricky Rubio.
“He’s a guy that can get other guys involved, but Mike can also score, and that’s something that Rubio couldn’t do on a consistent basis,” former NBA coach and now ESPN analyst Byron Scott said on the NBA discussion show The Jump.
For others, such as ESPN writer Ramona Shelburne, the biggest impact of the ex-Grizzlies’ arrival will be in how his experience can help his new backcourt-mate.
“Donovan Mitchell’s ready to take that next jump,” she said on The Jump. “And Mike gives him the opportunity to do that because … he’s been so deep into the playoffs.”
Both O’Connor and Lowe got into specifics of how Conley would improve the Jazz’s offense, with particular focus on his career-long aptitude for and excellence in pick-and-roll scenarios, as well as his superiority over other Jazz players on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
“Ricky Rubio is a good playmaker and Joe Ingles is a baller, but neither is a scorer who can help Mitchell handle the load,” O’Connor wrote. “Now, Conley can take some of the burden off of Mitchell with his seasoned scoring and proficient playmaking.”
Lowe added that having Conley in the mix will enable both Mitchell and Joe Ingles to stick to roles that better suit them.
“Acquiring Conley slots everyone into a more natural hierarchy,” he wrote. "Conley is a steadier and more precise crunch-time ball handler who can calm Utah’s offense amid the late-game frenzy.”
All of which sounds great — but is it enough? Not everyone is convinced.
Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard said that while he liked the move, he foresaw the team as no better than sixth-best in the West, provided Leonard joins the Clippers and Thompson is healthy for the Warriors come playoff time.
“I like ’em, it’s an upgrade, but I’m not gonna overreact,” he said on Fox’s Undisputed show.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith shares the sentiment that, while it’s a nice move, it’s not enough to catapult the team into title contention.
“Let’s face reality,” he said on ESPN’s First Take program. “I respect the hell out of the Utah Jazz and what they’re able to accomplish, [but] they are not in the championship equation in my estimation.”