So, come July 6, the Jazz’s trade with the Grizzlies will be official, Mike Conley will be the toast of the local fandom, and those players either sent to Memphis in exchange or allowed to leave in free agency as a result will be remembered fondly for their roles in ushering in this new era of on-court prosperity.
Now, what were their names, again?
Ricky Rubio was a steady and beloved locker room presence. Jae Crowder’s fiery, passionate aggression gave the team a much-needed edginess. Kyle Korver’s second stint in the Beehive State revived latent loyalties to the sharpshooter. And while we hardly got to know Grayson Allen, his raw abilities earned him a faction of devoted die-hards.
They will, in fact, be missed.
But how much?
The team has earned myriad plaudits for landing the point guard without having to surrender defensive stalwart Derrick Favors and perpetual enigma Dante Exum. But what about the cost of what was given up? Might it prove to be more than we potentially realize at the moment?
The rationale for getting Conley is apparent — it’s been well-established that his skills are myriad. Even if, at age 31, he has lost half a step, he’s still incredibly proficient scoring and passing in the pick-and-roll; his midrange game is outstanding, and features a defense-beguiling off-hand floater; he is a sufficiently capable and consistent deep threat to represent an upgrade over his predecessor; and defensively, he is system-sound and generally disinclined to freelance and gamble.
His presence will also have the impact of alleviating much of the offensive pressure that has been heaped up Donovan Mitchell over the past two years. Far too often, Mitchell has proven to be the only Jazz player that opposing defenses fear. Conley will change that.
None of that, however, is an absolute guarantee of an uptick in team success.
The Jazz have frequently been lauded for their depth, and it has taken a significant hit. Utah’s bench unit ranked 15th in the NBA last season in points per game with 36.7. Crowder, who came off the bench in 69 of the 80 games he played last season, accounted for 11.9 of those. Korver, a reserve in all 54 of his appearances with the team, represented an additional 9.1 points off the bench.
While Mike Conley’s addition is being hailed as a major coup for the Jazz, they are losing some key pieces as a result. Here’s a look at the affected players’ 2018-19 production:
Mike Conley • 21.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.4 apg, 43.8 FG, 36.4 3PT, 84.5 FT
Ricky Rubio • 12.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.1 apg, 40.4 FG, 31.1 3PT, 85.5 FT
Jae Crowder • 11.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 39.9 FG, 33.1 3PT, 72.1FT
Kyle Korver* • 8.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 41.6 FG, 39.7 3PT, 82.2 FT
Grayson Allen • 5.6 ppg, 0.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, 37.6 FG, 32.3 3PT, 75.0
* Full-season stats with both Cavaliers and Jazz
Crowder’s offensive inefficiencies were maddening at times. In his two season’s with the Jazz, he attempted 6.3 deep shots per game, and only connected on 32.8% of them. ESPN’s Zach Lowe opined in a column earlier this year how incredibly improved the Jazz would be if only Crowder’s production and efficiency were 10% better. Lowe noted, “His effective field goal percentage is five points lower than we’d expect based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders, per Second Spectrum — one of the largest negative gaps among perimeter players.” And yet, in the same breath, Lowe noted, “For two years now, the Utah Jazz have been way, way, way better when [Crowder] plays power forward next to Rudy Gobert,” owing to improved offensive splits.
Conley’s acquisition, for now, has devoured the Jazz’s cap space. Barring some other unexpected move to free up room, the team’s only clear pathway to replacing Crowder’s inefficient-but-apparent floor spacing from the four position will come from the so-called “room” midlevel exception, which will amount to about $4.7 million.
Meanwhile, though Crowder left much to be desired as an outside threat, Korver was very much a proven source of gravity for drawing help defenders away. With the Jazz last season, he attempted 5.4 deep tries per game and made 38.4%. Before he was acquired in late November, the Jazz ranked 23rd in the NBA in 3s made per game (10.1), and 29th in 3-point percentage (31.9%). By season’s end, they were ninth in 3s made (12.1) and 10th in percentage (35.6%).
Now, the bench unit’s top returning scorers are Dante Exum (6.9 points), Raul Neto (5.3), Royce O’Neale (5.2), and Georges Niang (4.0). The latter two figure to get much-expanded roles this coming season, but there’s no denying that the bench is a question mark at the moment. Including their first-round pick from the recently-completed 2019 NBA Draft robbed the team of one pathway to filling some of the holes. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that any of the team’s just-drafted trio of second-rounders will be capable of making a significant impact.
Furthermore, the Jazz also had to include a future first-round pick in the deal. While ostensibly a 2020 pick, the protections on it make it more likely to convey in 2022, a draft that figures to be extremely deep, as it will have the usual cadre of one-and-done college players, and is also expected to include the first new batch of newly-eligible high school prospects.
That’s all down the road, however. For now, the Jazz will focus on whatever moves must be made to fill out the roster and fortify the bench. Is there another trade to be made? There remains lingering noise about a long-shot pursuit of marquee free agent Tobias Harris. Or is the midlevel exception and veteran minimums route more likely? We shall see.
So, what’s the ultimate verdict, then? Well, it’s simple: This was a deal that had to be done. While those departed players each had an impact on the franchise in their own way, the opportunity cost to acquire a player of Conley’s considerable talent and experience could not be denied.
Whether you believe the impetus to be the team plateauing in the 50-win and first- or second-round of the playoffs range, or an opportunity to capitalize on the misfortunes of Golden State and potentially seize control of the Western Conference, the Jazz had to make a significant move this offseason.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger or better one they could have made than to land Mike Conley for the price they did.