Analysis: Here’s why the Utah Jazz giving more years to Mike Conley could make sense

Utah Jazz' Mike Conley (10) celebrates a three-point basket with teammate Royce O'Neale (23) against the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

It’s not exactly a secret that Mike Conley’s first season with the Utah Jazz was not a smooth one, and that his struggles to acclimate — in combination with his large salary — left many fans questioning the team’s decision to acquire him in the first place.

That same contingent of critics has been holding onto the slight hope that the veteran point guard will incomprehensibly exercise his early termination option in his contract and thereby forgo the $34.5 million salary he could make this season, though they’re more realistically settling for the “consolation” that he’ll be off the books in another season’s time.

Crazy thought, though: What if Conley did opt out, but his marriage with the Jazz continued on a few more years?

Before your head explodes, just read on a bit.

First off, the likelihood of it happening is next to zero, because, frankly, when you’re making that much in a season, there’s not really much financial incentive for the point guard to do it. But there are some justifications for it, and honestly — believe it or not — they would be beneficial to the Jazz.

In a nutshell, it comes down to financial flexibility.

The idea, distilled most simply, is this: If Conley doesn’t exercise his ETO, he’s due to be a 33-year-old unrestricted free agent in the 2021 offseason. Given his history and career-long production, let’s estimate he could garner something along the lines of a three-year deal worth $35-40 million on the open market.

Now then, what if he and the Jazz instead simply come to similar terms as part of an altogether new deal? You start off with the $34.5M he’d be making this year, add to it that $35-40M he could make over the next three, and re-package it all together as a four-year contract worth approximately $70-75 million. Conley exercises the ETO, then signs the new, longer-term deal that has the effect of — and this is the important bit — cutting his 2020-21 cap figure roughly in half, down to about $17-19 million annually.

John Hollinger, the former vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies and now a writer for The Athletic, first made the intriguing case in a recent piece in which he took a look at the 43 contracts in the league that contain a team or player option this offseason and he evaluated the likelihood of whether those options would be exercised or not. That led to the “what-if” Conley-Jazz scenario.

Before Jazz fans let their imaginations get out of control with what the team could do by effectively cutting Conley’s salary in half, let’s address that straightaway and clear up a huge misconception. Put simply: No, they would not suddenly have the cap room to be able to afford some additional top-tier free-agent this offseason. What they could realistically manage is to more comfortably pull off the kinds of moves that some fans might mistakenly taken for granted to be in the offing this offseason.

“It potentially allows them to re-sign Jordan Clarkson with Bird Rights, add another free agent with their full midlevel exception, use their biannual exception, and trade Ed Davis and one of their other fungible contracts for another player … all while staying below the tax,” Hollinger wrote. “For a Utah team undone in the playoffs by a severe lack of quality depth, this path has to be somewhat tempting.”

But, you’re saying, weren’t they going to try to retain Clarkson and use their midlevel and biannual exceptions, anyway?

Could well be. But you probably overlooked what is perhaps the key phrase in what he wrote: “All while staying below the tax.” Let’s take a look at some important numbers, and consider the bigger picture around them.

The salary cap for 2019-20 was about $109 million and was initially projected to jump to around $115M for next season — before lost revenue from Chinese advertising and lost revenue from not allowing fans to attend some games due to the coronavirus pandemic entered the picture. Now it seems the best-case scenario is for the cap to stay at $109M and the luxury tax line to stay around $132M — and, being realistic, both could potentially decline significantly.

Meanwhile, if Conley opts in, and the Jazz guarantee the salaries of Georges Niang, Miye Oni and Nigel Williams-Goss, they’ve already got roughly $118M committed. And that’s before they even get to a new deal for Clarkson … or retaining the likes of intriguing young guys like Juwan Morgan or Rayjon Tucker. And then we still haven’t got to the salary they’d owe their first-round draft pick, et cetera. Meanwhile, adding players via the midlevel and biannual exceptions could be another $12M or so combined on top of that.

Long story short, the Jazz are looking at going into the luxury tax. Dennis Lindsey has said before he has permission from the Miller family to do so if he can demonstrate he’s built a contender … and yet, the Jazz have gone into the luxury tax exactly one time in the past decade. Given that the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies laid off some staff and Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment furloughed hundreds more during the pandemic, and given that the pandemic is hardly abating, what are the odds this coming season will be one where ownership decides to give management carte blanche to spend whatever?

Now, on the other hand, should there suddenly be an extra $15-17M in wiggle room to play around with …

Yeah, Conley agreeing to such a deal would be huge.

And besides it making financial sense for the team, couldn’t we agree that keeping Conley around at $17-19M per season would make him a lot more palatable to those so keen to see him leave?

We can all stipulate that the season-long production he offered up in 2019-20 (14.4 points, 4.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 40.9 FG%, 37.5 3P%, 49.4 eFG%, 53.7 TS%) was not worth the $32.5M (before proration) he made as a result of the enormous contract extension the Grizzlies gave him back in 2016. We can also stipulate that the ridiculously efficient line he put up in the Jazz’s first-round playoff loss to the Nuggets (19.8 points, 5.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 48.4 FG%, 52.9 3P%, 62.5 eFG%, 67.2 TS%) almost definitely isn’t sustainable over the course of a full season going forward.

And yet … Couldn’t we argue that, now fully immersed in Utah’s schemes and fully adapted to his role and no longer burdened by the full-life upheaval that a move to Utah entailed following a dozen years in Memphis, Conley is more likely to produce at a level more commensurate with those second batch of stats than with those first group of numbers?

That would be a defensible deal for Utah, even as the point guard ages.

Maybe Conley and the Jazz will do it. Maybe he’s willing to sacrifice one more singularly enormous year to get a bit more long-term security. It would certainly help from a team perspective, never-Conley fans be damned. Still, it feels like a long shot.

But it’s an interesting long shot to consider.