It isn’t a surprise, this situation the Jazz find themselves in.
They knew, when the Jazz’s front office traded for Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies two years ago, giving up two first-round picks along with valuable role players in exchange — Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen — that they’d be in this spot in the summer of 2021.
They knew that Conley’s addition, as an All-Star caliber point guard next to an All-Star caliber shooting guard and an All-Star caliber center, would likely push the Jazz to new heights, to the top of the Western Conference. They hoped for, but never achieved, real postseason success with that terrific trio.
They knew they’d have to decide on Conley’s Jazz future, right as extensions for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert would kick in. And they knew that Conley’s next contract, as a result, would likely push them into luxury tax territory, and the payments that result. They knew that a new contract for Conley would stretch ownership to the brink — even though ownership has changed, from the Miller family to Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith.
How much will it cost? Consider ESPN’s estimate of Conley’s next salary, from a low of $16.3 million to a high of $21.8 million. As ESPN notes, if Conley returns on, say, an $18 million contract and even if the rest of the roster is filled with just minimum contracts, the Jazz would pay a tax penalty north of $40 million. (There is a possibility that tax bill would be reduced, depending on the league’s Basketball Related Income number. If it is reduced below pre-pandemic levels, the NBA plans on giving luxury tax teams a tax break.)
So let’s say it’s a total $58 million in real dollars to resign Conley, who will turn 34 next season. He’s already battled recurring injury issues the last two seasons. Will Smith pony up the money? In normal circumstances, you’d have to say no.
But these are not necessarily normal circumstances.
Conley and Smith are close. When Smith was announced as new owner of the team, Conley said that he and Smith had gone golfing 15 times in the “last year or so.” Smith just purchased the Jazz, and wants to make clear that his investment in the club is at the highest level possible.
And if Conley leaves, the Jazz don’t have any obvious mechanism to replace him. They don’t have any cap space, leaving their biggest free-agent expenditure possible at the $5.9 million per season mid-level exception — that gets you a decent backup point guard, not a starter, and certainly not an All-Star like Conley. The 30th pick in the NBA draft isn’t likely to produce a rotation-caliber player, let alone a replacement for Conley. The Jazz could make a trade, but then which player would leave?
From the point guard’s perspective, Conley’s market figures to be a little bit tepid. Many teams don’t have cap space, and the ones that do have cap space don’t need a point guard, with only a couple of exceptions. Miami clearly needs one, but will the Heat go in on a 34-year-old PG? The same could be asked of the New York Knicks, and their youthful supporting cast. Conley’s excellence might not fit their timeline. Dallas could use a point guard, but the Mavericks would have to lose Tim Hardaway Jr. to do so — again, a move that would make short-term basketball sense, but perhaps not long-term sense.
It’s this uncertainty that left Conley, and Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey, in a bit of a lurch when answering questions at the Jazz’s media availability, one that began roughly 12 hours after the Jazz’s season ended in Los Angeles last Friday.
Both Conley and Lindsey talked about how much they thought the relationship was a good one, but Conley stopped short of saying “I want to return to Utah,” and Lindsey stopped short of saying, “We want Conley back in Utah.”
“You know how I feel about our team and the city and the fans. It’s been just a wonderful two years — definitely an up and down two years, but wonderful regardless of how it ended last night. ... Free agency is free agency. It’s the business we live in. It’s something that I have to sit back and consider with my family and when that time comes, make the decision that’s best for us and myself,” Conley said.
“We’ll just have to see what happens. Obviously, I can’t speak and look into the future on what exactly will happen. It’s like my first time being a real free agent, so it’ll be interesting. But I did love it here and we’ll see what happens.”
Lindsey, too, complimented Conley. And then, well, didn’t seem exactly certain in his team’s ability to retain the free agent.
“Who he is, what he stands for, the speed, skill, experience, our intelligence, character, poise that he adds to the group. Those are all — we just pinch ourselves, that — it’s an honor to have him part of the program,” Lindsey began. “He’s got to go vet his market. We’ve got to go draft and as soon as it’s legal, have free agent conversations. And then Mike and (his agent team), we have good relationships there, and we’ll have a real honest conversation to see if we can make a marriage work.”
Teams, including the Jazz, will be able to have those conversations Lindsey referenced beginning on Aug. 2 with Conley, with contracts able to be signed beginning on Aug. 6.
The Jazz’s front office and All-Star point guard — they knew they’d find themselves here.
Now what happens?
That’s the one thing they don’t know.