Given the nature of how their postseason run came crashing to such a sudden halt, it’s been difficult for some fans to remember in recent months that the Utah Jazz are one of the NBA’s best teams.
Of course, the tricky bit — and the part that’s the root of so much lingering angst — is how they pare down “one of the best teams” to “the best team.”
That’s arguably the hardest gap to bridge.
Especially considering the Jazz don’t have a ton to work with in terms of upgrading via free agency, which kicks off on Monday.
Their to-do list is relatively simple as a result:
1. Retain Mike Conley.
2. Find a player (or players) to fill some needs for the low, low price of the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel exception available to them.
Other than hitting on a veteran’s minimum deal or two, that’s about what free agency holds for them — even after trading away Derrick Favors in a salary dump.
How did they get to the point of having so little wiggle room?
For years, Jazz fans have clamored for ownership to be willing to spend into the luxury tax, and new owner Ryan Smith did just that in his first season at the helm. The consequence now, of course, is that the team has a lesser amount to spend.
Donovan Mitchell’s rookie-scale contract is now over and his extension befitting an All-Star is kicking in, and Rudy Gobert’s lucrative $205 million new deal is beginning as well. Those two will make a combined $63 million next season — $31 million more than they did last season. Bojan Bogdanovic will be making almost $19 million per year. Joe Ingles will be bringing in more than $13M. Jordan Clarkson about $12.4M, and Royce O’Neale just under $9M.
You see the dilemma?
The NBA’s salary cap for 2021-22 is projected to be $112.4M, and the luxury tax line at $136.6M. And with the 11 players the Jazz have under contract, they’re essentially already at the luxury tax line — about $125 million as they stand. That’s without the cost of Conley, who remains the most important player for the Jazz to retain.
True, the All-Star guard, now an unrestricted free agent, won’t command the same annual salary he did on his previous deal, and yes, the Jazz possess his “Bird Rights,” which will allow them to exceed the salary cap to retain him. But there’s a price to that. The more you exceed the cap, the more onerous and compounding the penalties become.
Should the Jazz retain Conley at an average annual value of, say, $25M this season, on top of their existing salary commitments, they’d cut an additional check to the NBA of about $28 million. That sounds like a lot, but it would have been about $60 million without losing Favors’ salary.
And $20 to $25 million is approximately what Conley is expected to get in this free agency market — the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks both have holes at point guard that they could fill with Conley, and ways to get significant salary cap space around that number.
If Conley finds another option enticing, Utah’s sufficiently capped out that it can’t hope to replace him via another signing. Their $5.9M taxpayer’s midlevel exception is really about all they’ve got — and that amount of money is too small to get a starting point guard in the NBA’s current salary structure. Without Conley, the Jazz could slip significantly in the Western Conference.
You can do some of the same math with the other significant Jazz free agent: Georges Niang. John Hollinger, a former Memphis Grizzlies front-office executive now writing for The Athletic, has free agent value metrics that project that Niang is worth about $6.8 million per season. If he were signed without Conley, he wouldn’t be too expensive. But if he’s resigned on top of Conley, well, the penalties get a little bit crazy — the Jazz’s luxury tax bill would swoon to about $51 million. Had the Jazz retained Favors, the total would be about $90 million.
Is Niang, who struggled to contribute to the playoffs, worth an additional $23 million in costs? The math doesn’t change too significantly with adding a player with the $5.9 mid-level exception. That too would be an expensive addition to the Jazz’s salary bill.
Smith might be a billionaire, but $50 million is not an insignificant hit to his bank account — especially for a team that would be, in effect, just running it back. And yet, it may well be a hit Smith is willing to take. At his post-draft press conference, new general manager Justin Zanik referenced Smith spending an unprecedented amount on the upcoming Jazz roster. Keeping Conley and adding a mid-level free agent would certainly qualify.
The Jazz, of course, could make other moves too. They may well want to rebalance the roster to be more defensively oriented than last year’s group. While Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Clarkson all are important cogs with big roles, they also might be a little redundant as offense-first players. The one thing in the Jazz’s favor on this point: defensive players are usually cheaper than offensive ones, and it may be possible to pull off a trade that balances the roster a bit.
But with the Favors trade, a mid-level signing is more likely.
The non-taxpayer midlevel exception was the mechanism they used a year ago to bring back Favors at a salary of about $9.2 million, using it also hard-capped the team at about $138.9 million. It was also used by the Suns to land Jae Crowder; the Lakers to get Montrezl Harrell; the Celtics to bring in Tristan Thompson; the Clippers to ink Serge Ibaka, the Blazers to get Derrick Jones; by the Heat to sign both Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless; the Raptors to get Aron Baynes and Alex Len; the Mavs to sign Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Burke, and Tyrell Terry (yes, it can be split among multiple players).
This year, non-taxpayer midlevel exceptions will be worth about $9.5 million. The Jazz, though, as certain tax-payers this time, don’t get that much, but about $3.6M less. The Jazz have a bunch of roles you can imagine them using this slot on — a center to replace Favors, a couple of taller, longer, switchable wings, and a reliable third point guard all on the wish list — though new draftee Jared Butler may fill that latter role.
Nic Batum had an incredible bounce-back year in a limited role with the Clippers last season on a minimum deal; can fellow Frenchman Gobert entice him to come to Utah? Bobby Portis is sure to decline his $3.8M player option with the Bucks, but after the great postseason run he just had, is the “mini-midlevel” even enough to secure his services? How about Nerlens Noel or Nemanja Bjelica?
As for the Jazz augmenting their wing depth, might Otto Porter’s recent difficulties staying healthy depress his financial demands? Can Kent Bazemore be had? Would bringing in the likes of, say, James Ennis and/or Denzel Valentine move the needle?
There’s one thing we know: Zanik has his work cut out for him.