Do the Utah Jazz need to make a deal to win a title? Everything you need to know as the NBA trade season begins

The team has the pieces to make a deep playoff run, but early reports suggest the Jazz could be in the market for some additional help

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is introduced before the start of the game alongside Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) before their game against the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Editor’s note: Dan Clayton is the editor of Salt City Hoops. This piece is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.

Starting Wednesday, the Utah Jazz and their 29 NBA peers have a lot more freedom to construct roster-reshaping deals.

Many around the league consider Dec. 15 the de facto start of the trade season, because it’s when trade restrictions lift for most players who signed a new deal in the offseason. That means that the window to improve a roster by trade is largely between now and the February 10 deadline for in-season deals.

Let’s explore what that window looks like through the lens of the 19-7 Jazz, who are looking to maximize their chances at a deep playoff run.

Do the Jazz need to make a trade to contend for a title?

Right now, the Jazz are on a 59-win pace, with an efficiency differential (both raw and garbage time-adjusted) that is even better than their league-leading figure from last year. Teams don’t hang banners for “Best Net Rating,” but that’s still important since it tends to be a fairly stable predictor of overall quality.

In other words, by a lot of indicators, the Jazz as presently constituted are likely good enough to compete in any playoff series against any team, if mostly healthy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz host the Boston Celtics, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

That said, Jazz general manager Justin Zanik wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t check for potential reinforcements. The Athletic reported this week that the Jazz are scanning the market for a defensive wing, and Bleacher Report doubled down on that by saying that the ideal target would be “capable of bolstering their starting lineup.”

If we take that at face value, that means Jazz brass could be open to parting with a significant piece as they search for a difference-making big wing, one of the more scarce commodities in the league.

What pieces to the Jazz have do assemble an offer?

The Jazz are a bit limited in their ability to trade draft assets. Outstanding debts to the Memphis Grizzlies and OKC Thunder mean the Jazz can’t promise a first-rounder until at least 2026, and even that would require some conditional language since the picks owed to Memphis and OKC are both protected. The Jazz have also already committed their second-round picks in the next three drafts, as well as their 2027 2nd.

So at this point, Utah’s primary trade assets are its players.

What are the financial considerations?

Because the Jazz are over the luxury tax, they can only take back salary up to 125% of the combined salaries they send out in a trade, plus $100,000.

But there are also other financial concerns for ownership to weigh. Because of where their overall salary level is, an incremental $1 million in salary would actually cost the team’s governors $4.2 million in combined salary and tax. An incremental $5 million in salary would cost them $22 million after the tax hit.

That will be something for ownership to weigh as Zanik brings them deals to consider. Even if they like an $18 million player a lot and think he’s an upgrade over a $12-13 million player, the overall difference in roster cost might be prohibitive once they factor in the luxury tax.

Don’t the Jazz also have a trade exception they can use?

Yes, they technically have a $9.26 million exception left from when they sent Derrick Favors to Oklahoma City. But trade exceptions can’t be combined with other players or assets in trades, which means it is only useful to the Jazz if they have their sights on a player whose full salary fits inside that trade exception. Most starter-caliber players make eight-figure salaries unless they’re still on rookie-scale contracts, and teams generally don’t want to give away young studs still on rookie deals. That’s why many trade exceptions expire unused: at those lower dollar figures, it’s pretty hard to thread the needle on value.

(And again, the tax concerns: if Utah used the full Favors TPE without sending any salary out, it would cost them $42 million in salary and taxes.)

Which Jazz players are most likely to be traded?

The Jazz appear focused on maximizing their title window, not completely altering it. For that reason, it seems unlikely that they would trade a pillar of their ecosystem. A deal involving Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert is highly unlikely as it would constitute a complete identity shift for a team that is, by most accounts, close enough to see the mountaintop.

That probably extends to Mike Conley Jr., too, an All-Star a season ago whose arrival in Utah helped ensconce the Jazz as contenders. Because of his age (34) and salary figure ($21 million, plus some incentives), he would only really appeal to certain kinds of teams anyway.

At the other end of Utah’s roster are seven unproven youngsters who don’t have much trade value on their own. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder with young prospects, so if you can find a GM who secretly has had an Elijah Hughes or Jared Butler type on his radar, that could be the sweetener that gets a deal over the finish line. But alone, none of those guys have the asset juice to bring back a starter-caliber player. Their low salaries aren’t particularly helpful in assembling trades, either.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) congratulates Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (8) after a 3-point shot, in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

In other words, if Utah makes a meaningful deal involving a starter-level return, it will likely include at least one of these six non-star rotation players. In no particular order, they are:

Rudy Gay The Jazz are just now getting to see what Gay adds to their rotation. Also, his profile is precisely what they are (allegedly) looking to add more of: a big wing who can defend and hit open shots. It seems unlikely that he’d be part of an outgoing trade package.

Hassan Whiteside Ditto for the reserve center. Whiteside has helped solidify the bench minutes for Utah, but backup center is a fairly replaceable position in today’s NBA, and as Utah’s lowest-paid rotation player, his salary wouldn’t move the needle much on trades anyway.

Royce O’Neale O’Neale is another defensive wing who is often tasked with guarding bigger bodies. He’s also one of Mitchell’s closest friends.

Joe Ingles At 34 and on an expiring contract, Ingles probably only appeals to certain kinds of teams – contenders, or teams with long-term salary commitments to underwhelming players. Utah’s not in a position to take a bad salary, and a win-now team interested in Ingles might not be in a position to give up a useful, starter-level wing in the process. Ingles also might just be one of those unique players whose value to his current team – culturally and basketball-wise – is greater than his value on the open market. He does a unique combination of things for Utah on the court, and culturally he’s one of just two mainstays throughout the Quin Snyder era (along with Gobert). His name will definitely come up, but trading him for a macro value upgrade might be harder than many fans realize.

Bojan Bogdanovic The sharpshooting forward is 32, so some of the same limitations are there in terms of rebuilding teams potentially being as interested. He’s also one of Utah’s taller wings, so it’s hard to imagine how a Bogey deal makes the Jazz bigger. But he has a skill set that would appeal to many teams, and his stats are still right at or above his career norms. He has some positive trade value, for sure.

Jordan Clarkson If the Jazz are truly looking to get bigger and more defensive, a logical place to do it would be this rotation spot, currently occupied by a guy who’s a slight 6-foot-4 and a net minus defender. He’s also 28 and on a pretty favorable contract, so he theoretically could appeal to a lot of different teams. But trading the popular Clarkson would have a real cost, both on the court and in the locker room. The Jazz refocused the identity of their bench groups around some of Clarkson’s strengths, so they’d really have to weigh that.

Will one of those six be gone by sundown on Feb. 10? We’ll see. But if the reports cited above are accurate and the Jazz really are looking for a difference-maker, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz getting that done without parting with one of those rotational guys..

So who could the target be?

If the Jazz truly are after a difference-making big wing, then the list is pretty finite once you narrow by certain criteria. It would likely be a non All-Star player making a sub-max figure. You’re also probably looking for someone who is 6-7 or bigger, but more of a perimeter defender than a big man. Defensive chops are the reported priority, but ideally he would be a player who can at least hit open shots so it doesn’t detract from the Jazz’s historic 3-point proliferation.

The best of the players who fit those parameters are guys like Jerami Grant, O.G. Anunoby and Harrison Barnes, but it’s unclear if any of those guys could be had for what the Jazz can offer: Bogdanovic/Clarkson-plus-stuff type of packages. Thaddeus Young and Larry Nance are a half-tier down, but again, who knows if their teams are shopping them?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder reacts along with Rudy Gobert (27) after the official failed to call a foul, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.

Robert Covington and De’Andre Hunter theoretically match the prototype of the big 3-and-D wing, but the former is having a down year and the latter doesn’t look great in some macro defensive stats. Same goes for Kelly Oubre Jr. Trevor Ariza hasn’t been healthy. There are budget options, like Kenrich Williams and Bruce Brown. PJ Washington is interesting and cheap, but he’s more of an offensive threat than a wing stopper. None of those guys would prompt the Jazz to reorganize their starting lineup.

There are plenty of others, but it would be hard to pry one away from another contender. For example, why would the current teams of guys like Tobias Harris, Otto Porter, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and others trade a useful piece to their competitor in the contender tier? Evan Fournier and Reggie Bullock are 6-7 wings currently on fringe contenders.

There are plenty of small guys who wouldn’t necessarily constitute a big size upgrade but who are good defenders: Danny Green, Marcus Smart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gary Trent Jr. and Matysse Thybulle, to name a few.

Who can’t be traded still?

Certain players who got a large raise from their incumbent team can’t be traded until January 15 instead. Other players have later trade-eligible dates because of the timing of when they signed their contract (or extension). Some, like Milwaukee’s DeMarcus Cousins, signed so late that they will not be eligible for trade at any point this season. And even after those restrictions are lifted, some players will have the power to approve or veto trades.