Danny Ainge was sitting on the front row pregame Wednesday night, a little more than an hour before tipoff, his cell phone glued to his ear.
A few feet away from him, Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley was nearing the conclusion of his on-court workout, alternating between midrange floaters and 3-pointers, then walked off the floor, acknowledging a few young fans screaming his name as he headed back to the Jazz’s locker room.
Turns out, it would be for the last time.
Meanwhile, halfway around the arena, in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ locker room, there was the detritus and chaos typical of a visiting team crammed into a smaller space — except for the locker of D’Angelo Russell, whose scouting report sat untouched on a chair, and whose jersey hung pristinely in his cubicle.
Thursday, the NBA’s trade deadline, would be a quiet one for the Utah Jazz.
Instead, for these two opposing teams, the trade deadline came a day early.
They collaborated on a massive three-team deal Wednesday night — less than an hour before tipoff — with the Jazz sending Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to the Wolves, and Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. is also getting Russell (a player they once drafted second overall) from the Wolves.
In exchange, the Jazz are getting back former MVP and current Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Russell Westbrook, forward Juan Toscano-Anderson, center Damian Jones, and a top-four-protected 2027 first-round pick from the Lakers. Per ESPN, if that first-rounder falls in the top four and thus does not convey to the Jazz, it immediately converts to a 2027 second-round pick.
The Jazz will also send out second-round picks to Minnesota in 2025 and ’26, while the Wolves will get a second-rounder from L.A. in 2024.
At 6:36 p.m., the Jazz’s PR staff sent out an “updated injury report,” with each of Conley, Beasley, Vanderbilt, and Alexander-Walker suddenly listed as “OUT — personal reasons.”
A short time later, Alexander-Walker was hanging out just outside the visitors’ locker room, exchanging greetings and handshakes with his new teammates. He knows Naz Reid from the AAU circuit, and shares an agent with Kyle Anderson.
He told The Salt Lake Tribune that as he came off the court following his own pregame workout, his personal trainer informed him that his name was among those in the reported deal.
“From there, reality set in,” he said.
He returned to the Jazz’s locker room, where Ainge confirmed the trade to him. He then showered, changed back into his everyday clothes, and made his way over to the Minnesota locker room. As he chatted there, Jazz owner Ryan Smith happened by and gave him a consoling pat on the back.
Beasley, Vanderbilt, and Russell were all observed departing the arena within minutes of one another.
The Jazz had been at the center of seemingly every trade rumor out there, given the abundance of would-be buyers, an apparent dearth of sellers, their own supply of role-filling players on mostly team-friendly contracts, and their apparent indifference to being competitive in the first year of seismic rebuild which already included two other major deals.
Whether Westbrook ever plays a second for the Jazz is questionable.
The 2017 Most Valuable Player is averaging 15.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 7.5 assists off the bench for the Lakers this season, and is one of the presumptive favorites for the Sixth Man of the Year award. However, the mercurial 34-year-old makes little sense on a roster that is now clearly pivoting toward a total rebuild, in spite of flirting with playoff positioning for much of this season.
Westbrook is making just over $47 million this season, but as an impending unrestricted free agent, is a good candidate to be bought out, allowing him to hit the open market and sign with a playoff contender.
For the Jazz, the deal was an opportunity to clear salary space, give young players more chance to play and develop, and to get a potential lottery ticket in the form of a boom-or-bust future Lakers draft pick.
Conley had been a steadying presence on a Jazz team since his trade to Utah from Memphis in the summer of 2019.
He was hoped to be the piece that would put a seemingly always competitive but never quite contending team over the top.
His time with the Jazz was beset initially by a difficult acclimation to then-coach Quin Snyder’s unique style, and a rash of soft-tissue injuries which limited his availability. Still, a stellar 2020-21 campaign saw him become an NBA All-Star for the first time in his storied career, as he helped the team to the best record in the league, before ill-timed injuries to himself and fellow guard Donovan Mitchell ultimately contributed to an unexpectedly early playoff ouster.
Now, he’ll be asked to steady a Minnesota team that has appeared desperate for a calm playmaking presence in the midst of an underachieving season. It certainly didn’t hurt that Conley developed great on-court chemistry with the Wolves’ big summer acquisition, former Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
Gobert was held out of Wednesday’s game with a lingering groin injury, but afterward expressed excitement at the impending reunion.
“I love Mike. I just love the way he plays the game, the way he makes people around him better, his professionalism, that he plays to win, his selflessness,” he said. “And I love him as a person, too, so I’m just happy.”
This season for the Jazz, Conley averaged 10.7 points, but a career-high 7.7 assists, while shooting 36.2% from 3-point range.
“He’s just a smart, heady guy. Obviously has tremendous leadership skills,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said pregame, less than half an hour before the deal apparently was consummated. “I don’t think Mike’s game was ever based on being super-fast or super-athletic, and that tends to benefit guys when they get older, when that’s not what they had to rely on in their prime years.”
While Conley was universally beloved within the organization, the front office was keen to get out from under his contract, which is guaranteed for a minimum of $14.32 million in 2023-24, and which becomes fully guaranteed for $24.36 million just 48 hours after the 2023 NBA draft.
At the beginning of the year, he acknowledged he was conflicted about whether he preferred to be traded to a contender, or to keep his family in Utah, which they had come to love. He soon grew to love an unexpectedly feisty Jazz roster.
And so, after what proved to be his final game with the Jazz on Monday night, Conley noted that he was trying to tune out all the trade rumors by mostly staying off of social media, but joked that it was virtually impossible on account of family members texting him with trade ideas.
Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker said that Conley and other players had been informed of the veteran’s trade right before he was slated to go out for his scheduled pregame warmup, and that he opted to go do it anyway, just to maintain his routine.
Beasley and Vanderbilt became rotation pieces for the Jazz this season after being acquired in the Gobert trade during the summer. They now become rotation pieces for a Lakers team desperate for reinforcements in order to bolster a playoff push.
Beasley averaged 13.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 35.9% from deep. Vanderbilt, who earned early plaudits from fans with his high-energy style, but who was eventually supplanted in the starting lineup by emerging rookie big man Walker Kessler, averaged 8.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. He has made 19 3-pointers this season after coming in with a total of three in the entirety of his career beforehand, but his shortcomings as a shooter and floor-spacer ultimately rendered him unplayable in certain situations.
Both players saw their minutes become more sporadic in recent weeks, and it clearly affected their on-court performance, as they became increasingly erratic and inefficient.
Alexander-Walker never was able to carve out a consistent role in his year with the organization, after being traded here at the deadline a year ago in exchange for Joe Ingles. This season, he was occasionally called upon to play some backup point guard minutes, or to try and provide a defensive spark. In 36 games in ’22-23, he averaged 6.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, while shooting 40.2% from deep.
He was philosophical about his time in Utah and about the trade that has him on the move again.
“That’s life, you know? One of the good things about it is I still have an opportunity to be on an NBA team. It’s just another thing to make me stronger,” he said, adding that he’s been doing a lot of reading, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises of late to calm his mind. “… The only thing that matters is how I handle it and how I move forward. Time and opportunity waits for nobody, so I can’t be caught up in being traded — I have another opportunity to make a name for myself.
“… I love Utah, I’m thankful for Utah,” he added. “So far, from my experiences that I’ve had, it’s the best organization that I’ve been with. I’m thankful for what I learned here — I truly became a professional here.”
As for the other players coming the Jazz’s way, both Toscano-Anderson and Jones signed with the Lakers as free agents this past summer, hoping to be pieces of a title-contending rotation, but were more frequently on the outside looking in.
The 29-year-old Toscano-Anderson, a 6-foot-6, 209-pound forward, has appeared in just 30 games this season, and is averaging 2.7 points and 2.0 rebounds, while shooting 20% from deep. Jones, 27, is a 6-11, 245-pound center averaging 2.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 22 games this season.