Analyzing Utah Jazz’s trade deadline deal: How much is that Lakers top-4 protected pick worth really?

The three-team swap that sent Mike Conley to Minnesota is a gamble, as the Trib’s Andy Larsen explains.

(Julie Jacobson | AP) In this May 19, 2015, file photo, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announces the Minnesota Timberwolves as the winner of the top pick during the NBA basketball draft lottery in New York.

The Jazz made a pretty darn big trade on Wednesday. From their point of view, they traded Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and two second-round picks for Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damion Jones and a Los Angeles Lakers 2027 top-4 protected first-round pick.

So here’s the Big Trade Question: did the Jazz make a good trade?

I thought I’d try to look at it from an analytical perspective. It’s pretty clear that the Jazz did this deal to get this Lakers’ top-4 protected pick. But what is that really worth? How does it compare to the value of the two second-round picks the Jazz gave up? And how does all that compare to the value of the players in the deal?

What are picks worth?

Finding the value of a draft pick is such a fundamental NBA analysis question — after all, picks are involved in a majority of trades. To figure out its value in a vacuum, there’s a pretty simple three-step process:

1. Look at the history of the NBA Draft.

2. Examine the positive value the players selected at each slot added to the teams that drafted them. Average it out over the years.

3. Smooth out the weird outliers. For example, the No. 3 pick has generally been more successful than the No. 2 pick in NBA history, just by happenstance. But obviously, you’d rather have the No. 2 pick.

This is all obviously way easier said than done: defining value is non-trivial, as is smoothing, as is deciding the sample size of NBA history you’re going to choose from, and so on. Luckily, three smart NBA analysts have taken their respective shots at the effort publicly: ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the Wizards’ Jacob Goldstein, and the New York Knicks’ Nick Restifo. The Houston Rockets’ Jason Roman compiled their efforts at his website NBAsense.com. Here they are:

Cool! As you can see, they’re pretty close in value at least generally. So for ease of use, I’m just going to average the three models together for the rest of this exercise.

Where might the picks in the deal end up?

So now, let’s estimate where these picks in this particular trade might end up. Let’s start with the second-round picks, because as you can see in the chart above, there’s a heck of a lot less difference between slot No. 31 and No. 60 in the second round than slots Nos. 1 and 30 in the first round.

The two second-round picks the Jazz gave up in this deal, according to the Minnesota Timberwolves press release, are the Jazz’s own second-round picks in 2025 and 2026. (Previous reporting from ESPN indicated the Jazz gave up three second-round picks in the deal, but it appears one of the three picks actually came from L.A., not Utah.)

How good will the Jazz’s second-round picks be? I have no idea. You hope they’re good, but it really depends on how they use their draft assets. If they trade for a superstar, they could be really good by 2025! If they use their picks on young players, it might take until 2026 to see real dividends. Of course, in either scenario, there are wild chances of random success or failure for a ton of other reasons. I just don’t feel confident in my prediction, so I’m going to go middle of the road: both picks as No. 45.

How much are two No. 45 picks and one No. 50 pick worth, in terms of first-round value? Well, our average model suggests that it’s worth a little bit less than the 26th pick, but a little more than the 27th pick. Great.

Now, how much is the asset of a top-4 protected Lakers pick worth? That gets tougher to guess. If the pick ends up being in the top four, the Lakers send the Jazz their second-round pick instead (which, at least, would likely be a second-round pick from No. 31 to No. 34). So the value of their pick, depending on where it ends up, looks like this:

Then, we can compare the value of the Lakers’ pick to the Jazz’s relinquished second-round picks. That chart looks like this:

If the Lakers’ 2027 pick ends up with the Jazz getting a second-rounder at pick No. 32 or below the Jazz will be super bummed. Not only did they give up four players, but they also got the worst of the pick situation! But in the other possibilities, the Jazz get neutral to positive value out of the pick portion of the deal.

How good will the Lakers be?

OK, so let’s try to read the crystal ball here. How good are the Lakers going to be in 2027? Let’s consider three possibilities:

• First, a totally agnostic opinion: 2027 is basically 3008 as far as NBA player movement is concerned. Aliens might come by 2027, and the plot to Space Jam might happen. Who knows? Even odds for every selection.

• Second, a pessimistic view of the Lakers future. They’re pretty bad now. LeBron James will be 43 in 2027, and likely not on the Lakers. Anthony Davis will look even more brittle than he does now, and will also likely not be on the Lakers. They don’t have very many future assets at all, nor any bright young players to speak of. There’s an 80% chance they’ll be in the lottery, and 20% chance they’re in the playoffs.

• Third, an optimistic view of the Lakers. They’re the Lakers. Lakers. Somehow, someway, they’ll pull a star or three out of nowhere. They’re the NBA’s most successful franchise. They play in L.A. This is going to work out — it always has and always will: 80% chance of playoffs, 20% chance of lottery.

How do the Jazz fare in each scenario?

Truthfully, the three scenarios matter less than you think, thanks to the fact that the Jazz would get the low value in four of the 14 scenarios at the top.

In scenario 1, the Jazz end up with an average of 18 points of value — worth about the No. 28 pick in the draft. In the pessimistic Lakers scenario, the Jazz average out with 23 points of value — worth about the No. 23 pick in the draft. And in the Lakers optimism scenario, the Jazz average out with 13 points of value — worth about the No. 32 pick in the draft.

Would the Jazz have traded Conley, Beasley, Vanderbilt, and Alexander-Walker for the No. 23, No. 28, or No. 32 pick in the draft? I suspect the answer is no, but truthfully, I wonder if the answer is closer to “yes” than Jazz fans would suspect.

Conley wasn’t universally considered a positive asset thanks to his contract. Alexander-Walker is expiring, and probably not a difference-maker on a contender (just as Toscano-Anderson and Jones probably aren’t). There are a number of teams that simply red-flagged Beasley due to prior legal problems. Vanderbilt is young and cheap, and has undeniably positive value — but that value might be limited in a world of advanced stats that perhaps show his impact on winning was less than the Jazz hoped.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t take into account many factors on both sides of the equation: the actual, real-world trade value of the Lakers pick might be inflated compared to its analytical value, for example. The cap room the Jazz save might allow them to pursue additional opportunities in this upcoming offseason. The Jazz will miss Conley’s veteran leadership and his ability to teach players like Collin Sexton and Walker Kessler how to improve, and so on.

But overall? I understand why many Jazz fans were disappointed that they weren’t able to get more value in this deal.

Update: This story has been updated with the news that the Jazz gave up just two second-round picks in the deal, not three as had been originally reported.

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