Jazz signal long-term thinking with trade deadline moves

Jazz trade Kelly Olynyk and Ochai Agbaji at the deadline to set up an interesting summer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (30) as the Utah Jazz host the Los Angeles Lakers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

There’s a useful metaphor for thinking about the Utah Jazz: The team is like a coiled cobra.

Ever since the playoff failures at the end of the Quin Snyder era led them to lick their wounds and hide in the grass, they’ve been getting ready for the next opportunity to strike. Trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for a pile of assets was the beginning of the process, one that earned long-term assets and numerous useful players to begin steadying things.

And ever since then, the team’s been further coiling — including with two moves that came during this year’s trade deadline period.

The first came Wednesday, when the Jazz traded Simone Fontecchio to the Detroit Pistons for the likely No. 32 pick in the upcoming draft and draft-and-stash candidate Gabriele Procida.

The other came hours before Thursday’s deadline, when the Jazz moved Kelly Olynyk and second-year player Ochai Agbaji to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a 2024 first-round pick that will end up in the round’s bottom five. The pick will come from whoever has the best record of Oklahoma City, Houston, the L.A. Clippers, and (ironically enough), Utah. Right now, a series of coin flips would decide if the Jazz picked No. 27, No. 28, or No. 29 with that selection.

In both deals, the Jazz received marginal pieces that were used for salary matching purposes more than their on-court talents. In the Fontecchio deal, the Jazz received Kevin Knox II. In the Olynyk and Agbaji departure move, the Jazz acquired two other former lottery picks, Otto Porter Jr. and Kira Lewis Jr. Both have largely been out of the Raptors’ rotation.

The 30-year-old Porter, the former No. 3 pick, was a key role player for the Golden State Warriors in their most recent championship just two seasons ago, but has played only 23 games for the Raptors in the past two seasons. In 2022-23, Porter suffered a left foot injury that eventually led to season-ending surgery. This season, he’s missed time with a contusion on that same left foot, plus a right knee sprain.

Lewis is much younger, just 22. But he also has fought injuries throughout his career since being drafted No. 13 by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2020. The biggest was an ACL and MCL tear early in his second season, which has caused him trouble since. Lewis played just 15 ineffective games for the Pelicans this year before being traded to the Raptors in the Bruce Brown deal on Jan. 17; he’s played just one game for the Raptors since the deal.

Moving Olynyk was expected on Thursday, as he’s a quality player on an expiring deal that might have left Utah this summer. The Raptors are looking to be competitive for the rest of this year, but fall well short of contending status, their hope is that they’re able to re-sign the native Canadian in free agency this summer.

But it’s more surprising the Jazz are moving on so quickly from Agbaji, who became a fan favorite thanks to his athleticism. In truth, though, Agbaji had been on the bottom fringes of the Jazz’s 10-man rotation this year, as he struggled to make a consistent impact in games. He had seen his 3-point shooting drop off in 2023-24 compared to his rookie year; he also didn’t grab very many rebounds or garner very many assists for his position. At the tail end of 23, he’s actually older than Lewis despite his second-year status.

The departure of Olynyk and Agbaji opens up playing time for two Jazz rookies: Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh. Both players had been playing for the G-League Salt Lake City Stars, who played in Mexico City early this week. Both were called up ahead of the Jazz’s game against the Suns on Thursday night. Hendricks, in particular, will have a rotational role and look to show what he can do against NBA talent more consistently. Sensabaugh, a scorer, will be available to be called upon when needed.

If this all seems familiar, it should. Trading Mike Conley and three other role players for a 2027 Lakers draft pick at last season’s deadline was similar, swapping players that the Jazz didn’t see in their long-term future for draft capital and expiring contracts. After that trade, rookies Walker Kessler and Agbaji received more playing time and responsibility. Kessler impressed, Agbaji’s performance metrics stayed at replacement level.

And so again, the coil turned.

For now, the Jazz remain on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff picture. The trades weakened the team, removing three rotational pieces for replaceable NBA talent — once again, they’ll be surrounding star Lauri Markkanen with mostly unproven young players. Middling to poor performances for the rest of the 2023-24 season seem likely.

This will all be judged on how successful the cobra’s strike is. When will the Jazz use all of these assets they’ve accumulated, now 13 first-round picks in the next six years? Who will they use those assets on? And just how good will they be once they make their move? It’s still all to be determined.

But on Thursday, the Jazz picked a lane for the short-term: they’re going to lie in wait.