The Utah Jazz look like legitimate NBA Finals contenders after agreeing to trade for Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley.
With the Golden State Warriors ravaged by injuries and the Houston Rockets reportedly confronting infighting between their two stars, the Western Conference suddenly appears open for the taking.
The Utah Jazz staked their claim to the throne Wednesday by agreeing to send Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, the No. 23 overall pick in Thursday’s draft and a future first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Mike Conley, according to multiple reports.
By snagging a second shot-creator to pair alongside budding star Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz cemented themselves as one of the West’s top teams heading into 2019-20.
Offense has long been an issue for the Jazz, who haven’t ranked among the top 10 leaguewide in offensive rating since the 2012-13 season. Although Mitchell just averaged 23.8 points and 2.4 triples per game in only his second NBA season, Utah didn’t have another reliable scorer to turn to when defenses schemed to shut him down.
Rudy Gobert (15.9 points per game), Ricky Rubio (12.7), Joe Ingles (12.1), Crowder (11.9) and Derrick Favors (11.8) all chipped in their fair share of scoring, but none can routinely create offense for themselves. That proved fatal against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, as Mitchell shot a dismal 32.1 percent from the field and the Jazz meekly bowed out in five games.
In Conley, the Jazz now have another reliable source of on- and off-ball offense to complement Mitchell.
Conley is headed to a Jazz team that ran more pick-and-rolls last season than all but a handful of teams, which should be a perfect fit for his skill set. This past season, he averaged 0.96 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, putting him in the 81st percentile leaguewide. Conversely, Rubio averaged only 0.78 points per possession, which ranked in the 39th percentile.
While Rubio can create for teammates with his dazzling passing ability, he’s a career 32.2 percent shooter from deep and had a horrific 38.8 effective field-goal percentage on his pull-up jumpers this past season. On the other hand, Conley is a career 37.5 percent shooter from downtown and had a 45.5 effective field-goal percentage on pull-ups in 2018-19.
Conley and Mitchell should be effectively interchangeable on offense, as both can run pick-and-rolls, operate as off-ball cutters and slashers or spot up for jumpers. Defenses won’t be able to sell out against Mitchell and dare his Jazz teammates to beat them, as Conley should be able to orchestrate the offense effectively even if Mitchell gets erased.
Conley should fit like a glove on defense, too. Although he’s received only one All-Defensive nod throughout his 12-year NBA career, his 6-foot-6 wingspan allows him to guard either backcourt spot. Larger backcourts could prove problematic against Conley (6-foot-1) and Mitchell (6-foot-3), but having the 7-foot-1 Gobert patrolling the paint helps to mitigate some of those concerns.
This trade isn’t without risk for the Jazz. Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian relayed the protection on the future first-rounder they’re sending to Memphis:
Barring catastrophic injuries, the pick is most likely to convey in 2022, which is widely expected to be the year when the one-and-done rule gets eliminated. Even if Utah’s pick falls in the mid- or late 20s, the Grizzlies may find more value there than usual if top-tier high school recruits join the typical one-and-dones from the high school class of 2021.
This trade also deprives the Jazz of some critical depth, as Crowder, in particular, thrived as a small-ball 4 alongside Gobert. Utah’s typical starting five of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors and Gobert posted a plus-5.1 net rating in 501 minutes, but lineups with Crowder in place of Favors alongside those four had a net rating of plus-12.0 in 478 minutes.
The Jazz will renounce their rights to Rubio and use their cap space to absorb Conley’s $32.5 million salary without having to salary-match, but they’ll have almost no remaining spending power after the trade becomes official. They can add someone with the $4.8 million room mid-level exception, but they’ll otherwise be limited to veteran-minimum contracts. Their only meaningful pathway to cap room would be if they waive Favors before his $16.9 million salary for 2019-20 becomes guaranteed on July 6.
The Jazz could shop around in the first few days of free agency to see whether they can find a cheaper alternative to Favors, who isn’t an ideal fit alongside Gobert. However, the value he provides as a backup center shouldn’t be discounted.
Even if the Warriors and Rockets fall apart this summer, the Jazz will likely face stiff competition from the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs next season. If the Los Angeles Clippers make a big free-agent splash — Kawhi Leonard and Al Horford, anyone? — they’d vault up the ranks of title contenders as well.
Without knowing how the free-agent landscape will shake out, the Jazz justifiably took a leap of faith by trading for Conley. Although it could come back to bite them in the long run, especially if their future protected first-rounder pays dividends for Memphis, they needed a dramatic shakeup to avoid falling further behind in the Western Conference arms race.