SALT LAKE CITY — With the future of the Golden State Warriors in question after they lost to the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals and both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson sustained serious injuries, there’s a prevailing thought that the league’s Western Conference is now as open as it has been in years.
The Utah Jazz on Wednesday signaled that they want to be part of the wide-open race, as they will acquire Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in exchange for Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s NBA draft and another future first-round pick.
In getting Conley, the Jazz will add an excellent player to a team that won 50 games and finished fifth in the West last season but fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets. The primary deficiency Utah had last season was the lack of a secondary scorer to go alongside Donovan Mitchell, as Rudy Gobert was second on the team in the department but finished just 59th in the league and isn’t someone who can create his own offense.
The Jazz will now have such a player in Conley. The 12-year veteran averaged 21.1 points per game last season and did so as the Grizzlies’ primary offensive creator. Conley also checks the box of being a good outside shooter (37 percent a year ago) and is also an excellent playmaker for others (6.4 assists per game) while being a good defender.
According to Synergy, a basketball analytics website that teams use, Conley finished seventh in the NBA in points created out of the pick and roll per game last season, shot an effective field-goal percentage of 76 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and led the league in points per game from floaters.
That should fit in beautifully in Utah, as the Jazz heavily rely on the pick-and-roll, head coach Quin Snyder is masterful at designing plays to get open shots for players and he emphasizes the use of the floater.
With Conley, where might Utah be able to finish in the West next season? Starting at the top of last season’s standings, the Warriors surely won’t be as good in 2019-2020 as they have been. The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers still should have their cores intact, but will the addition of Conley vault the Jazz ahead of them?
Then there are the Rockets. It appeared they could be the biggest beneficiaries of an anticipated Golden State decline, but numerous reports have surfaced since the season ended regarding instability within the organization. On Tuesday, Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill reported that point guard Chris Paul wants to be traded.
In truth, it’s probably fair to question whether trading Paul would actually end up being a positive for Houston given he’s 34 years old and has three years left on a contract that will see him get paid approximately $124 million. He’s still a good player, though, and the Rockets surely wouldn’t get back equal talent in a deal.
As far as teams that finished behind Utah last season, the two Los Angeles franchises could certainly be in the mix atop the West. After missing the playoffs last season, the Lakers will be pairing one of the league’s elite players, Anthony Davis, with LeBron James after agreeing last weekend to acquire Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. Can they get a third star this summer to add to what will be a great duo?
The other team in Los Angeles, the Clippers, are reportedly in contention to add Raptors star Kawhi Leonard in free agency, which would vastly improve an up-and-coming group that made a surprise run to the West’s eighth seed last season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder also still have All-NBA players Russell Westbrook and Paul George, although much to many Jazz fans’ delight, they haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons and their financial situation to add help is bleak.
All of this points to Utah having a legitimate chance to make a real leap in the West. Can the Jazz make it to the conference finals or even beyond next spring?
There is still some work to be done to shape the roster as the summer moves along, although Conley’s salary of about $32.5 million for next season means this was Utah’s big move of the offseason, barring something unexpected. The Jazz will essentially have about $4.7 million to spend in free agency using a mechanism called the room midlevel exception.
By not including Derrick Favors or Dante Exum in the trade, Utah signaled it wants to keep both players, and presumably continue to use Favors as the starting power forward and backup center. Spacing with Favors and Gobert on the floor together will continue to be a challenge Snyder will have to solve, although having Conley replacing Rubio should help significantly.
That said, it’s fair to figure the Jazz will seek in free agency a forward who can shoot from distance and put the ball on the floor, although it also stands to reason Royce O’Neale and Georges Niang will take on more responsibility next season. There are a few free agents available who could fit the figurative and literal bill as forwards who can shoot from the outside such as DeMarre Carroll, JaMychal Green, Anthony Tolliver, Mike Scott and Jeff Green.
As far as the players Utah traded, Crowder wasn’t very effective in filling the role of a forward who could stretch the floor, but lineups with him alongside the team’s other usual starters were outstanding last season, and the Jazz will miss his toughness.
Without Korver, Utah loses a player whose outside shooting prowess defenses had to respect, and Snyder was excellent in using him creatively. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said during exit interviews in April that he’d look to add a “sniper” this summer, but so far has now only lost one of the best in the league. Korver is aging, however, and said at the end of last season that he’d consider retirement this summer.
Allen and the two future draft picks can essentially be seen as three players who will likely all end up being taken in the 20s, and thus be a mixed proposition whether or not they’ll turn into regular rotation players in the NBA.
After next season, Conley will have one year remaining on his contract, although he’ll have an early termination option on it. That will also be the final year on the contracts for Gobert, Exum and Joe Ingles before they become unrestricted free agents, while Mitchell will be a restricted free agent at that point.
Such timing will allow Utah to retool as needed in the quest for a championship. As it stands now, though, the Jazz will be in position to make runs the next two years.