SALT LAKE CITY — The trade that brought Mike Conley to Utah sent a jolt of optimism from Clarkston to Kanab. Paired with Donovan Mitchell, he’ll be part of a first-rate NBA guard line. Chances of the Jazz rising in the Western Conference hierarchy soared — at least on paper.
Shrewd as Wednesday’s maneuver was, it didn’t happen without cost. Not only did it mean the departure of popular players Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver (Grayson Allen barely played), but probably Ricky Rubio, too. The latter is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Reports say the Jazz aren’t interested in retaining Rubio. The acquisition of Conley said even more.
That’s a loss for the Jazz on several levels.
Rubio is only an occasionally good shooter, but he’s an above average entertainer. His wraparound passes and baseline reversals never fail to draw a strong reaction. Beyond that, he’s someone Jazz fans love: polite, grateful, earnest and dedicated to improvement. He embarked on a statewide tour in 2018 because he wanted to get to know his new home.
Some players don’t even bother unpacking.
Each night when introduced, Rubio touched his heart and pointed heavenward, acknowledging his mother, who died of cancer. Rubio has been at the front of the Jazz’s 5-for-the-Fight campaign to eradicate the disease.
Only a cynic would fail to feel something, upon reading what Rubio tweeted on Wednesday: … "it’s time to just be happy. Being angry, sad and overthinking isn’t worth it anymore. Just let things flow. Be positive.”
That’s good advice for anyone, at any age.
Korver too was loved by fans, but he has hinted at retirement since season’s end. He has played for five teams, including twice each at Cleveland and Utah, never letting ego supersede professionalism. In Cleveland, he handled the unexpected death of his brother with dignity and composure.
As for sharpshooting, he could put Calamity Jane to shame.
Crowder quickly connected in Utah, thanks to his character, toughness, teachability and presence. He, like Rubio and Korver, gracefully handled the death of a loved one. Crowder’s mother passed away minutes after he told her he had been traded from Boston to Cleveland in 2017.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t want those three players as teammates, or as role models for their kids. But are they players who could have moved the Jazz beyond their current holding pattern?
Neither Korver nor Crowder has point guard skills or 20 guaranteed points a night. Rubio has half the needed ingredients.
The Jazz are betting $67 million that Conley will bake a cake.
These are the Jazz in 2019: They can’t afford to retain good players where they can get special ones, no matter how dedicated those players are or how well they fit.
Time was when the Jazz sometimes kept players around well beyond their most productive seasons. (No, we’re not talking about hall of famers; they were always productive.) The late Larry H. Miller would tear up when a trade was made or a player retired. He favored certain personalities because they were still effective, though not at the highest level. He also lobbied for them because he respected and admired them. Emotion was a significant ingredient in personnel decisions.
Occasionally the emotions outweighed reasoning. That’s understandable. This was an owner who warmed up with the team on game nights and had a locker room stall with his name on it.
Miller got more businesslike as the years passed, but trades and releases were seldom easy. The world today doesn’t have as much space for that sort of sentimentality. It’s not as though Gail Miller — who now directs the empire — and her organization are callous or ungrateful. But they are most committed to the team and community.
The average NBA player earns $6.4 million annually, though top players earn over $40 million. Basketball Reference says Gordon Hayward was the sixth-highest paid player in the league last year, at over $31 million. Conley was ninth at $30.5 million.
Both have guaranteed raises this year.
Those numbers are hard to wax sentimental about.
Jazz fans and management seem genuinely grateful for players like Korver, Rubio and Crowder, who never shamed the team, only promoted it. Conley’s reputation says he will do the same.
The Jazz are still devoted to having quality citizens on the roster. They love those who put extra effort into appearances and practices. Role players are welcome.
But only if you can get them here to there are you truly golden.