On Tuesday the Utah Jazz traded Miye Oni and a 2028 second-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash considerations.
On the surface this move saves the Jazz a fairly significant amount of money in luxury tax payments, which is certainly welcomed news for owner Ryan Smith. But, beyond the savings, there could be greater plans at work.
Playing in his third season, Oni had fallen out of the Jazz’s rotation and it was clear to those watching that there wasn’t a future for him in Utah. Despite some flashes of defense and a propensity for offensive rebounding, the talent on the Jazz’s roster ahead of Oni left him playing in mop up minutes at best this season.
With a guarantee date of Jan. 7 on his partially guaranteed contract, trading Oni to another team not only saves the Jazz the remaining salary that Oni would have been owed, it also saves the Jazz luxury tax payments on the salary already paid to Oni for the 2021-22 season. In the end the move saves the Jazz upwards of $5 million in luxury tax payments.
The move also does something else though: the Jazz now have two full roster spots open.
The team already had one vacant roster spot before the Oni trade, and it has long been believed that the team would fill that spot either at the Feb. 6 trade deadline or by picking up a player off waivers after that date. Having a second roster spot open changes the timeline slightly.
League rules only allow teams to keep two roster spots open for a two week period, so at least one of those spots will need to be filled soon.
The Jazz could buy time by signing someone to a 10-day contract, but they could also be on the move now to acquire a player through a trade.
The rumor mill has been swirling since this offseason with snippets about the Jazz’s desire for a wing defender to bolster their rotation. While NBA rumors always have to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s also important to remember that where there is smoke, there is fire.
The Jazz are largely considered to be one of the five teams that could contend for a championship this season along with the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets. That said, the Jazz are considered to be at the bottom of that elite tier due to their lack of wing defense.
While the Jazz have the best offense in the NBA and they have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, when Gobert is off the floor the Jazz struggle to contain opposing wing players.
When the Jazz are forced to play with a smaller lineup with Rudy Gay at the five, things get even more dire for the Jazz’s defense.
After the Jazz’s New Year’s Day loss to the Warriors, when the Jazz were playing without Hassan Whiteside who was recovering from concussion-like symptoms, I asked Mike Conley how things change for the guard line when they don’t have a traditional big on the floor. He said that it’s completely different because their defense scheme of funneling toward a rim protector is thrown out the window.
When I relayed that sentiment to Jazz head coach Quin Snyder on Jan. 3, there was some sarcasm and an air of frustration that was all too clear.
“So let me get this right,” Snyder said. “If Rudy’s not in, we actually have to defend and contain the ball?”
Well, yes. But the problem is that the Jazz need to contain the ball at a higher level even when Gobert or Whiteside are on the court. Yes the Jazz force players toward their rim protectors, but that should be the fail safe.
“Basically it’s true,” Snyder continued. “When Rudy’s not there, he can’t cover up our mistakes. But I think part of our growth as a team is those guys that are on the perimeter need to be determined to stay in front no matter who’s on the court … taking pride in that containment and taking pride in defensive rebounding because those are the areas that when we can do that, then Rudy really becomes effective, because he’s not cleaning up a mistake. He’s impacting a play in another way.”
Pride and determination can only go so far though, which brings us back to the Jazz’s now vacant roster spots. A higher caliber wing defender could increase the Jazz’s chances of making a run at an NBA title, not in the future, but now. And now is the time to make a move.
The Jazz aren’t likely to get the kind of wing defender they need or want without trading away another player like Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson or Bojan Bogdanovic, and in order to part ways with one of those players the deal would have to really make sense for the Jazz.
All of that being said, with some roster flexibility, the clear need to improve the roster and with championship aspirations guiding the Jazz’s decisions, there’s a chance that the Jazz could be on their way to making some changes very soon.