The Utah Jazz won 50 or more games for the second time in three seasons. Unfortunately, they were eliminated again in the playoffs by the Houston Rockets by a fairly non-competitive 4-1 margin. Every once and a while an NBA team is on the verge of meaningful contention, but has that one team they struggle to get past. It seems the Rockets are that team for the Jazz.
How does Utah move forward to beat Houston and other teams in May? First things first, they have their three best players under team-control for at least the next two years. Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles have two years left on the contracts they re-signed with the Jazz, and Donovan Mitchell still has two years remaining on his rookie scale deal. That’s three starters, two of them All-Star level players, under team control until at least the 20-21 saeson. And Ingles is on a declining, team-friendly deal, while Mitchell is on the steal that is a rookie contract. That is part of what gives Utah so much flexibility as they enter the offseason.
The other part of what gave the Jazz so much flexibility was players on good, tradable contracts, as well as several non-guaranteed contracts. Utah cashed in some of those assets when they agreed to send Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen and two first round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Mike Conley in a trade. The Jazz and Grizzlies had reportedly neared an agreement on a trade for Conley at the trade deadline, but the ability to match salary was too much for Utah at that point. The teams re-engaged when the season ended and came to an agreement before the draft.
While this deal saps much of the depth for the Jazz (more on that in a bit), Conley fills a position of major need. In addition with the way the trade is structured, it should allow Utah to keep Derrick Favors if they so desire. That should leave the Jazz with a starting five of Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Favors and Rudy Gobert. That group could easily be one of the best starting groups in the NBA. Conley’s steady playmaking should fit Quin Snyder’s regimented system while he’ll also be an improvement as a shooter/scorer over Ricky Rubio.
Conley will give the Jazz a second player who can make plays late in the shot clock. Because the Jazz run as many, if not more, long-developing sets than any team in the league, they often find themselves in late-clock situations and having to create something out of nothing. This duty has too often fallen to Mitchell to carry on his own in his first two season. Having a second option to help when things break down is a boon to the offense.
As for depth, the Jazz now have precious little of it. Dante Exum will presumably be the backup to Conley, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. That good lead Utah to keeping Raul Neto around, as Conley hasn’t been a bastion of health himself in recent years. If not Neto, expect the Jazz to target a veteran third point guard.
On the wing, Royce O’Neale has been a great find for Utah. He’ll return on his minimum contract to provide minutes behind both Mitchell and Ingles. But O'Neale isn't enough. They’ll need add some additional wing depth, ideally with shooting in mind. Players like Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and James Ennis could all be great fits for Utah.
Up front, the Jazz will need to add some players behind Gobert and Favors. Crowder regularly logged minutes as a small-ball four and that’s the type of player Utah would love to find in free agency. Someone like former Jazz player DeMarre Carroll would make a lot of sense as a swing forward. Same with Thaddeus Young, if he comes cheap enough.
Utah had been linked to both Tobias Harris and Nikola Mirotic as frontcourt options, but both are probably out of range now with the trade for Conley. If the team waives Favors, they could still pursue Mirotic, whose shooting at the four spot would be a welcomed addition. The team would also need to find another player who plays both big spots, as Favors tends to functions as both the starting power forward and the backup center. Veterans like Taj Gibson or Ed Davis would be a perfect fit for that role, or the team could go younger and look at someone like Kevon Looney or Noah Vonleh. For more of a pure backup option for Gobert, Frank Kaminsky would be an interesting fit. His shooting would give the team a difference dimension from what they’ve have had at the center spot.
Dennis Lindsey and his staff made their big move by acquiring Conley. Now the real work starts. Utah has a starting five that is good enough to contend in the Western Conference, but they need to depth to support that. The Jazz have done a great job with undervalued free agents in the past, as well as developing their own talent from within. With a few more smart moves to fill out the rotation, this group might finally be able to get over the hump in the playoffs.
Guaranteed Contracts (6): Tony Bradley, Mike Conley, Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (4): Derrick Favors, Raul Neto, Georges Niang, Royce O’Neale
Potential Free Agents (5): Tyler Cavanaugh (RFA – Two-Way), Naz Mitrou-Long (RFA – Two-Way), Ricky Rubio (UFA), Thabo Sefolosha (UFA), Ekpe Udho (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: $18.9 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $36.7 million over