One shot. This was the difference between the Utah Jazz leaving the bubble after the first round and the Denver Nuggets going on a feel-good run to the Western Conference finals. If Mike Conley makes that fateful game-winning 3-pointer at the end of Game 7, maybe the Jazz are the team building off the momentum of back-to-back battles against the Los Angeles juggernauts right now. 

Instead, they’re facing the same existential questions every small-market team faces after years of playoff disappointment. Rudy Gobert is 28 years old, one season removed from free agency and eligible for a supermax extension. Can the Jazz afford to bring him back? Does it make sense in basketball terms? They are already close to the luxury tax line before building any semblance of a bench. How much are they willing to spend to build on season that almost ended very differently?

After a surprising sale of the team to tech billionaire Ryan Smith, we have no precedent to base our answers off of. The Jazz might believe enough in the playoff run they almost had to try to improve upon it this offseason. They might take a step back and recalibrate the team around Donovan Mitchell’s coming prime. This offseason preview will explore both possibilities and set a blueprint for their best possible offseason. 

One note before beginning: We will be using Spotrac for player salaries, and 2019-20 cap numbers for this exercise as a whole. That includes previously agreed-upon numbers like the rookie scale and the minimum salary. A frozen cap is the likeliest outcome of negotiations between the league and the NBPA, but these numbers could theoretically change in either direction. 

Under the assumption that the 2019-20 numbers will be used, these are the pertinent numbers for these projections.

Salary cap

$109,140,000  

Luxury tax  

$132,627,000  

Luxury tax apron  

$138,928,000  

Salary floor  

$98,226,000  

Non-taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)  

$9,258,000  

Taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)  

$5,718,000  

Cap room mid-level exception (Year 1)  

$4,767,000  

Bi-annual exception  

$3,623,000

Cap situation and overall finances

The Jazz face the same question so many other small-market playoff teams are contending with this offseason: Can they pay the tax? At present, they have around $12.6 million below the projected line, but that does not account for Jordan Clarkson, a possible usage of the mid-level exception or the three total roster spots that still need to be filled. 

Players

2020-21 Salary

Mike Conley Jr.*

$34,502,130

Rudy Gobert

$27,525,281

Bojan Bogdanovic

$17,850,000

Joe Ingles

$10,863,637

Royce O’Neale

$8,500,000

Donovan Mitchell

$5,195,501

Ed Davis

$5,005,350

Tony Bradley

$3,542,060

Georges Niang**

$1,783,557

Miye Oni**

$1,517,981

Nigel Williams-Goss**

$1,517,981

No. 23 pick

$2,284,800

Total

$120,088,278

*Player option
**Non-guaranteed

Projecting Utah’s thought process on the tax isn’t possible without knowing Smith’s priorities as an owner. If we assume he lands somewhere in the “willing, but unenthusiastic” camp, the Jazz have to make an honest assessment of their future finances before deciding how heavily to invest in this season. 

On the one hand, Conley, Davis and Bradley all expire next offseason. That’s well over $40 million off the books. On the other, Donovan Mitchell’s rookie extension, which will almost certainly be for the max, kicks in for the 2021-22 campaign, erasing a good chunk of those savings. A raise for Gobert could do further damage, and if they need to commit multiple years to either Clarkson or a mid-level target (or, possibly, both), they start to flirt with the repeater tax down the line. That is probably untenable. We’ll explore both scenarios, but for the moment, it’s probably safer to assume that Utah ducks the tax for now. 

That gives the Jazz a simple choice. With one major salary slot left to use, do they re-sign Clarkson, or chase a mid-level addition? There isn’t a clear answer. The Jazz had the best five-man lineup in the Western Conference last season by net rating that played at least 300 minutes. The five-man group of Mitchell, Gobert, Ingles, Bogdanovic and O’Neale roasted opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions, besting even the vaunted Lakers’ starting five featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Versions of that group with Conley were similarly dominant. Throw any other player into the mix and things got far worse. The Jazz had perhaps the worst bench in basketball last season. 

The offense probably shoulders more of the blame. The Jazz were 23rd in bench scoring last season even after adding Clarkson. But Utah’s best five was dominant defensively in allowing only 102.9 points per 100 possessions. The Jazz still slipped from second defensively during the 2018-19 season to 13th last season. Some of that was by design. They traded Derrick Favors to create the cap flexibility needed to sign Bogdanovic, clear evidence that their priority was always shooting. Without Favors, they not only lost their backup center (and the 48 minutes of elite rim protection having him behind Gobert provided), but the ability to play big against certain opponents. The Gobert-Favors partnership was outdated when it split, but having it in their back pocket might’ve come in handy against Denver. Or the enormous Lakers. 

If the Jazz have any regrets about letting Favors go, they can rectify that potential mistake in free agency. Favors is available. His Pelicans have Jaxson Hayes waiting in the wings and would probably like to add a shooting big man as well for the sake of Zion Williamson. This center market is incredibly strong. Favors probably isn’t getting anything better than the full mid-level exception. He obviously knows Utah quite well. Aron Baynes and Tristan Thompson are worthwhile fits for the same reason. Adding a big man wouldn’t cost the Jazz shooting this time. Bogdanovic is already under contract. They could theoretically have their 2019 cake and eat it too — a roster ready to play big or small depending on opponent. A bigger wing defender like Maurice Harkless could come in handy as well. The Lakers handled them pretty easily during the regular season, and O’Neale’s size disadvantage against LeBron is a big reason why. 

Letting go of Clarkson, however, means asking a lot out of Mitchell and Conley as their only ball-handling guards. Conley would probably have to go to the bench. The Jazz never successfully made that move last season, and they tried. Mitchell would have to play point guard, which he’s done in spurts, but never for a full season. They’d have to be staggered aggressively. Neither would mind that much. There are trade options for finding another guard and staying below the tax, but unless they’re willing to give up a first-round pick, that player would probably be worse than Clarkson. 

Inertia suggests that the Jazz are likelier to choose Clarkson than outside help. They traded for him for a reason, and the bonus to re-signing him is that it preserves the mid-level exception for possible in-season usage on a buyout addition if necessary. But finding a scoring guard is easier than finding playoff-caliber defense. They could probably fill a good chunk of that scoring gap in the NBA Draft. 

Draft capital

  • 2020 picks: No. 23
  • Owed future first-round picks: 2021 to Memphis (protected 1-7 and 15-30 in 2021, top six in 2022, top three in 2023 and top one in 2024, becomes two second-round picks if it does not convey by then). 
  • Incoming future first-round picks: N/A

The Jazz don’t follow much of a pattern in the prospects that they target, so the pick here will probably go hand-in-hand with their free agency plans. If they want to let Clarkson go and fill his role at No. 23, they’ll have plenty of options. Kira Lewis, Tyrell Terry, Cole Anthony, Nico Mannion and Malachi Flynn all project as second-unit playmakers (or better). The last two should be available at No. 23. One of the first three might. 

If the Jazz are comfortable with the idea of bringing Conley off the bench, a 3-and-D wing fits the bill as well. This draft has plenty, though the odds of someone out of the Devin Vassell-Aaron Nesmith-Desmond Bane-Saddiq Bey group falling aren’t great. This might be an area in which the Jazz have to reach for someone like Josh Green. 

An important note for veteran trades: The Jazz can’t trade a first-round pick until 2026 due to the protections on that 2021 pick they owe Memphis. Because the protections make it possible for the pick to fall as late as 2024, the Stepien Rule prevents them from trading a pick until two years afterward to ensure that they aren’t without a first-rounder in consecutive years. Because of the seven-year rule, that means the Jazz have only one tradable first-round pick, aside from No. 23 — their 2026 or 2027 selection. That probably doesn’t bother them. The Jazz aren’t in the market for a blockbuster at the moment, so trading any more than one pick won’t be necessary. They probably won’t deal any, but hey, you never know what opportunities might arise. This is going to be an active trade market, and the Jazz have options in just about every direction. 

Trade options

There are two blockbuster-ish style trades the Jazz could pursue this offseason. A Rudy Gobert trade would portend a rebuild. A Mike Conley trade represents a renewed push for the championship. 

Dispassionately speaking, the Jazz probably should trade Gobert if their sole goal is to win a championship. At present, they simply don’t have a championship-caliber team, and that team, by and large, is probably going to get worse with time. Ignore any possible athleticism-related decline coming to Gobert. Conley, Bogdanovic and Ingles are all in their 30s. Even O’Neale is 27 and likely in his prime. Mitchell has room to grow, but who else does? This current group, at best, is probably remaining around where it currently stands. As we’ve discussed, that’s closer to contention than most realize, but that doesn’t mean it’s close, period. They played the Lakers thrice and got rocked by 42 combined points. The Lakers are going to be better next season. The Jazz have pathways to improvement, and we’ll discuss more of them, but closing that kind of gap probably isn’t happening. 

So look in the other direction. Mitchell is 24. LeBron is going to age out of being LeBron eventually. The same is true for Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and James Harden. A window is going to open in the somewhat near future. Trading Gobert could not only net the Jazz assets, but push them far enough down the competitive Western Conference standings to have a shot at some lottery magic. A year or two at the bottom now might be Mitchell’s best chance to get to the top when he’s 26 or 27. If the Jazz aren’t there at that point, he’ll eventually become a 28- or 29-year-old hitting his prime for another team. 

What’s on the board for Gobert? It’s hard to say given the general decline in center value. Gobert might be such a win-now improvement that he changes that, but the options are sparser than you’d think. 

  • Boston is the obvious fit with three first-round picks (No. 14, No. 26, No. 30), two young big men (Robert Williams, Grant Williams) and, possibly, a big expiring salary (Gordon Hayward) to offer. Gobert instantly solves Boston’s Bam Adebayo problem, and possibly its Anthony Davis conundrum as well. But Brad Stevens wants his centers to shoot. Gobert doesn’t. Danny Ainge has made a career-long point not to invest in centers. Gobert needs a new contract, and it would not only launch Boston into years of luxury tax payments, but perhaps a repeater penalty down the line as well. 
  • Golden State has Andrew Wiggins and the No. 2 pick. Golden State, like Boston, doesn’t invest in centers, and there would be diminishing returns here considering how incompatible Draymond Green and Gobert are schematically. One switches, the other drops. The Warriors do love vertical spacing, though, and like the Celtics, they too need an answer for Davis. 
  • Brooklyn should be in the running here with a Caris LeVert-led package, but won’t be. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving want DeAndre Jordan to start. Rudy Gobert isn’t coming off the bench. His rim protection would be enormous in a defense that figures to struggle on the perimeter, but it probably isn’t in the cards. 
  • Sacramento needs a center and quietly has a number of young players it doesn’t know what to do with. The Jazz might like to open the Marvin Bagley Jr. mystery box, for instance, or pair Buddy Hield’s shooting with Mitchell’s ball-handling skills. New GM Monte McNair probably isn’t making a big investment in a center. He comes from Houston, after all. The fit is too obvious to ignore here.
  • Portland is worth a conversation. Jusuf Nurkic is a fantastic offensive player who isn’t fixing Portland’s dreadful defense. Gobert could. If the Jazz could squeeze Gary Trent Jr. out of the Blazers in that sort of swap, they should consider it. 
  • The Clippers will try to trade Ivica Zubac, Landry Shamet and salary filler for Gobert. I’m here to tell you that they won’t be successful. 
  • Atlanta wants to reportedly trade the No. 6 pick for veteran help, had a dreadful defense, and could send Clint Capela to Utah as a replacement center. We might have something here. 

There’s nothing overwhelming here, and that’s probably what dooms a Gobert trade. The Jazz might be shaken out of the status quo with a blockbuster package, but if one doesn’t exist, it’s probably likelier that they try to win now and cross the Gobert bridge when they get to it. Even if the plan is to win now, it’s probably a cautious one given the uphill climb they’re facing. If the Jazz are ready to truly go all-in, though, there’s a somewhat obvious move in front of them. 

Mike Conley has a $34.5 million expiring contract next season. Let’s attach a first-round pick and see what they can get. 

  • Tobias Harris makes sense. In fact, the Jazz might be the team getting a pick here rather than giving one. Daryl Morey could take a swing at his point guard problem and get off three expensive Harris moves in one fell swoop. The Jazz chased Harris in 2019. They landed Bogdanovic instead and are probably happy about it. Would they have any interest in ending up with both? 
  • If the Knicks don’t make the splash they’re hoping for, there’s a 3-for-1 trade here involving New York’s team options. The Knicks are probably declining Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock anyway. If they can’t find a better use for their space and like the idea of adding a veteran point guard as a mentor for their younger players, there’s a workable deal in there somewhere. Unlike Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, Conley wouldn’t clog New York’s cap for multiple seasons.
  • If Houston would give up PJ Tucker to get out of Eric Gordon’s ugly extension, that’s a big upgrade for Utah. The Rockets plan to contend for now, but it would be worth testing their resolve with a get-out-of-jail-free card. 
  • Finally, there’s Chris Paul. The Thunder probably expected to get more than an underwhelming future first-rounder and a year of cap relief out of him, but his market just hasn’t developed as expected yet. While some team may yet offer more, the Thunder probably should take a pick, a shorter contract and a chance to start their tank in earnest if that is on the table. If there’s a move here that pushes the Jazz into contention, it’s this one. The opposite side of that coin? It almost certainly makes them a taxpayer if they can’t get off a bit of extra money in this or another deal. At the very least, it probably limits their usage of the mid-level exception. 

This is an extreme path, and it’s an unlikely one. A more realistic option is consolidating their other, smaller expiring contracts to get to one bigger number. Ed Davis and Tony Bradley make around $8.7 million combined. They’re decent off the bench, but decent big men are a dime a dozen. The Jazz could replace them relatively easily for the minimum, and by combining them with picks in a trade, could find an impact bench piece. 

  • Derrick Rose makes only $7.6 million, and the Pistons seem to be trending toward a rebuild. 
  • If the Magic want to tank with Jonathan Isaac likely out for the year, they’d probably be amenable to giving away Al-Farouq Aminu, who is owed around $20 million over the next two seasons. If healthy, he’d help Utah against bigger scoring forwards. If not? Make the trade in the offseason and he can be aggregated again in another trade before the deadline. 
  • If the Bulls draft a guard, Tomas Satoransky is probably available, and his playmaking would fit nicely alongside Mitchell’s scoring.
  • Throw in Georges Niang and two mid-tier San Antonio salaries, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, become options. Both are gettable as veterans taking minutes away from youngsters in a likely rebuild. 
  • Why not offer something to one of the cap space teams to just take the salary? With $8.5 million off the books, suddenly keeping Clarkson and using part of the mid-level exception becomes possible. The Knicks, Hawks, Hornets and Pistons are probably the teams to watch here. The Jazz could also trade them to separate teams that have trade exceptions big enough to absorb them. Reports have already suggested that the Knicks are willing to absorb contracts in exchange for assets. 

This is probably the likeliest of the three options, but before 2019, the Jazz weren’t a particularly aggressive organization. They took some swings last season. Will they again in 2020? That’s what we don’t know, but any path to a championship probably starts with the answer being “yes.”

What would an ideal offseason look like?

The best paths here are the aggressive ones. The Jazz are inching toward the hamster wheel of mediocrity right now and need something, anything to push them in another direction. If they get the right offer for Gobert, they should take it. If they can trade for Chris Paul, like so many other teams, they should do it. We just shouldn’t expect them to do either, so we’re left with the more realistic questions of that free-agent salary slot and a possible deal involving expiring contracts. 

If we’re taking that more measured approach to offseason improvement, the Jazz have three tools for filling three slots. Between the mid-level exception and Clarkson’s Bird rights, the No. 23 pick, and their expiring contracts, they should look to add a big, a 3-and-D wing and a guard. 

The sheer depth of free-agent big men makes it the easiest mid-level move. Derrick Favors would be a dream signing. If that fails? Great, call Tristan Thompson. It’s a bit ambitious, but Serge Ibaka should be an option as well. This should be a player who can share some minutes with Gobert, but more importantly, hold down the backup center spot. Those three are the ones who can do that. Aron Baynes is a maybe who will probably get a starting spot somewhere else. If JaMychal Green is the floor, the Jazz are probably in good shape. 

As for the other two slots? Feel out the pre-draft trade market. If the Jazz feel confident they can find their guard there, they can focus on the wing at No. 23. If not? Prioritize a guard and shop for a wing through trade. Cole Anthony and Al-Farouq Aminu is a nice combination here. So is Josh Green and Tomas Satoransky. They can mix and match as the market dictates. 

That leaves the Jazz with their original six of Mitchell, Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic, Ingles and O’Neale along with three bench additions from those last two paragraphs. All other signings would be for the minimum. In this market, that might get them a rotation piece, but the top nine is what matters here. If Utah’s core five remains as dominant as it was last year and the bench goes from an enormous minus to even a minor plus? Now we’re talking about a true contender, one whose margin of error in a series against Denver is bigger than one desperation shot. 

A lot of stars would have to align for the Jazz to be that good, though. It isn’t particularly likely that their best lineups are as dominant next season. Their older players are probably going to decline. That should keep the bigger moves on the radar. The Jazz might not have an offseason blockbuster in them, but they need to be ready to make one during the season if it proves necessary. Right now, the Jazz are close to true contention. They are not yet true contenders. If they decline to the point that one shot can’t save them against Denver, they have to start wondering whether even getting to that series is a worthwhile goal anymore. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here