With Wednesday’s news that Memphis’ talismanic point guard Mike Conley would be moving to Salt Lake City in exchange for Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, the 23rd pick in this year draft, and a future first-rounder, the Utah Jazz officially became a Finals contender in the West.
Utah have been a fascinating case-study of a team in recent years. After a disastrous end to the 2017 season, which saw them bundled out by the eventual-champion Warriors in the second-round of the playoffs, followed by the shock departure of beloved star Gordon Hayward, you would’ve thought for all money that it was time for an extensive rebuild shaped around the enormous wingspan of Rudy Gobert.
That rebuild took all of about a month. Some incredibly shrewd recruiting saw them snare Donovan Mitchell with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft; Mitchell led the league in rookie-scoring in 2018; the Jazz pushed the Houston Rockets to 5 hard-fought games in the 2018 Western semi-finals and Gobert won defensive player of the year.
This season, comparatively, was slightly underwhelming. Mitchell regressed ever-so-slightly, and it became clear leading in to the 2019 playoffs that the Jazz desperately needed a second scorer to ease the increasingly heavy load on their young star. They couldn’t find one, despite the best efforts of Joe Ingles, and were unceremoniously eliminated by the Rockets in the first round.
The Conley acquisition changes everything for Quin Snyder’s squad.
In the absence of any consistent scoring from out-going free agent Ricky Rubio, the reliance on Donovan Mitchell to score off the dribble crippled the Jazz; most evidently in their shellacking at the hands of the Rockets in this years’ playoffs.
Sure, Mitchell averaged 21 points per game in the series (hardly disastrous for a sophomore guard), but those points came on a wholly unsustainable 22 shots. Overall for last season (playoffs and regular season), Synergy Sports’ stats show that he averaged just 0.95 points per possession – not terrible but not anything better than a middle of the road level of efficiency.
By comparison, Rubio took just 10.7 shots per game in the 2018-19 regular season and 13 in the playoffs, which just isn’t enough to win basketball games given the likes of Gobert, Ingles, Royce O’Neal and Derrick Favors are never going to be volume scorers to pick up the slack.
Sure, he’s never been an All-Star (or even made an All-Defensive First Team), but Conley provides exactly the kind of grit, toughness and reliable scoring which is in high demand for a team on the cusp.
He’s also one of the best pick and roll players in the league, which, if you haven’t noticed, is the kind of skill likely to pair nicely with the 7 foot 7 wingspan of the Stifle Tower.
Per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Conley averaged 0.96 points per possession when in the pick and roll, good for the 81st percentile in the league. That’s a hugely impressive number given he only really had Jonas Valancunias, an aging Joakim Noah and rookie Jaren Jackson Jnr to work with, and lost long-term partner Marc Gasol mid-year.
Admittedly, $32.5 million this year and $34.5 million next year, along with three depth players and two first-round draft picks (one of which may fall in the 2022 “double draft”) is a huge price to pay for a guy who’s never picked up any individual awards of any form.
But this is the perfect year to pay that price. The West (and the NBA as a whole) is as open as it’s been in the last decade, and a team like Utah – with a volume scorer in Mitchell, shrewd old-school baller in Ingles and defensive options everywhere in Conley, Gobert, Dante Exum (if healthy) and Favors – arguably has as much chance as any team.
Conley has shown over a 12-year NBA career the capacity to either lead a team offensively when he needs to, or play second fiddle to another star. He hasn’t averaged less than 15 points per game in a season since 2012-13, and at the age of 31 is arguably smack bang in his NBA prime.
This was the perfect move for this Jazz roster at this point in time. It makes them a legitimate, exciting contender. We love it.
Bring on the rest of the offseason.
Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds