With the Utah Jazz trading for star point guard Mike Conley, the jockeying to take Golden State’s crown in the Western Conference continues.
Days after Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered major leg injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers traded the farm for Anthony Davis. Earlier this week, troubling reports out of Houston point to a feuding power struggle between James Harden and Chris Paul. It’s no coincidence that the 50-win Jazz team decided to swing now for Conley, a top scoring point guard that fills a void on the roster.
If you’re looking for a dark horse pick to come out of the West next season, I wouldn’t blame you for picking the Jazz. At 18-7 with a plus-9.5 net rating, they were the second-best team in the NBA after the All-Star break before they fell apart against the Rockets in the first round.
Teams like the Jazz don’t have the Hollywood glamour or the big-city market to draw star free agents so a trade like this makes a ton of sense. Though Conley isn’t near the caliber of Kawhi Leonard, this trade shares the same philosophy as the Raptors moving on from DeMar DeRozan: a 50-win team needs two-way stars to reach that championship-caliber level.
The Jazz clearly needed a second shot creator alongside Donovan Mitchell after the 22-year-old shot 32.1 percent from the floor and 25.6 percent from deep on the playoff stage. Mitchell had a breakout rookie season, but there were worries about how Mitchell would fare after the scouting report came out on him as a No. 1 scorer. He didn’t quell those concerns against Houston.
Conley to the rescue. The Jazz are getting an upgrade over unrestricted free agent Ricky Rubio, who remains a really effective point guard despite his reputation as a one-dimensional playmaker. Rubio’s just not effective in the ways that Conley is at this stage. In Conley’s age-31 season, he had his best scoring campaign of his impressive career. He averaged a personal-best 21.1 points per game with solid efficiency despite being the first, second and third option on the young Memphis team.
Conley joins a stout defensive team with Rudy Gobert manning the backline. The Jazz are good bets to remain one of the best defensive outfits in the league next season, something that we can’t say about West contenders like Houston and the Lakers. That’s a foundation worth banking on.
Of course, the Jazz didn’t get Conley for free. The Grizzlies received Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen as well as this year’s 23rd pick and a future first-rounder, which figures to be in the late twenties. You might quibble with giving up two first-round picks for Conley, but the team risked losing the Indianapolis product to the Pacers, who are in the same boat as the Jazz -- a good team looking to be great.
Still, I love the deal from the Utah standpoint. With Golden State taking a step back, the Western Conference is as open as ever. It’s why Rockets GM Daryl Morey has fire hoses for arms these days trying to put out the flames of a Harden-Paul feud both internally and publicly. If the Rockets can keep things in order, they have as good a chance as anybody getting to the NBA Finals.
There is a LeBron James factor in this Utah deal. It’s expected that Korver, a 38-year-old joining a rebuilding roster, will be waived upon his arrival in Memphis. The Lakers desperately need shooters (and bodies) and Korver has already chased a title with James. He struggled to stay on the floor in the playoffs against a physical Rockets team, but James and Davis would make things much easier on him on both ends.
With a newly-minted big three of Conley, Mitchell and Gobert, we safely can label the Jazz as legitimate West contenders. But be sure to use pencil. Thursday’s draft and the upcoming free agency sweepstakes will alter the landscape yet again.