by Brandon Quinones
The Utah Jazz have not been messing around this season. They wasted no time in putting the league on notice with their scorching hot start to the season. They set a franchise record for the best start to a season. They went 21-5 thru their first 26 games. This is a team that is undoubtedly ready to compete now as well as create prolonged success.
Whereas the Jazz were once deemed as competitive, but not championship contenders, this year has proved that they have demolished that label. They they lead the league in margin of victory. They also lead in net rating at +9.7. This proves that not only are they winning games, but they are doing so by wide margins. As a team located within the top five in both offensive (third) and defensive rating fourth), they have showed signs of dominance on both sides of the court. That is thanks in part to their three All-Star players this season: Mitchell, Gobert, and Conley.
The Jazz also boast the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson, and one of the top candidates for Coach of the Year in Quin Snyder. While the Jazz have exceeded all expectations so far this season, how are they set up for future success?
When taking a look at their draft capital and salary cap situation, the Jazz are set up for what looks like a bright future in Utah with a decent amount of flexibility going forward. The Utah Jazz own almost all of their first round picks, but only own second round picks in 2025 and 2026. The Jazz have a first that they owe to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of the Mike Conley deal. That pick is most likely to happen next season. The pick only conveys this season if it falls within the 8-14 range in the lottery. That is a range far away from where the Jazz currently sit in the standings and is only possible if they miss the playoffs. In other words, it’s not happening this year.
However, the pick will most likely go to the Grizzlies next season when the protections on it loosen to where the pick is only protected if it falls within the top six picks. That is highly unlikely when considering how talented this team is. Aside from that one first round pick owed to the Grizzlies, the Jazz own the rest of their first round picks. This means if the Grizzlies get the pick from the Jazz in 2022, Utah will own their first round picks in 2021 and every year from 2023-2027.
It is always a huge advantage when a team owns their picks. Not only does it present the Jazz with the opportunity to draft a talented prospect in the draft, but it also creates trade possibilities. With the current state of the Jazz, most of their picks are likely to fall within the late teens up until the thirtieth spot in the first round. They have been a perennial playoff team since 2016-17. That is a trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The choice will be theirs when the time comes as to whether they want to select a prospect or use the pick in a trade to acquire pieces that fit with their current timeline and core.
The value of first round picks has come to life more than ever in recent years. Teams have been able to acquire star-level players by putting together trade packages involving the use of first round picks. Some examples are trades for players like James Harden or even in the trade that brought Mike Conley to Utah.
It would not be surprising to see the Jazz trade some of those picks to try and acquire the next disgruntled star that becomes available. That trend that has been seemingly growing over the last few seasons. Players that would fit the bill worthy of first round picks include guys like Bradley Beal and Kemba Walker. They have the potential to move the needle for Utah should they fail to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this summer.
When it comes to the salary cap situation for next year, as well as going forward, it gets a little complicated in terms of flexibility and what the Jazz are able to do. The good news is that the Jazz have their two cornerstones in Mitchell and Gobert locked into long-term deals that run through at least the 2024-25 season. However, since they were both given max deals, with Gobert’s being a “super max” since he made an All-NBA team, it does limit the team’s spending power going forward as they look to build around their dynamic duo. In addition to their two most important players, the Jazz also have guys like Clarkson, Bogdanovic, O’Neale, and Favors locked into deals thru at least the 2022-23 season. The reason the salary cap situation can become tricky for Utah is due to the impending free agency of Mike Conley this upcoming offseason and with Joe Ingles becoming a free agent the following offseason.
When looking ahead to next season, Utah is already locked in to an estimated $130 million in deals for their current core. This is thanks in part to the fact that beginning next season, both Gobert’s and Mitchell’s extensions will kick in. The reason why that is a troublesome number for Utah is because it does not leave the Jazz with much wiggle room with the projected luxury tax line set at $136.6 million. That leaves the Jazz with about $6.5 million to play with.
The problem is that Conley is set to likely earn much more than that amount. Although Conley is unlikely going to receive contract offers anywhere near his current $34.5 million salary for this season, he is still likely to demand a decent-sized paycheck. This is especially true after coming off his first ever All-Star appearance. Conley is likely to have a decent number of suitors trying to reel him away from the Jazz after seeing his performance and impact this season. There are still a number of things that may fall in Utah’s favor.
It is going to be difficult to leave a situation in Utah where they have played like the best team in the league when fully healthy. They have been juggernauts on both sides of the ball. That has resulted in the league’s top record. It also has long been recorded that Conley is one of the most loyal and well-respected players in the entire league. After having spent 12 seasons in Memphis, he has shown a willingness to commit to one place. This is especially true after having experienced much success in Memphis the same way he is currently finding success with the Jazz.
There has already been plenty of indication that Conley has enjoyed his time in Utah playing for the Jazz.
“Utah’s got me,” Conley told Tony Jones of The Athletic. “I was talking about this to my wife recently. We love it here. I don’t think I can go anywhere else that plays the way we play”.
It is obvious that this is a pairing that would continue to prove highly beneficial for both the Jazz and Conley as they have both reached new heights working together this year. From a business perspective, it will be interesting to see whether or not Conley’s loyalty and love for Utah will lead to a potential hometown discount. That would help the Jazz considerably. It will be interesting to see what the market dictates and what types of offers Conley will ultimately receive from other teams.
Another factor playing to Utah’s favor is that many teams have become wary of giving out large contracts to aging point guards in today’s NBA. With Conley turning 34 later this year, many teams may think twice about whether they want to commit to substantial money and years on a new contract for him. Ultimately, between the team’s success, Conley’s loyalty, and the way the market has been for aging point guards in recent seasons, there is a good chance that the Jazz will be able to retain Conley on a decent deal somewhere under max money. It will definitely above the mid-level exception. Conley is currently averaging 16.3 ppg, 5.4 apg, and 1.3 spg to go along with 44.9/41.1/84.8 shooting splits.
This means that a trade will have to take place to clear room for Conley’s new contract given that he is likely to earn more than the $6.5 million they currently have free. They will also have to sign, draft, or trade for other players as well since they only have 10 players under contract for next season. It will be interesting to see how Utah approaches this situation and what deals/players other teams would be willing to make.
It would be safe to bet that Mitchell and Gobert are here to stay. The same could be said for Jordan Clarkson after seeing his growth as the best Jazz player off the bench. It would be surprising that Utah trades Royce O’Neale or Joe Ingles. O’Neale has become a key cog for Utah as their top perimeter defender. He has solidified himself as one of the better three-and-D guys in the league. He does this all while on a reasonable contract. He is set to earn $8.8 million next year.
It seems unlikely that Utah parts with Joe Ingles. Although he will be on an expiring contract next season, he is a fan favorite. One does not think about the Jazz today without having “Jinglin’ Joe” cross their mind. It is also worth mentioning how important Ingles is to the team when looking at the fact that he is providing 11.7 ppg and 4.1 apg off the bench at an absurd level of efficiency. He is shooting almost 50 percent from three-point range and has an effective field-goal percentage of 70.1 percent. That leaves the Jazz with Bogdanovic and Favors as the players most likely to be moved.
Bogdanovic has raised the ceiling of the Jazz with his ability to score at all three levels with excellent efficiency. However, in his return from a wrist injury that ended his season last year, he has struggled to have the same impact. His overall numbers, as well as percentages, have all plummeted.
There is good reason to believe that Bogdanovic can return to form. Although he has not posted his usual numbers, he is still averaging 14.8 ppgthis season on 41.7/38.3/85.5 shooting splits. He still remains a likely option to be moved because of the size of his contract. He will make $18.7 million next season and $19.55 million the year after that. While it can often be difficult to trade a contract of that size, moving him should clear some much-needed space to retain Conley. It may be difficult to see Utah trading Bogdanovic, but it can all come down to the types of offers Conley is receiving. They need to decide who they feel would be easier to replace if they had to choose between the two.
If the Jazz feel that they need to clear even more cap room, they could look into trading Derrick Favors. He has been solid for them in his return, but is a likely trade candidate when considering that he is set to make $9.72 million next season. Utah will probably also feel comfortable trading Favors if they feel like Udoka Azubuike, their first round pick from a year ago, is ready to handle the role as their primary backup big.
Utah’s most likely offseason move will be making space to retain Mike Conley, while keeping as much of their current core as possible. The long term outlook depends on how everything plays out this offseason in terms of a potential Conley deal. Utah is not typically known as a location where many free agents tend to have significant interest in. The Jazz are a small market team and have a unique identity. Although they have not typically been a place with much free agent interest, that may begin to change this year. The Jazz have played well this season. When looking a few years down the line, Utah will have the potential to navigate through cap space with limited spending power. That will be the case as long as they are paying substantial money to their top two guys in Mitchell and Gobert.
The future looks bright in Utah behind an organization with a clear direction, a coaching staff that knows how to get their players to buy in and achieve maximum results, and a dynamic duo that looks to bring the Jazz to the apex of the basketball world.
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