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2019 NBA Trade Deadline: Where do the Utah Jazz go from here?

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With Memphis closing down shop before Utah could acquire Mike Conley, where does Utah go from here?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The lead up to the NBA Trade Deadline was a roller coaster. After the deadline passed with the Jazz roster still intact, I needed a break for a the night to get my mind on other things. Not because I was mad, frustrated, or disappointed with the result, I just needed to have the benefit of some perspective to put into words what my reaction was to the whole thing.

The crazy thing about the trade deadline is it opens up potential options for a team—a choose your own adventure opportunity—if a team so chooses to deviate from its current strategy. Sometimes there are options the Jazz’s front office hypothesized, sometimes there are options the Utah Jazz never would have dreamed available to them.

Like the show Let’s Make a Deal, it’s easy to feel great about winning $500. But if you are leaving knowing you could have had a new car, you’re somehow still left feeling disappointed even though you’re now $500 richer than when you started. It’s a complicated and stupid emotion, but a valid one none the less.

It’s easy to get caught up in the ride of trade rumors; even more so this year as Utah was not just tied to a role player but a star player. That doesn’t happen often with the small market Jazz, which led to a unique sense of tension between the Jazz’s front office, its staff, players, and even the fans. Ultimately, the deal didn’t go through. The Jazz wouldn’t go higher on their price for Conley, and the Memphis Grizzlies wouldn’t accept less of an offer just for the sake of tanking. Memphis gets a choice in this, too.

With that said, here are some of the themes that keep replaying in my head. It’s okay to be disappointed that Utah missed out on Mike Conley or other deals, it’s also okay to feel relieved that they have the same team with great chemistry, and it’s also okay to be extremely worried about the Jazz’s potential roads to further improvement in the offseason.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Lindsey tried his best

It’s okay to be disappointed that Utah didn’t get its prized target or any of their prized targets at the deadline, but you can’t put the blame on Dennis Lindsey for trying. The Utah Jazz stepped far out of their comfort zone in trying to acquire a possible third star to their Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert core.

The Utah Jazz—a historically secretive team when it comes to rumors—withstood the unwelcome onslaught of being in the rumor mill. This is a team that avoids such things in order to protect team chemistry and having an advantage in negotiations. But when you go for a big time player, that quiet luxury goes out the window.

Despite that, the Utah Jazz pursued. They were willing to part with two of their biggest influencers in the locker room in the name of getting better. That’s a huge risk. One in which the front office decided was completely worth the gamble and potential fallout. Just today Ricky Rubio mentioned that sometimes the front office doesn’t value chemistry.

At the end of the day, Dennis Lindsey was willing to sacrifice current chemistry for a better talent, but he wasn’t willing to mortgage future talent for a better present. Draft picks to a small market team are its lifeblood. Going too far in the future can cripple a team. Utah wanted to get better, but the asking price was too much.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chemistry vs Talent

While it’s easy to get caught up in the endless arguments and debates on chemistry vs better talent on social media, it’s a trap. You need both. Just like few teams are going to be the best offensive and defensive team in the league, few teams have 100% chemistry with the best talent. It’s a balancing act. It’s also a trap to bank on chemistry always being an answer.

Conflict is necessary for getting better and improvement. Part of Utah’s miraculous run last year was due to an intensely fierce conflict. Losing, being counted out, and abandoned by a big name free agent. That allowed the Jazz team to dial in and come together as a group. To assume that by jettisoning Ricky Rubio or Derrick Favors this team would never grow together it’s naive. Continuity is incredibly important, but sometimes you got to graft in new branches when the tree stops producing fruit. That’s what has happened now. You know what type of fruit this team produces.

What’s type of fruit is it? An offense that can be schemed against and a defense that is absolutely suffocating. Utah has a problem on offense. They’re not a playoff caliber offense, currently ranking 20th in the league. Most teams pack the paint to negate Rudy Gobert’s rolls to the rim, hang tight on Joe Ingles, and dare Donovan Mitchell to put this team on his back because they are confident few outside of Mitchell can consistently get their own shot. They are right, too.

The Utah Jazz have a top 5 defense with a bottom 10 offense. If Utah is struggling to get things going now offensively, what happens when they get to the playoffs and an opposing coaching staff has their full focus on scouting you? The Jazz caught OKC off guard last year by the Thunder overlooking them and Carmelo’s terrible defense. Ricky Rubio had a great series. Joe Ingles went off. But lightning rarely strikes twice. Ricky Rubio is up and down. Joe Ingles is not the same this year. Donovan Mitchell is struggling as teams know that Mitchell has little help offensively. Dennis Lindsey knew that and went to creating a new offensive wrinkle and fell short of getting one.

Fans who got internet mad for this front office wanting to abandon chemistry can be mad, but they can’t claim ignorance when it comes to this team’s limitations. Utah has an easy schedule going forward but Dennis Lindsey was going to disrupt chemistry for a big time upgrade. It was a risky one due to Mike Conley’s age, but one that could push Utah into 2nd best team in the West territory easily.

It’s time for Utah to look in the mirror now for improvement. If the team doesn’t want chemistry to be as hollow a buzzword as continuity was at the beginning of the season, it’s put up or shut up time.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Look in the mirror time

One of the things I keep on thinking about is how organizations—whether it’s businesses, teams, charities, religious, political—change their action plans and urgency when they come to realization that outside help isn’t on its way. There’s countless stories that when the prospect of someone else fixing a problem other than yourself is removed, people step up to the plate and pull through. Now’s that time for Utah. Mike Conley isn’t coming through that door to hit threes now. How do you respond?

This could free Quin Snyder to be more judicial with his substitutions and starting lineup. Since Ricky Rubio returned from injury he has not strung two good games in a row together.

He’s consistently inconsistent. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell—who was on a scoring tear—has cooled off since Rubio returned to the starting lineup averaging 24.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.3 apg while shooting 39/32/76. The total points, rebounds, and assists are still there, but the efficiency has fallen off a cliff.

Quin could feel freed to grease the wheels of the Utah Jazz offense now that he knows that they’re not trying to placate egos as Rubio goes into free agency this summer, and that the goal is to get to the playoffs and get better at all costs.

This locker room already knows that some members of it had been earmarked for a move later on. With that disrupted chemistry, there’s an opening to make more drastic changes to rotations that would not affect overall play as they already have been unfocused. Might as well use the transitionary period to their advantaged.

There is—however—additional help walking through that door and it’s not via trade.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Dante Exum - Part of the solution?

DanteExum will now have even more expectations placed on his shoulders as he was the trade piece that most likely held up trade negotiations with Memphis and other partners. Whether fairly—or unfairly—many Jazz fans, and some Memphis fans, will be evaluating his post All-Star break in the eyes of what could have been. The sticking point in the Mike Conley trade very well could have been Utah’s unwillingness to let go of the 23 year old who has missed almost half of his games.

Dante Exum is back after the All Star break. Before the injury, in his three weeks before the injury he was really figuring it out. He was a force off the bench, and—outside of Donovan Mitchell—the only Utah Jazz player capable of beating his man off the dribble.

If Exum looks more like the guy in November and early December, Utah will be mired right back to where they are now. That means Utah will be urgently on the hunt come the offseason for that elusive third piece.

However, if Dante gets right back to where he was after the All Star game, Utah has an additional wrinkle in their offense—and defense—that will give them the shot in the arm help that they so desperately need. Dante Exum’s last five games he was a +/- machine off the bench and was looking like Utah’s best point guard on the roster. Then the great point guard apocalypse occurred and Utah lost its entire position in early January.

How Dante Exum plays after the All-Star break will not only raise or lower Utah’s ceiling for this season but affect what type of additional piece Utah targets in the offseason.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Looking for a trade partner again at the 2019 NBA Draft

The first opportunity Utah will have to improve their roster will come at the 2019 NBA Draft. For those—like me—who are pessimistic of Utah’s chances of courting a third piece in free agency, this will be Utah’s next best opportunity to avoid the perils of being left empty handed with a ton of cap space. We’ve already seen that Utah might not be as confident in themselves with getting someone to choose Utah over a current championship contender or team with a temperate climate when they pursued Mike Conley.

The Utah Jazz could very well pick up negotiations with Memphis at the NBA Draft. One sticking point that I can see with the Memphis deal is Memphis wants to make sure the draft pick that they would have received from either Detroit or Utah was going to be favorable. If they give up Conley now, that team conceivable gets better and the draft pick by default gets worse. Now they’ll know the actual pick that they’ll be working with.

But by the draft, another player may find themselves being made available by their team. Mike Conley may not be the huge get and now that teams have half a season less of his services, the value of the trade goes down. It’s a risk.

Likewise, Dennis Lindsey’s home turf is at the NBA Draft. At the NBA Draft he has raked in assets like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and George Hill. Other trades include Trey Burke, Raul Neto, Tony Bradley, and Ricky Rubio—if you’re counting Rubio’s last minute trade right before the official end of the season after the draft.

What happens if and when Anthony Davis gets traded? Jrue Holiday is reportedly waiting to see what haul the Pelicans get in return before he makes up his mind. If it’s unsatisfactory, his name goes on the trade block. He wouldn’t be forced to play point guard in Utah’s position-less offensive system. Something he’s not too keen on wanting to do. That would then suppress the price for Mike Conley.

Damian Lillard second to last year on his contract starts next year. He’ll be 29. If he feels the Portland Trail Blazers are rudderless and not getting them additional help, does he look for a trade out? Utah is one of the places he’d look at if that was the case. If Portland has another disappointing 1st round exit like last year, they could re-evaluate their ceiling at the draft.

If Dante Exum looks great after coming back from injury, maybe Utah goes back to Chicago for Otto Porter if Chicago lands Zion Williamson in the Draft. Maybe Orlando wins the lottery and drafts—yet another—athletic Power Forward. Aaron Gordon could be made available. Whatever the scenario, the Draft could open more opportunities for improvement than were obtainable at the deadline. Memphis’ leverage could all be removed by June.

If Utah is unable to come away with a third piece at the Draft, then comes their Hail Mary.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

$32 Million in Potential Cap Space

The Hail Mary of Hail Mary’s. Let’s review the details. Utah will have enough room for one max contract slot provided they don’t also gut the roster outside of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Utah is cold during much of the NBA season. It has no nightlife unless you count Chip Co.’s delivery service. The Jazz have had historically terrible luck with free agents outside of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur—who both at the time were big risks when Kevin O’Connor signed them.

The NBA is different now for sure, but Utah is the underdog in free agency to get anyone to sign with them. If Utah has a big name free agent like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton choose them, the story is going to about how Utah acquired a big name and less about who the actual person they signed is.

This is where Dante Exum’s post All-Star break gets interesting. If Dante Exum takes off during the latter part of the season, Utah could feel freed to avoid looking for a “point guard” like Mike Conley or Kemba Walker and just focus on a really good wing or stretch four. That would put them in the uphill battle of convincing a player like Klay Thompson that he shouldn’t stay with a dynasty, Khris Middleton that he shouldn’t stay with the Eastern Conference’s best team, or Tobias Harris that he shouldn’t stay in Philadelphia.

The most obtainable of those three is still Tobias Harris. As Jimmy Butler could bolt and Harris might not feel comfortable staying with a Philadelphia franchise that has shown the propensity to throw away a big time player without a moment’s hesitation. Harris will be looking for stability and he could have that and more in Utah.

A wild card in free agency is Jimmy Butler. His talent is undeniable, but he has gained a terrible reputation of being confrontational. I don’t see Philadelphia being a place he wants to be long term, but big name teams might be avoiding him as well. Utah could sneak in day 1 and throw the house at him. Utah has strong personalities like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Jae Crowder, and Joe Ingles in their locker room with a coach and organization structure that isn’t as fractured as Chicago, Minnesota, or Philadelphia. They could withstand the turmoil and possibly wield it for good.

He’s definitely a darkhorse candidate for Utah. His competitiveness would fit right in with a team looking to become like the Chauncey Billups/Ben Wallace Detroit Pistons. Rasheed Wallace became an X-Factor there, Butler could provide the same fire in Utah.

But if Utah makes it this far ... it could all very well fall apart. Free Agency is a long shot for Utah at best. That’s not me being pessimistic, that’s looking at the track record of all small market teams over the course of the entire NBA. A lot of things have to go right for a small market team to land a big fish. If Utah comes up empty then its best option could be to run it back.

They could sign Ricky Rubio to a one year deal and then guarantee Derrick Favors contract for the next season. That would allow them to either attach a couple 1st rounders to those contracts if a star becomes available or allow them to enter the void of the 2020 NBA Free Agency. Warning, it’s a terrible one.

There are players if they turn down their big time player option could enter it like:

  • Gordon Hayward
  • Otto Porter
  • Anthony Davis
  • Mike Conley
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.

Other than that your best options are an over the hill Kyle Lowry, Draymond Green, or Serge Ibaka. The rest are restricted free agents that no team is going to let go of. There may be some players that take one year deals and enter free agency again when the talent pool is less, but there could be a lot of teams without money to shell out so that’s a huge risk.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Everything is still okay ... for now

In other words, it wasn’t a big deal that Utah stood pat at the NBA Trade Deadline, but the risk of not capitalizing on Donovan Mitchell’s rookie contract during Rudy Gobert’s prime just increased. It’s not time to worry, that will be if Utah misses out on adding to this team at the NBA Draft and Free Agency.

Utah’s in a good place right now. Donovan Mitchell can still improve, Dante Exum is still an X-Factor, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles can get back on track, and Rudy Gobert is still a nightmare for opposing defenses. Utah has great depth with Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and Royce O’Neale. The sky is definitely not falling.

But—and this is incredibly important—it is now possible to see the storm clouds on the horizon and the damage that can be done if the right preparations are not made. Utah will have two more chances this summer to get the right players in place to take advantage of a once in a generation defensive player, and a once in a franchise perimeter player in Donovan Mitchell. Luckily, Utah has a great front office. Now they will just need a little bit of luck.