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Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz currently the frontrunners in a Western Conference arms race

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Who will end the offseason with the more talented roster?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The impending vacancy left by the now injured Golden State Warriors kicked off an arms race in the NBA that hasn’t been seen since the retirement of Michael Jordan. Leading this arms race are none other than the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers. It’s like a throwback to the 90’s when the Jazz were acquiring Jeff Hornacek and the Lakers were moving Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant.

The LeBron Jamed-led Los Angeles Lakers were the first team to make their move. They pushed all their chips to the table to get a top 10 NBA player in Anthony Davis, but with a hangup, they were not left with enough salary cap room to sign an additional max player. Additionally, the Los Angeles Lakers had jettisoned almost everyone who carried a pulse. Their roster was left with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma.

Two days later the 50 win Utah Jazz anted up the stakes by adding Mike Conley—the non All-Star’s All-Star—to the roster. He joined a core of Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum, and Georges Niang. While the Los Angeles Lakers had definitely upped their game, it looked as though the Utah Jazz had the upper hand on overall depth and talent.

That is until the news yesterday of the Washington Wizards playing the scab helping the Los Angeles Lakers reach max contract space by taking on three players in exchange for almost nothing a 2nd round pick. The Lakers are now able to go after another big time free agent and form a star laden Big 3. Their team will lack depth, but it will have the potential to rise to the top of the NBA West—if they’re successful—if they are able to stay healthy.

A strong but shallow Los Angeles Lakers team

A team with LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and Anthony Davis plus one more max free agent is a scary thought. The Los Angeles Lakers could throw a mid level exception at a veteran point guard or wing and have themselves a beast of a starting lineup. The Utah Jazz as constructed with Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert would be vulnerable to such a modern lineup. Kuzma and LeBron can pull Favors away from the paint and force him to work the perimeter. Anthony Davis can do the same to Rudy Gobert. On the other end, Utah would face a packed paint as the Lakers would force Utah to sling from outside and take away Gobert and Favors inside game.

Others could enter the arms race

Even with Mike Conley, if another team like the Los Angeles Clippers lands Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, Utah is in a similar position to last year where they will have to overwhelm teams with their depth and execution rather than raw offensive star power. If Utah would like to become the clear frontrunner in a Golden State-less world, another big move is required.

What to do with Derrick Favors?

They currently have a front court of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert that is not made for the modern NBA. They also have a tough situation where their 4th best player—Derrick Favors—plays the same position as their 1st best player—Rudy Gobert. While you may see arguments online or at work that there’s no way you can lose a talented player like Derrick Favors for in exchange for a Nikola Mirotic or Thaddeus Young.

Many have pointed to Utah’s second best lineups being with Derrick Favors at the Power Forward position over the past three years, but they do so without context. Quin Snyder uses Derrick Favors at Power Forward strategically. He’s like an edge trimmer that does his job extremely well. You don’t then try to proceed and mow your entire lawn with it. Favors’ success on the floor says as much about his talent as it does Quin’s ability to put him in lineups and situations that maximize his defensive talents. As such, it’s naive to think that those lineups can be scaled—able to play more minutes without becoming a detriment—and don’t have limitations—can be schemed against with a few days of preparation.

The main key word with Derrick Favors is “second best”. Utah’s best lineups have come with either a 36 year old Joe Johnson or sub 35% three point shooter Jae Crowder at the four spot in those lineups. No one would ever say that either of those players is a more talent player than Derrick Favors which is why their inclusions should JUMP off of the page. If Utah was to find a more talented stretch four than Jae Crowder or Joe Johnson and place him at the four spot, it stands to reason that Utah could experience even greater gains at that spot. This matches the rumors as to why Utah is interested in Thaddeus Young and Nikola Mirotic. They believe they can scale the results they had with Crowder and Johnson and reach higher heights.

Will the Utah Jazz ante up again in this Western Conference arms race?

As it stands right now, Utah has a really good team, but is without another lever to increase their ceiling. Utah is without another max contract space. They can get to $17.4MM if they release Derrick Favors and renounce on their cap holds. But that is $13MM below a max contract spot, well below the requisite $32MM for a max player. If they would like to sign a max contract player outright, they would have to find takers for Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, and Tony Bradley while taking on ~$6MM or less in salary back. Not impossible, but it would be the double black diamond of jettisoning contracts.

The other option to acquire a max player is through trade. This would require Utah targeting either Kevin Love or Tobias Harris. The first player is much more available and would have a trade partner Utah is comfortable working with. Utah would “only” (heavy hand quotes) have to move Derrick Favors and Dante Exum in order to bring Kevin Love back. Utah would have a pretty star laden lineup, but it would tilt toward the older side. Utah would also have to answer the question as to whether their training staff could keep Love healthy. Love would have to answer the question as to whether he could guard the four spot. Not the best fit.

If Utah were to pursue a sign and trade, they’d have to give up a lot more and hope Philadelphia would want to play ball. Rumors are that Philadelphia is not willing to offer Tobias Harris a max contract. Utah would definitely be one of those teams willing to step up and pay that price for a young player who would fit their offense that well. Utah would still have to move Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, but there recent 2nd round draft rush could allow them to sign and trade all three of those players to reach $30MM in outgoing in order to offer a full max to Tobias Harris and meet the qualifications for a trade. Utah would most likely have to send out a 2024 1st rounder to Philadelphia in order to bring them to the negotiating table.

Either of these choices would be a supreme ante up to the Laker’s soon to be max player, but are moonshots.

So what about Nikola Mirotic? Didn’t he struggle in the playoffs last year?

Let’s talk about Nikola Mirotic. Many have pointed to his struggles in the playoffs with Milwaukee but it’s important to use some context. He was traded to the Bucks from New Orleans on February 7th while hurt. During that time he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds on 35% three point shooting as he worked to integrate into Milwaukee’s roster and system. He did not play until the 21st with Milwaukee. He then would play until March 20th where he would get hurt again.

He would not return until the playoffs where—let’s be honest—that is an insanely big stage to be learning how to play with your teammates while in a new system. Think of Jae Crowder during his first few months with Utah after the trade, he was learning a new system and teammates. Now imagine he lost about a month of time with that. That’s what happened to Mirotic, yet he produced at a higher level than Crowder.

To get a better look at the potential of Mirotic with a rim runner at center, look no further to New Orleans in the playoffs last year with Anthony Davis at center. Mirotic averaged 15.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks on and 58.8% eFG% and 43% 3P%. He was a beast and instrumental to the Pelicans sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers that year.

The Utah Jazz decided to go all in for Championship contention. They can’t stop now.

When the Utah Jazz decided to make the trade for Mike Conley, their reasoning was clear. Being a playoff contender was nice, but it’s time to go all in for a championship. If they’re going all in, they can’t settle at any point of this offseason. That means if Tobias Harris wants to go to Utah still despite Utah currently not having cap space, Utah has to move heaven and earth to make cap space. If Utah needs more elite shooting from three, they can’t afford a safety blanket like Favors at the 5 for Gobert anymore. They cannot settle anymore. The Conley move thrust Utah into the limelight. Now it’s time to seize their moment and not look back.

Championship or bust.