Trade Analysis: Mike Conley to the Jazz

UPDATE 23 June 2019: After reviewing the Jazz’s books with respect to the likely and unlikely bonuses for Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, they are actually over the cap by just $280,909 after making the trade, which will make the trade illegal unless they make another cut; renouncing their free agents and traded player exceptions won’t be enough to get the job done. Raul Neto’s $2.2 million is fully non-guaranteed, as is the $1.6 million for Georges Niang and the $1.6 million for Royce O’Neale. At this time, it’s not clear which of those guys is going to be cut, though they can always re-sign that player should he clear waivers. However, if a team puts in a claim on whoever they cut, they would lose him with no ability to re-sign him.

The Utah Jazz’s acquisition of Mike Conley throws yet another team into the race to the top of the Western Conference. In the wake of devastating injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the NBA Finals, there’s a genuine feeling around the league’s top teams that the West is wide open and we’re seeing multiple moves ahead of tomorrow’s NBA Draft to capitalize on an opportunity that hasn’t really been open in a half-decade. The Los Angeles Lakers made their move for Anthony Davis and are eyeing another big acquisition, though timing their moves is becoming more difficult as more news comes out about that negotiation. Utah shored up their most vulnerable position in this trade and set themselves up to compete with the Lakers and others at the top of the West – the trio of Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert is going to be a formidable foe in any playoff series.

The full parameters of the trade, so we have that in front of us:

Utah receives Mike Conley.

Memphis receives Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, Utah’s 2019 first-rounder (No. 23), and a future first-round pick with extensive protections – it’s protected top-7 and bottom-16 in 2020 and 2021, top-6 in 2022, top-3 in 2023, and top-1 in 2024. If Utah still hasn’t given Memphis a pick by 2024, they’ll instead convey a pair of second-rounders, the details of which I haven’t seen. For now, I’m going with 2025 and 2026 second-rounders, but it could any two of Utah’s three second-rounders from 2024 through 2026, since they can’t convey anything earlier than 2024 due to the protections on the first-round pick and a team cannot trade anything past seven drafts in the future. In 2024, Utah has swap rights with Cleveland, making that pick a bit more valuable than if it were just Utah’s own second-rounder alone.

This trade will go through on July 6 and there will not be any timing shenanigans, it’s just a normal cap space trade that needs to wait until the new league year but cannot be done in any other fashion, at least as currently reported. Should Utah want to throw in more salary (Dante Exum and a bit more), they could make the trade after using the remainder of their cap space, but that would require them also moving on from Derrick Favors, a path doesn’t make sense for them.

Utah had the opportunity to get into the cap space derby this summer, but they’ve spent their money early in this move, essentially capping themselves out this year. They can still generate $18.3 million in cap space, should they be willing to move on from their four non- or partially-guaranteed contracts, but unless they just find an unreal deal in the first few days of free agency, they’ll guarantee Favors’ salary and go into the season with a similar team to last year, only with Conley at the starting point guard spot.

On the court, Conley’s impact will be felt strongly on both ends. When healthy, he’s a terrific defensive player who will fit perfectly in Utah’s deep drop pick-and-roll scheme, with the tenacity and toughness to get over screens and the length to contest from behind when shooters pull up in front of Rudy Gobert. Outgoing starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who is a free agent this summer and will not be back with the Jazz, had a lot of these similar qualities, though Conley is a better athlete than Rubio.

Conley’s larger influence on the Jazz will be on the other end of the court, where he’s a much better creator than anybody they’ve had at that spot in this recent era. He can get to his spots in pick-and-roll, find shooters on the perimeter, and spot up when Donovan Mitchell is handling; he’s an all-around playmaker who will make things much easier on his teammates and give the Jazz another scoring option outside of Mitchell.

Utah will have to use their remaining financial flexibility to fill out the roster, which will be somewhat difficult with the depth pieces they relinquished to the Grizzlies in this deal. Crowder and Korver were both part of their playoff rotation and Allen was the team’s first-round pick in 2018. The $4.8 million Room Exception and minimum contracts is all the Jazz will have to use to fill out the rotation, which will need at least a wing or two and a backup big man, as well as depth across multiple positions. As with most big-name acquisitions, Utah sacrificed depth to solidify a starting lineup that now features five above-average players on both ends of the floor in Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Favors, and Gobert.

As I laid out in the Grizzlies’ offseason preview, the value proposition with Conley’s contract is somewhat less important than it is with a lot of other trades. He has two years and $67 million left on his deal, assuming he doesn’t opt out next summer, but his value is not in his play versus his contract but in the scarcity of high-level two-way point guards in general. In an absolute vacuum, giving up two first-round picks, a young player who was a first-rounder last year, and two depth pieces would be a massive overpay for a player in Conley who might be a negative value on his current contract, but when the numbers get this big and the players get this good, the in-a-vacuum value proposition is not nearly as important as surrounding good players with other good players in order to make a run at a title. Utah’s calculation in this trade had little to do with Conley’s value against his contract and way more to do purely with his value on the court.

Memphis will structure this trade as an over-the-cap team at first, with the ability to renounce free agents and traded player exceptions at a later date if they’d like to get under the cap. A team can always renounce to get under the cap, but they cannot un-renounce to get back over (other than in very specific circumstances), so it will behoove the Grizzlies to remain over the cap and create a massive traded player exception for Conley’s outgoing salary.

Jae Crowders fits nicely into the traded player exception created in the Garrett Temple trade at the deadline, leaving just $184k, which is essentially useless. Grayson Allen’s $2.43 million salary perfectly fits the $2.41 traded player exception created when they moved Jarell Martin to the Orlando Magic last summer; even though Allen’s salary is larger than the exception, teams are allowed a $100k buffer in these situations. That exception is now fully extinguished. The only remaining salary to bring in is Korver’s, which counts for the full $7.5 million on Memphis’s incoming trade math, even though it only counts for $3.44 million (the guaranteed portion) in Utah’s outgoing math. This doesn’t hold up the trade in any way, since Utah is going to take Conley into space, but it does lower the value of the traded player exception created here. Conley’s salary less Korver’s salary creates a $25.0 million exception, the largest traded player exception in NBA history, surpassing the Harrison Barnes TPE created a few months ago in Dallas.

The most important thing this trade does for the Grizzlies is clear their books and fully kick into gear the youth movement, led by presumptive No. 2 pick Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. They add Allen and the No. 23 pick in this year’s draft, in addition to the future first Utah will send them to help offset the first-rounder they owe Boston that will convey in 2020 or 2021. The pair of veterans they picked up in this deal could be moved along in the near future for a small asset or two – Crowder should have positive value on the trade market in the last year of his five-year, $35-million contract he signed with Boston back in 2015. Perhaps they can’t get a first-rounder for Crowder, but a pair of seconds shouldn’t be out of the question from a team looking to compete immediately.

Memphis’s next move is to look into consolidating their roster. As things stand, they have 14 players under contract for next season, including both first-round draft picks, plus at least two free agents they’ve expressed interest in keeping in Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright, but they also have a number of roster moves to make before all is said and done. Avery Bradley’s $13 million contract for next season is only $2 million guaranteed, making him a relatively sure cut for a team that doesn’t need him and wouldn’t be able to get positive return in a trade on that full $13 million. Korver is in a similar boat, with just $3.44 million of his $7.5 million contract guaranteed for next season. It seems likely that he’ll be cut and catch on with another team that needs his shooting and veteran presence to compete in a playoff run.

The Grizzlies are in a very interesting position with respect to their cap space. Moving on from Valanciunas, Wright, and others could give them as much as $27.5 million to work with this summer, but they can also retain those guys and use Conley’s $25.0 million traded player exception in a similar way. Cap space is much more flexible than a TPE because a team can use it to both sign players and can “aggregate” it in a trade to take on more money, but the advantage to keeping this TPE on the books is that they can remain over the cap and re-sign Valanciunas and Wright to reasonable contracts, while also using the exception to take on other teams’ bad money along with future draft capital.

$25.0 million can take in a lot of bad salary, and Memphis wouldn’t have to match a dime of it – players like Courtney Lee and Solomon Hill can be taken into that exception along with a draft pick or two in order to open up additional cap space for Dallas and New Orleans, respectively, while Memphis can also act as a dumping ground for the more expensive teams in the league, with teams like Detroit, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and Portland all possibly looking to shed serious money this summer. We just saw Atlanta pick up a first-round pick for taking on Allen Crabbe’s salary; Memphis has the wiggle room to possibly pick up a pair of firsts in this trade exception, if they’re willing to pay some extra salary this year. In that way, the Grizzlies moving on from Conley could net them as many as four first-rounders: two from the Jazz in the primary trade and two more from the salary dumps they can now take in as a result of the traded player exception Conley’s salary created.

The Grizzlies should not be done wheeling and dealing this offseason, particularly if they remain over the cap and want to use that trade exception to relieve a couple of teams of their draft picks in exchange for bad salary those teams no longer want. Assuming they can open the roster spots to make those trades happen, which should be very easy in the offseason, Memphis can take in up to $25.0 million in bad money and negotiate buyouts with those guys to reopen those roster spots before the season begins in October. It’s a popular tactic for bad teams to use their cap space to pick up extra draft assets, as the Hawks have done the last two years, but it’s rarer for a team to use a massive traded player exception like this to get it done. Going the TPE route limits them a bit more than pure cap space, but it also allows them to hold onto Valanciunas and Wright, which seem to be priorities for them this summer.