Trade Analysis: Clarkson to Utah, Exum and picks to Cleveland

Our long national nightmare is over. After more than five months without a trade in the NBA, the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers broke the streak by agreeing to terms on a two-player, two-pick swap that will shake up each team’s rotation.

The full terms:

Jordan Clarkson to Utah. Clarkson is in the final year of his contract and makes $13.4 million this year.

Dante Exum, San Antonio’s 2022 second-rounder, and Golden State’s 2023 second-rounder to Cleveland. Exum has two years left at an even $9.6 million per year, $500,000 of which is tied into likely incentives for offseason workout participation and other conditioning goals. He has a further $1,000,000 in unlikely incentives that are mostly tied to games played and therefore will not be earned this year, as he was rarely in Utah’s rotation and has already missed his opportunity to earn them.

At first glance, it’s easy to be down on this trade for the Jazz. Clarkson has never really contributed to winning basketball. He has consistently sported a shot profile from a bygone era and to call him a traffic cone defensively is an insult to traffic cones; at least traffic cones usually push cars in a specific direction. The latter hasn’t changed much this year, but the former has improved dramatically under John Beilein’s leadership with the Cavaliers. A closer look at the rest of his game reveals similar trends – after years of playing a me-first, me-always style, Clarkson’s rounded out a few of his offensive weaknesses and can now play the part of a reasonably efficient guard off the bench for a Utah team that is desperate for someone to fill that role.

The place to start with Clarkson is his shot profile. Compared to last year, Clarkson has cut out nearly all of his devastatingly poor long twos – he’s taking just six percent of his shots from the NBA’s no man’s land, compared to 15 percent in 2018-19. That decrease has coincided with an uptick in shots at the rim and from three, which has had cascading effects throughout his game. He’s always been a good finisher for his position, a trend that has continued this season despite the extra usage at the rim. He’s up to 37 percent from three, though how well that holds the rest of the year will be of great interest to his new team, considering he was a career 33.5 percent shooter coming into the season.

There is some optimism that he’ll be able to keep his three-point percentage up, even as he makes the move from Cleveland to Utah. The only time he’s ever been a solid three-point shooter was for the last 28 games of the 2017-18 season, when he played next to LeBron James and therefore was getting more catch-and-shoot opportunities than in his other stops. After James left the Cavaliers, it was back to business as usual for Clarkson, which meant lots of dribbling and a healthy diet of inadvisable shots. This year, he’s been assisted even more often than he was with James; for the first time in his career, he’s only creating half of his own shots, while the other half have been assisted by teammates.

As you’d expect with his assisted rate climbing over previous seasons, Clarkson’s catch-and-shoot numbers are better than they were a year ago. After taking more than 300 jumpers off the dribble last year, compared to just about 200 catch-and-shoot jumpers, he’s actually taken more shots off the catch than off the bounce this year. A score-first bench guard usually will have a higher usage rate on off-the-dribble jumpers, so perhaps there’s some indication of a role shift for Clarkson with the Cavaliers this year as compared to previous seasons.

Perhaps the clearest area that shows Clarkson’s new mentality is in his own pick-and-roll game. Last year, he finished 608 possessions in pick-and-roll and called his own number for a shot, foul, or turnover on 425 of them. That equates to a 69.9 percent individual usage rate in pick-and-roll, which ranked second-highest out of 54 players who ran at least 500 pick-and-rolls last year. The only player who was a bigger ball hog in pick-and-roll than Clarkson: Andrew Wiggins, who has coincidentally become a more willing playmaker this season as well.

This year, that sky-high individual pick-and-roll usage rate is down to 57.9 percent, which has dropped him down to No. 20 out of 56 players who have run at least 200 pick-and-rolls this season. He’s still using more pick-and-roll possessions himself than the average pick-and-roll-heavy guard, but compared to what he used to be, it’s a night and day difference for Clarkson.

That extra playmaking hasn’t correlated with an uptick in turnovers, either. His individual turnover rate in pick-and-roll is in the middle of the pack among those same 56 players and his overall turnover rate is flat year-over-year despite a step up in playmaking across all play types.

His more positive shot profile has pushed his efficiency up in another area – he’s getting fouled at a higher rate than ever before, which has helped him post a true shooting above league average for the first time in his career.

All of this made him a solid contributor for the Cavaliers, but how will those skills transfer to his new home in Utah? Exum was never in the rotation for the Jazz, so Clarkson’s arrival will have to shake up their fully-healthy rotation. Mike Conley’s extended absence will help to ease Clarkson into proceedings, but in a few weeks, Quin Snyder will have to figure out how he’s going to deploy his guys.

Clarkson’s role off the bench will be an important one, as the Jazz have been absolutely murdered whenever their best players have had to come out of the game. In lineups with two or fewer of their five best players (Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert), Utah is being outscored by eight points per 100 possessions and just cannot buy a bucket – their 98 offensive rating in these situations is absolutely abysmal for any team, much less a team with deep playoff aspirations. Even if his individual numbers take a dip, Clarkson should be able to be that sparkplug offensive weapon the Jazz so clearly need off the bench.

The elephant in the room with Clarkson is on the other end of the floor, where he gives back pretty much all the positivity he creates offensively. He’s been a part of exactly one good defense in his career, but outside of a half-season in Los Angeles before he was moved to Cleveland, Clarkson’s teams have mostly been awful defensively with him on the floor and much, much improved whenever he sat on the bench. That sort of on/off data isn’t necessarily the be-all-end-all for a player’s defensive acumen, particularly because guards have less impact defensively than bigs, but the consistency with which his teams have been so poor with him on the floor does indicate that he’s a drag on their ability to stop opponents. Any cursory look at the film backs up the data rather quickly: he spaces out off the ball, shows little fight in getting through screens, and doesn’t play with the physicality required of even average NBA defense.

Had Utah made a move like this over the summer, it would have quickly been in the running for the worst move in the league, but after seeing Clarkson play some modicum of modern NBA basketball for a couple months, it’s at least known that he can do it. Utah will be betting that his first season with a real offensive coach (Clarkson’s coaches before this season: Byron Scott, Luke Walton, Tyronn Lue, and Larry Drew) has created a new player with a new mentality and that Quin Snyder can continue the good work Beilein started.

As things stand, this move doesn’t affect Utah’s long-term future all that much. They were very likely not going to be a room team next season anyway without extensive surgery to their roster (or Conley inexplicably opting out and not already having a new deal in place with the Jazz to return), so shedding $9.6 million in Exum’s salary doesn’t make a massive difference. The move does make things slightly easier on management in terms of re-signing Royce O’Neale in the offseason and retaining their full mid-level exception.

The possibility remains that the Jazz could re-trade Clarkson, as well. Exum was a key trade piece ahead of the deadline, as he had a mid-range salary that could be used as easy salary ballast and might have some value as a flyer for a rebuilding team. Now, Clarkson is that guy, minus the value as a flyer. His $13.4 million salary can be used to bring back a player making up to $18.4 million – getting into that range could put the Jazz over the top in a more open Western Conference, though any player making that sort of money who could really help Utah would likely cost them further draft capital.

Utah won’t be able to aggregate Clarkson’s salary in a trade for an even bigger salary, but he makes enough money to be interesting salary ballast in his own right as we creep closer to the trade deadline.

On the other side of this trade, Exum is a worthwhile flyer for the Cavaliers, who also picked up a pair of second-rounders for their trouble. Trading a player on an expiring contract is always tricky – wait too long and you might end up with nothing, but jump the gun too early and you might miss out on a flurry of first-round picks later in the process. Cleveland took the less risky approach here by cashing in on Clarkson’s impressive first two months and picking up a pair of picks and a young player who should bring some defensive fortitude off the bench.

There’s also the possibility that Clarkson went to management and asked out. With how well he’s been playing and the fact that the Cavaliers were going nowhere quickly, it makes sense that Clarkson would want to find a new home. Cleveland also would not have prioritized retaining him in the summer, but Utah very well might if he plays well enough for them, so their acquisition of his Bird rights creates another suitor for his services in July.

If Exum can provide the Cavaliers with anything of value, then it’s easy to like this trade quite a lot for them. If he’s a total zero, then getting just two seconds for Clarkson and having to take on an extra $9.6 million isn’t ideal. The $9.6 million they added to their books for next year isn’t the biggest deal in the world – they still have more than $25 million in projected space and there is basically nobody to spend that sort of money on in the 2020 market. They seem to be more confident than most that Exum can give them consistent, healthy production, or perhaps they realized Clarkson was a bit of a ticking time bomb and they needed to move him before the shine wore off.