The Utah Jazz were a better team than the Houston Rockets made them look in a hasty first-round playoff exit this spring, which was primarily the product of a hard-luck draw for Utah.
Anchored by the NBA's best rim-protector in Rudy Gobert, another stalwart interior defender in Derrick Favors, and a cadre of long, intelligent perimeter players, the Jazz finished with the league's second-ranked defense and fourth-best net rating in the regular season. But that playoff matchup exposed their cracks, just as a 2018 second-round series with the Rockets had.
More specifically, since the Jazz are light on individual scoring ability, they've relied on Quin Snyder's "advantage basketball" system, rife with cutting and screening, to eke out a modicum of offense. But against physical, switching playoff defenses, the advantages have disappeared. Their bigs couldn't reliably post up against mismatches. Donovan Mitchell, their young scoring guard, was overtaxed trying to create in isolation. Nobody else was able to do so.
The Jazz were poised to enter this offseason with a healthy chunk of cap space - about $23 million if they renounced Kyle Korver - with which to remedy that flaw. But knowing where Utah stands as a free-agent destination, the team instead opted to use that space to absorb a big contract in a trade. On Wednesday, the Jazz agreed to send Korver, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, the No. 23 pick in Thursday's draft, and a protected 2020 first-rounder (which looks likely to convey in 2022) to Memphis in exchange for point guard Mike Conley.
It's a tremendous addition, and one that's well worth the acquisition cost. Ricky Rubio had ticked a lot of boxes for the Jazz at point guard, but his failings as a shooter and as a finisher at the rim were a big part of what doomed them in the playoffs.
Conley is a much better fit, and he'll give Utah that sorely needed scoring punch without sacrificing anything at the defensive end. His age (32 when next season starts) and contract ($67 million over the next two years) are slight concerns, but he's coming off maybe the best season of his career. The Jazz would've been hard-pressed to make better use of that cap space in free agency.
The longtime Grizzly is also a more natural backcourt partner for Mitchell, and his presence should ease the strain on the third-year star. The two can take turns running the offense (though Mitchell still has a ways to go as an off-ball player), and Conley can better space the floor when Mitchell is initiating. Meanwhile, the Jazz produced more turnovers than all but three other teams this past season, and Conley - consistently one of the league's lowest turnover point guards - will make sure they take better care of the basketball.
Conley is also an excellent passer, off-the-dribble shooter, and navigator of in-between space. He's very good in the pick-and-roll, and while he's more accustomed to working with a short roller like Marc Gasol, doing so with a straight dive man in Gobert should be just as fruitful. Conley will quickly figure out where to toss those lobs, and how to take advantage of Gobert's vertical-roll gravity.
Utah still doesn't have quite the ideal spacing, but if anyone knows how to pass and move through tight corridors on a cramped floor, it's Conley. This Jazz roster is actually pretty similar in makeup to his old Grizzlies teams, and that includes being incredibly difficult to score against.
Now, the Jazz's most significant remaining offseason decision will hinge on whether they want to sacrifice a part of that defensive identity to open up their offense even more. Favors' $16.9-million salary for 2019-20 is non-guaranteed, and Utah could choose to waive him and use that space to chase a frontcourt player who can space the floor and thus share more minutes with Gobert. Favors is closer to being a center than a power forward, and while the Jazz have been so good defensively with both him and Gobert on the court, paying a combined $42 million to two guys who share a position seems less than ideal.
At least having Conley at point guard instead of Rubio should make it easier to play those two bigs together. It's a lot simpler to work around two non-shooters than three, after all. But with Crowder heading to Memphis, the Jazz basically have no power forwards on the roster anymore. Royce O'Neale can slide up a position for stretches, but he's more natural as a three. By renouncing Favors, the Jazz could sign a four with some stretch (like Nikola Mirotic, whom they reportedly eyed last season), and still nab a backup center at a fraction of the cost.
The alternative would be using the room exception ($4.7 million) to find that power forward, which would ideally be someone in the Mike Scott mold. That option might be preferable to dumping their second-best defender in Favors, who's also their only real Gobert insurance.
In any case, there's still a lot of work to be done, as the Conley trade doesn't solve all of the Jazz's problems. He'll diversify their offense, but he isn't some flamethrowing one-on-one scorer who can bail them out when playoff defenses wipe out their elaborate screening actions. He's a solid switch-buster, but not a great one. The roster is still thin on the wing, and the bench looks pretty uninspiring right now. More shooting is still needed.
But regardless of how the front office approaches the rest of the offseason, an already good Jazz team has most definitely gotten better. It will have a killer core four, at least. Gobert is probably about to win his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award. Mitchell is still just 22, with a nose for the basket, underrated passing chops, and two seasons already under his belt as the No. 1 offensive option on a playoff team. Joe Ingles is an elite 3-and-D wing who's managed to complement those skills with remarkable growth as a playmaker. And now, Utah's added one of the league's best floor generals and point-of-attack defenders to the mix.
Historically, it's rare to make the Finals without a tentpole star that ranks among the NBA's 15 best players. But the teams that have done it have often looked a lot like these Jazz - tough, balanced, and defensively elite, with just enough offense to scrape by in tight playoff moments.
It also helps that the Jazz don't need to be perfect because they're making this push at a time when the Western Conference has been cracked wide open.
The Warriors are reeling, and will enter next season without two pillars of their dynasty. The Rockets are in turmoil, with fractured personal relationships reported between the front office and coach, and between stars. The Lakers have two of the four best players in the conference, and literally nothing else. The Nuggets are still young and unproven, with some work to do at the defensive end.
Elsewhere, the Trail Blazers still feel terminally flawed despite their feel-good run to the conference finals, with a patchwork wing rotation and no assurance that Jusuf Nurkic will look like himself next season after a traumatic leg injury. The Thunder are feeling the fallout of Russell Westbrook's decline, and are so desperate to shed salary that they're reportedly looking to dump Steven Adams, their third-best player.
On and on and on it goes. All these teams can expect to be good, but all of them will struggle to touch greatness. One or two likely will. Maybe the Clippers will blow all this up by nabbing two max free agents, or perhaps the Lakers will add a third guy who puts them over the top. But for now, the Western Conference looks poised to be a 10-team royal rumble in 2019-20.
With Conley in the fold, the Jazz can now reasonably convince themselves that they have a chance to be the last team standing.