The Utah Jazz appear to be at the same impasse the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves at late last calendar year. Carrying a bloated payroll, unable to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs over the past five years, a change is almost certainly gonna come.
The Dallas Mavericks’ convincing 4-2 first round win over the Jazz last week may have brought the situation to a boiling point for the Salt Lake City franchise. Next season, Utah stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will collectively earn almost $70 million with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic making up another $41 million.
On top of the financial restraints, it’s the relationship between Mitchell and Gobert that is likely edging Utah’s front office closer to the end. From the infamous 2020 press conference at the beginning of the COVID pandemic to the lack of recent on-court rapport (Mitchell seemed disinterested in passing to Gobert), it appears the relationship has come as far as it will go.
Earlier this week, SiriusXM radio host Sean O’Connell also suggested the towering Frenchman was ready to deliver an ultimatum to new front office executive Danny Ainge, suggesting he could no longer co-exist with Mitchell.
If true, you’d imagine Ainge would be trying to do everything to ensure it was Mitchell that stayed in Utah, not just because of his talent, but also his age. At 25, the franchise still has time to rebuild around the athletic guard who is contracted until the age of 29 — the final season does include a player option — when he’ll be earning a non-ridiculous $37 million.
Gobert on the other hand is currently 29, but earning at or above $40 million until he turns 33. His final year, which also includes a player option, will see him take home more than $46 million.
But we shouldn’t forget that at 7’1, with a 7’9 wingspan, Gobert is still one of the most nimble and effective big men this league has ever seen. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time All Star and an All NBA Second team honoree, Gobert is still a league top 3 defensive presence.
Throughout his nine-year career, all with the Jazz, Gobert has averaged 15.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and a dominant 2.2 blocks.
The Blazers made three trades at February’s trade deadline, to clear cap space and bring in young players and assets.
Interim General Manager Joe Cronin now has multiple tools at his disposal this summer. Namely a yet-to-be known 2022 lottery pick, a Milwaukee Bucks 2025 first round pick, a series of second round picks and traded player exceptions, including one valued at around $20 million yielded in the New Orleans Pelicans trade.
What would the Blazers need to give up?
If the Blazers were interested, they’d have to find a way to account for the $38 million owed to Gobert next season. Yes, the trade exceptions make it easier but there’s still a mountain to climb.
I won’t get into the technicalities of dealing Eric Bledsoe’s contract again, so feel free to refresh your memory here. Ultimately, trading Bledsoe (given the partially-guaranteed nature of his 2022-23 contract) would mean:
The Bledsoe leaving Portland would be worth $3.9 million and would need to receive the same amount back. However the Bledsoe arriving in said new destination would be making up almost $20 million of that team’s cap.
So let’s suggest Bledsoe, Josh Hart, Trendon Watford, this year’s second round pick and the Milwaukee Bucks’ first round pick. I’m sure the Jazz will want this year’s lottery pick as well but let’s just use this as a jumping off point.
It would hurt parting with Hart’s flexibility and Watford’s youth and consistency but in order to bring in a player like Gobert, regardless of how expensive he may be, the Blazers will have to give up something of value.
How would this impact the roster?
There’s also the issue of Jusuf Nurkic. For all intents and purposes, it appears the unrestricted free agent will return to Portland this summer, given his acquiescence to sit the last couple of months of the season.
Even if the Blazers made a play for Gobert, they could still sign and trade Nurkic this summer or hold onto him until the 2023 deadline, for fear of letting him walk for nothing.
It’s unlikely the Bosnian big man gets more elsewhere anyway given the bird rights the Blazers have to retain him. And the return for Nurkic may also help the Blazers fill the existing voids at the two starting forward positions.
Does it makes sense?
Two very difference schools of thought here.
On one hand, you could say yes. The Blazers have been one of the league’s most defensively flawed teams over the past seven years. Bringing in a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, elite pick and roll defender and rim protector elevates this roster to defensive heights it hasn’t seen in a long time. He's a phenomenal rebounder and finisher and boasts relatively impressive lateral movement for someone his size. All of this is complemented by stunningly natural defensive instincts.
But the other, and slightly more dominant instinct, says no. Offensively, Gobert can’t stray too far from the rim with his three point shots as rare as the Tasmanian Devil — yes they are real. And even non-Jazz fans cringe whenever he puts the ball on the floor.
He takes almost 79 percent of his shots within three feet, so spacing would be atrocious, particularly when you have players like Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Josh Hart trying to get to the rim. He's effective in the pick and roll but not sure that's enough to compensate for all his warts on that side of the floor.
Gobert would be the first All Star Lillard had played with since LaMarcus Aldridge, not to mention the best defender — by a country mile. I can’t remember the last time the Blazers had a player of Gobert’s caliber, able to anchor a defense, especially when you consider the defensive deficiencies Lillard and Simons possess.
There’s also the Nurkic problem, however this should be able to be resolved relatively quickly, either via a sign and trade or a deadline move.
You might lambast me for saying so but I honestly don’t think Gobert is what this team needs. While he might be a ridiculous upgrade at the center position, his gaudy contract and restricted skillset might lock the Blazers into something that might limit their path to contention.
I’m not totally against it, but there’s probably cheaper and better fits out there.