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The Value of Mike Conley: Part IV - Western Hopefuls

SB Nation logo SB Nation 5/10/2019 Joe Mullinax
Mike Conley posing for the camera © Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

How the best get better.

In case you have missed any of the previous entries in The Value of Mike Conley series, check them out using the following links -

Part I: Eastern Contenders

Part II: Eastern Pretenders

Part III: Western Risers

The Golden State Warriors are reportedly possibly reaching the end of their dynasty.

With the very likely possibility that Kevin Durant will soon be gone - and the potential departure of Klay Thompson also on the table - Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and company should still be pretty good but nowhere near the unstoppable force that they have been in recent years. With that comes opportunity for various squads in the Western Conference that perhaps won’t be in the mix for a big-time 2019 free agent, but have enough resources to possibly swing a trade for a top-6 point guard in the NBA...

Oh, hi Mike.

Conley’s future is still very much up in the air as the NBA Draft Lottery approaches. Of course the results of that event, and the eventual hiring of a new head coach, will likely play a key role in whether Mike remains the conductor of the Memphis Grizzlies or not. But until things come more clearly in to view, Conley’s trade value remains a hot topic of debate.

So who among the possible elites in the Western Conference could be in the Mike Conley market? We begin with a team that is already one game away from the Western Conference Finals.

Denver Nuggets

a basketball player in front of a crowd: NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies © Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis receives: Gary Harris, Mason Plumlee, 2021 1st round pick (Lottery protected, becomes two 2nd round picks in 2023 and 2024 if it does not convey)

Denver receives: Mike Conley

Why Denver does the deal: The Nuggets are in position to be a contender in the Western Conference for years to come. They are loaded with talent and depth at almost every position, and with Nikola Jokic doing things this postseason that literally no one has ever done at his position/in general Denver should be ecstatic.

However...there is something missing.

No offense to Jamal Murray, who is still very young and is quite clearly a gifted scorer, but the Nuggets could use an established, veteran point guard that can play off of the unique skill sets of Jokic and get the most out of both him and the other Nuggets around him.

If only there was an available point guard that has experience playing with a big that possesses the skills set of Jokic...

Oh wait, there is.

The biggest piece being parted with here for the Nuggets is Harris, who has started every playoff game for Denver this postseason and is averaging almost 37 minutes per game. He can shoot the three (a career 36.5% shooter from range) and is getting better at not just being a spot-up shooter...or at least trying to not just be one.

But what makes Harris expendable is two-fold. First, his lack of versatility. The aforementioned Murray could easily move from a roughly 75-25 point guard to shooting guard split of playing time to 50-50, starting alongside Conley and allowing for both players to get opportunities to score the basketball while both on and off the ball. He has length and athleticism to do both, while Harris is not as capable at the point. Gary is more of a true shooting guard, while Murray is a combo guard. That matters.

Beyond that? The Nuggets have depth on the perimeter. Malik Beasley, Will Barton, Juan Hernangomez, Torrey Craig, and Monte Morris are all under contract next season and all combined only make about $5 million more than Harris alone. The much improved Beasley could be had for about the same amount of the Harris contract (3 years and roughly $48 million remaining) if not less when the time comes to extend his contract. The Nuggets only take on about $500,000 more in salary in this hypothetical deal, and if they opt out of the Paul Millsap contract and renounce cap holds Denver would still have about $17 million in cap space to bring in another talented piece or two in the front court, like Thaddeus Young and/or Nerlens Noel, or start the process of re-signing Murray, Beasley, and their other young pieces. The Nuggets do not currently have a pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, so that frees up some veteran money.

Losing Plumlee, a key big off the bench, hurts some as well, but the Nuggets would be betting on finding comparable production for less cost in the long term behind Jokic. The 1st round pick, barring disaster, would almost certainly convey in 2021 and if it didn’t would not hurt Denver in the future with it converting to two 2nd round picks.

Mike Conley would almost certainly make Nikola Jokic better...which is a terrifying thought. This trade makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels for the Nuggets.

Why Memphis does the deal: There is no denying that the shine has come off of Gary Harris a bit. His current contract looks pricey at the moment considering his level of production. For a 25-year-old-at-the-start-of-next-season player capable of scoring at the level that Harris is all he could need is a fresh start and a new role, in addition to a good run of health, to get back to what he has been the last two seasons. The Grizzlies are currently lacking at the shooting guard position, assuming they do not bring back Avery Bradley at his nearly $13 million price tag. The acquisition of Harris would get Memphis a set starter at the 2, a player with range that should fit nicely alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. for years to come.

Plumlee would also be a low-key nice addition, especially considering his contract expires at the end of the 2019-2020 season, adding to potential future cap space for free agents that summer. You can do far worse at back-up center, and Plumlee is durable (played in all 82 regular season games), an underrated facilitating big (4th on the Nuggets in assist percentage among players logging at least 1,700 minutes and better than Harris and Millsap), and was 2nd on the team in win shares per 48 minutes over the course of the regular season while also being tied for 2nd in defensive win shares with Millsap.

The 1st round pick will be 15th at best, and two 2nd rounders four and five years ago at worst, so that may not be “enough” in the eyes of some. But this trade is similar to the Raptors deal for Marc Gasol in that it brings in two talented players that are both able to contribute and keep Memphis relevant both now (Plumlee is to Jonas Valanciunas...) and in the future (...as Harris is to Delon Wright). And Harris is better than Wright, and the lottery protected 1st is (arguably) better than C.J. Miles.

Now, for something a bit more disappointing...

Utah Jazz

a basketball player during a game: NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies © Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis receives: Royce O’Neale, Grayson Allen, 2020 1st round pick (protected 1-4 and 15-30 in 2020, protected 1-4 and 23-30 in 2021, unprotected in 2022), 2023 2nd round pick

Utah receives: Mike Conley

Why Utah does the deal: I mean...isn’t it obvious?

The Jazz give up none of their “core” pieces. None of them. Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell...even their beloved Joe Ingles remains in Utah. Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Dante Exum (which, by the way, dodged a bullet there)...they are all still Jazz core players. You are adding to that core a star point guard, someone whose contract expires when you are going to have to offer a max deal to Mitchell, and whose skill set is a hand in glove fit with coach Quin Snyder and company. As long as everyone is healthy, the doomsday scenario of an unprotected 2022 1st round pick (more on that in a moment) won’t happen.

The part that will make them pause, potentially?

The acknowledgement that Conley is better than anything they could get in free agency.

If they renounce all their free agents and allow Derrick Favors to walk out of his $16.9 million team option (which they probably will), Utah will have a little over $103 million committed to 10 players including Conley and an assumed picking up of Georges Niang’s team option. With the salary cap projected to be at $109 million, and Utah’s 1st and 2nd round picks taking up around $3 million of that remaining space, the Jazz would essentially be betting that they could be Mid Level Exception and veteran’s minimum players in free agency...not ticket holders in the 2019 free agency sweepstakes.

If they’re smart, however, they will know that Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving aren’t coming to the Jazz. They will accept that a D’Angelo Russell offer sheet would be matched by Brooklyn. And they will see Memphis as their best shot at acquiring a top-25 in the NBA player this off-season. A Conley/Mitchell/Ingles/Crowder/Gobert starting five, plus a bench including Exum, Korver, their picks in this draft and others they bring in via the MLE and veteran minimum deals, is a contender in the Western Conference, especially if the Warriors implode.

Why Memphis does the deal: Go ahead, yell at the computer screen. Call me names. I can take it, and will wait for you to come back...

(Waits.)

OK, ready?

Yes, Allen and O’Neale are rotation players on a good team at best (although O’Neale is a sneaky good wing player right now). But for the first time in this trade series, the possibility of a 2022 1st round pick being moved rises. And this time, it would be Memphis potentially benefiting from another team’s attempt at trying to reach for the brass ring...and perhaps falling short.

The protections on the 1st round pick would make it realistic for the Grizzlies to get an unprotected 2022 1st in a draft many believe will be the 1st without the one and done rule, making it the deepest draft (theoretically - these players are currently finishing their freshmen years in high school, after all) in a long time. This would also be a pick the first year after the expiration of the Conley contract, meaning Utah would need a plan in place to replace or re-sign him to stay competitive at the point guard position by that point.

In 2020, that pick likely does not come to Memphis (20 out of 30 picks protected). In 2021? You get a good sweat (only 12 of the 30 protected), but it guards Utah still. If they’re bad? They still get a chance at a likely good player in 2021. If they’re good? They keep the pick to prepare for not having it in 2022 and if they’re picking 23-30 they’re close to title contention anyway.

The possibility of that pick being unprotected beyond 2021 makes it one of the most valuable pieces available in the future trade market. If the Grizzlies see an opening to acquire a great player via trade, this could be a very attractive asset depending on how things go in Utah the next two seasons. If things go poorly for the Jazz? Memphis would get to know what it’s been like to be the Celtics the last year or so.

One team’s losses could be another’s gain.

Which deal do you like the best? Can you do better? Vote in the poll below, and comment with your thoughts on these two trades with possible Western Conference contenders.

We will wrap up this series with Part V: Darkhorse candidates for the services of Mike Conley.

Stats provided by basketball-reference.com, contract information provided by spotrac.com, pick protection information provided by prosportstransactions.com.

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