SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz opted to stay put at the NBA trade deadline, despite a rumored blockbuster deal with the Memphis Grizzlies that involved a point guard swap of Ricky Rubio and Mike Conley Jr.
Now, with the Jazz standing pat, the burden falls on the franchise to prove that no trade was the right move.
It’s rumored Memphis ultimately wanted Rubio and Dante Exum, plus a first-round draft pick to finalize the deal, but the Jazz were unwilling to include Exum in that type of trade. This puts Exum atop the list of pieces that must prove their value over the second half of the season.
Exum has missed most of 2019 with an ankle injury he suffered on Jan. 5 at Detroit. The ankle is just the latest in a long line of somewhat flukey injuries that has sidelined Exum during his young career. The 23-year-old guard has played in just 109 of the Jazz's last 324 games. He’s due to be re-evaluated after this weekend’s All-Star break.
With the Jazz being unwilling to insert Exum into a trade, they’ve bet heavily that he can impact the game alongside Rubio at a higher level than Conley would have.
The first thing Exum must do is prove he can overcome his injuries. If Exum can’t find the floor, he simply can’t help the roster. Once he's able to get on the floor, he must channel the uptick in play he saw before the injury.
After a standout postseason performance defensively, Exum fell back to earth early this season. But over a five-game stretch leading up to his injury, Exum averaged 13 points, five assists and two rebounds, while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 3-point line. In short, Exum must return to being one of the Jazz's top players off the bench.
Like Exum, Rubio finds himself in a precarious situation over the second half of the year. Rubio knows the Jazz were actively looking for an improvement at point guard and were willing to move on from him. As an unrestricted free agent this summer, he must keep his value high, whether he has a future in Utah or not.
After returning from an injury of his own, Rubio is averaging 14 points, six assists and four rebounds over the last nine games. If Rubio can continue that level of play, he’ll fetch a decent contract as a free agent and can help the Jazz. If he struggles to shoot the ball, questions about his fit in the modern NBA may affect his price tag.
The Jazz themselves must show that they can continue the momentum they’ve shown over the last two seasons with postseason success. The Jazz have advanced past the first round each of the last two years and have developed a reputation as one of the best young teams in the league.
But if the Jazz take a step back, getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll go into the summer with a downward trajectory. Should the Jazz waive Derrick Favors and renounce the rights to Rubio, the team will have close to $30 million to spend on free agents.
While the Jazz have never been a top free agent destination, having positive momentum going into July would help in their free agency pitch.
The Jazz were clearly interested in a midseason upgrade and not just a minor tweak in their pursuit of Conley; however, the Jazz chose to remain dormant. Now the pieces involved in the rumored deal and the team itself must show that the trade they didn’t make yielded better results than the option that was on the table.
Ben Anderson is a contributor at KSL.com, follow him on Twitter @BensHoops. Listen to him 2-6, Monday through Friday with Kyle Gunther on ESPN 700.