SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik painted an exciting picture when talking about the Ryan Smith era.
"Ryan's resources and commitment to spending are going to be at levels that we've never done with the Jazz," Zanik said on Thursday, just a few days before free agency.
But before fans start fantasizing of Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul — both turned down massive player options to become unrestricted free agents — setting up meetings with Utah, there's a caveat to all that: There are still cap rules to follow and the Jazz don't have any cap space.
That makes this year's free agency, which begins on Monday, relatively simple for Utah.
Here's the dream scenario:
- Re-sign Mike Conley
- Find a rotation player with the taxpayer midlevel exception ($5.9 million)
- Find enough players that will sign for minimum deals to fill out the rest of the roster.
If that's not what happens, the Jazz likely got worse. Let's explain:
The Jazz gave out a ton of money in contracts last season, including max-level and near-max level extensions for franchise cornerstones Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, sending their cap sheet soaring over the salary cap line.
Gobert and Mitchell will make a combined $63 million next season — just about doubling what the All-Star pair made last season. Bojan Bogdanovic is set to make $19 million, Joe Ingles will pocket $13 million, Jordan Clarkson is at about $12.4 million, and Royce O'Neale will make around $9 million. Add it all up, and you've got a very expensive roster — and that's without adding Mike Conley into the mix.
The Jazz are expected to offer Conley somewhere around a $20-25 million per year contract when negotiations beginning on Monday, which will push the team's cap well into the luxury tax.
Utah can exceed the cap to retain Conley, but it can't do that to replace him. So no matter how you feel about Conley's injury history or his previous salaries, the fact is having an All-Star point guard on the roster is better than not having one.
If Conley does choose to leave, the Jazz will only really have the mid-level exception to replace him, and that wouldn't yield a point guard close to Conley's ability. A perk of shedding Derrick Favors' contract (besides just saving Smith some money — around $40 million, mind you), is the team may have the non-taxpayers exception ($9.5 million), but that still probably wouldn't be enough to land a true starter, let alone an All-Star.
However, that's a scenario Utah is hoping to not worry about. Conley is priority No. 1 as the Jazz look to be in contention for a title, and Smith is willing to write a sizable luxury tax check to the league to keep him.
"I want to make it clear like his energy and vision and commitment to the city and state and this team is going to pay huge dividends down the road," Zanik said. "He's willing and able to make those investments on a yearly basis, which is awesome."
After the draft, Zanik said that the Jazz had "championship aspirations" this season. The hope then is that other free agents will see that and want to jump on board.
Would Milwaukee's Bobby Portis, fresh off a championship run with the Bucks, be willing to come to Utah for the taxpayer midlevel? What about Nic Batum, who revitalized his career with the Clippers? Would it be worth it for the Jazz to use the exception to bring back Georges Niang?
JaMychal Green, Otto Porter, James Ennis and Kent Bazemore could also be options here. But don't just expect the Jazz just to use the exception because they can, especially since they spent the early part of this offseason trying to correct mistakes.
Utah overpaid for Favors last offseason; eight months later, it used a first-round pick to get out of his deal. The Jazz also waived Matt Thomas just a few months after using a second-round pick to get him from Toronto. Those are the types of moves the Jazz don't want to replicate: Ones that end in negative value.
After the second-round flame out, it's been hard for some fans to remember how the Jazz were among the best in the league this season. But the Jazz are close. A couple moves could very well move the Jazz from among the best to the best.
It's up to Zanik to make them; Smith is willing to pay.