We’re a week away from the NBA Draft, which is great for people who have a physiological reaction to the words “upside” and “wingspan.”
But we’re also seven days away from what is usually the biggest trade day on the NBA calendar. For a team like the Utah Jazz hunting for the final pieces of a competitive rotation, that could be a more salient reason to count down to June 23.
It makes sense why Utah is considered a likely actor in the trade market. Utah clearly needs to address its suspect depth and can’t necessarily rely on the seller’s market of all seller’s markets in free agency. They could use their #12 pick to address weak spots in the rotation, or they could parlay current players into what they believe will be an upgrade. What they shouldn’t do is make a trade that crosses tier boundaries in the wrong direction.
Talent tiers are a big part of the draft discussion, logic that saves teams from overreaching on a guy who fits an on-paper need but is less of an overall talent than somebody else. If you look at the recent history of NBA trades, you can see some similar tier logic emerging: players usually get traded for assets on about the same level as them.
It’s not like there are set tier definitions out there, and even if there were, consensus can be hard to come by across front offices and the broader NBA community. So this isn’t easy. But there’s a reason you rarely see All-Stars traded for non All-Star talent. When they do, it’s usually because something funky is going on: chemistry problems, ideological difference or the threat of the player leaving can motivate a team to take $.50 on the dollar, but for the most part, that’s the way that trades work. It’s important to remember that when constructing ideas on what the Jazz could get away with on the market, and (especially) the types of deals they should avoid making.
Put another way, you could trade Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors based on some sense of frustration over what they’re not, but unless you’re getting back something that’s as good as they are as a player and an asset, you just made the Jazz worse.
After ton of research about the trade market, including my yearly look at what picks in different ranges tend to yield in trade value1, I can say with relative confidence that trades tend to stay within similar levels. The ones that don’t are the ones that get picked apart as having a clear loser.
The last year gives us plenty of case studies. Every trade that wasn’t motivated by salary cap needs was essentially a deal involving guys of similar levels. Starter-quality wings Gerald Henderson and Nic Batum were swapped2. Fringe rotation players like Jon Leuer, Shabazz Napier and Ray McCallum were traded for second-round picks, assets that usually yield fringe rotation talent. Reserve guards Mario Chalmers and Beno Udrih switched places.
Even Utah’s own midseason deal passes the test: they gave up a second-rounder for a non-rotation player, although Shelvin Mack was then able to breathe life into his five-year NBA career.
The ones that didn’t match the tier criteria were either bad deals on one end and/or were motivated by other situations. Markieff Morris and Ty Lawson were moved because of off-court drama, Gerald Wallace and David Lee were flipped for salary reasons, and Orlando probably looked bad for giving up on recent mid first-rounder Mo Harkless in exchange for a top-55 protected pick that may never be conveyed.
So what are these supposed tiers? These are my definitions and therefore somewhat arbitrary.
Particularly at the upper tiers, the value is so different that multiple guys from a lower tier don’t necessarily “equal” one higher tier guy. It’s really hard to acquire All-Star talent, so if you have it and you downgrade to two guys who are solid starters, you might have a hard time ever replacing the star power you gave away. You better be pretty confident that someone you’re acquiring is better than advertised, or else you had better be playing a long game as part of a rebuild.
So what about the Jazz?
Hayward is a top-30 player, full stop. He’s in the tier I would call “fringe All-Star,” because he’s someone who could easily make an All-Star team with the right confluence of team success and/or players missing time. A Hayward trade that nets an All-NBA talent isn’t likely to happen, and trading him for a solid starter type is just bad asset management.
So would you trade him straight across for another player in that same tier, say a Jimmy Butler type? It’s risky. You might get a similar quality player who unlocks some different synergies… or it could break the other way. Hayward likes his situation, believes in the program and has good chemistry with the dudes around him; why trade him for someone for whom those statements might not be true if he’s not a clear upgrade?
Favors and Rudy Gobert are probably close to that level right now, but I’d put them a tier below: they’re above average starters (top 10 guys at their respective positions), but they’re not necessarily among the first names people think of when they start naming off All-Star snubs. They’re probably top 40-50 players overall… and they’re climbing. As with Hayward, the bar for a return that would make a Favors/Gobert deal work is set really high.
All-Stars, fringe All-Stars and high-quality starters are extremely hard to replace. Trading one of those guys for a lesser asset out of impatience would cost the Jazz wins, relevance, and time on the ascent.
So let’s collectively decide to stop floating trade proposals where those three head out and lesser players or Hail Mary draft picks come in, OK?
Rodney Hood is firmly starter-quality, although it’s not hard to imagine a version of him that’s a top 10 player at his position or even a fringe All-Star. Alec Burks is probably starter-quality even though he comes off the bench3. It’s hard to imagine the Jazz trading either guy for someone they wouldn’t expect to play 24-28 quality minutes a night.
Dante Exum is a unique one because there’s still wide variance between his best and worst case scenarios. There are people who still believe he could realize an All-Star potential. At minimum, he probably qualifies for Tier V; his defensive impact alone means he could start for a good team, and he has some of that “could” potential to keep scaling the tiers.
The Jazz also have a handful of rotation-quality players, including at least one (Trey Lyles) who has some alleged star potential.
They may not want to disrupt that core for the sake of adding rotation-quality veteran depth, and that’s where the #12 pick might be their best chance. A solid vet acquisition could potentially help Utah achieve relevance more quickly than a late-lotto draft rookie could.
On the other hand, there’s no telling when the Jazz will pick inside the top half of the first round again, and with Lindsey’s recent track record of finding value picks throughout the first round, why take away the asset he has probably done the most with in his Jazz tenure?
So the Jazz won’t necessarily trade #12 this year, but with that pick as well as 42, 52 and 60, it’s a safe bet to expect at least a minor deal.
And rest assured, they’ll be attempting to parlay up to better assets, not dropping from star and starter-quality players to lesser guys.