Okay, here's the deal. The Utah Jazz aren't making the playoffs this season. It sucks, but it's true. The team is as close to the last-place Sacramento Kings as it is to the final spot in the playoffs.
Barring a miracle over the final 35 games, the playoffs are going to have to wait for another year.
So, as I'm sure the front office has already done, it's time to turn our attention toward the future. That's where the February 8 trade deadline comes in. Dennis Lindsey will make some moves, but they will all be to improve the team past this year.
Let's look at the Jazz salary situation:
The team currently has 10 guys under contract, with Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as restricted free agents. Though subject to change, the cap is projected to be around $101 million next year. That gives Utah about $19 million to work with. That wiggle room disappears when you consider Hood's raise (likely to be at least $15 million per year) and Exum's. And that doesn't even count the other three to five guys the team would need to sign to fill out the roster.
As it stands, next year's team is going to be very similar to this year's.
Under the NBA's salary rules, a "max player" will get between 20 and 30 percent of the team's salary cap, depending on how many years they've been in the league. The core of a good team, then, will be built around three max players, with role players of varying ability filling out the rest of the roster.
Gobert is one of Utah's max players — he's an all-NBA performer who has the ability to anchor the best defense in the league. Donovan Mitchell's incredible performance this season seems to indicate that he could be on a similar level.
But who is Utah's third guy? The Jazz don't have one. But if Rodney Hood is resigned — without other moves to cut salary being made — Utah will be locked into this roster, forcing Hood, Ricky Rubio or Alec Burks to somehow be that guy.
Even if that team somehow did make the playoffs, it's not going to contend. Utah needs to find that player who can fill out the core next to Gobert and Mitchell.
Which brings us back to the trade deadline.
Nikola Mirotic trade rumors have been floating around Utah for weeks — I wrote about it myself earlier this month — and it is an intriguing idea, but can he be good enough for Utah to compete?
He's usually been somewhere between okay and good for most of his career, but I'm not sure if Mirotic could improve that core enough to contend for a spot past the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other options out there. Evan Fournier of Orlando has been rumored, but I don't think he raises the ceiling any more than Mirotic. A restricted free agent like Aaron Gordon or Jabari Parker is maybe interesting, but it's unlikely their teams would let them leave and they each have plenty of question marks. Kemba Walker is a hot commodity, but is a lineup with two ball-dominant undersized guards going to compete? It doesn't seem like the right fit to me.
What about a dude with an all-NBA pedigree who can play inside or outside and doesn't need to have the ball in his hands to impact the game?
Kevin Love is a four-time all-star and two-time all-NBA power forward averaging 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from 3 and nearly 90 percent from the line.
Just imagine what Love could do in a Quin Snyder system designed to get 3-point shots to his best shooters. Now, I do have some concerns about his defensive ability, and he is coming up on 30 years old. But putting strong defenders around him could lessen the negative defensive impact and his it's likely his play-style will translate well into his thirties.
Frankly, I think Kevin Love is the best known-commodity the Jazz could acquire in the next few months (the likelihood of finding another Mitchell-level player in the late lottery is basically zero).
So how do the Jazz get him?
Thanks to ESPN's NBA trade machine, I put together two different trade proposals. This trade is built around the rumor that Cleveland is interested in adding George Hill from Sacramento. The tricky part is understanding what Sacramento is willing to take back. (Each of these deals would require first-round picks to make them work. Maybe Cleveland's first this year to Sacramento and Utah's first next year to Cleveland? I'm not going to pretend to understand NBA trades well enough to project what picks would need to move, but something like that should start the conversation).
Sacramento wants to move Hill's behemoth contract without taking back too much salary themselves. Cleveland wants to improve its ability to compete without giving up the Brooklyn pick.
In the first scenario, Utah gets the third piece it needs. Cleveland gets its "3-and-D" point guard, as well as an athletic center in Derrick Favors who can take Love's spot and another perimeter scorer who can take pressure off LeBron James in Hood. Sacramento gets a scoring guard in Alec Burks who is still young enough he might develop and another contract that runs out sooner than Hill's (Iman Shumpert might even be a buy-out candidate in this scenario).
In the second scenario, Cleveland adds another depth center who's contract is not debilitating going forward. Sacramento adds Burks still, as well as an athletic big in Tristan Thompson and a buyout/veteran candidate in Channing Frye, in the last year of his deal. With three years still remaining on his deal, though, the Kings would have to actually like Thompson to make that trade.
Neither of these options are perfect, but trades never are. Besides the addition of Hill, Cleveland would get younger and have increased roster flexibility in case LeBron leaves this summer. They would have the RFA rights to Hood and would be in prime position to resign Favors if they desire. Sacramento would get out of a bad contract and add more talent to the roster.
For Utah, next year's lineup would probably be Rubio, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Love and Gobert, with Exum (assuming he resigns), Royce O'Neal, Thabo Sefelosha, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, etc. coming off the bench. Still not elite, but much improved over what the team is currently facing.
Kevin Love is under contract for two more years after this one for roughly $25 million per year (approximately the cost of Hood and Burks next year). Expensive yes, but that's the price you pay for all-NBA talents. Plus Mitchell being on a rookie contract for three more years gives the team incredible cap flexibility if it maneuvers the right way.
Kevin Love isn't perfect for the Jazz, but he is clearly the best option that might be available for the team and would significantly raise Utah's ceiling going forward. Clearly, this would be a trade for the future.