Ainge Is The Right Architect For Jazz Restructure
SALT LAKE CITY – We’ve yet to see how Danny Ainge plans to restructure the Utah Jazz, but on the eve of the NBA Conference Finals, he seems like the right man for the job.
On Sunday, Ainge was spotted in Boston before the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, yucking it up with his former cohorts.
And why shouldn’t he? After all, who better to celebrate the sudden success of the Celtics than the man who built the roster that looks like a favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Though Ainge left his position with the Celtics before their rise this season, few people if any are more responsible than the longtime executive for their current makeup.
Now the Jazz should consider themselves lucky to have him.
Ainge’s first six months in Utah haven’t been the easiest in franchise history, and some of that is due to the timing of his hire. Ainge was announced as the team’s CEO in mid-December, just two weeks before the bottom fell out of the Jazz’s season.
A combination of injuries and absences due to COVID-19 led to a 4-12 January for the team, which led to calls for a midseason roster shakeup. While Ainge bears no responsibility for the team’s January collapse, the timing of his hire felt like a mandate to reformat the roster.
Ainge made only a minor tweak at the deadline, sending Joe Ingles to the Portland Trail Blazers for Juancho Hernangomez and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, but didn’t radically alter the Jazz before their disappointing close to the season.
But, if there wasn’t a mandate to make changes before the Jazz’s earlier-than-expected playoff exit, there is now, and Ainge has a difficult job.
Rumors of a disconnect between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell have led many to believe that the Jazz must ship out one of their two All-Stars, but neither would be the obvious choice to move.
Gobert may be the more impactful player today, but the NBA is rapidly moving away from big men who live in the paint, and the center will turn 30 in June.
Mitchell is the younger, cheaper option, and has yet to enter his prime, but few around the NBA believe the guard will sign another contract with the Jazz when his current deal expires in 2025.
Should the Jazz hold onto both? Move one or the other? Or start over from scratch with a haul of assets from two blockbuster moves?
Or, should Ainge retool the team using faces around the Jazz’s two centerpieces? Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gay should all carry some value as trade assets, but is it enough to push the roster into contender status?
And for that matter, what does a contender look like in today’s NBA? Boston’s roster wasn’t expected to be a contender under new head coach Ime Udoka as the team had a .500 record in mid-January.
However, as the team bought into the new coach’s system, the Ainge constructed roster took off. Can the Jazz recreate Boston’s five-out, swarming defense with the current pieces they have on the roster, or will they have to find their own identity on how to win in the playoffs?
Furthermore, can Quin Snyder up the Jazz level of success working under Ainge? Udoka has proven he has what it takes to win as an NBA head coach, but only did so after Brad Stevens handed him the reigns in Boston.
Can the Jazz coach and CEO find that same cohesion in Utah that Udoka and Stevens found in Boston, or will Snyder opt few a new opportunity elsewhere this summer?
Regardless of the myriad questions that face him this offseason with the Jazz, Ainge has a strong track record of success in Boston. After building the Celtics championship team in 2008, he oversaw the roster that returned to the Finals in 2010.
Afterward, Ainge notoriously bamboozled Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King for a king’s ransom of draft picks in exchange for an aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, only to repeat the process in the now-infamous Jayson Tatum for Markelle Fultz draft-night swap in 2017.
A season earlier, Ainge took heat for reaching too high to draft Jaylen Brown rather than moving the pick in rumored blockbuster trades, only to see the Cal product develop into a prototypical All-Star wing in the NBA.
He’s also responsible for drafting Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, breakout big men Robert and Grant Williams, and second-year guard Payton Pritchard, who like Brown, was considered a reach on draft night.
That isn’t to say Ainge didn’t have his share of misses, either. Guerschon Yabusele (16) and Ante Zizic (23) were both first-round busts in 2016, as was Romeo Langford (14) in 2019.
Ainge also traded the rights to sharpshooter Desmond Bane to the Memphis Grizzlies on draft night for two second-round selections, only to see the TCU grad develop into one of the league’s best young prospects.
But, to Ainge’s credit, the misses in Boston matter less when the picks he’s hit on perform well enough to carry the Celtics to the Conference Finals.
Ainge isn’t solely responsible for Boston’s success, as Stevens’s reacquisition of Al Horford helped push the Celtics into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. But Ainge’s vision and execution in building the core of this Celtics team is the reason they are knocking on the door of the NBA Finals, and now the Jazz brought his talents to Utah.
The Jazz have a long summer ahead, and Ainge has his work cut out for him, but considering his sustained success in Boston, he seems to be the right man for the job.
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