Dennis Lindsey remembers how Mehmet Okur ruined his last game as a Houston Rockets staff member.
The Jazz’s reunion with Houston in this playoff series evokes that unforgettable Game 7 in 2007 at the Toyota Center and is another career checkpoint for Lindsey, the Jazz’s general manager. He discovered reminders of a big chunk of his professional life everywhere he looked during Sunday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals — from a courtside meeting with Houston legend Hakeem Olajuwon to the banner celebrating his longtime mentor, former Rockets GM Carroll Dawson.
Lindsey could have stayed with the Rockets in 2007, even after the recently arrived Daryl Morey was chosen over him as Dawson’s successor. He instead moved to San Antonio and became more prepared for the Jazz’s opportunity five years later.
Lindsey clearly can picture the ending of Game 7, when Carlos Boozer keeping an offensive rebound alive enabled Okur to hit a clinching 3-pointer in the last minute, and he remembers the disappointment of not getting the GM position. Yet he remains fond of his hometown NBA team and thankful for those 11 years that helped him become established in the league, eventually leading him to his current job.
That’s why he told Olajuwon, “You deserve half of my salary.”
He also appreciates the Spurs for advancing a career that has made him an NBA Executive of the Year contender for the second season in a row — again in competition with Morey. The way Lindsey remade the Jazz roster after losing Gordon Hayward to Boston in free agency is one of the NBA’s success stories of 2017-18.
The Jazz hope to do more in the playoffs as they go into Wednesday’s Game 2 vs. Houston. Even so, just getting to this point is an achievement. “It is gratifying that there’s been a whole bunch of obstacles placed upon us and there’s been a whole bunch of problem-solving,” Lindsey said Tuesday as the Jazz practiced. “We haven’t solved all the problems in every instance, but we have an identifiable core [of players], an identifiable playing style that we know can be successful, if we continue to do the right things.”
The latest reminder of what Lindsey has done with this team came Tuesday when Houston guard Chris Paul was asked about being familiar with the Jazz. After all, he faced them in a seven-game playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers last spring. Paul challenged the interviewer to name any Jazz players from that team — beyond Rudy Gobert. “Different people,” Paul said.
It’s true. Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson (now in Houston) scored two-thirds of the Jazz’s points in that series, and they’re gone. When I asked Lindsey in July if he was reeling emotionally after having lost Hayward, he said, “You know the real answer to that question. I’ll come up here and put a brave face on it, but yeah ...”
Yet here are the Jazz, having overcome Oklahoma City to win another playoff series. Ricky Rubio is injured, so their starting lineup vs. Houston includes two rookies and two undrafted players (Royce O’Neale fits into each category). Jae Crowder has helped the Jazz in the playoffs after arriving in a three-team trade involving Hood and Johnson. And Lindsey’s hiring of coach Quin Snyder and drafting Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell have worked wonderfully.
Mitchell is “ridiculously good,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know if anybody saw that coming.”
The discovery of Mitchell strengthens Lindsey’s Executive of the Year case. Morey is the favorite; Boston’s Danny Ainge and Indiana’s Kevin Pritchard are also in the picture. Morey and Lindsey finished 2-3 last season behind Golden State’s Bob Myers.
Lindsey’s impact will continue. In February 2016, reviewing the most tumultuous five-year period in the Jazz’s Utah era, I wondered what the next five years would bring. The latest checkpoint is encouraging, with another playoff series win and the widespread belief that the Jazz should be good for the next decade, thanks to Gobert, Mitchell and Snyder.
Advancing beyond the first round is the Jazz’s baseline now, with the potential to do much more in the coming years. Lindsey is a long way from earning a banner of his own to match Dawson’s in Houston, but all the signs say he’s building something that will last in Salt Lake City.