The story behind the Utah Jazz’s front-office shake-up, and why it happened now

Among the byproducts of new owner Ryan Smith’s decision: a chance to quell long-standing tensions between Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey speaks with the media following their season-ending game at the team practice facility on Thursday, April 25. 2019.

Dennis Lindsey’s exit from the Utah Jazz’s president of basketball operations chair was more of an ownership decision than Lindsey’s personal one, sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune, as new owner Ryan Smith chose to move on without Lindsey at the helm and selected general manager Justin Zanik as the team’s primary decision-maker.

Smith made the decision wanting to put his stamp on his organization as a new owner. “It’s only natural that his preferences and inclinations will move us in new directions,” Lindsey admitted just last week after the team’s disappointing second-round exit to the Los Angeles Clippers.

And Lindsey wasn’t alone in the Jazz’s front-office casualties. David Fredman, who had worked for the Jazz for all but five years since the team’s inception in 1974, and until this week, acted as the team’s director of pro player personnel, was told he was not having his contract renewed.

There were myriad factors at play in Smith’s decision to move on from Lindsey. One of the byproducts, intended or otherwise, will be the chance to clear the air and continue to improve the organization’s internal culture after a long-running disconnect between Lindsey and Jazz head coach Quin Snyder.

Lindsey, hired by the Jazz in 2012, selected Snyder to be his team’s head coach in the summer of 2014 after a disappointing season from predecessor Ty Corbin. But in the years that ensued, Snyder and Lindsey’s relationship deteriorated, creating distrust between the pair that impacted day-to-day Jazz operations.

The disagreements were numerous, both on and off the court, sources said.

• Lindsey and the team’s front office disliked Snyder’s tendency to keep smaller, consistent rotations, which prevented end-of-bench players and prospects from getting playing time, players that the front office believed in or wanted to raise the value of (among them Dante Exum and Nigel Williams-Goss).

• Meanwhile, Snyder believed, frankly, that those players weren’t frequently NBA-rotation caliber, and playing them significant minutes would hamper his chances at winning. Snyder believed Lindsey didn’t give his teams as much talent as possible and left holes on the roster unfilled, which limited his options in coaching — which became evident in the wake of the Jazz’s loss to the Clippers in this year’s postseason.

• In Derrick Favors’ first stint with the Jazz, Lindsey was a proponent of starting Favors at the power forward position next to All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, touting that pairing’s defensive acumen. Snyder, meanwhile, struggled with spacing the floor under those lineups.

• Snyder joined most of the Jazz’s front office in being frustrated by the selection of Udoka Azubuike with the team’s first-round pick in 2020. The selection, sources said, was made over strenuous disagreement from the team’s scouting department, but Lindsey saw a future in Azubuike’s size and ability to finish around the basket.

• Snyder was occasionally frustrated by Lindsey’s public statements. In a 2018 interview, after a 9-12 start to the season, Lindsey noted the Jazz’s high turnover rate as a source of the early-season woes. Snyder saw the comments as encroaching on his territory.

• In general, there were disagreements over who oversaw various off-court issues, including aspects of the team’s practice facility.

For much of the pair’s working relationship, Larry H. Miller Group of Companies CEO and former Jazz president Steve Starks acted as the go-between between Lindsey and Snyder, who rarely wanted to speak one-on-one. Indeed, the disconnect between the two was frequently discussed and considered an open secret — at first among those who work for the Jazz, and then later among league insiders as a whole.

While disagreements between coaching staffs and front offices are common in the NBA, Lindsey and Snyder’s relationship was considered unusually chilly.

“Listen, there’s been different issues for a while. That’s how I want to address it,” Fredman said, when asked about the discord within the team’s front office. “Obviously, it’s no surprise from an internal standpoint.”

In a statement given to reporters after Lindsey’s move became official, Snyder complimented Lindsey.

“I greatly appreciate that Dennis believed in me and gave me the opportunity to be the head coach of the Utah Jazz,” Snyder said. “He was extremely committed to my success, our players’ success and he built a roster that continually put us in position to grow and to contend. I am and will remain grateful for the time spent working with him.”

While the relationship between the two men wasn’t as combative this year as it had been at various times in their tenure, thanks at least in part to the success of the team in the regular season, there was a view from some within the organization that a long-standing feud had been settled.

“Quin won,” one source simply said.

The end result is as follows: Lindsey has been demoted to an advisory role that functionally acts as a way for Lindsey to stay connected to the league and continue to earn his contractually obligated salary without having any real decision-making power within the team. The move was announced on Sunday night when the team learned the shake-up would become public knowledge sooner rather than later. Lindsey, in a statement, said that he had considered an advisory role for years.

But most expect Lindsey to find another NBA job rather than stay with the Jazz in this role for long — he was said to be interested in Dallas’ open position, since filled by Nike executive Nico Harrison. His hometown Rockets would also make sense as a landing spot, but the team wants to give newly promoted GM Rafael Stone a chance to shine. Lindsey, who finished second in this year’s NBA Executive of the Year voting, figures to be able to find a suitable role soon.

As for Fredman, “I just met with them and they just informed me that they weren’t going to offer me a contract moving forward,” Fredman told the Tribune. “I want to convey that I’m certainly disappointed, but not bitter. The Jazz have been great to me. It’s been an honor working for 42 years for the Jazz franchise. And we’ll see what happens moving forward; it’s important to note that I have no plans to retire.”

As general manager, Zanik, who has a better relationship with both Smith and Snyder than Lindsey did, will run the team’s operations. Zanik was hired away by the Milwaukee Bucks from the Jazz in 2016, and was expected to become Milwaukee’s lead decision-maker. That never transpired, as the team’s ownership group ended up disagreeing on Zanik’s ascension. He returned to Utah in 2017, and will finally get the chance to lead an NBA team’s decision-making with the Jazz.

With Lindsey’s basketball acumen no longer featured, the team wants to supplement its front office under Zanik, whose experience comes primarily from his role as a basketball agent, not as a scout. Dwyane Wade has added his voice to front-office conversations, though doesn’t take a day-to-day role in decision-making. Former Wade teammate and current Miami Heat Director of Basketball Analytics and Development Shane Battier was mentioned as a potential addition to the team’s front office by The Athletic’s Tony Jones on Sports Illustrated’s The Crossover podcast.

Former Boston Celtics executive Danny Ainge reportedly met with the team last week, and it’s unclear in what role he’d join the team if a marriage were found. Marquis Newman, currently the team’s coordinator of scouting, may take on larger responsibilities, as might Steven Schwartz, the team’s current director of basketball operations. Snyder, undoubtedly, will have a significant voice.

There’s also been an acknowledgment that the current front office lacks diversity. Longtime Jazz front-office executive Walt Perrin was the highest-ranking minority for years in the organization, but he was hired away by the New York Knicks to be their assistant general manager last summer. Newman is Black, but the team may want to add more diversity to the upper echelons of the management structure.

The Jazz, frankly, also want to make moves that appeal to star guard Donovan Mitchell and his team. Even though Mitchell just signed a five-year extension with the team, the deal includes a player option after the fourth season, and the NBA’s player-favorable power structure means that Mitchell, if he wanted, could engineer an exit sooner. Mitchell (and teammate Royce O’Neale) are represented by Ty Sullivan of the Creative Artists Agency (CAA); a current CAA executive is among those being considered for a front-office role.

The franchise will want to nail those additions down soon. The team had a somewhat fractured structure at the NBA’s Combine last week that ended Sunday. The NBA draft takes place on July 29, and NBA free agency negotiations opening on Aug. 2. Having a leadership group established for those key decisions would only help the team moving forward.

But already, the team’s new ownership group has made substantial changes to the organization. By all accounts, there are more to come.