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Bringing Danny Ainge into the Utah Jazz’s front office is ‘about us getting it right’

Owner Ryan Smith says he added the former Celtics boss to help GM Justin Zanik run the Jazz’s basketball operations in an effort to make the right decisions to get to a championship.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Ainge, left, is introduced as Utah Jazz CEO and Alternate Governor by team owner Ryan Smith at Vivint Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

“Collaborative.”

That was the buzzword du jour Wednesday afternoon at Vivint Arena — first as Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and newly appointed team CEO Danny Ainge jointly explained the decision to add the former Celtics exec to Utah’s front office, then again when incumbent general manager Justin Zanik followed up in discussing the mechanics of his new work relationship.

With the Jazz in the midst of another chase for the franchise’s first NBA championship, the announcement that Ainge — who previously spent 18 years leading Boston’s front office — was coming on board created natural questions about the hierarchical structure of Utah’s decision-making team: Will Ainge now be calling the shots? Will Zanik report to him? Who has final say?

All involved sought to downplay the idea that, six months after Dennis Lindsey was effectively removed from his position atop the organizational structure in a shake-up initiated by Smith, there are now questions about who’s in charge.

“If you’re in the league, everyone knows to call Justin right now. I think that’s pretty clear,” Smith said, before elaborating that it isn’t actually exactly that straightforward. “I think when it comes to decision-making, we’re the kind of culture where it doesn’t really work that way. … When it comes to that, you want to be right a lot more than you’re wrong, because some decisions aren’t clear. Bringing Danny on board helps increase our chances of getting that right.”

Ainge subsequently addressed the nature of his role, at one point making a “load management” joke in explaining why what he’ll be doing in Utah is different than what he did in Boston, and offering that he intended to be a “sounding board” for Zanik while deferring to Smith when asked to define the parameters of their work relationship.

“I’m not going to be the president of basketball operations. I’m not going to be the guy that’s running the day-to-day — that’s going to be Justin,” said Ainge. “… The role is different than it was in Boston. I literally worked 16- and 18-hour days, and I don’t plan on doing that. I plan on working every day, and working with Justin and Quin [Snyder] and Ryan and this ownership group.”

Furthermore, in addition to his role as team CEO, Ainge was also appointed as “alternate governor,” meaning he will be allowed to represent the Jazz during NBA Board of Governors meetings in place of Smith, should the need arise.

“This is a unique role. This is an unprecedented role that hasn’t existed,” Smith said.

Crystal clear.

The point, everyone involved emphasized, is that linear power structures within this basketball organization are apparently an outdated media construct, that decisions are always arrived at collaboratively anyway, and having one more proverbial cook in the kitchen is decidedly a good thing, especially considering the quality of the particular chef involved here.

“You’ve got a guy down the street with 40 years of NBA experience. How can you not bring him in if it’s the right time in his life?” Zanik said.

He added that the narrative of “associating one person with a decision” does not mirror reality, claiming he could recall choices the Jazz have made in which a final vote was 6-4 to proceed, or other circumstances where one person initially proposed an idea, and another helped bring it home.

Smith joined Zanik in delineating an organizational philosophy that it’s ultimately about the decision and not the decision-makers.

“It’s really not about whether I’m right, or Danny’s right, or Justin’s right,” he concluded, “it’s about us getting it right.”

Ainge, meanwhile, revisited the end of his tenure with the Celtics, saying that stepping away in June was the right decision at the time, on account of those aforementioned long days working in combination with two straight coronavirus pandemic-impacted seasons to have the effect of causing a sense of burnout.

“I needed a break from Boston,” he said.

In spite of his departure from the Celtics being presented as a “retirement” from professional basketball, there were almost instantaneous rumors linking him to a gig in Utah, owing to his longtime personal friendship with Smith.

Asked about the timeline of his conversations with the owner, Ainge said he had the sense as far back as the summer that there was a desire to bring him into the Jazz organization, but that he wasn’t prepared at that time to commit to the grind. Their subsequent conversations about joining up started ramping up about two weeks ago, he added.

He now finds himself part of a front office he concedes he doesn’t know very well. He said most of his prior interactions with the Jazz occurred with Lindsey, and that he’d only had a handful of phone conversations with Zanik. Their relationship, he acknowledged, would “take some time to develop.”

And yet, he added, while he may come in with a reputation of wheeling and dealing, the Jazz present a different scenario yet again in that he suddenly finds himself a part of a team that may well be championship material as it stands.

“The roster is strong. It’s a really good team,” Ainge said. “… I’m not sure what needs to be done, but we’ll look with Justin’s team, and with Quin, and figure out what we need. But it’s a dang good team.”

Zanik said he was looking forward to combining networks, to getting “more strands of information,” to having another voice to learn from …

And to disproving the notion that one person should get all of the credit or blame.

“There’s a reason that you call it an organization. There’s a reason you call it a team,” said Zanik. “A team’s a group of people. We’re all trying to do the same thing — let’s do our jobs to hopefully be the last team standing.”


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