Ex-Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller discusses Ryan Smith, roster challenges, and the team’s coming re-brand

Though he acknowledged the strangeness of his famous family no longer running the team, its former top boss believes the new owner has the “energy and creativity” to push it forward.

The initial shock of Gail Miller announcing in October 2020 that she was selling the Utah Jazz to tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith has long since dissipated.

And yet, it remains a bit jarring to consider that — aside from the minority stake they retained in the team upon its $1.6 billion sale — the Miller family now has zero involvement in running the team it owned for 35 years.

Greg Miller, who previously served as CEO of both the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies and the Jazz until his 2015 resignation, acknowledged this week that the team no longer being under the family’s control took some getting used to.

“Well, it’s been a huge change. It’s been a seismic change for us,” Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune.

After filling in for his under-the-weather mom at a Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation-hosted celebration of the newly renovated and rechristened “Larry H. Miller Softball Complex” at Big Cottonwood Regional Park in Millcreek (made possible in part by a $5 million donation from the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation), Greg Miller discussed with The Tribune how the family pivoted following its sale of the Jazz, the new direction the franchise is being taken in by Smith, the challenges that squabbling superstars can pose to team success, even the coming re-brand involving the team’s colorway and jerseys.

Strange as selling the team was, he believes the deal ultimately proved a win-win situation.

The Miller family was able to take the resources formerly allocated for the Jazz and Vivint Arena and redirect them to other ventures (both business and philanthropic), while the organization has, he believes, benefitted from an influx of new blood and new perspectives.

“Ryan brings a level of energy and creativity to the team that I’m sure our family never had,” Miller said. “… I hope that it’s everything that he wanted it to be. I hope that all of his goals and aspirations that he had in pursuit of owning an NBA franchise materialize, and that he’s able to have just great success.”

Miller got to know Smith well from having courtside seats next to one another when the Millers still owned the team, and came to the conclusion that “Ryan’s a wonderful guy.” But it’s Smith’s penchant for grand plans and big ideas that Miller believes will push the team forward.

Part of that is the coming re-brand, which to this point has only been partially hinted at via a black-and-white-and-yellow colorway reveal, and which has been greeted by fans with a range of curious skepticism to angry disdain.

Miller is urging people not to jump to premature conclusions about the re-brand.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be that earth-shattering. I’ve seen the new look, and I think it’s a very impressive look,” he said. “But if you look back over the 43 years or so that the Jazz have been in this market, there have been several re-branding efforts, and to me, it’s just cool to look back on those as a collective and just sort of see the evolution of those. And they all fit. They all have their place in their era. And you think of the players that wore a certain style of jersey. And so I think this is the next installment. And I applaud Ryan for taking the steps to be new and innovative.”

Those are traits he believes will serve Smith well in carrying the team forward and elevating it beyond its current plateau.

Though the Jazz have qualified for the NBA playoffs for six consecutive seasons, they have not made it past the second round in that span. And this year’s early ouster at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks has many observers of the opinion that the team will require significant changes in order to progress.

Asked what obstacles he sees as the most substantial to Smith’s still-nascent ownership, Miller quipped, “I don’t think there’s enough ink to print all the challenges that an NBA owner faces,” before eventually settling on two.

“The biggest challenge any owner faces is rounding out a team with the best talent available — and that’s such a small pool of talent when you’re playing at that level, and there’s 30 teams that are competing for that small pool of talent,” he began.

As for the second impediment, Miller seemed to obliquely invoke the reported strife between foundational stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

“The other [challenge is] those players obviously are very strong personalities. And I think, often, the fans just assume that there’s peace and harmony if everybody’s wearing the same jersey; and with the strength of the personalities and the competitive instincts that these athletes have, it’s not always so,” Miller added. “So sometimes you may have some ruffled feathers or some challenges personality-wise that you have to manage just at the organizational level.”

Of course, neither Greg or Gail Miller has to worry about such things anymore.

Still, he’s hardly dispassionate about the team now just because his family no longer runs it.

Late auto sales magnate Larry H. Miller initially purchased a 50% share of the organization in May 1985 to stabilize its tenuous finances, then ultimately purchased the remaining 50% of the team from Sam Battistone in 1986. Gail Miller assumed control of the franchise upon her husband’s death in 2009.

Greg Miller wants to see the franchise succeed whether his family has a hand in it or not.

“As someone who was invested — emotionally and financially invested — in the Jazz for decades, I would love nothing more than to see Ryan and the Jazz, Quin [Snyder], and everyone in the organization, just continue to grow and progress and ultimately win an NBA championship,” Miller said.