Gordon Monson: Intrigue surrounds Danny Ainge’s plan for the Utah Jazz

CEO says ‘it will take time to craft our roster’ as the franchise enters a rebuild.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Will Hardy answers questions along with Danny Ainge, CEO of basketball operations, during during a news conference announcing Hardy as the new Utah Jazz head coach at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.

Danny Ainge’s words were straightforward enough.

His first official comment since trading All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell made plain what everyone already had figured his thinking to be. But a cumulus cloud of intrigue — doubt? — hangs overhead and all around the Utah Jazz, still.

Let’s break down what he said in his explanatory statement on Thursday, sentence by sentence, and go from there.

1) “It was clear that in order to optimize our opportunity to create a team that could truly contend and establish sustained success, we needed to transition our roster. …”

What Ainge is saying here is that the Jazz were stuck. They were in that dreaded NBA purgatory reserved for teams that are good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win a title. Jazz fans know all about that space.

It’s rarified air Ainge seeks to breathe. Some teams, like the Jazz, bang and skid around in those lower confines almost endlessly.

The irony is thick there because winning a championship is what Mitchell and Rudy Gobert used to underscore and circle in bold red ink before every season and during most of them. “We can win a championship,” Gobert insisted repeatedly. Mitchell said he concurred.

Ainge disagreed, having seen from afar and then up-close the Jazz’s shortcomings in the playoffs. This team was neither good nor great enough to ascend up and over the top.

Which is to say, the team could stay status quo and sell tickets and continue to slam its head against a brick wall, over and over, suffering the same result or it could chuck the whole thing into the wind and build again.

Making matters worse, the Jazz had few options, financially and personnel-wise, seeing that they had blown their future draft picks on past deals and their bank accounts on their two stars and gathered in a few supplementals that didn’t come cheap, but that weren’t talented enough to make the difference in progressing to the desired level.

Management drafted and the coaches groomed those stars, and the team then unloaded huge deals on Gobert and Mitchell, which are moves a team has to get right to grow to a championship level. The aforementioned purgatory isn’t just being caught in the middle, it’s being caught in the middle with suddenly empty pockets, limiting flexibility for future moves.

Jazz management, as mentioned, added role players, and paid them, too, but …

Yeah, but.

2) “… In trading Rudy and now Donovan,” Ainge continued, “it was a rare opportunity to maximize our ability to get quality talent and picks to best position us moving forward. …”

Since the Jazz did have those star assets, which they were unable to capitalize on competitively, unable to find a way to wrap them together to float the team to the top, they reckoned that individually they were of more value to other teams and thereby, in asset return, to themselves.

How do the Jazz get that proper return?

They deal for draft picks, quality picks, unprotected first-rounders. And that’s a whole lot of what they received. The Jazz, in total, now own 13 first-round selections over the next seven years. They can use those picks mostly how they please, either keeping them or trading them for established players to bolster their effort moving forward. They have options to do what they want, although, based on the mountain slide of picks they got for Mitchell and Gobert, they’ve likely devalued those selections as currency to acquire, if they so choose, a difference-maker they have their eyes on.

Unanswered question is, can the Jazz haul in at least two players with their picks who will be better than Gobert and Mitchell were/are?

Also, the Jazz got some decent NBA players in their deals, not just picks. This is a blessing and a curse because the team now wants to develop its guys, the already established youngsters, and especially the two 2022 first-round picks — Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji — it received in its deals, but basically the Jazz want to suck in the near future because they are in tank mode. They want to be bad enough to eventually be great.

3) “… We have a plan in place to help us assemble the championship team our fans deserve. …”

A signal to fans that the Jazz aren’t doing this all willy-nilly. They obviously can’t be sure which potential stars of the future will be available to them, but, lord knows, the numbers favor them. Even if they screw up a few picks. They want you to know they have a basic outline in place for what they need and what they want. And, don’t forget, all y’all deserve something better than what was formerly in place.

4) “… It will take time to craft our roster.”

Ainge is begging fans to be patient, to not turn their backs on the team because it’s neither designed to be any good for some length of time, nor will it be.

5) “... We all understand the work ahead and are committed to our vision.”

This is important because, first, that vision better be crystal clear, better be visionary, and, second, Ainge is the one who will be held responsible for whatever the outcome of all this will be. Maybe he has enough professional pride to care deeply about that because “the work” will be heavy to lift.

Essentially, what Ainge has done by making these trades, and there will be more solid Jazz players yet to deal, is dump the accountability directly onto his own head and shoulders. A Jazz insider told me Ainge is one of a select few NBA executives who have the savvy and acumen to pull off this kind of dealmaking, but his skill revealed to date leaves less than half the job done.

He has much more to do, and the most encouraging part of it for the Jazz and their fans is this: He seems to know it.