In explaining Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert trades, Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge says team ‘didn’t really believe in each other’

The front office lays out its vision for rebuilding after trading away its two All-Stars.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Ainge, left, Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations and general manager Justin Zanik talk on the court prior to Game 6 of the 2022 NBA first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Give the Utah Jazz’s front office this: in the wake of franchise-changing moves this summer, they’ve been eager to explain their vision.

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge and general manager Justin Zanik held a news conference Monday morning, streamed on YouTube, to share with fans exactly why they’ve traded stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. And what they said wasn’t exactly complimentary of the Jazz’s past efforts from the previous era — they seem much more excited about what’s to come than what has passed.

Ainge said that when he joined the team in December he was “curious and optimistic” about the Jazz’s chances.

“But what I saw during the season was a group of players that really didn’t believe in each other,” he said.

He explained further: “I think individually they have resolve. I just don’t believe that collectively they did. So we saw a lot of players trying to do it on their own, as the belief in one another wasn’t as great as other teams I’ve been on and around.”

Ainge says he gave his team a final chance last April.

“So when we got to the playoffs, I thought, well, this is a team that’s had some disappointing playoffs and maybe they’re just waiting for the playoffs,” he continued. “And so I gave them that benefit of the doubt. But it was clear the team did not perform well in the playoffs again.”

Zanik agreed: “The previous results kind of told us who we were. It wasn’t just a one-year thing. This is a good three-year period that we won a lot of games, had a lot of success, but we were tapped out from a potential standpoint.”

With no way to go up, it was time to start over. So the Jazz traded Gobert and Mitchell for a pair of prodigious packages — in the end, receiving Ochai Agbaji, Malik Beasley, Leandro Bolmaro, Talen Horton-Tucker, Stanley Johnson, Walker Kessler, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Collin Sexton. Oh, and they also received a 2023 first-round pick, two 2025 first-round picks, two 2027 first-round picks, and two 2029 first-round picks — along with the rights to swap draft picks with the Cavaliers or Timberwolves in 2026 or 2028.

The returns have, frankly, stunned other NBA executives. But perhaps the most surprising part of the two moves wasn’t the return, but who the Jazz found in trade partners. In particular, Cleveland was rarely mentioned among landing places for Mitchell respectively, but the Jazz ended up making deals with them over the much higher-profile Knicks. Why?

“It was the best offer,” Zanik said. “I think for them, they saw an opportunity to add to their team and open up a window with Donovan and a young group, I think they are going to be very good. And, you know, to get a good return, you have to give up something good as well. They certainly gave up a lot.”

So what happens now? First, there are decisions to be made in the next few weeks.

The Jazz still have 17 players under full contract for next season — the league limit for the start of the regular season is 15, not counting two-way players. There are still trades remaining to be made. Given that the Jazz have clearly set their sights on the future, three players born before 1990 are perhaps most likely to be moved: Rudy Gay (36), Mike Conley (34), and Bojan Bogdanovic (33).

“Those conversations continue to evolve, we’ve continued to be in touch with them directly and their representation,” Zanik said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of change this summer, so it’s natural for us to have those conversations.”

But Zanik also said that those veterans could end up on this otherwise-youthful team this upcoming season.

“Our jobs are to put the organization on the best footing, and that can include those veteran guys as Coach implements his program,” Zanik said. “It’s going to be a culture of hard work. They all have leadership qualities, mentorship, capability. We’re happy to have them and continue to help our team grow in the event things come up.”

Then, the team has to figure out what to do with all of these newly-acquired assets. The team has more unprotected picks than any NBA franchise, which means a lot of shots at acquiring new players. Or, Zanik said, they can also be tools in a faster rebuild:

“What those picks represent is not necessarily, oh, you’re going to keep them and just select them. It just opens up multiple opportunities and conversations, the flexibility to acquire players, or move them to speed up the process, or to slow it down,” he said. “I look at it as a lot of different cards that you have a chance to play and be involved in these conversations — where if we didn’t have these picks ... you’re just not simply part of any of those conversations.”

“We wanted to give the organization every opportunity to build the greatest base of flexibility, young players and assets going forward to make really good decisions so that we could reach the ceiling that we want to get to,” Zanik said — noting that the franchise wants to win its first NBA championship.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re really excited about the place that we’re starting from.”