Utah Jazz execs say there could be ‘a lot of change this summer’

Armed with financial flexibility and a trove of draft assets, the organization has plenty of options at its disposal to improve the team, though they insist they won’t rush the process.

(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.

For the past few seasons, the Utah Jazz were relatively limited in the moves they could make to augment a good but not great team — their options in free agency hampered by a large payroll, their chances to really get in on the trade market stymied by a self-inflicted lack of draft capital.

After last year’s seismic shake-up, though, which saw the team trade away its core, maneuver into financial flexibility, and amass an absolute haul of future picks, this coming offseason figures to be very, very different.

“Yeah, this is gonna be fun,” CEO Danny Ainge said Wednesday morning in a season wrap-up interview with local media. “A lot more draft picks, more money to spend — yeah, a shopping spree. Yeah, this will be more fun — much more fun than last year.”

Last year, the team was shedding salary and acquiring picks while radically overhauling the team’s make-up, thanks to trading away stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, plus fellow starters Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale. The re-shaping continued into this season, with Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker dealt at the trade deadline.

Now, the team will be armed with three picks in the coming NBA draft, and perhaps more than $30 million in cap space, plus potentially millions more in expiring contracts.

“We thought that this season would be a journey, a season of discovery. … We got to find out a lot of different things about our players — things we really needed to know as we try to open up a championship window,” said general manager Justin Zanik. “… The flexibility we were able to create for now and going forward, along with all the ability to go and target different things — that can take form in many different ways.”

Or, as he put it a bit more succinctly a bit later …

“[With] the optionality that we’ve created, the possibilities are endless,” Zanik said. “… There could be a lot of change this summer.”

It’ll be a multi-pronged process.

Head coach Will Hardy has been holding exit interviews with players to discuss offseason plans and improvement strategies. He noted that instead of simply dictating areas that he wants players to work on, he instead asks them where they believe they most need to improve, because, “They need to have a level of buy-in and feel like they were a part of their own destiny, so to speak.”

He feels like most players are actually pretty self-aware in that regard, and that making it a conversation where he’s chiming in with thoughts and suggestions rather than mandating unilateral decisions enhances the process. That said, he does step in and steer things in a specific direction when he feels it’s warranted.

“Wanting to ‘get better at everything,’ I think that’s really dangerous. I totally understand wanting to improve everything, but you just don’t have that much time,” Hardy explained. “And I think for young players to actually make significant jumps, you do need to hone in on maybe a couple of things.

“… Our biggest job is helping them prioritize what to get better at. We had a player come in yesterday who had six things written down that he thought were important to him, and he asked me to rank them. And so I ranked them 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10,” Hardy added. “And that’s only to give him the visual of, ‘If you get these two right, then you’re gonna make a big jump. And then in the future, we can tackle 7, 8, 9, 10.’ But if I label them 1 through 6, it doesn’t give the relationship between those things.”

The front office braintrust, meanwhile, has some areas for the team to collectively improve in, too.

“We weren’t a very good shooting team at the end of the year — injuries contributed some to that. We need to get better defensively,” said Ainge. “Those are the two [areas of] focus. I mean, I have a list of seven things, but Will would only let me have two.”

Asked what 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 are, Ainge laughed and said, “We’ll have to wait on that a little bit.”

Meanwhile, the organization also will be waiting on decisions regarding player options, with each of Jordan Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker, Rudy Gay, and Damian Jones having the ability to opt out. And the team will be making its own decision regarding Kelly Olynyk, whose contract is partially guaranteed for $3 million, but becomes fully guaranteed for around $12 million on June 28. That latter decision seems fairly straightforward, though.

“Kelly was great for us,” said Zanik. “… I would anticipate that we would be having him back.”

In the interim, the Jazz will turn their attention to the draft.

They know for certain that the Philadelphia pick they own (conveyed from Brooklyn in the O’Neale trade) will be No. 28 overall. The other two they have are still unsettled — Minnesota’s theoretically should be No. 16 based on regular-season record, but if the Wolves lose their second play-in game and fall out of the postseason, it will rise to a top-14 pick instead. Also, the Jazz finished with the league’s ninth-worst record, thus giving them the ninth-best lottery odds — so they have a 4.5% chance at the No. 1 overall selection.

There has already been a ton of prep work done scouting players over the course of the season, and Ainge said the Jazz would send a large contingent — perhaps about 10 people — to the NBA Combine to be held May 16-18 in Chicago.

Measurements, medical exams, drills, group scrimmages, and personal interviews will all be components of the evaluation process.

Ainge and Zanik both noted the team would cast a wide net in holding player workouts, with the former even joking that there is an “ability to get more people in with multiple picks — you know, bring people in that we’re looking at for the 28th pick, and we can tell them that we’re looking at ’em for the ninth pick.”

In contrast to previous years, the team now will not announce most of those draft workout attendees to media, citing the competitive advantage that comes from not having it publicly disclosed who has or has not visited with the team.

Furthermore, both execs reiterated the sheer amount of work that will be devoted to delving into prospects, with Ainge saying the organization would be “getting to know them up close and personal,” on account of, as Zanik put it, “projecting human performance at 18 or 19, 20 years old.”

The coach and the front office braintrust were all pleased with how the just-ended season played out, in particular citing the substantial progress made by the likes of Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, and Ochai Agbaji.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re going to accelerate any kind of timeline for being competitive.

They will adhere to their process.

“We’re not going to put a timeline on it, because the very next thing is always the most important thing,” Zanik said. “… It’s just a continuous timeline of us trying to make really good decisions.”

That said, they understand the inclination observers have to wonder how long the road to contention will be.

“You guys aren’t the only ones asking us when we’re going to be good, how good we’re going to be this year. We get asked that question by [owner] Ryan [Smith] all the time, too,” Ainge quipped. “He’s anxious to spend his money. And we’re anxious to spend it.”