What is the Utah Jazz’s plan for fixing the NBA’s worst second-half team? GM Justin Zanik responds.

Draft, free agency or trading for a star? Here’s how the franchise is looking to improve.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz General Manager Justin Zanik.

Over the last two months, the Utah Jazz have been the NBA’s worst team. The losing has taken its toll on everyone, including players and coaches.

But it might be Jazz fans who are taking the losing most harshly. Jazz fans are used to a certain kind of pain, the kind that comes from crushing losses in the playoffs. They’re not used to this drawn-out, numbing pain, though — the pain of watching a team that has put up its longest losing streak since 1982, looking as uncompetitive as can be in March and April. Only twice in the last 40 years has the team lost more than 50 games.

Fans are voting with their wallets, too. Tickets for this week’s home games against the defending champion Nuggets and rival Rockets could be purchased for as low as $5 on secondary markets.

So what’s the organization’s plan?

We asked Jazz general manager Justin Zanik last week. His answer was simple:

“The plan is to be better,” he said. “And we’re looking at all of our ways to do that.”

Trying to make a deal

Jazz fans looking for an immediate upgrade have noticed the weakness of this year’s free-agent class. It doesn’t have the kind of game-changing stars or even high-level role players that the Jazz need. That’s thanks to changed rules in the NBA that limit free agency and incentivize players to sign extensions with their current teams, Zanik said.

“If you study the free agent trends — and this is not unique to the Jazz, this is every other team that’s not on a coast — that the actual depth and quality of the free agents is not great, and it’s not going to get any better,” the GM said. “That doesn’t mean it’s completely out, but it’s just not going to be a main driver of how you build teams. The main driver of how you’re building teams is developing your players and adding by trade.

“We’re in a more unique position than some other teams that are faced with the same free agent list that we’re looking at,” he continued. “Not only just the flexibility we have but just the multiple assets we have to deal.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) greets Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) following the game as the Utah Jazz took on the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

So the Jazz’s strategy to get better relies heavily on using the war chest of draft picks acquired in the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert trades to acquire a star for the future. Zanik’s made no secret of his hoping to take advantage of discord between teams and players that might occur around the NBA.

“We’ve talked before about trying to predict the NBA drama that happens,” Zanik said. “You just sit there and wait for it to come, but we’re ready.”

Which stars will the Jazz want to trade for, though? Drama, and trades, did come for All-Star players like Damian Lillard and James Harden in the last year, but the Jazz decided to keep their most valuable assets largely out of those negotiations — perhaps because of those players’ advancing ages.

“You always want to get as many No. 1 guys as you can,” Zanik said. “In the absence of that, you want to get players that help the team function, and hopefully in a longer timeline than just a one- or two-year basis because of age.”

Building around Lauri Markkanen’s Jazz future

Zanik says that the team doesn’t feel any pressure to improve quickly in the next season or two, despite Lauri Markkanen entering his prime and the last year of his contract with the Jazz.

“Lauri’s a hugely important piece for us now and going forward,” Zanik said. “I don’t want to waste any years of that, but you also have to do it within the timeline.”

“We’re not trying to say, ‘Hey, Lauri, we’ll make you happy because you’ve never made the playoffs, so we’re going to burn all our picks and get some marginal improvement from an overpaid player so that maybe we’ll be a seven seed,’” Zanik said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and then grow from there. So what are those moves that can do that? As Lauri grows and continues to get better, then we’re adding so they can grow with him.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) looks for a shot, as San Antonio forward Tre Jones (33) forward Cedi Osman (16) defend for the Spurs, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs, at the Delta Center, on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

“(We want to) add people that are complementary to Lauri and to Walker (Kessler),” Zanik said. “That doesn’t have to be Mr. Alpha on whatever team. I’d love them to be as good or better than Lauri, but they could be a couple of really, really good role players.”

Part of the reason Zanik is prioritizing the franchise’s medium-to-long term prospects over a short-term improvement is that the franchise is confident that it can extend Markkanen’s deal, likely this offseason.

Markkanen isn’t eligible for an extension until Aug. 6, though, so the Jazz can evaluate the trade market before that to see if they’d rather use their cap space this offseason on other players. That would likely mean allowing Markkanen to enter the final year of his contract at a lower salary number, though Zanik also thinks they could raise salary cap space by trading away other contracts on their roster.

What about tanking?

The Jazz have ended the last two seasons by jettisoning talented veterans in favor of playing young players — and losing games as a result. The goal in both seasons: improve their draft pick.

The 2025 draft is supposed to be much stronger than the 2024 draft, with standout high schoolers like Cooper Flagg and Ace Bailey who look like potential NBA superstars. The obvious question: Would Zanik and the Jazz consider bottoming out for the 2025 season so they can start the rebuild in earnest, rather than linger in NBA purgatory getting the eighth and ninth pick year after year?

“I think it’s hard, really hard, given how our team is constructed right now,” Zanik said. “I think it’s really hard to bottom out with what we already have, which I would rather have than not have.”

Zanik said he feels the team is in a place to improve without needing to tank next season.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Taylor Hendricks (0) passes around Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (10) as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets in NBA action at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 29, 2024.

“We have distinct holes on this team and roster balance stuff that has taken a couple of years to address,” he said. “We’re also betting on our own development, let alone with the rookies but the rest of our group.”

The Jazz’s general manager said he was happy with the play of power-forward/center John Collins at the end of the season, and thinks the 26-year-old isn’t done improving. “Is there more development there for him?” Zanik asked. “Is there more development where Walker and John and Lauri can play together?”

And with regards to rookies Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Brice Sensabaugh, Zanik said he hopes they spend their offseason just focused on playing basketball. The organization hopes they’ll play in summer league action in early July. Jazz management will also bring in various free agents and other players for structured runs at the team’s practice facility in Salt Lake City.

Coach Will Hardy is part of that future, too, with three years left on his contract with the Jazz after this season.

“You don’t have to worry about him, he’s good,” Zanik said. “He’s coaching the heck out of guys and he understands what we’re all trying to do together with this.”

Will Jazz fans have that same level of understanding? That probably depends on the team’s results after this critical offseason.