Danny Ainge is ‘going big game hunting’ in hopes of improving Utah Jazz next season

The CEO says the Jazz will prioritize improvement this offseason by trying to trade for a “transformative” player.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Ainge as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023.

Utah Jazz fans want a plan to make the team better. Jazz owner Ryan Smith wants a plan to make the team better.

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge says he doesn’t have a plan — and that’s by design.

“I wish basketball were that way. I wish we could just organize it, plan it: We’re going to draft this guy in the future. We’re going to trade with this guy in the future,” Ainge said in a lengthy and revealing news conference on Tuesday. “But that’s not how basketball works.”

Ainge referenced his 2008 NBA championship with the Celtics as a time when not sticking to a plan led to success. The 2007 Celtics lost 18 games in a row, finished with just 24 wins, and ended up with the second-worst record in the NBA.

“Our plan was Kevin Durant,” Ainge said. “But when the lottery came around, we got knocked back three spots to No. 5. Our plan changed immediately. We were able to eventually land Ray Allen and (Kevin Garnett), who were never available before that moment in time, but we were there and we were ready.”

Ainge wants to make a similar trade for this Jazz team.

“We’re ready to go big game hunting,” he said.

Who to trade for?

Ainge noted that trading for a big-game player is easier said than done. After all, he noted that the team has been trying to trade for such a player for the last two seasons, and fallen short.

“We felt like we were close (on a trade) once in this process that would have changed the dynamic of our team immediately,” Ainge said. “But that hasn’t happened.”

It’s not immediately clear who Ainge was referring to, though perhaps the best guess is the Jazz’s well-chronicled chase in acquiring Jrue Holiday from the Portland Trail Blazers last summer. Instead, Holiday was traded to the Celtics for Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams, and two first-round picks; Holiday reportedly turned down the Jazz’s offer of a contract extension after a trade.

But the Jazz are in a tricky situation: They want a star, but they want to be selective about who they acquire.

“We don’t want to get go from the 23rd-best team to the 18th-best by giving up a bunch of things, either,” Ainge said. “That’s not our objective.”

In particular, Ainge said that the Jazz are “not really interested in dinosaurs.”

“We’re interested in good 6-7 year (players),” he said. “I’m not saying that we wouldn’t go get some veteran player for a short-term fix to buy us some time, but that’s not as likely. It’s possible.”

Like Jazz general manager Justin Zanik did recently, Ainge referenced the competitive playoff situation, and said he’d be watching Tuesday night’s Play-In Tournament games to see which Western Conference teams may see their seasons end and may be forced to change their roster.

“The transformative players are hard to come by. And that’s what we’re looking to do, we’re looking to find one of those,” Ainge said, before turning to a joking mood with Jazz play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack.

“Any ideas?” Ainge asked him. “You can text me any of those ideas. I’m open to your opinions.”

But most of all, Ainge indicated trading away the Jazz’s quality players — like Lauri Markkanen — isn’t on his mind unless it means improvement.

“We’re going all in this summer to try to figure out what we can do to get better,” Ainge said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to throw all our chips in and it’s championship or bust — I’m saying our mindset is that we’re doing it only to try to win.”