SALT LAKE CITY — Danny Ainge didn’t end his brief retirement, agreeing to join golf buddy Ryan Smith’s Utah Jazz as CEO, just to be bored. But Ainge’s first NBA draft with the franchise was an exercise in mundane misery.
The Jazz were fresh off a first-round playoff exit, which felt like a frustrating end to an era in franchise history in which Utah was good but not good enough to break through to the postseason. That sense was enhanced a few weeks before the 2022 NBA draft with the resignation of coach Quin Snyder, who led the Jazz to six straight playoff appearances but never to the Western Conference finals.
Utah’s picks in that draft had been dealt in pursuit of the deep playoff run that never became reality. The Jazz were stuck on a plateau beneath last year’s title contenders with no ability to maneuver upward. So Ainge sat there, nibbling on the catered gourmet spread and grumbling while helplessly watching the rest of the NBA conduct business.
“The food’s great in the draft room, but we don’t have anything,” Smith told ESPN in a recent conversation that included Ainge and Jazz general manager Justin Zanik. “We don’t have any picks. We’re over the cap. We can’t do anything. [Ainge is] lecturing everybody in there like, ‘We don’t have anything.'”
Ainge, seated next to Smith, interrupted with a semantical objection.
“I’m not lecturing,” Ainge insists. “I’m asking, ‘Is this fun?'”
“Trader Danny” — the nickname bestowed upon Ainge during his tenure running the Boston Celtics, when he built a championship team, then tore it apart after the window closed and used the returns to build another contender — was soon thereafter back in his element. The Jazz traded four of their five starters before the 2022-23 training camp began, stockpiling rotation players and draft capital in the deals that shipped off franchise cornerstones Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, in particular, to signal a dramatic restart.
But the Jazz haven’t bottomed out as many around the league anticipated, positioning themselves to have a chance to draft prodigious French teen Victor Wembanyama.
Far from it.
The Jazz instead jumped out to a 10-3 start and are now 27-28 sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference standings, where the fourth and 13th spots are separated by only four games.
“This is not a laboratory where we’re just testing a bunch of s—, because I think we owe it to the guys to put them in a position to win,” Will Hardy, the Jazz’s 35-year-old, first-time head coach, told ESPN. “They’ve shown to date this year that they’re right in the mix in the West. With how jumbled up the standings are, making the playoffs is a very realistic goal.”
Making the playoffs, however, is not Utah’s primary goal. The big picture is to build a team with a legitimate chance to contend, which remains the front office’s priority.
“It doesn’t influence my process,” Ainge said. “I mean, we’re enjoying the team. The fans love our team, they’ve bought into our team, and we’re enjoying that part of it. But we’re not looking to break it up or necessarily go win a championship this year, either. We’re trying to do things that will help us long term. We’re not looking for a short-term fix so that we can get to the seventh seed instead of the 10th seed, unless it helps us long term.”
In other words, in a market in which teams looking to move players are scarce, the Jazz are once again open for business.
“The flexibility that we have, and the fact that we have some really good players on reasonable contracts, we get a lot of calls,” Zanik said. “I don’t have to go make any calls. They’re calling — up and down the roster, whether it’s starters or rotational guys, veterans or good, young players that are coming along.
“Teams are always interested in good players, and it’s our job to listen.”
The Jazz have informed teams that they aren’t interested in discussing potential deals involving three players they envision as significant parts of Utah’s future:
— Forward Lauri Markkanen, 25, a first-time All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate who is averaging 24.8 points and 8.7 rebounds with a 66.7 true shooting percentage. While he was acquired in the Mitchell trade, the headline of the package that Cleveland sent to Utah was the three unprotected first-round picks and two swap rights.
— Rookie center Walker Kessler, 21, who was selected No. 22 overall in the draft (originally a Jazz pick that Utah gave up in the Mike Conley trade with Memphis) and acquired by Utah along with three role players and four future first-rounders in the Gobert deal. Kessler has established himself as an elite rim protector, ranking fourth in the NBA with 2.1 blocks per game despite averaging 20.4 minutes. His stats in 12 games since becoming a full-time starter: 11.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
— Rookie shooting guard Ochai Agbaji, 22, the No. 14 overall pick who was also acquired in the Mitchell deal. His inclusion on the Jazz’s off-limits list is more about projection than production at this point, but Agbaji has been a solid contributor on both ends of the floor since cracking the rotation a month ago.
“I mean, I’ve never been an untouchable guy that can’t get traded, but I’ve been traded before,” Markkanen said. “It’s good to hear that. It gives me confidence for sure that people in the building believe in me.”
As far as the rest of the roster, Ainge and Zanik are upfront about their intentions to aggressively explore the trade market, with all due respect to the players who will be left in limbo until Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline arrives.
The list of Jazz players who are generating significant interest includes veteran holdover guards Mike Conley Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, as well as some role players who have been key contributors since arriving in offseason deals, such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Kelly Olynyk.
“With this particular team, we know we have so many guys that are wanted, so many guys that are in those talks,” Conley said. “You know something’s going to happen. It can be one, it can be four, it can be three, however many guys.”
To be clear, the Jazz won’t be unloading quality players for the best available offers in large part because of a desire to dip out of the play-in scenario or improve lottery odds. They’ll move on a trade only if they consider it good value. The Jazz front office would be just fine with this season’s team fighting for a playoff spot, even if it’s not the traditional first-year path for a rebuild.
“There’s a lot of people and a lot of pressure saying, ‘Hey, you can’t be in the middle,’ and we actually don’t think that way,” Smith said. “We’re very much like, look at ’25’s draft picks, look at ’26. We’ve got a lot of optionality. We just want to be thoughtful.”
It’s most likely the Jazz will give up veterans for packages headlined by young players and/or picks.
For example, sources said the Jazz have had discussions about a deal in which a combination of rotation players including Conley and Beasley would go to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for 2027 and 2029 first-round picks and Russell Westbrook, who would likely receive a buyout instead of joining the Jazz. Another rumor making the rounds: The Jazz discussing a deal that would send Beasley and Vanderbilt to the New York Knicks – where Gersson Rosas, the former Minnesota Timberwolves GM who traded for them and gave them their current contracts handles most of the trade calls – for guard Evan Fournier (whose contract New York wants to shed), promising young forward Obi Toppin and draft compensation.
Utah has also had preliminary discussions on a wide variety of potential trades, including deals in which the Jazz would give up draft capital.
Jordan’s 𝟯𝟰𝘁𝗵 game this season with 20 or more points 📚#TakeNote | @zionsbank pic.twitter.com/dmtr7DHuqn
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 4, 2023
“We’ll try to be careful, but we’re trying to get better as fast as we can — without being panicked, without rushing,” Ainge said. “We’re in control, and we feel like we’ve got to be smart about the decisions that we make.”
Smith — a Utah-raised tech billionaire who usually wears a backward cap and sneakers while sitting courtside — had long been a passionate Jazz fan before purchasing the franchise’s majority stake in October 2020. He has since overseen massive organizational change, from roster, coaching and front-office overhauls to some restructuring of the practice facility, such as giving Hardy and Zanik neighboring offices to foster communication between the coach and GM.
Smith isn’t necessarily a hands-on owner when it comes to personnel moves, but he is certainly ears open. He talks with Ainge, Zanik and Hardy on a regular basis, calling each of them at least a few times a week.
“I think he’s trusting in us, but he wants to know,” Ainge said. “So he’ll call either one of us or Will at any time. He wants to be involved and learn all about it. I think in a year or two, he’s going to figure all this out and do it all himself if he wants. But he’s so busy.”
Zanik is a holdover from the previous front-office regime, replacing former Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey as the franchise’s primary basketball decision-maker for several months before Ainge agreed to the CEO role in the middle of last season. Ainge and Zanik work collaboratively, with Zanik handling most of the preliminary trade talks. Smith is kept abreast of scenarios deemed worthy of his attention and has final say on all deals, which he says merited only a five-minute conversation for some of the impactful deals over the summer.
“After the trade was done,” Ainge adds, getting a surprised glance from Smith. “I’m just kidding.”
“I think I’m in the loop probably more than most, but me running basketball is not a good thing,” Smith said. “Any owner running basketball is not a good thing, because there’s people like Danny and Justin.”
Ainge especially has earned a reputation for driving a hard bargain, and the Jazz’s approach leading up to this deadline hasn’t been any different.
“The Jazz are asking for too damn much,” a rival general manager told ESPN.
In a way, that’s comforting to the players who might wonder if their name is being mentioned when they see Zanik or Ainge answer their cell phone. They at least know they are valued. All of the Jazz’s rotation players who are being discussed in potential deals have been traded at least once in their careers, which helps minimize the team’s distractions.
Conley — the 16-year veteran point guard who is a few months older than his coach — admits it’s “impossible” to avoid trade speculation. He has heard his name linked to the LA Clippers, a possibility that prompts his eyebrows to perk up and brings a smile to his face, surely picturing his fit on a contender as a complement to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“I’m happy,” Conley said. “We’ve done a lot of cool things here, and Utah’s been good to me. At the same time, if there’s an opportunity out there that works, I’ll be ready for that.
“Most of the time when you hear a rumor, it’s probably not going to happen. The time you get traded is when you don’t know or haven’t heard anything about it. Most times, it kind of sneaks up on you.”
Conley considers it part of his job to keep his teammates focused, and he advises them not to “create this anxiety bubble around you” about something out of their control.
“I really don’t worry about it too much,” said Clarkson, a recent Sixth Man of the Year who has thrived as a starter and is expected to decline his $14.3 million player option for next season, seeking a long-term deal for more money. “In terms of the guys, we talk about it, joke about it and stuff like that, because we see the stuff everywhere.
“It’s just the business of basketball. We have fun with it.”