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Commentary: Who’s in charge of Utah Jazz decisions? Time will tell

After hiring Danny Ainge as CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball, it’s unclear where he and general manager Justin Zanik fit in the decision-making hierarchy.

Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, left, congratulates new CEO of Jazz Basketball Danny Ainge Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.
Justin Zanik, left, general manager of the Utah Jazz, congratulates Danny Ainge following a press conference announcing Ainge as CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Imagine a scenario in which the Utah Jazz bring in one more rotational piece, they finish off the regular season at or near the top of the Western Conference, they fight their way through the postseason and win the team’s first ever NBA title.

Now imagine a different scenario, one where the Jazz either do nothing, or they make a series of moves, continue to have regular-season success, but flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs again and again, and then when the time comes for Donovan Mitchell to make a decision on his next contract, he leaves Utah and the Jazz become a rebuilding project with nothing to show for their work over the last few years.

At the end of both of those hypothetical situations, fans, media, pundits, players, others around the league and the sports history books will point to the person responsible for putting together the team that either accomplished greatness or flailed and failed.

Who is that person in the Jazz front office? Is it general manager Justin Zanik? Is it newly minted CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball Danny Ainge? I don’t know.

Jazz owner Ryan Smith is selling the idea that the team has a collaborative decision-making process sans hierarchy. And you know what, there’s a lot of truth in that for every NBA franchise.

When teams are making trades or drafting a player or seeking out a player in free agency, there are a lot of people involved. Sometimes those decisions are months or even years in the making and while it might have been one person who first brought up the idea, it could be a completely different person bringing it home. Additionally, sometimes things come down to a majority vote that includes many voices from within a front office.

All that being said, there is usually a hierarchy of some sort and a person that makes a recommendation to an owner before the owner gives the final say. And, no matter how much the Jazz want their system and culture to be seen as purely democratic and collaborative, it’s not how anyone from the outside will see things, and Zanik understands that perception.

“I’ve explained this to Ryan, too,” Zanik said on Wednesday. “People, whether it’s media or fans or anybody else, they want to associate one person with a decision. When you look back at a draft record and look back at a trade, who did it? Which regime? And frankly, Danny will tell you this and I can tell you this too. … There’s so many people that are involved in that. And then at the end of the day, we all have to get together and figure out is this the best thing for the organization?”

When Ainge was hired he was purposefully given the title of CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball and alternate governor. The Jazz remain without a president of basketball operations following Dennis Lindsey’s departure. That makes things a little harder to discern because the role Ainge has taken is not one that has existed for the Jazz before.

When asked twice what the difference is between the two positions, Smith and Ainge were vague, saying that the role is unique and that Ainge is in place to help out, not to take over the day-to-day workload.

“It’s a different role as governor, of course,” Ainge said. “But I’m not going to be the president of basketball operations. I’m not going to be the guy that’s running it on a day-to-day, that’s going to be Justin.”

But the Jazz brass also understand that Ainge brings with him 18 years of front office experience and relationships around the league and the network to match.

Ainge even pointed out that in his years running the Boston Celtics, he dealt with Lindsey, so his relationship with Zanik is somewhat new. The same could be said about Ainge. There are going to be those around the league that have a history with Ainge and not Zanik. Familiarity matters in situations like this.

Smith said definitively that it’s clear around the league that Zanik is the person to call. But I don’t think it’s as clear as Smith may think.

The way Zanik tells it, having access to Ainge’s experiences, his network and everything that he’s learned over his career is a resource that anyone would be crazy not to accept. He said that he’s lucky to be in a position where he can still learn from someone with that kind of resume.

No one is disagreeing with the idea that Ainge brings with him a history of being competitive and shrewd and that his experience and network are valuable. I don’t think that there’s any problem with having him in place in the Jazz’s front office. But the questions about who reports to who, who has final say, and who is the go-to person for basketball decisions are natural. These aren’t mutually exclusive thoughts.

If we go back to the second hypothetical scenario from above — the one where things start to go sideways before crashing and burning — it would be expected that someone would be on the hot seat for decisions made. That’s how front office executives lose their jobs in the NBA. But who would be responsible for the Jazz?

Smith said that there are going to be things that go wrong, Zanik pointed out that all decisions in the NBA are gray, there’s nothing that guarantees success. But no one has said who is responsible.

If the Jazz end up over the course of Zanik’s and Ainge’s tenure, reaching majority or even unanimous decisions, then there probably won’t be any issues or infighting. But what if Ainge comes to Smith with a different recommendation than Zanik?

Smith is ultimately the one with the final say. But there might be a day when he has to side with someone, and it’s not clear who that someone would be. It’s also not clear who will be responsible for the moves that the Jazz make from this point forward.

Maybe this is a new day in the NBA. Maybe the Jazz are creating a uniquely collaborative system where voices are equal. I guess we’ll see.

Sarah Todd is the Deseret News Utah Jazz beat writer.