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‘A group of players that really didn’t believe in each other’: Jazz knew they had to ‘reset’ team this summer

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge and general manager Justin Zanik explain what ultimately led team to enter rebuild mode

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Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, and Jazz CEO Danny Ainge answer questions

Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik and Jazz CEO Danny Ainge answer questions during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

After falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs, the Utah Jazz exited the playoffs in the second round or earlier for the fifth time in the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert era.

Last season, the Jazz blew more than a few leads down the stretch and didn’t play like a championship contender.

“When we got to the playoffs, I thought, well, this is a team that’s had some disappointing playoffs and maybe they’re just waiting for the playoffs,” Jazz CEO of Basketball Danny Ainge told a group of reporters at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus Monday morning. “I gave them that benefit of the doubt but it was clear the team did not perform well in the playoffs again.”

The Jazz lost to the Mavericks 4-2, ending their season early again.

“What I saw during the season was a group of players that really didn’t believe in each other, like the whole group. I think they liked each other, even more than it was reported, but I’m not sure there was a belief,” Ainge said. “The belief in one another wasn’t as great as teams I’ve been on and around and that I’ve seen.”

The Jazz needed a reset.

“Previous results kind of told us who we were and it wasn’t just a one-year thing. This was a good three-year period that, you know, we won a lot of games, had a lot of success, but we were tapped out from a potential standpoint and we needed to reset that,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said.

This summer a reset is exactly what happened.

The Jazz traded away their two All-Stars, Mitchell and Gobert, plus Royce O’Neale, and got a bevy of draft picks and some young talent in return.

Utah is starting anew, with a clean slate.

“The biggest thing for us is opening up a window to compete for a title, and we give credit to the ownership, the organization, the community, and the support that we’ve had over the last three years, as we basically put every resource towards trying to accomplish that, and we fell short,” Zanik said.

“In the NBA life cycle, this was kind of a touch point for us to make a pivot and to do that. We wanted to give the organization every opportunity to build the greatest base of flexibility, young players and assets going forward to make really good decisions so that we could reach the ceiling that we want to get to — and that’s win a title here.”

Utah started the rebuild by trading Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler, three unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027, a top-five protected pick in 2029 and a pick swap with Minnesota in 2026.

The Jazz followed that up by trading Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round draft picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029 and two pick swaps in 2026 and 2028.

“It was the best offer,” Zanik said of the Mitchell trade. “I think for them they saw an opportunity to add to their team and open up a window with Donovan and a young group. I think they’re gonna be very good. To get a good return, you have to give up something good as well. They certainly gave up a lot and meaningful for them, and it was a meaningful trade that we liked as well.”

O’Neale was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a 2023 first-round pick and Beverley was flipped to the Los Angeles Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson.

Sexton, Markkanen and Agbaji are all players the Jazz like.

Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game in 2020-21, his last fully healthy season; Markkanen averaged 14.8 points last season and is making an impression at EuroBasket 2022; and Agbaji was the 14th overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft and won the NCAA Tournament’s MVP award.

“They are all excited to be here. They all have been very accomplished up into their stages of their careers. They’re all still very young,” Zanik said.

All in all, the Jazz went from a team that was in the luxury tax, with no cap space and almost no draft assets to having the most future draft picks in the NBA.

Utah still has veterans Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic on the roster, and could still make moves before the season begins.

“It’s our job to continue to have conversations every day on our team,” Zanik said. “What I will say is that those veteran guys that you mentioned are really important to us here. I know the team had the chance to look very, very different than the previous iterations that they were on, but all of those guys are high-character leaders and people that enjoy being here in Utah and love the organization, love the community, have made roots here. So there’s value to that. Our jobs are to put, you know, the organization on the best footing, and that can include those veteran guys as coach implements this program,”

Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Utah now has “six of their next seven own draft picks, three unprotected draft picks from Minnesota (2023, 2025, 2027), three unprotected draft picks from Cleveland (2025, 2027, 2029) a top-five protected from Minnesota (2029), less favorable of Brooklyn, Houston or Philadelphia in 2023, and swap rights to Minnesota or Cleveland (2026) and Cleveland (2028).”

“I think we have the most unprotected picks under control until 2029 in the league. What those picks represent is not necessarily, oh, you’re gonna keep them and just select them. It just opens up multiple opportunities of conversations combined with flexibility to acquire players or move them to speed up a process,” Zanik said.

In the short term, though, the Jazz could likely land in the 2023 draft lottery, where the top prize is 7-foot-2 Victor Wembanyama.

But Ainge says the Jazz’s intentions are not to continuously be in the draft lottery.

“A lot of franchises have had great success and failure by just losing and drafting continuously. That’s not our intention — I’m way too old for that, personally,” Ainge said. “I think that we’ll just be ready, just being opportunistic when opportunities come. We have assets, like I said, for many years down the road.”


Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik and Jazz CEO Danny Ainge laugh during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News