“Trader Danny” was a nickname coined from the massive deals Ainge made for the Boston Celtics of years past: landing Kevin Garnett, fleecing the Brooklyn Nets and trading down for Jayson Tatum in the 2018 draft.
But in his final years with the team, Ainge was most talked about for the deals he “almost” made. Celtics fans were routinely disappointed after loads of rumors circulated past trade deadlines for nothing to happen.
His tenure with the Utah Jazz has been a microcosm of the same.
His first deadline with a “contending” team captained by Quin Snyder, Rudy Gobert, and Donovan Mitchell was uneventful when Joe Ingles was shipped out for Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Juancho Hernangomez. He followed it up with one of the most action packed offseasons imaginable in which only three rotation players from the previous year remained with the team.
Now Danny is faced with another cross-roads, an intersection of avenues with which to orient this Jazz roster. Given the history, there’s no guarantee Ainge does anything this deadline. In fact, probability would say no deal gets done given how hard it is for teams to find a perceived “win-win” scenario.
But this deadline does present evidence that Utah will execute a trade. Let’s dive into three such reasons:
First opportunity to craft their team
The job of a front office is to manage all aspects of a competitive team. From player relations to medical staff, from providing nutritional resources to roster construction; the staff works tirelessly to get the right people in the right seat at the right time at every level.
Most of those activities go unnoticed to the fanbase and while all are crucial, roster construction is the most publicized and presents the most risk to a franchise’s future.
This current front office, headlined by Ainge, Justin Zanik, and David Fizdale, have yet to execute on an opportunity to craft their team. Think about it:
The Joe Ingles trade was about flexibility and kicking the can down the road (Joe was a soon-to-be free agent having recently suffered an ACL).
The Royce O’Neale trade returned the Jazz a late 1st round pick in the 2023 draft (at a time when they were few and far between) and reduced some salary; another move for flexibility.
The Rudy Gobert trade returned four players, four 1st round picks, and a 1st round swap; none of the players they got were immediately projected as core pieces.
The Donovan Mitchell trade returned two players, three 1st round picks, and two 1st round swaps; Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton were calculated bets as value rebuild candidates.
The Bojan Bogdanovic trade returned one rotation player, a player they would cut, and cash to offset the guaranteed salary; Kelly Olynyk was acquired to balance the roster so the team could evaluate this hodge-podge group as best they could.
The Jazz front office still hasn’t made a move geared around the future of the roster. This deadline presents their first opportunity.
They’ve had nearly 50 games to evaluate the roster that landed to them out of circumstance. They have three picks in the upcoming draft, multiple contracts of varying size, length, and guaranteed dollars.
Reports are they’re engaging with teams just as others are to them. Things are setting up perfectly for the front office to make the first move that orients this team to a new championship contending era.
Back in the summer of 2021, the NBA announced a “play-in tournament” that would comprise seeds 7-10 in the respective conferences in which the four teams would compete for the final playoff spots.
The hope was to motivate competitiveness from the middle-class while discouraging tanking (in combination with the flattened lottery odds from 2017). The change has worked so well, we’ve seen a new era of trade deadlines: lots of buyers, few sellers.
It makes a lot of sense. Only five teams in the league are more than 1.5 games removed from the play-in tournament. Said differently, over 80% of the league is within spitting distance of a play-in tournament where, should your team get hot, could vault you into the post season.
This naturally means most of that 80% is motivated to shop for contributors to push them into the play-in, confirm a guaranteed post-season birth, or improve their odds at a championship run. It’s been well publicized that this deadline is a seller’s market.
It’s a fairly simple supply and demand issue, which is also forcing deals to be made at the last minute (word is we won’t see much action until the week of the deadline, February 9th).
Utah has been pegged as one of the most likely seller’s this year. Last week The Athletic put together a big board of players for the trade deadline. The Utah Jazz had four players listed: Clarkson, Beasley, Conley, and Olynyk. They’ve been linked to John Collins who ranks #2 in the big board.
For “Trader Danny”, the opportunity to sell high or capitalize on a seller’s market for a team, as we’ve mentioned, fell into his lap is unlikely to pass him by.
Markkanen & Kessler’s ascension
The hope of any franchise is to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Many franchises have been derailed by pushing their chips in on a team without the right cast playing the right part.
The goal of the season was to see what the team had with this bizarre ensemble that came together out of happenstance. Without knowing who they had, putting the right people in the right seats would have been fruitless.
Thanks to NBA insider Marc Stein, we have intel that the Jazz know two things: Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler on long-term pieces as the team is reportedly listening on deals for anyone outside of the aforementioned.
Lauri Markkanen’s ascension to All-Star level is a big development for the Jazz. Instead of having to angle via trade or the draft to amass a duo or trio of high level talent, they now have one in the bag. The question is if he can sustain and/or build off this season in the future. But there’s enough excitement to wait and find out.
Walker Kessler’s emergence as a starting caliber center is a massive deal. Still on his first year of a rookie contract, the Jazz have years of team control on a team friendly deal. The easiest avenue to a good regular season defense is a drop big and the Jazz have found theirs for the future.
This progression puts interesting pressure on the organization. They were already angling for a mini rebuild but with two players ready to contribute to a winning team now, there’s temptation to advance the timeline too far.
The Jazz still lack a #1 option and the right complimentary pieces surrounding the core. They have several avenues to address those concerns but until they do the team cannot get ahead of themselves.
This deadline likely features acquiring players who best balance and compliment the strengths of Lauri and Walker who retain enough flexibility for the team to pivot should a #1 option surface for the franchise.
With Danny Ainge at the helm, the distribution of possible outcomes is far reaching. There’s no “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” with Ainge. Rumors could multiply ten-fold between now and the deadline without increasing the probability of a deal.
Danny uses many weapons in negotiations. He isn’t afraid to use the media as a tool, his version of “smoke and mirrors”. He isn’t above pushing and pushing only to back off and direct attention elsewhere.
Still, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the Jazz will make a deal and none of it is based on rumors of any one transaction. The environment is setup for the Jazz to take the first step in constructing their version of a championship contending roster.
Whatever happens at this deadline is a signal, a hint of what their future might look like.