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Danny Ainge is playing capture the Flagg

The Utah Jazz appear to be tanking, and it’s not really debatable at this point

Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

When Danny Ainge was hired to oversee the Utah Jazz at the end of the 2021-22 season, it wasn’t clear what the Jazz would be doing right away as Ainge settled into his role. But things started to change quickly as, trade by trade, Ainge dismantled the disappointing core that had failed to pass the first round of the playoffs multiple years.

First, the Jazz traded Joe Ingles, then Royce O’Neale, then Rudy Gobert, then Donovan Mitchell, then Bojan Bogdanovic. After pretending to try and keep Quin Snyder Quin Snyder resigned, the Jazz also signed Will Hardy, a major part of the Boston Celtics coaching staff that went all the way to the finals. All these moves tore the previous Jazz team down to the studs leaving them with a completely new set of players, and everyone predicted the Jazz to be the worst team in the league.

Danny Ainge was making it clear what the plan was.

But instead of losing, the Jazz started the season 10-3 behind Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and all the other players the Jazz acquired because of their trades. Considering Markkanen was the most improved player, and Walker Kessler was third in rookie of the year voting, it’s probably not that surprising they did so well to start the year.

All of a sudden, it seemed like the Jazz might be something different. They were fun, well-coached, and played their hearts out, leading to more wins than Jazz fans expected, or wanted, with Victor Wembanyama there for the taking. Behind the veteran play of Conley, the coaching of Will Hardy, and the impressive rise of Lauri Markkanen, the Jazz spent much of the season with a top-5 offense and would be competitive in most of their games.

But the trades didn’t stop. Rumors spread as the season went on that the Jazz were in the trade market, and, after a ton of speculation, the Jazz finally made a three-team trade that would send Mike Conley, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to the Wolves and D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Lakers. The Jazz received more draft compensation with a Lakers top-4 protected 1st-round pick and Russell Westbrook, who they eventually waived.

Danny Ainge was making it clear what the plan was.

The Jazz started losing more games but weren’t rising in the draft standings fast enough. We started to see players resting injuries for multiple games. From game 62 to game 82, Jordan Clarkson played one game. From game 71 to game 82, Lauri Markkanen played just three games as the Jazz looked to secure a top-10 pick, which they did. The interesting element to this was the Jazz looking to get Lauri Markkanen as many awards as they could. Markkanen won the MIP and was named an all-star, cementing himself as an important piece for the future. Perhaps this was to sell Markkanen on the future with the Jazz and what he could win with this team? Whatever the case, the Jazz made sure to rest Markkanen to ensure the best possible pick they could.

The offseason came, and we saw the first picks by the new Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik leadership when they selected Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Brice Sensabaugh.

Now, some interesting happened that offseason. The first was the Jazz trading for John Collins for next to nothing. Collins has been a nice asset for the Jazz this season and makes the cost of a second-round pick seem worth it. We also saw rumors of the Jazz having interest in both Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday. The deals that got Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday showed that Danny Ainge and the Jazz weren’t interested in giving good draft capital for those players. The Jazz gave low offers and only the Hawks took the deal. Whether those offers for all those players were nothing more than trying to get something for nothing, we might not know, maybe Ainge just couldn’t help but be in discussions. What was clear was Ainge wasn’t going to deviate from the plan to build through the draft. Looking at what the Jaz are doing this season, I’m not sure how serious the Jazz were about those offers.

This Jazz season has not started the same as the 2022-23 season, the Jazz are losing in a big way while resting players, just like they did at the end of last season. The only difference is they’re starting earlier. What also makes this season interesting is the fact that the Jazz have to be in the bottom ten this season to keep their pick in the 2024 draft, otherwise it goes to the Thunder. With how the Jazz are resting players, they look like they want to keep this pick, and they might never actually send it to the Thunder at all. If it doesn’t convey this season, it will be top ten protected in 2025 once again. If it doesn’t convey then? It will be top-8 protected in 2026. At that point, if it doesn’t convey to the Thunder, the Jazz keep the pick. Would the Jazz be ballsy enough to never actually give the pick to the Thunder? Well, this season, they’ve now rested Lauri Markkanen for eight games with a hamstring injury, and the team has lost 5 of their last 6. Jordan Clarkson is now out for at least two weeks with a bone bruise, and all this time Keyonte George and Taylor Hendricks have been getting more and more minutes.

Danny Ainge is making clear what the plan is.

With the Jazz now sitting at #6 in the lottery, and Ja Morant coming back to the Grizzlies soon, the Jazz are in the driver's seat to a top-5 pick in this draft. But it’s clear it’s not just this draft the Jazz are interested in. Recently, Cooper Flagg played in the EYBL Showcase, and who was there watching? Danny Ainge.

Yes, we’ve heard from local reporters that the Jazz want to convey their pick to OKC to ensure they get the pick in the Cooper Flagg draft, and there may be truth to that, but it’s starting to look like the Jazz don’t want to convey that pick to OKC at all, which is what the team appears to be on track to do. I imagine at some point Danny Ainge asked why conveying the pick actually helps the Jazz rather than just going for a top pick in this 2024 draft. Even if it doesn’t have a superstar at the top, it still provides the Jazz a shot at a surprise player, like they got in Keyonte George recently at #16.

Another interesting point recently came from the Bill Simmons podcast where he talked with Doc Rivers. Rivers briefly references his time with Danny Ainge and their intentionally losing games by “resting Paul Pierce.” Sound familiar? Rivers mentioned how mad Ainge used to get when they would win games that season, which appears to be the 2006 season, and earned the Celtics the #7 pick. Looking at basketball reference, Pierce rested the last ten games of that season. Sound familiar? What’s interesting is the Celtics were then able to make major trades that brought them Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, which helped them win the title.

Here’s the podcast if you want to listen, with Rivers mentioning these things around the 30:00 mark.

Here are the clips of the interview.

It appears Danny Ainge is telling us what the plan is once again.

It’s a plan that has worked before, twice really, and Danny Ainge appears to be at it again, but now with the Jazz. Jazz fans aren’t familiar with this type of plan, it’s never been done before here, but the Jazz have never won a title either. With Ryan Smith at the helm and Danny Ainge making the decisions, the Jazz are now playing capture the Flagg.