The Utah Jazz season came to an end and the annual exit interviews were held a couple days ago. I recommend going and listening to each of them because they provide good insight into where each player stands and what their focus might be on moving into the offseason. But I wanted to focus on the front office interviews and highlight some of the most interesting things that were said by Justin Zanik and Danny Ainge.
There is no definitive timeline on building a championship roster
At multiple times in the interview the duo mentioned their building philosophies in trying to be championship competitive at some point in the near future. Specifically, a question was asked if the overachievement and progress of Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, and Ochai Agbaji would accelerate the timeline.
Short answer: NO!
Justin Zanik actually chuckled at that question.
Long answer: We have more knowledge about what this team is and who these young guys are moving forward, but the long-term building process remains unchanged. Sure, we now have a few guys who are vastly overperforming relative to their contract values. But that just adds to the flexibility moving forward. They aren’t going to squeeze into a winning window just to force it. It’s a continuous timeline of making good decisions. They have to strike a healthy balance between the cap space they created with last summer’s trade using it through free agency, trades and picks.
At the end of the day, they just want good players on good contracts. “Ryan Smith is anxious to spend his money”, but you have to make good decisions every step of the way. A fun little roster that overachieved doesn’t mean you suddenly start pushing chips in to improve immediately. This was a season of discovery to learn who they had and who were long term pieces. It wasn’t about wins and losses, pushing for the play-in, intentionally tanking, etc. It was about evaluating each piece on the roster. Along those lines, Danny admitted an interesting thought that the first 15-20 wins of the season were with the other team missing 1-2 of their top starters. That made analyzing the roster more difficult because we weren’t playing against the best of the best regularly enough.
Players in the trade market
These two had very visible excitement about how fun this summer will be. They’ve said this many times, specifically mentioning how not-fun last summer was with no assets, no picks, no cap space, etc. But you could see a sparkle in their eyes about the opportunities they’ll have moving forward.
Danny Ainge said that they’ll be in the conversation anytime a game-changing player hits the market because of the assets they’ve accumulated. He recognizes that this doesn’t happen very often, and being in the conversation doesn’t mean you land those guys, but they are in the room now. But even when those players do become available, you still have to make the best decision. (I honestly think he was indirectly referring to the Rudy Gobert trade here, where it’s painfully obvious from the Minnesota side that they overpaid because they were determined to improve at any cost. And they ultimately made a bad decision because of that pressure.)
NBA Draft Preparation
This was one of the most interesting quotes in the entire interview. Justin Zanik said, “We’ve been studying this draft this year and even in previous years being prepared for this.” And even in previous years!? Now, I fully understand that Jazz personnel are evaluating draft classes years in advance. But the way he said that and emphasized their prep for this specific draft was interesting to me. It makes me wonder how long ago the front office knew they’d be making big trades with future draft picks as the priority. Because a year ago it was theoretically possible we wouldn’t have a single pick in this draft. Instead, we have 3 of them. I can’t wait for lottery night and to see how draft night goes and how this front office goes and gets the guys they want. I think it’s a massive draft for the future.
Danny Ainge and Playoff Basketball
Danny Ainge was asked about watching playoff basketball, and he essentially said that the only NBA basketball he truly watches to evaluate a team is playoff basketball. His goal is for the Jazz to be competitive in the playoffs. “It’s hard to hide weaknesses in the playoffs, and weaknesses are exposed in the playoffs.” I think that was a bit of a shot to the previous rendition of the Utah roster that was outrageously successful in the regular season, but experienced playoff failures multiple seasons in a row.
He also talked about the weaknesses he sees on the Jazz roster, specifically mentioning a list of 7 he’d like to address. But Will Hardy told him he had to narrow it down to 2 for them to focus and work on (which is good coaching philosophy in my opinion). Those 2 the Jazz will focus on this summer? Defense and shooting. So I expect that to be an area of priority this offseason in order to progress towards the ultimate goal of being playoff and championship competitive.