OPINION: There is no "I" in Team, But Danny Ainge is the Missing Puzzle Piece for NBA Glory for the Utah Jazz
Doubles tennis, notwithstanding, basketball is the only true team sport where the addition of one key player can transform a middling team into a contender and a contender into a champion.
And in the case of the National Basketball Association, I am firmly convinced that the Utah Jazz has now acquired that final player it has needed to push it over the top to championship status.
That "player" is Danny Ainge.
Last week, to the surprise of almost no one who follows the NBA, the Utah Jazz announced it had hired Ainge as its CEO of Basketball Operations, while also naming him as its Alternate Governor with the "Association."
The Ainge resume is clearly impressive, starting as
- A three sport, All-American high school player in Oregon (at the time, the only athlete to achieve this status),
- The national collegiate basketball player of the year (while playing for the BYU Cougars from 1977–1981), and
- A three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, twice as a player (1983–84 and 1985-86) and once as an executive (2007–08)
To me, it's the championship he helped craft while he was Executive Director of Basketball Operations for the Celtics that was most impressive.
Crafting a Massive Turnaround
During the 2006–07 season, the Celts were an abysmal 24–58, the second worst record in franchise history.
At this time, Ainge had been in management with the Boston Celtics for several years.
But during the offseason (and following complaints from the arguable team leader for the Celtics, Paul Pierce), Ainge pulled off not one but two blockbuster trades, acquiring both Kevin Garnett (from the Minnesota Timberwolves) and Ray Allen (from the Seattle Supersonics).
And the moves worked.
By the time the regular season was over, the Celtics had 42 more wins than the previous year, a massive turnaround as the team finished at 66–16, the NBA's best record that season.
The finals came down to the Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers, with the superstar threesome of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen proving the difference.
For his role in this transformation, Ainge was named the NBA Executive of the Year and named by the Celtics as its President of Basketball Operations where he remained until he announced his retirement from the organization in June of this year.
Then last Wednesday came the not-too-surprising announcement when Ainge explained during the introductory press conference:
“I’m grateful for this opportunity. Ryan (Smith) and I have known each other for a while, but had I not had an opportunity recently to spend a lot of time with Dwyane Wade, Quin (Snyder), and Justin (Zanik), and felt their enthusiasm and excitement to bring me on board. … They sold me to take this opportunity.”
Of the decision to approach Ainge about this role with the Jazz, Smith said:
“This is a really unique role (for Ainge), it’s an unprecedented role. ... It really hasn’t existed for us in our ownership group. He’s been in the league for over 40 years, he’s been to the NBA Finals, he’s succeeded as a player, a coach as well as an executive for 18 years. … He brings championships to this organization.”
And it's this last comment that I believe is most telling.
The Still Unfolding Attitude Adjustment
I don't remember how long ago it was ... 15 years? 20+ years? I'm not sure. But I do remember exactly where I was and what happened.
I was driving north from Provo to our then home in Sandy on Interstate 15 and I was listening to what today is known as 1280 the Zone/97.5 the Zone, unquestionably the top sports talk radio station in Utah.
The guest was Larry H. Miller, the then owner of the Utah Jazz and the man (who almost single-handedly) had brought the Jazz to Utah and helped establish it as a winning franchise, a feat especially impressive given the fact that Utah was (and continues today) to be a "small market team."
If memory serves me well, he was being interviewed by award-winning sports writer and columnist, Gordon Monson.
During this conversation, my recollection is that Monson asked Miller about the NBA's Luxury Tax and his feelings about it.
And in summary Miller said the Jazz would never pay a Luxury Tax. Ever!
For the uninitiated, as an Association, the teams within the NBA agree to follow certain rules, guidelines and policies.
One such rule is to establish the maximum any team can pay in salaries to its players.
However, the rule also allows for a team to go over that amount, but in doing so, they agreed to pay a penalty known as a Luxury Tax back to the Association that is then shared with the other non-Luxury Tax-paying teams.
And in essence, Miller said,
"Ain't never gonna happen."
It was upon hearing this that I realized that, God-bless-him, as long as Miller was in charge, the Jazz would never win an NBA championship.
The reason being that, in my opinion, hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in Utah would require dipping into Luxury Tax realm.
And as Miller had just stated, it wasn't going to happen.
So What Has Changed?
Clearly, the management/ownership of the Utah Jazz has shifted to the Ryan+Ashley Smith-led ownership group.
Among the things that have changed, the Utah Jazz has moved from having a 2012 payroll of ~$58 million (ranked at 21-out-of-30 NBA teams) with zero Luxury Tax paid, to the estimated 6th largest payroll in the 2021–22 season at $153 million with a projected $33 million Luxury Tax.
And Quin Snyder is now the head coach, one of the most brilliant minds in basketball coaching on the planet. (Dude's an attorney; did you know that?)
And the Mitchell/Gobert-led squad is looking really, really good this season, with the fourth-best record in the Association this season (as of this afternoon).
And there were some really, really intriguing moves made in the off-season, topped by the snagging of 7-footer Hassan Whiteside and veteran forward, Rudy Gay.
But the missing piece, in my opinion?
Yup. Danny Ainge.
Dude's a playa, no doubt.
And he was won at every level at the highest level.
More importantly, he's a stone, cold killer, meaning he will do what ever it takes (legally, ethically and morally) to win.
Match Ainge with Smith and Zanik and Snyder, and look out. The Jazz are playing for keeps, starting right now.
Do I expect them to win it all in 2022? No I don't.
But within three seasons?
Yeah, I think that's the right timeframe.