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In the last six years, the Jazz have made the playoffs every year but failed to make it past the second round. Jazz fans have seen some devastating playoff defeats in these six years.
Losing to a Kawhi-less Clippers in the second round in 2021 was heartbreaking. Watching Donovan Mitchell average over 36 ppg in a seven-game series loss to Denver in the 2020 bubble was even more so.
A little over a month after losing to the Mavericks in the first round of this year’s playoffs, Quin Snyder stepped down after eight seasons as head coach. Three weeks later, the Jazz traded Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert in about two days, acquiring six first-round picks in return. Many fans believed that the Jazz were headed towards a rebuild after trading away two key defensive pieces, one of which has won three defensive players of the year awards. What many people forget is, that Danny Ainge recently accepted a deal to become the CEO of Utah Jazz.
On December 15th, 2021, Danny Ainge joined the Jazz after spending 18 years with the Boston Celtics, serving as both President and GM during his time there. Ainge was a controversial figure during his time with the Celtics, often making aggressive moves and trading away fan-favorite players. One thing is for sure, the moves Ainge made during his time in Boston set the team up for success.
Ainge’s History in Boston
After finishing with a 24-58 record in 2006-2007, Ainge made two bold moves. Overnight, he traded for Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Garnett and Seattle Supersonics’ Ray Allen, making Boston immediate title contenders. In 2007-2008, the Celtics made the best single-single improvement in NBA history, winning 42 more games than the year before, and finishing with a 66-16 record. More importantly, they won their first NBA championship ring in 22 years. The Celtics returned to the finals and battled the Lakers in 2009 and 2010, losing both times. Despite these defeats, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen cemented themselves as one of the best big threes in NBA history.
Following playoff losses to the Heat in 2011 and Knicks in 2012, Ainge made another blockbuster trade. He shipped aging stars, Garnett and Pierce, along with Jason Terry and D.J. White to Brooklyn. In return, the Celtics acquired five players, Brooklyn’s 2014, 2016, and 2018 first-round pick, along with a 2017 pick swap. While many at the time thought this trade meant the Celtics were headed towards a rebuild, this deal is looked back on as one of the most lopsided in NBA history, in favor of the Celtics.
Over the next 5 years, the Celtics used these picks to transform their team into perennial contenders. In 2014, Ainge drafted Marcus Smart. In 2016 and 2017 the Celtics drafted star duo Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Finally, in 2018 the Celtics drafted rising star Robert Williams III.
Since 2018, the Celtics have made the NBA finals and the conference finals on two other occasions. While they have not won a championship since 2008, Ainge has acquired the necessary pieces to get them there. He turned one of the worst teams in the NBA in 2006 and a team aging quickly in 2012 into championship contenders.
Hope for Utah?
Ainge’s successful history with blockbuster trades gives Utah fans hope. Not only that, but Ainge recently brought in one of his young assistant coaches from the Celtics and signed him to a long-term contract. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic that the Jazz will get over their second-round woes soon.
The biggest question remains about Mitchell’s desire to stay in Utah. It has been previously reported that he is unhappy with Snyder’s resignation, as well as their recent trades to acquire picks. Ainge has a young star, in Mitchell, who is the face of the franchise, and retaining him is essential for the future success of the team.
Let’s explore some possible future scenarios for Utah:
If the Jazz went into next season with the roster they have now, they would compete for a playoff spot. They would not be a bad team, by any means, but there is little hope they would win a playoff series without their star center. They would likely make the play-in and potentially win a couple of games in the first round if they make it that far.
That is not enough for young star Donovan Mitchell, who wants success now. He does not want to wait around for a Celtics-like rebuild and waste his prime years playing for a team competing to just make the playoffs.
What can the Jazz do now to keep Mitchell happy and contend for championships?
They could trade for Deandre Ayton.
Ayton is a restricted free agent whom the Suns do not want to pay. He will likely go through a sign-and-trade transaction where he will play for a new team in 2023. With the rise of small-ball lineups to increase three-point shooting efficiency, and teams already having starting centers, many organizations are not looking to sign Ayton. After trading away star center, Rudy Gobert, the Jazz is the perfect destination for him.
Ayton is much better on the offensive side of the ball than Gobert and is seven years younger. He has a lot of potential growth as a player, and while he will probably never reach Gobert levels on defense, he can turn into a better defensive stopper. Acquiring Ayton would likely take two or three first-round picks, something the Jazz have in abundance now, and a solid role player. Without giving up too many assets, the Jazz can immediately enter the race for a top-four seed in the West, with lots of potential for future growth.
Ainge can build around the core of Mitchell and Ayton in free agency and the draft over the next 2-3 seasons. If they can sign these two to long-term contracts, then there is real hope for championship contention within the organization.
Drafting is one of Ainge’s strong suits. His success drafting in the last decade in Boston is impressive and if the Jazz can capitalize on their three first-round picks in 2023 the future looks bright.
Let’s say the Jazz do not acquire Ayton.
With seven first-round picks in the next four years, the Jazz will be able to build a strong core of players through the draft. If they want to keep Mitchell happy, they will need to use some of these picks to build a team with a mix of proven players and talented draft picks.
The direction that the organization will take is unknown. Whether they look to acquire Ayton, or other proven players to build around Mitchell is up in the air. Mitchell might get so frustrated with the organization that he requests a trade.
Regardless, the future is bright for Utah. If Ainge can replicate his success in Boston with the Jazz, they will get over their second-round hump within the next five years and be competing for championships.