“What is going on in Utah?” was the Brian Windhorst query that ruled the summer as the Jazz’s CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge jettisoned Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a boatload of first-round picks through 2029. The answer was Utah gutting their roster and Quin Snyder walking away so the team would be free to pursue the top pick in 2023. The idea was their roster would put them in pole position for the slalom race to the bottom of the NBA hill.
Defensive specialist Royce O’Neal was traded to Brooklyn for a first-round pick. In August, Patrick Beverley was traded for Talen Horton-Tucker, one of the most overpaid 21-and-under assets in the NBA. In a league where shooting is at a premium, Horton-Tucker is one of the league’s worst, drilling a paltry 27 percent of his triples over the span of his first four seasons.
Utah completed their roster deconstruction in September when they closed the saga with a trade with Cleveland that surrendered Donovan Mitchell. What got overlooked in the fervor over the potential of the 2023-24 Jazz were the veteran rotation players they also acquired in these trades and the impact they’d have on this season. In the Gobert trade, they hustled Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt and Beverley out of Minnesota. In the Mitchell swap, Utah collected Lauri Markkanen, rookie wing Ochai Agbaji, guard Collin Sexton, plus three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027, and 2029) and two pick swaps (2026 and 2028).
Ainge’s controlled demolition of the Jazz was their lottery ticket for Victor Wembanyama. With that summer haul, Utah’s special tank unit was supposedly assembled. Instead, the charges Ainge set off appear to have sparked something else. The Jazz are 8-3 and the entire league is pondering “what is going on in Utah?” for entirely different reasons. The happy-go-lucky group Ainge cobbled together is playing without a true star, playing high-quality basketball under rookie head coach Will Hardy and possesses a camaraderie that the Mitchell-Gobert Jazz lacked.
Through 11 games, the Jazz lead the Western Conference in wins and boast the second-best winning percentage in the conference. They also led the NBA in pyrrhic victories. Much to the chagrin of Jazz fans, Utah is playing its way out of the Wembanyama race they entered this summer.
This season’s Jazz are the George Costanza Opposite method personified. Ainge attempted to assemble a unit capable of losing at a prolific rate, but in a shocking twist, unlocked a selfless group that is playing well above their pay grade. Like Costanza, they’re fat and unemployed, live with their parents, and proud of it, but it’s inexplicably working for ‘em.
Everything Ainge has done of late works out the opposite as he intended. In Boston, Ainge’s patience on the trade market wore everyone thin as he passed on delivering a bonafide superstar who could deliver them on the path to title contention. In 2018, he infamously passed on pairing a Kawhi Leonard rental with Kyrie Irving. Instead, the Raptors took a gamble and Leonard erupted for one of the most awe-inspiring campaigns in modern NBA playoff history.
Ainge plucked Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013, observed him win 55 percent of his games in eight seasons, hit a brick wall in the Conference Finals twice, then Stevens replaced him as president of basketball operations and reversed the Al Horford trade as the Celtics advanced to the Finals that eluded Ainge for the past decade.
Ultimately, Utah’s pyrrhic victories could have a residual effect a year on their roster a year from now. Eventually, the Western Conference’s elite teams will activate their pilot lights and the Jazz will be cooled down significantly. The play-in game is a nice consolation prize, but Ainge will have difficult decisions to make during the Trade Deadline. If they continue along their current pace or are packed into the center of the Western Conference playoff herd, another clearance sale may be in order.
Ainge probably should have thought of arranging a yard sale earlier for some of their rotation players he didn’t intend to host permanently on Utah’s roster. A majority of the rotation Utah has deployed have proven to be too experienced, and too team-oriented to be the nucleus of a bottom-three squad. Especially when compared to the raw, neophytes populating Oklahoma City, Houston and Orlando’s lineups on a nightly basis. On the plus side, they’ve raised their trade value.
Microwave-scoring Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson is averaging 5.3 assists a night, nearly double his career-high, during a contract year. Malik Beasley is a marksman who has been unconscious from deep. Collin Sexton is a brash and bold combo guard who can heat up quickly off the bench. Lauri Markkanen is putting his offensive scoring repertoire on display.
Ironically, two of the teams Utah acquired first-round picks from this summer, Brooklyn and Lakers are on the tumultuous, losing trajectory Ainge desired. At 4-6 and 2-7 respectively, the Nets and Lakers are on an opposite course. L.A. surrounded LeBron with some of the worst shooting lineups of his career and Brooklyn is doing the opposite of Golden State and embracing calamity and are now in Utah’s place in the NBA’s basement. As the NBA’s law of equivalent exchange dictates, the basketball gods giveth and they taketh away.
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