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What the Danny Ainge hire means for the Utah Jazz



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz may have figuratively moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday.

In season six of the ever-popular comedy "The Office," the lovable bunch at Dunder Mifflin are visited by their new CEO Jo Bennett for the first time. As she makes her initial rounds at the struggling paper company, she discovers both Jim and Michael are regional managers.

"Two guys doing one job? We gotta do something about that," Jo says, bluntly.

Later, Jim trying to defend the situation, says, "Michael handles more of the big picture stuff and I handle more of the day-to-day stuff."

Hey, that sounds awfully like the Jazz's new setup.

When the Jazz announced the hiring of Danny Ainge to the newly-created position of CEO of Utah Jazz basketball Wednesday it came with plenty of questions: Who is now leading the front office? Was general manager Justin Zanik getting demoted? Who has the final say on decisions?

Jazz owner Ryan Smith understood the questions, and so did Zanik. In the NBA world, it's common to put everything a front office does on the shoulders of one person. It's why lead executives are either praised or maligned when moves do or don't work out.

With the Ainge hire, the Jazz are trying to disrupt years of front office hierarchy. They don't care about who gets the credit (or the blame), they just want to get things right.

"You can apply this to lots of parts of your life, having a partner to go through life or raise my kids," Zanik said. "I'm very grateful for my wife. If I was doing it by myself, I'd probably be a disaster at it; she's really good at it. There's a reason that you call it an organization. There's a reason you call it a team. The team's a group of people, and we're all trying to do the same thing. And that's do our jobs."

Collectively, that job is easy to define: try to win an NBA championship. Individually, though … well, that's when things get a little murky with Ainge on board.

Smith said Zanik's role will not change. The long-time Jazz executive has been running the day-to-day operations since Dennis Lindsey stepped down (or was fired, whichever narrative you prefer) last June. So far, the moves made by the Zanik-led front office have been equivalent to batting a thousand in baseball.

Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside have been very good in their addition to the team and trading down in the draft while still grabbing Jared Butler was a clear success.

Zanik will still be doing all the stuff that led to those moves: making and receiving calls, evaluating and trying to determine the best course of action for the team. He'll just have another voice there to help.

Last summer, Ainge stepped down after 18 years of leading the Boston Celtics front office. It was a move he had been thinking about for a couple of seasons and felt it was time to move along. He was tired and burned out; he needed a break. Ainge ended his decadeslong stay in Boston and moved back to Utah where he starred at Brigham Young University.

As the summer wound down, Ainge had the impression Smith, who is a longtime friend, wanted to get him involved with the Jazz.

"We really didn't talk much about it," Ainge said. "I think he knew that I was not in the mindset of doing that. I really needed time away."

About two weeks ago, the desire to return came. He continued monitoring the league and realized that watching games alone at his home office wasn't the same as sharing the experience as part of a team; he missed it. That's when Smith came with an offer: Hop on board as CEO of the team.

It wasn't replacing Dennis Lindsey's position; it was more than that. Along with advising the front office, Ainge will serve as an alternate governor of the team, giving him the ability to represent Smith during league meetings.

"I'm not going to be the president of basketball operations," Ainge said when asked to define his new role. "I'm not going to be the guy that's running the day to day, that's going to be Justin. So I'll be having an opportunity to communicate with him and share with him the experiences that I've had. … But it's not the day-to-day load that I had — I'm in load management."

That doesn't mean he's not going to be working — just that the 18-hour days are behind him. He's done it for decades and he was ready for something that wouldn't keep him away from his family as much. But he plans on being heavily involved in the decision-making — just like all the other members of the front office.

"There's so many people that are involved in that; and at the end of the day, we all have to get together and figure out is this the best thing for the organization," Zanik said.

Smith sees decision making being a collaborative process between Ainge, Zanik, head coach Quin Snyder, scouts and numerous voices. The hope is that Ainge's vast experience will only help in getting those decisions right.

Zanik expressed his excitement of working with another mentor, and how "combining networks" will only help the team reach deals. Zanik doesn't see this as a demotion, or anything of the sort. He compared it to adding a great player or a great coach to the team. Ainge is just another resource to help Utah try and win an elusive championship.

"There's literally a guy down the street with 40 years of NBA experience, how can you not have him here?" Zanik said.

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