Danny Ainge is screwing up the Utah Jazz rebuild by being too good at his job

Lauri Markkanen dunking

Lauri Markkanen may very well be on his way to a breakout season, something the Utah Jazz probably didn’t expect.

When Danny Ainge took over the reigns of the Utah Jazz last year, he thought he’d be breaking the team down like a B.B. King song.

Despite finishing atop the Western Conference in 2020-21 and backing that up with another 49 wins last season, Ainge (and many others) felt things had grown stale in Utah. The top-seeded Jazz were punked by Reggie Jackson, Terrance Mann and an undermanned Clippers team in the ’21 Western Conference semis, and then let Jalen Brunson tool all over them en route to an embarrassing first-round loss to the Mavs last season.

It seemed like time to break up the band, so Ainge shipped Royce O’Neale to the Nets, giving birth to the now-infamous Brian Windhorst meme, he sent Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, and then shipped Donovan Mitchell to the Cavaliers, getting back a ridiculous haul of picks in the process.

Photo of Brian Windhorst meme

Utah’s rebuild sparked this now-infamous Brian Windhorst meme.

The vision was clear– strip away the pieces that made the Jazz what they were over the last few years, take a whole bunch of L’s and buy plenty of raffle tickets to the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

But in doing so, Danny Ainge failed to account for one thing: Danny Ainge. The man is too good at his own job.

The players Ainge brought in to support his rebuild are coming together in an unexpected way, and Utah is 6-2, with wins over the Blazers (Portland’s only loss so far), Nuggets, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Grizzlies– all of whom could be West contenders this season. (Imagine shipping five first-round picks for Gobert only to lose to the squad you just forked over your future to. Embarrassing, huh, A-Rod?)

They were expected– and honestly, hoping– to be one of the worst teams in the league, but the Jazz have a stable full of quality players, from the guys who helped orchestrate their success over the last several years like Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, to newcomers like the electric Collin Sexton and a breakout star in Lauri Markkanen.

Markkanen, a former lottery pick of the Chicago Bulls back in 2017, broke out during the EuroBasket this summer, almost single-handedly carrying Finland to the quarterfinals and possibly finding himself in the process. Markkanen is averaging 21.4 points and 9 rebounds per so far this season, and he had 31 and 12 in a comfortable win over the Grizzlies on Monday night. If he keeps this up, he’s got a chance to make a run at the Most Improved Player award, and to finally realize the potential many thought he squandered in Chicago.

Look up and down the Jazz roster, and there’s no doubt– this team is bursting with talent, and they’ve got a chance to be pretty dang good for a long time. Even rookie guard Ochai Agbaji, Cleveland’s first round pick last year (No. 14 overall) after leading Kansas to a national championship, has a chance to be a stud. Agbaji hasn’t earned that many minutes yet, but he’s produced when he’s on the floor, and his presence on this squad is emblematic of the deep, talented teams Ainge has been able to build. This team is versatile and liquid, and there’s not one wasted roster spot– kind of like how he built a lot of his teams in Boston.

On second thought, maybe the hot start is exactly what Ainge would have wanted. Maybe the Jazz don’t need Victor Wembanyama in order to forge a bright future.

Maybe Danny Ainge does know what he’s doing after all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *