Justin Zanik

Northwest Notes: Edwards, Malone, Simpson, Zanik

Anthony Edwards was so dominant in the first two rounds of the playoffs that it’s easy to forget he’s only 22. However, his age and postseason inexperience might be catching up to him in the Western Conference Finals, writes Chris Hine of The Star Tribune. The Timberwolves guard is shooting just 11-of-33 from the field so far against the Mavericks, who have thrown him off his game by mixing up coverages and using multiple defenders.

“It’s not harder to get (to the basket). They just pack the paint once you get there,” Edwards said. “So, I mean, you’ve got to make the right play because there’s three, four people in the paint. You’ve got to watch the game, so it’s all about just making the right play, and my teammates are open.”

History shows that players in their early 20s don’t enjoy a lot of postseason success. Hine points out that Edwards is going up against Kyrie Irving, who’s a decade older and has a championship ring, and Luka Doncic, who’s in his sixth NBA season and reached the conference finals two years ago. It’s difficult for Edwards to compensate for that difference in experience, but he has to figure out something quickly before the series slips away.

“With Anthony, he’s gotta pick up his decision making,” coach Chris Finch said. “I think Kyrie is actually a good example — he’s playing quick off the catch, he’s trying to beat our defensive pressure with everything on the catch, going quickly.”

There’s more from the Northwest Division:

  • Nuggets coach Michael Malone admits he probably overused his starters, which led to their exhaustion at the end of Game 7 against Minnesota, per Bennett Durando of The Denver Post. Durando notes that Denver’s starting five was on the court together for 958 minutes during the regular season, which was more than any other group over the past six years. “On one hand, we got the two seed,” Malone said. “And on the other hand, I’m watching our players play in Game 7 in the second half, and our guys looked dead tired. I think you guys probably saw the same thing. So did I run our players into the ground? I’m sure that’s definitely part of it.”
  • Colorado’s KJ Simpson had a pre-draft workout with the Nuggets this week, tweets Tyler King of The Denver Gazette. The junior point guard ranks 51st on ESPN’s big board. Denver holds the 28th and 56th picks in this year’s draft.
  • Jazz general manager Justin Zanik returned to work this week after recovering from a kidney transplant, per Alex Vejar of The Salt Lake Tribune. A spokesperson for the team said Zanik had been targeting a return shortly after the draft combine.

Jazz Notes: Zanik, Future, Markkanen, Hardy, Lofton

Speaking to Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune (subscriber link) last week, general manager Justin Zanik said the dearth of appealing options in free agency will have the Jazz looking upgrade via the trade market this offseason.

If you study the free agent trends — and this is not unique to the Jazz, this is every other team that’s not on a coast — that the actual depth and quality of the free agents is not great, and it’s not going to get any better,” Zanik said. “That doesn’t mean it’s completely out, but it’s just not going to be a main driver of how you build teams. The main driver of how you’re building teams is developing your players and adding by trade.

We’re in a more unique position than some other teams that are faced with the same free agent list that we’re looking at,” he continued. “Not only just the flexibility we have but just the multiple assets we have to deal.

The Jazz have several additional future first-round picks from Minnesota and Cleveland due to the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell trades, Larsen notes. Zanik made clear Utah is looking to add star players who may find themselves at odds with their current teams in the future.

We’ve talked before about trying to predict the NBA drama that happens,” Zanik said. “You just sit there and wait for it to come, but we’re ready.”

Here’s more on the Jazz:

  • Star forward Lauri Markkanen turns 27 next month, meaning he’s theoretically entering his prime. 2024/25 is also the final season of his current contract — he’ll make a little over $18MM next season. While Zanik said the Jazz will be opportunistic in building around Markkanen, they’re also not in a rush just to become mediocre in the next season or two, Larsen writes in the same story. “Lauri’s a hugely important piece for us now and going forward,” Zanik said. “I don’t want to waste any years of that, but you also have to do it within the timeline. We’re not trying to say, ‘Hey, Lauri, we’ll make you happy because you’ve never made the playoffs, so we’re going to burn all our picks and get some marginal improvement from an overpaid player so that maybe we’ll be a seven seed.’ Our goal is to make the playoffs and then grow from there. … (We want to) add people that are complementary to Lauri and to Walker (Kessler). That doesn’t have to be Mr. Alpha on whatever team. I’d love them to be as good or better than Lauri, but they could be a couple of really, really good role players.”
  • Next year’s draft is considered to be much stronger than the class that will be selected in June. Would the Jazz consider tanking all of next season to secure the best chance to add a prized prospect like Cooper Flagg? According to Larsen, Zanik thinks there’s too much talent on the current roster for that to be feasible, and he also thinks it’s unnecessary. “We have distinct holes on this team and roster balance stuff that has taken a couple of years to address,” he said. “We’re also betting on our own development, let alone with the rookies but the rest of our group.” Zanik also praised head coach Will Hardy and said he’s on board with the Jazz’s plans, Larsen adds.
  • In another subscriber-only story for The Salt Lake Tribune, Larsen examines the strong performance Kenneth Lofton Jr. turned in during Thursday’s victory over Houston. Larsen is particularly high on Lofton’s passing ability, writing that the 21-year-old could be a legitimately good NBA player if he gets in better shape to be more mobile defensively while also developing his three-point shot. The second-year forward/center, whose salary for 2024/25 is non-guaranteed, put up 14 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in 27 minutes yesterday, which was only his second appearance for Utah.

Northwest Notes: Zanik, Sensabaugh, Gobert, Jokic

Jazz general manager Justin Zanik underwent a physical last fall that revealed he’s suffering from kidney failure, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Doctors diagnosed Zanik with Polycystic Kidney Disease and determined that he only had 14% of his kidney left. PKD causes cysts to grow on the kidney, eventually leaving it unable to function. Zanik went through the process of finding a donor and will undergo a transplant on Tuesday.

“I’m a fixer by nature,” he said. “My job with the Jazz, my role with my family — I mean, I was a [player] agent for 15 years. I fixed a lot of s–t. I’m the one who’s supposed to help. I’m the one who’s supposed to take care of everything. I really didn’t know how to ask for help, but I had to get over it. I knew I had to get over it.”

Zanik will remain in the University of Utah’s hospital for several days once the procedure is complete, and doctors will need a few weeks to monitor how his body adjusts to the new kidney. He’ll recuperate for most of April, but he has told friends that he expects to be fully running the team again in time for draft day in June and the start of free agency in July.

The Jazz released a statement as Zanik prepares for Tuesday’s operation: “The Utah Jazz send our love and support to General Manager Justin Zanik, his wife Gina, and their family as Justin prepares for a kidney transplant to address polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder that affects kidney function. JZ is an instrumental part of our organization, and we look forward to his return in the coming weeks.”

There’s more from the Northwest Division:

  • Jazz rookie Brice Sensabaugh had been struggling with his three-point shooting before going 5-of-10 from beyond the arc Sunday night, notes Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune. Sensabaugh said it’s been an adjustment getting used to the NBA’s longer three-point line. “It’s not crazy, but during the flow of the game, it’s not even the distance, but the line can mess with your head sometimes. It’s just like kind of a mental thing a little bit,” he said.
  • Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert was upset after battling for a rebound with Chicago’s Alex Caruso on Sunday, tweets Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “I had a knee injury a couple years ago on the same play and missed a month because someone ran into my knee,” Gobert said. “I hope they look at this, because if they don’t hold people accountable, I’m gonna hold them accountable myself.”
  • Nuggets center Nikola Jokic isn’t concerned about the inflammation that’s forcing him to play with tape on his right wrist, per Johnny Askounis of Eurohoops. “I don’t know if rest can help me. In my opinion, it is an injury that I can play with,” Jokic said Sunday after posting 26 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists in Sunday’s win over Cleveland. “I feel it, but I can play with it. It kind of bothers me. So, I am kind of used to it.”

Kings’ Monte McNair Named Executive Of The Year

Having constructed the roster that snapped a record-setting 16-year playoff drought, Kings general manager Monte McNair has been named the NBA’s Executive of the Year for the 2022/23 season, the league announced today.

McNair, who controversially sent ascendant guard Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana in a blockbuster deal for Domantas Sabonis at last season’s trade deadline, supplemented the star duo of Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox this past offseason by drafting Keegan Murray, signing Malik Monk, and trading for Kevin Huerter.

Perhaps most importantly, McNair hired Mike Brown as the Kings’ new head coach after parting ways with Alvin Gentry. Brown won Coach of the Year honors after leading Sacramento to a 48-34 record and its first postseason berth since 2006.

Unlike most of the NBA’s other major postseason awards, the Executive of the Year is voted on by the league’s 30 general managers instead of 100 media members.

McNair received 16 first-place votes and showed up on 24 ballots, earning 98 total points. He beat out runner-up Koby Altman of the Cavaliers, who got seven first-place votes and was included on 21 ballots, finishing with 63 total points.

No other executive received more than two first-place votes or 20 total points. Jazz GM Justin Zanik, Nuggets GM Calvin Booth, and Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens rounded out the top five vote-getters, while sixth-place finisher Bucks general manager Jon Horst joined Stevens as the other executives who received two first-place votes. Nine additional execs received at least one vote.

Jazz Sign GM Justin Zanik To Multiyear Extension

The Jazz have signed general manager Justin Zanik to a multiyear contract extension, the team announced today in a press release.

A former player agent, Zanik originally joined the Jazz as an assistant general manager in 2013 and spent three years in that role before taking a job in the Bucks’ front office for the 2016/17 season. He returned to Utah as an assistant GM in 2017 and earned a promotion to general manager in 2019.

Although Zanik was initially below president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey in the Jazz’s front office hierarchy and is now technically working under CEO and top decision-maker Danny Ainge, he has essentially been running the front office’s day-to-day operations since his promotion to GM in 2019.

“Justin’s basketball acumen, ability to create meaningful relationships throughout the league, and management of our front office are invaluable assets,” Ainge said in a statement. “We’re thrilled that he’ll continue to lead the team.”

Zanik’s new deal is a signal that Jazz ownership is happy with the job that he and the front office did this summer reshaping the roster and building for the future.

The Jazz acquired a total of seven unprotected first-round picks, a top-five protected first-rounder, and three future first-round pick swaps in trades involving Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Royce O’Neale during the offseason, setting the franchise up to be a player in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes this season.

Danny Ainge: Jazz Players “Really Didn’t Believe In Each Other”

The Jazz tore down their foundation by trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer, and CEO Danny Ainge and general manager Justin Zanik explained why during a press conference today, writes Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Ainge, who was hired last December, said he was “curious and optimistic” when he joined the organization, but he was surprised by the atmosphere he encountered.

“What I saw during the season was a group of players that really didn’t believe in each other,” he said. “Like the whole group, I think they liked each other even more than what was reported. But I’m not sure there was a belief.”

He later explained, “I think individually they have resolve. I just don’t believe that collectively they did. So we saw a lot of players trying to do it on their own, as the belief in one another wasn’t as great as other teams I’ve been on and around.”

Ainge thought it might have been a result of a veteran team going through the motions of the regular season, so he waited for the playoffs to make any decisions. Once Utah got eliminated by Dallas in the first round, he decided to act.

“It was clear to me that the team did not perform well in the playoffs again,” Ainge said. “That was just me coming in from the outside, but that was a little bit of what the view was internally even before, you know, I made those assessments.”

There’s more from today’s press conference:

  • Remaining veterans, such as Mike ConleyBojan BogdanovicJordan Clarkson, Rudy Gay and Malik Beasley, are reportedly on the market as well, with Utah hoping to add to its collection of first-round picks. The team has 17 players with fully guaranteed contracts, so more moves are likely to happen before the start of the regular season. Age will be a consideration as Gay (36), Conley (34) and Bogdanovic (33) don’t fit the team’s rebuilding timeline. “Those conversations continue to evolve, we’ve continued to be in touch with them directly and their representation,” Zanik said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of change this summer, so it’s natural for us to have those conversations.”
  • Utah had extensive talks with the Knicks before the Cavaliers emerged as a surprise destination for Mitchell. Zanik said the Jazz were intrigued by the chance to acquire Collin Sexton and believed Cleveland’s offer was the best one available. “I think for them, they saw an opportunity to add to their team and open up a window with Donovan and a young group, I think they are going to be very good,” Zanik said. “And, you know, to get a good return, you have to give up something good as well. They certainly gave up a lot.”
  • Ainge said one of the reasons Utah is stockpiling picks is the expected quality of the draft classes in 2023 and 2024. Zanik also suggested the draft assets will be useful if the Jazz want to speed up their rebuilding process. “What those picks represent is not necessarily, oh, you’re going to keep them and just select them,” he said. “It just opens up multiple opportunities and conversations, the flexibility to acquire players, or move them to speed up the process, or to slow it down,” he said. “I look at it as a lot of different cards that you have a chance to play and be involved in these conversations — where if we didn’t have these picks … you’re just not simply part of any of those conversations.”

Jazz Notes: Mitchell, Gobert, Free Agents, Kessler

Jazz general manager Justin Zanik didn’t label Donovan Mitchell as “untouchable,” but he made it clear that moving Mitchell isn’t part of the team’s current plans, tweets Tim MacMahon of ESPN. In the wake of the Rudy Gobert trade, there has been speculation that Utah might seek to unload Mitchell and launch a full-scale rebuild, but Zanik said the organization still considers Mitchell to be a vital part of its future.

“Change is inevitable in the NBA,” Zanik responded when asked about Mitchell. “I’m not trying to be cryptic or anything else, but Donovan is on our roster and he’s a very, very important part of what we’re trying to do. Things evolve in the NBA, so I couldn’t sit here and say anybody is (untouchable). We’re trying to build a championship team, but there’s no intent there (to trade Mitchell), at all.”

Zanik added that management has been in touch with Mitchell and he “has been supportive” of the team’s offseason moves, according to Eric Walden of The Salt Lake Tribune (Twitter link). Mitchell may see more time as the primary ball-handler during the upcoming season, and CEO Danny Ainge believes he’s capable of becoming a full-time point guard (Twitter link).

There’s more on the Jazz:

  • Zanik also said the team is “in the middle of” reforming its roster and indicated that more moves are coming, Walden tweets. Addressing the Gobert trade, Zanik said the Jazz loved having Gobert to anchor their defense, but decided the offer from Minnesota was “in the best interest of the organization.”
  • The team is still considering re-signing free agents Eric Paschall, Trent Forrest and Juancho Hernangomez, Walden adds (Twitter link). “By no means have we closed the book on any of those guys,” Zanik said.
  • First-round pick Walker Kessler is dealing with a minor toe injury that he suffered during pre-draft workouts and won’t play any more in Summer League, Walden tweets. Kessler has received clearance from the team’s medical staff, but will focus on conditioning.
  • Jared Butler and Bruno Caboclo were Jazz “standouts” at the Salt Lake City Summer League, per Trent Wood of The Deseret News.

Northwest Notes: Ainge, Jazz, Hyland, Nowell, Wolves

Jazz owner Ryan Smith pitched Danny Ainge on the idea of taking on a role with the franchise during a recent trip to the Bahamas for Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge golf tournament, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon. The two men had discussions during the trip about the concept of Ainge coming aboard, then worked out a deal when they returned to Utah, resulting in the Jazz hiring Ainge as their CEO and alternate governor.

“I’ve never been ready to talk about this before, but Ryan and I had a chance to spend a lot of time together,” Ainge said, explaining that he took the last six months to spend time with family and decompress. “We hashed it out, and we were both excited about this opportunity. I think it was the timing more than anything.”

Ainge will oversee Utah’s basketball operations and will work closely with general manager Justin Zanik, who will continue to run the day-to-day operations. As Eric Walden and Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune write, the team is enthusiastic about the idea of a “collaborative” approach to the front office and isn’t all that interested in establishing a linear hierarchy in which one person ultimately makes all the decisions.

“If you’re in the league, everyone knows to call Justin right now. I think that’s pretty clear,” Smith said. “(But) I think when it comes to decision-making, we’re the kind of culture where it doesn’t really work that way. … When it comes to that, you want to be right a lot more than you’re wrong, because some decisions aren’t clear. Bringing Danny on board helps increase our chances of getting that right.”

Sources close to Ainge told Tony Jones and Jared Weiss of The Athletic that the veteran executive always wanted a Jerry West-type role that would give him the flexibility to play plenty of golf and spend time with his grandchildren. He’ll work with the Jazz every day, but won’t be putting in the 16- and 18-hour days that he became accustomed to in Boston.

Here’s more from around the Northwest:

  • Dan Clayton of Salt City Hoops, writing for The Salt Lake Tribune, provides a trade primer for the Jazz, examining the team’s needs, expendable assets, and possible targets.
  • Nuggets guard Bones Hyland was held out of Wednesday’s game for a violation of team rules, but will be available on Friday in Atlanta, according to reports from Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports and Mike Singer of The Denver Post (Twitter links).
  • Timberwolves guard Jaylen Nowell has been out of the rotation for most of the season, but has appeared in the last there games and logged a season-high 15 minutes last Friday. Nowell is hoping that he can carve out a more regular role, as Chris Hine of The Star Tribune writes. The stakes are particularly high for the 22-year-old, whose 2021/22 salary still isn’t fully guaranteed.
  • Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic takes an in-depth look at the chemistry that’s developing between the Timberwolves‘ two young franchise cornerstones, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. “If me and KAT just lock in here with each other, I feel like we will win so many more games,” Edwards said of his star teammate. “… He dominates, man. He can shoot, he can drive, he can pass, he can do everything. So playing with him makes my game a lot easier.”

Jazz Hire Danny Ainge As Alternate Governor, CEO

1:29pm: The Jazz have officially announced Ainge’s hiring, issuing a press release to confirm the news.

Rarely do you get an opportunity to come into a franchise that is this close to being a special team,” Ainge told Tim MacMahon of ESPN (Twitter link). “It’s a very unique opportunity.”

12:48pm: The Jazz are hiring Danny Ainge to be the franchise’s alternate governor and CEO, sources tell Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (Twitter link). The former Celtics executive will oversee Utah’s basketball operations, with Justin Zanik remaining in the general manager role, per Wojnarowski.

Since Ainge stepped down from his position in Boston earlier this year, Utah has been repeatedly cited as a potential landing spot for him. Ainge played his college ball at BYU and is close with team owner and governor Ryan Smith. Additionally, the Jazz have undergone some front office changes in 2021, having reassigned executive VP of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey to an advisory role, which opened the door to bring in someone new like Ainge.

At the time of Lindsey’s demotion, reports indicated that Zanik had essentially been running the day-to-day operations of the front office since 2019. It seems likely he’ll continue to do so, since Ainge recently suggested he’d prefer to join a new team as a “helper,” rather than as someone who works “18-hour days.”

Ainge’s title indicates he’ll be above Zanik in the front office hierarchy, but Wojnarowski says (via Twitter) the two executives will “work closely.”

Ainge previously served as the president of basketball operations in Boston from 2003-21. The Celtics made the postseason in all but three of his 18 seasons running the front office, taking home a championship in 2008. Ainge’s trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen helped lead the Celtics to that title.

The 2013 blockbuster deal that sent an aging Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets for a boatload of draft picks is considered one of the biggest NBA heists of the century, putting Boston in position to land Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in subsequent drafts. However, while the C’s made three Eastern Finals appearances during Ainge’s last few years in Boston, that team could never quite get over the hump, with major additions like Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving not panning out as hoped.

In Utah, Ainge will inherit a roster that appears on the verge of title contention, with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gay all locked up for multiple seasons.

Northwest Notes: Simons, Conley, Azubuike, Z. Wade

Trail Blazers forward Anfernee Simons has really started to blossom during his fourth year, writes Jason Quick of The Athletic.

A lot of Simons’ improvement appears to be a credit to his commitment to offseason workouts with longtime trainer Phil Beckner. One of Portland’s many undersized guards, Simons is averaging career highs of 12.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.4 APG and 22.8 MPG through his first five games during the 2021/22 season.

“Usually, he would train with me here and there,” Beckner said. “And at the start of the summer he wanted to know where I was going to be. I told him either Phoenix or Portland. So I asked him where he was going to be. His answer: ‘Wherever you are at.”’

“Everybody kept telling me, ‘My time is coming. My time is coming …’ and I wanted to be prepared,” Simons said. “New coach, new opportunity, and I wanted to be prepared as much as possible to show I’m ready for it. So that was my whole thing this summer: follow Phil around and get better each day.”

There’s more out of the Northwest Division:

  • 34-year-old veteran Jazz point guard Mike Conley sat out his first game of the season yesterday, a 107-99 loss to the Bulls in which the Jazz desperately could have used Conley’s leadership, in a conscientious load management decision from head coach Quin SnyderEric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune details Utah’s thinking. “It’s more of a holistic decision, and one that we think is the best for our team and for Mike,” Snyder said. “I think, given the choice, he’d try to play every back-to-back. But I’m not gonna let him do that.” Conley is set to return tonight against the Bucks, per Jazz.com.
  • Newly-installed Jazz general manager Justin Zanik addressed the decision to pick up the team’s 2022/23 option on intriguing second-year center Udoka Azubuike, writes Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune. “I was very happy with him in the summer and the work that he’s done,” Zanik said. “It’s just really hard to be in game-type shape when you’re not playing games.” Azubuike appeared in just 15 contests as a rookie.
  • 19-year-old rookie guard Zaire Wade, selected with the tenth pick in the NBA G League draft by the Salt Lake City Stars, G League affiliate to the Jazz, acknowledged grappling with detractors in his entrance to the pro ranks, writes Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune. His father, future Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade, is a part-owner of the Jazz. “I think a lot of people think that I’m not a hard-working kid and things get handed to me,” Zaire said. “Nothing’s handed to me. Coach said he noticed after the first day I stepped here, I’m just working hard trying to earn everything myself. I’m trying to make a name for myself.”