Utah Jazz fans should be worried about Danny Ainge leading a rebuild of drafted players

Danny Ainge is famously a bad drafter.
Phoenix Suns v Utah Jazz
Phoenix Suns v Utah Jazz / Alex Goodlett/GettyImages

The Utah Jazz made the bold move to hire Danny Ainge as the CEO of basketball operations in 2021, months after retiring from the Boston Celtics where he held a similar position. The move was seen as a coup for the Jazz, as Ainge was credited with the Celtics winning the 2008 NBA Title, and landing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in back-to-back drafts.

So when he started meddling with things, trading away guys like Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Bojan Bogdanovic, all because the Jazz had reached their supposed ceiling, fans embraced it. He was the man who led the Celtics back to relevancy after years of missing out on the playoffs. Yet, public sentiment towards Ainge has waned in back-to-back seasons in Salt Lake City.

While bosting a credible and playoff-worthy roster in each of the last two seasons, all while telling fans they aren't just going to give up, the Jazz end up doing exactly that two-thirds of the season through. They sold off key assets at the trade deadline and ended up going into a tank for the last third of the season in back-to-back years.

The fact this has happened in back-to-back seasons, with a team good enough to make the playoffs, has irritated fans and has had many wondering if Ainge is all that he's cracked up to be. After all, outside of 2008, what has he done to prove he's worth having over someone with lesser name value? In a lot of ways, Ainge can be seen in the same light as former Celtics championship head coach Doc Rivers. A guy who peaked in 2008 and has done just enough to stay in the NBA.

Ainge isn't without his highlights, as it's hard to argue that he didn't pull off the heist of the year in 2007 when he traded for Kevin Garnett and gave up nothing of value for him. The fact is, aside from that summer when he also landed Ray Allen, he never built a championship winner. He's come close a few times and has a history of making big signings or trades; namely for former Jazz star Gordon Hayward and former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving.

Yet, neither turned out to be major players for the Celtics. Hayward would leave for the Charlotte Hornets in 2020 after a few injury-plagued years, and Irving would sign with the Brooklyn Nets the year prior in 2019. Two of his biggest signings ever for the franchise, are gone, with nothing to show for it.

How can someone who can land such vaunted free agents fumble the bag so many times?

But what's even more baffling, beyond his ability to acquire major talent and turn them into title winners, is his inability to draft. From 2003 to 2021, Ainge had 50 draft picks to use to his advantage. About 14 more than the usual NBA team across the same time frame.

More than half of those picks, 29 to be exact, were first-round selections and seven of them were in the NBA Lottery. If we're being generous, three of those drafted players, Brown, Tatum, and Marcus Smart rose to the All-Star or All-NBA level. Another eight, Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, Matisse Thybulle, Desmond Bane, and Aaron Nesmith, could be (currently) described as "starters", though Thybulle, Bane, and Nesmith only blossomed after they left Boston.

While another eight, Dahntay Jones, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green E'Twaun Moore, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Payton Prichard are solid role players or bench guys.

The rest were all busts or wasted picks. If you want to quantify first-rounders who come off the bench as successes, then Ainge is selecting a worthwhile player 38% of the time in the NBA Draft. If we don't want to, and why would we, that's a success rate of 28.9%. And if we want to be sticklers, only two of his lottery picks, Brown and Tatum, have lived up to their lofty lottery expectations. Smart's a good player, but after seeing how his career has gone, he shouldn't have been a lottery pick. Lottery picks are supposed to be major game-changers, and all he really does is play good defense.

You need players like that, but you don't want to give up a Top 10 pick on an above average defender.

Considering that, by any measure you want to cut it, Ainge has a shakey history of drafting, it's fair to be concerned about the team over-relying on the draft to build a winning roster. Ainge doesn't hit on guys who aren't in the Top 10, that's the fact of the matter and even when he gets a Top 10 pick, it's not a guarantee.

This makes what Ainge is doing in 2024 even more scary.

When we think about the fact that Ainge traded away Kelly Olynyk, Simone Fontecchio, and Ochai Agbaji for a very late first-round pick and a very early second-round pick, it makes this season feel even more of a waste. He traded away good, quality players, for next to nothing (at least in his hands), and all so he could have an outside shot at a Top 10 pick. A pick that even if he hits on it, may not be enough to salvage the debacle this tenure of Jazz basketball is quickly becoming.

With players like Lauri Markkanen sounding like he's ready for a change, and the lack of effort we're seeing each night, it's hard to argue that one lottery pick was worth all the damage these decisions have done to player morale.

The Utah Jazz may end up losing Markkanen for next to nothing, wasting one of the better players' prime years and if that happens due to Ainge's quest to tank, then this could be seen as the worst era of Jazz basketball ever.

And all because the Jazz signed the Doc Rivers of club presidents.