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Utah Jazz Confront Elephant in the Room to Keep Stars Long-Term

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 26, 2021

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell looks at the scoreboard during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

In today's NBA, front offices draft a superstar like Donovan Mitchell and then spend the next nine years recruiting that player to stick around for a third contract.

Favors are done. Players' friends and family can find themselves in formal roles within an organization. That ongoing recruitment entails far more than adding complementary players on the superstar's timeline.

"The only chance you have to win a championship is to have one of those guys," said a veteran NBA coach. "If you're in a small market, you gotta do everything in your power to keep them—because you only get one every 40 years—without sacrificing your organization's principles."

But in Utah, the Jazz may have to go further, beyond paying the luxury tax to support the league's sixth-highest payroll. It's not just Utah's market size, 22nd in terms of television reach.  Players and coaches are quick to rank Salt Lake City among their least preferred road destinations. That does no favors, of course, in free agency. Lest we forget LeBron James' subtle jab during last season's All-Star draft.

Salt Lake City is not only the smallest NBA market by population but one that is made up of an overwhelmingly white demographic. According to 2019 census data, 72.84 percent of Salt Lake City is white, compared to only 2.61 percent of its population being Black or African American.

For a league in which its players are predominantly Black, Salt Lake City's lack of diversity has always posed a specific challenge for Jazz executives. Utah personnel discuss the dynamic quite openly. New owner Ryan Smith and his basketball operations team now seem to be making efforts to help their 25-year-old elite playmaker in Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and other Jazz players feel more at home in the city.

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Mitchell has communicated to Jazz officials his own determined commitment to uplift Black men with equal employment opportunities. Mitchell's head of security, Frank Darnold, is African American. The Jazz, in turn, bolstered Quin Snyder's staff with Irv Roland, a noted skills trainer and former Rockets assistant coach. They expanded their front office with several new hires and promoted Marquis Newman to director of pro personnel. General manager Justin Zanik is credited with bringing aboard former Nike executive Chuck Terrell as senior director of basketball intelligence and noted draft evaluator Luca Desta as vice president of global scouting—all of whom are Black.

Smith's biggest swing was bringing former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade into Utah's ownership group. Wade, one of Mitchell's closest mentors, brings the organization a level of leaguewide credibility in its courtside seats and into its boardrooms.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

One source with knowledge of the situation maintained Mitchell had no involvement in Wade purchasing a stake in the team. In any case, it's a move many league observers have viewed as a direct attempt by Smith to appease Mitchell, who first formed a strong connection with Wade through their representation at Creative Artists Agency.

"It's a little bit of new-owner syndrome, too," said an assistant general manager. "You come in, and you're immediately told, 'The star player, you want them to like you.'"

Wade has already proved to be a valuable voice in Mitchell's ear and would have been a trusted mentor regardless of his official involvement with Utah. He scoured Jazz film during the first round of the 2019 playoffs and texted Mitchell a long message full of feedback ahead of a Game 4 victory that kept Utah's chances alive.

Star-driven personnel moves happen across the league frequently. Thanasis Antetokounmpo will likely play for the Bucks as long as Giannis does. Portland is rostering 6'4" wing Keljin Blevins, cousin of Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard, on a two-way contract for the second straight season. The Charlotte Hornets brought LiAngelo Ball to Summer League, training camp and now the franchise's G League outfit in Greensboro. Even in glitzier markets, like Brooklyn, major decisions are rarely finalized without consulting a team's marquee player. "If I had Kevin Durant," added the veteran coach, "I'd do whatever the f--k he says, too."

League observers have noted how Utah joined that long list. Wade is considered to wield strong influence alongside Smith in the Jazz decision tree. During the 2021 NBA draft, Utah sent a protected second-round pick to the Golden State Warriors to acquire swingman Eric Paschall, who once lived down the street from Mitchell in New York's Westchester County.

There does not appear to be any connection between Mitchell's interests and the ouster of former president Dennis Lindsey. That decision stemmed largely, sources confirmed to B/R, from a rift between the executive and Snyder in which Smith sided with his head coach. Jazz staffers point specifically to Lindsey selecting Udoka Azubuike in the first round of the 2020 draft, as well as other draft additions that failed to make an NBA impact as a main stimulant in the turmoil between the president and Snyder.

Utah's decision this offseason that raised the most eyebrows around the league came in September when Utah parted ways with its vice president of performance health care Mike Elliott. Injuries hampered the Jazz's postseason stretch last season, with Mike Conley missing the majority of the team's second-round loss to the Clippers with a hamstring injury. It became well known in league circles how Mitchell was notably frustrated when Utah's medical staff urged to keep him sidelined for Game 1 of the Jazz's first round matchup vs. the Memphis Grizzlies, which resulted in a loss.

Utah announced in a statement that Elliott "decided to pursue other opportunities," yet the context appears quite clear.

Zanik denied to reporters Elliott's departure was related to any friction with Mitchell. "With the training staff, there wasn't any impetus to change it because of any events last year," the general manager said. "Look, injuries happen. With return to play, there's always, you know, a bit of a debate and negotiation between players and doctors and health performance people. That has nothing to do with it."

But if it did, if it even came at the specific behest of Mitchell, few rival executives would fault the Jazz for hiring a new athletic trainer to treat Mitchell this season. "That's the way of the NBA," said one Western Conference player personnel executive. "Every team has s--t that they gotta do, or that they do, to cater to their players."

Especially when other teams are stacking their deck to make an earnest pursuit for your star.

There's a player option in the fifth year of Mitchell's $163 million contract, which still wouldn't let the All-Star reach free agency until 2025 at the earliest. And despite the superstar trade request seemingly more en vogue than ever, the Jazz appear to be doing just fine building around Mitchell in Utah. Around the NBA, he's known as a team-oriented and affable leader, believing this group can compete for a championship. Utah did finish top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season.

As other teams like the Nets spent training camp in destinations like San Diego, Mitchell was vocal about the Jazz conducting training camp out of market, sources said, which led to Utah holding workouts in Las Vegas. The Jazz bunkered down in the Wynn hotel, creating an environment Snyder's coaching staff valued, similar to the Orlando bubble experience. 

The Jazz even recreated the bubble's side-by-side practice courts in a cavernous convention room, and players and staffers spoke of feeling fresher without having to ride a team bus or drive into the facility. Each morning players hung out in a private breakfast lounge, and any Jazz member could freely hit the pool during downtime.

Whether that heightened camaraderie can be a secret ingredient in the Western Conference playoff picture remains to be seen. Then we'll have the final piece to solidify Mitchell and Utah's puzzle.

     

Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.

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