New Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge made it clear he needed a break from running the Boston Celtics. Eighteen years in Boston was long enough and there was a need for a respite.
Soon enough, a rested Ainge admitted Wednesday, he desired to return to basketball and he accepted a position with the Jazz, returning to an NBA front office in the state where he was a college basketball star.
Ainge stepped down from his position as Celtics president of basketball operations in May, exhausted from the daily grind and coming off a tremendously disappointing season. He handed the reins to Brad Stevens, who then hired Ime Udoka as coach.
Ainge hit the golf course, but said he continued to watch basketball. Eventually he realized golf, as enticing as it is for him, could not occupy all his free time.
“I’ve taken six or seven months off and I’ve gotten a good break,” he said at a press conference in Salt Lake City. “I feel like I’m energized and ready to come back and get back to work.”
Ainge said he will not be the general manager. That remains the role of Justin Zanik, who took over after Dennis Lindsey stepped down in 2019. Ainge will offer suggestions, branch out into other aspects of management and serve as a guide for Zanik. For the past few years, the Jazz have been on the cusp of being a Western Conference power, but have fallen short in the playoffs.
Perhaps a shrewd executive such as Ainge can help the Jazz upgrade the roster enough to become a championship contender. Salt Lake is a difficult place to attract major free agents, therefore the Jazz have to rely on the draft and trades to improve their roster.
Ainge helped bring the Celtics back to respectability with a series of deals, drafts and signings.
“It’s a different role as governor, but I’m not going to be the president of basketball operations, I’m not going to be the guy that’s running the day-to-day,” Ainge said. “That’s Justin. I’ll have an opportunity to communicate with him, share the experiences that I have. I have a really good feel and understanding of what the NBA is today and who those players are.
“It’s not the day-to-day load that I had [in Boston]. I’m in load management.”
Ainge made it clear he plans to work arduously at his job, but not the 18-hour days he labored in Boston. The Celtics job began to overwhelm him, affecting his health. He placed pressure on himself to bring another championship to Boston, especially after the Brooklyn trade in 2013. He signed the likes of Al Horford, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and traded for Kyrie Irving, but the best he could do with those moves was the Eastern Conference Finals.
Last year’s 36-36 record, a season complicated and marred by injuries and COVID 19, took a toll on Ainge. A team that had hopes of reaching the Finals was thumped in the first round of the playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets without Jaylen Brown and with a hobbled Walker.
Ainge stepped down a day after the elimination game.
“I just needed a break from Boston,” he said. “And, by the way, my 26 years in Boston was an amazing experience. I’ll always be grateful. One of the greatest things I’ve learned in this business is the relationships you build. Championship rings are our goals but you really build a bond when you try to work for a championship. I’m really looking forward to building new relationships here. Just being around the team today, my juices are flowing, I’m ready to go.”
The Celtics could have potentially worked out a deal to keep Ainge on as a possible consultant but he was ready to break clean from the organization and front office management. It was last week when he spoke to the media at The Tradition that he was perhaps ready for a return.
This should come as no surprise. Ainge likes to compete. He likes to win and he was ready for an new environment and new challenge. He is revered in Utah dating back to his BYU days. It remains to be seen whether Ainge will take more of an active role in player transitions or actually serve as a guide for Zanik, but what is apparent is that Ainge the competitor is still very much viable and ready to start fresh.
“Right now, Boston has moved on; they have three capable people in Brad Stevens and Austin Ainge and Mike Zarren that could run the organization by themselves,” he said. “Very capable people that have great experience in the business. I just felt the organization was in great hands moving forward.”