Dennis Lindsey Doesn’t Need the Spotlight to Lead

May 29th, 2015 | by Dan Clayton
Largely due to this year-old partnership, Dennis Lindsey is a bit more in the background than he was a year ago. (Still from utahjazz.com)

Largely due to this year-old partnership, Dennis Lindsey is a bit more in the background than he was a year ago. (Still from utahjazz.com)

Twelve months ago, you couldn’t talk about the Utah Jazz without talking about Dennis Lindsey. Now you can, and that’s just fine with the club’s general manager.

This time last year, the state of the franchise was essentially Lindsey’s project. There was no head coach, and nobody on the roster had yet stepped up as a real face of the team. The Jazz were a collection of assets, and instead of talking about their basketball identity, fans and media talked in almost reverent tones about “the plan” for finding one. The team’s future at that point was a bit like a pile of clay: amorphous except in the mind of the sculptor.

The sculptor, and consequently the man in the spotlight, was Lindsey.

Now, another artist has been added to the mix. Fast forward to this spring’s exit interviews, where Lindsey sat shoulder to shoulder with his first and only head coach hire as the two answered questions about Utah’s 2014-15 campaign, a season that brought with it a 13-win improvement over the previous one as well as an emerging identity. Now, largely because of what Lindsey has accomplished in his first three years as GM, the questions are as much about basketball as they are about cap room and stockpiled draft picks. Players have begun to take over the narrative as they emerged into star roles, and the foundation of a system is taking shape as authored by Quin Snyder.

Lindsey will be the first to tell you he still has work to do, but the Jazz are no longer simply his science experiment. Now, it’s as much Snyder’s Jazz as it is Lindsey’s, and the latter has no complaints about that shift.

“We’re a coach-driven organization,” Lindsey said when he spoke exclusively to SCH at last week’s NBA Draft Lottery. “Jerry (Sloan) started that, and Frank (Layden) before him. In my opinion, I do my job best when we put the players and the coaches in front and then really serve them by putting the best possible group together.”

Lindsey continues to plunk away to that end, armed with 18 picks in the next four drafts1, plenty of salary cap space and a complement of talented youngsters. The hardest part of a rebuild isn’t the phase where you break a roster down for the sake of creating an asset arsenal; the hardest part, where good GMs really display their brilliance, is turning the corner towards contention, and that’s still two, three, five, ten or fifty moves away. Through some combination of internal improvement, smart drafting, and opportunistic trades and signings, Lindsey hopes to turn the Jazz into a competitive outfit.

In other words, during the busy next six weeks, Lindsey will certainly feel as though he has returned to front and center again. But in broader terms, the dialogue has shifted now. For every burning query about asset management there are two or three honest-to-goodness basketball questions.

Can Derrick Favors extend his range by another couple of feet to spread the floor in Snyder’s offense? Will the Jazz continue to be elite defensively around the anchor of Rudy Gobert? Does Gordon Hayward truly have another level ahead? When will prized Lindsey acquisition Dante Exum rediscover the tools and aggressiveness that made him the standout star of the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit? Trey Burke’s developmental path. Alec Burks’ reincorporation from injury. The list goes on, full of questions about the game of basketball.

The identity of the Jazz isn’t a nebulous path to relevance as charted in Dennis’ mind only. It’s Quin’s Jazz. It’s Gordon’s Jazz. It’s Derrick’s Jazz and Rudy’s Jazz. Someday it may even be Dante’s Jazz.

That the conversation has moved on from Lindsey is actually a credit to the decisions he has made. He’s not batting 1.000, but he’s made enough deft moves to garner a lot of faith from the fan base.

He aggressively went after and got the steal of the ’13 draft at #27 in the budding defensive stalwart Gobert, already the league’s best rim protector. And that was minutes after packaging picks in an unlikely trade to move up into the top 10 for Burke2. He came away from the ’14 draft with Exum and Rodney Hood, a player voted by Lindsey’s peers as the steal of that draft. Along the way, he has smartly signed complementary players to flexible deals, made asset-generating trades, and cleared the way for Utah’s young talent to improve.

But perhaps the most important acquisition was made almost exactly a year ago3, the one that brought another figure to the foreground and started to make Lindsey’s brainchild feel more like a venture with both Snyder and his boss both at the helm.

The year-old partnership between the two is, by all accounts, a positive and symbiotic one. To say that one brings the food to the kitchen for the other to cook would be a gross oversimplification. The two obviously consult and are aligned on a number of topics that touch both the roster and the locker room. From their first time on the podium together at Snyder’s coronation to the most recent4, it’s clear that they are aligned on everything from player performance to skill development to broader organizational principles. One of those principles, as established in Lindsey’s earlier career stops, is that coaches are the purveyors of team culture.

Lindsey’s connections to a championship culture in San Antonio are well chronicled, and there seems to be another parallel there in the way Lindsey views his role vis-à-vis that of the coach’s. RC Buford, Lindsey’s friend and former boss, is an active and respected GM, winner of the 2013-14 Executive of the Year award. Yet when people talk about where the Spurs’ philosophy and approach stem from, they talk about Gregg Popovich.

“Well, Pop’s a rockstar head coach,” Lindsey said. “That’s what five titles do.”5

Still, he doesn’t completely dismiss the analogy: “RC is a mentor, and one of my closest friends. There’s a way we both feel that a good GM should operate.” That template includes letting coaches and players shine. The same was true of Lindsey’s tenure in Houston, where erstwhile GM Carroll Dawson let coaches like Rudy Tomjanovich and Jeff Van Gundy convey the personality of the team.

That’s not to say he shies away from the part of his job that requires stepping out from behind the proverbial curtain. Lindsey certainly does well in front of a microphone or camera. He possesses a strong podium game because of his affable demeanor and measured, articulate responses. He’s completely likable and handles even sensitive (or silly) questions with poise, and because of that he would do fine were he continually in the limelight as much as he was last summer before putting Snyder out in front. But to hear him tell it, that is neither his preference nor his job.

Even the role of sitting on stage during a nationally televised lottery ceremony wasn’t his first choice, Lindsey said with a smile just minutes after ESPN’s cameras switched off for the evening.

“I know there’s a ceremonial thing I should get excited about. My wife tells me I should get excited about it. But it’s not my core personality. I prefer behind the scenes.”

While Lindsey was referring specifically to his appointment as lottery rep6 when he said that, he truly does seem comfortable letting Snyder be the voice and conscience of the team. June and July will undoubtedly feature a lot of talk about and from Lindsey, and then he’ll graciously watch as the focus gravitates right back where the basketball boss likes it to be: to the man he hired to forge the basketball ethos of the team.

 

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

8 Comments

  1. casey says:

    I love Lindsey. That is all.

  2. UtahsMrSports says:

    A couple of thoughts…….

    1. We have 18 picks over the next four drafts? Yeesh! If we have three this year, that means we are averaging 5 over the next three. Is there a breakdown somewhere of what these picks are? Id love to take a look.

    2. We often talk about Rudy Gobert as the steal of the 2013 draft, and that is a point that is impossible to argue against. But looking over the list from that draft, as of right now, is he not the best player? I really think he is the best player from that draft and if you were to redo the draft today, I think Cleveland would take him first overall (this is of course built on the assumption that Cleveland has a competent team making the pick).

    Finally, on the article itself, I think you really nailed it here. It has been so fun to watch this Jazz team grow and I feel like we are in a great place right now.

    • UtahsMrSports says:

      Never mind, I seem to have found the answer to my own question.

      http://basketball.realgm.com/nba/draft/future_drafts/detailed

      Wow. Just wow.

      • Paul Johnson says:

        That 2nd round pick from New York in 2017 might turn out to be a nice pick. Although Utah didn’t use the 35th pick last year–just traded it forward.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      thx for the comment, UMS. i agree on your rudy point. If you were take all those players and redraft them based on what we know today, I can’t imagine too many guys going higher than gobert. ‘dipo probably still goes top 3, and giannis goes much higher based on mix of performance thus far and potential. those two and rudy would probably be the top 3 in some order. noel, porter, schroder, mccollum probably the next 4 in some order.

  3. JoshG says:

    Don’t get me wrong i am a fan of DL, but moving up to get burke hasn’t really turned out. yes he is willing to make a deal, but I am not sure we received the better end of the trade. We moved up just 5 spots and added the 21st pick. I understand why he made the trade at the time, but I am getting sick of reading that it was a great trade. He rolled the dice and lost, it is going to happen. Getting Gobert was a steal. Rolled the dice and won big time. I am not a fan of Burke’s game, seems to be a good person and good teammate, but not a good fit for what we need at the time.
    Most of the draft picks that we have are 2nd picks. The value just is not great, but it is an asset. I think the price will be too much to move up this year in the draft.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      fair point, and i’m among those pretty disappointed with his development thus far. but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good trade. there have only been 16 trades in the past 12 drafts that have netted a team a top 10 pick on (or immediately leading up to) draft day, and almost ALL of them have involved a team giving up a legit star and/or taking back an albatross contract. there is almost NO precedent for a team packaging two picks and getting a top 10 without giving more up. that trey hasn’t panned out like we hoped doesn’t mean that wasn’t a good deal. if you look at the historical EWA value of a #9 pick compared to #14 and #21, it’s essentially like trading two bench role players for a starter-quality guy… it just hasn’t turned out that way.

      • Paul Johnson says:

        Trey Burke appears to be “Jimmer Fredette, Part Deux.” However, I think Burke at least belongs in the league, even if it may be as a third string point guard. Fredette, not so much.

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