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.