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The Jazz are back – and the Warriors should get used to seeing them in the playoffs

Adrian Wojnarowski
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LOS ANGELES – The architect of these Utah Jazz celebrated a Game 7 victory in the quiet of a Staples Center backroom, sipping on a cold drink and flicking popcorn into his mouth. Dennis Lindsey is a reflection of his franchise’s ownership and coach and star players: Less is more.

Lindsey has engineered a textbook rebuilding job: Draft well, hire a great, young innovative coach with a penchant for player development, and slowly, surely supplement the roster with winning veterans. These Jazz were constructed and prepared for this 104-91 Game 7 dismantling of the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on Sunday night, for staying power in the playoffs for years to come. The Jazz are onto the Golden State Warriors, onto the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in seven seasons.

This ending could bring finality to this Clippers core, or simply a bridge season to bringing everyone back for a payroll and luxury-tax bill that could approach $300 million. Let JJ Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute leave and max out Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – and it’s a $170 million-plus payroll.

That isn’t sustainable, which is why the Jazz glisten as a model for persistence and process. Five years ago, Utah hired Lindsey, who had been R.C. Buford’s assistant general manager in San Antonio. Lindsey turned down GM jobs before Utah, careful to select a franchise, an ownership group that reminded him of the Holt family in San Antonio.

Gordon Hayward had 26 points and eight rebounds in the Jazz's Game 7 victory over the Clippers. (AP)
Gordon Hayward had 26 points and eight rebounds in the Jazz’s Game 7 victory over the Clippers. (AP)

“The credit goes to the Millers,” Lindsey told The Vertical on Sunday night. “If they would’ve set up short-term objectives, I would’ve capitulated to very short-term moves.

“Greg Miller pulled me aside soon after I was hired and told me, ‘We’re operators, not traders. We’re value spaced, so we want to do something that’s fundamentally sound.’ That – and having [consultant and ex-GM] Kevin O’Connor sitting next to me – gave a young executive a sense of calm.”

Five years ago, the Millers told the Jazz’s young general manager: Take your time, do it right. We’ll wait. Lindsey adored All-Star forward Paul Millsap, but let him leave in free agency because there were limits to his spending with a young, developing roster. After O’Connor drafted Gordon Hayward at No. 9, Lindsey took Rudy Gobert at No. 27 and Rodney Hood at No. 23. Lindsey and his staff hit picks, and hit them big. Lindsey hit on something else, too: the hiring of coach Quin Snyder.

After two straight losing seasons, the Jazz didn’t hedge on Snyder a year ago – they fully invested. His contract extension was for five years, league sources said. Next up: Hayward is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals ought to go a long way in convincing him that he has everything he could ever want in Utah. In Game 7, Hayward was the best player on the floor: 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists.

“I think he’s been a star for a while,” Lindsey told The Vertical. “Sometimes you need validation of the playoffs. Sometimes you need an All-Star vote, or All-Star game appearance. Sometimes you need to close a good team in a series for everybody to pay attention. But he’s as balanced of a wing as there is in the game. He plays all parts of the game.”

Lindsey delivered Hayward a point guard (George Hill) in a trade, and two veterans (Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw).

“It would be disingenuous to say that the whole thing was planned,” Lindsey told The Vertical. “I don’t know that if we got into the playoffs last year as a seventh or eighth seed, if we have George Hill today. If we sneak into the playoffs with 47 wins last year, is there an impetus for Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw? Those guys did take some of the young guys’ minutes.

“But last year, when you couple a few things together, including us being very young and being well under the salary cap and us being hurt, we had to have an appropriate response. But it was time. Gordon had improved to the point where that young core deserved more experience around them. As much as anything, it was common sense.

“When you do what we did, you’re going to have people look at you. I was the biggest Paul Millsap fan. Under the right circumstances, I wanted Paul Millsap back. But Kevin made a good point: You can’t be duplicitous in building this team, so a lot of the process was allowing Gordon to shoulder the responsibility of the team. He’s grown into that. He was at that level last year, and now he’s taken it to another level.”

On his way out of Staples Center, on his way to the Jazz charter flight to the Bay Area for a Game 1 on Tuesday night, Dennis Lindsey, a serious candidate for NBA executive of the year, was thinking about how thrilled everyone back in Salt Lake City – and all across the state – had to be with a Game 7 victory in Los Angeles. They’ve waited a long time for the Jazz to get back, and they’re there now.

Former Spurs assistant GM Dennis Lindsey has rebuilt the Jazz into a young contender. (AP)
Former Spurs assistant GM Dennis Lindsey has rebuilt the Jazz into a young contender. (AP)

“What we’re going to face in the next series – what we just faced – these are major tests for us,” Lindsey told The Vertical. “I’m really happy for our fans. It’s a basketball state. Our arena – the way it’s built, the way our fans fill it – it’s really second to none.

“Our team is fairly new to each other, but our fans like our guys. In a lot of ways, it’s Quin’s vision of the ball moving. It’s a team that’s easy for our fans to like. Our fans are sophisticated and judgmental. And I say that in a good way, because of the Karl [Malone] and John [Stockton] years. They want tough, smart, unselfish basketball. Quin’s put his twist on it – he’s delivered on those things.”

Together, they did. Slowly, surely, the Utah Jazz are back to advancing in the playoffs. It’s been a long time, but they won’t be strangers here now. These Jazz are designed for the long run, and Golden State could need to get used to seeing them every spring for years. So yes, Lindsey and Snyder, Hayward and Gobert, start on the next leg of the long journey on Tuesday night in Oakland.

They won’t make a big deal about it. Less is more. The Jazz are back.

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