For reasons that no one could have predicted, the Jazz again finds itself coping with a damaged relationship that threatens to define the organization’s future. Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the novel coronavirus not only shut down the NBA season March 11, it left Utah’s star core at odds after Donovan Mitchell also tested positive. Although Gobert apologized for willfully touching his teammates and their belongings, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and filmed a public service announcement, Mitchell hasn’t been quick to forgive and make nice with his teammate.
During a March interview with “Good Morning America,” Mitchell indirectly confirmed reports that he was upset with Gobert in the aftermath of his positive test, acknowledging that “it took a while for me to kind of cool off.” Last week, the Athletic reported that the relationship between the stars “doesn’t appear salvageable.” Mitchell, who is active on social media, hasn’t said much about Gobert other than that he is “glad he is doing okay.” Gobert acknowledged Sunday in a Bleacher Report interview that the two “didn’t speak for a while” and that the dynamic was “far from perfect,” but he added that they had connected in recent days and that they were both “ready to go out there and win a championship for this team.”
Gobert, a two-time NBA defensive player of the year, has been Utah’s backbone for five years, leading a top-three defense for three straight seasons and playing a central role in playoff series victories in 2017 and 2018.
Looking ahead, though, there’s no question Mitchell is Utah’s most important piece. The 23-year-old guard is a quintessential franchise player, the type of person and talent that small-market teams are desperate to land in the draft. Mitchell is reliable, exciting, marketable, media-friendly and a fan favorite. He hasn’t completed his rookie contract, so an upcoming extension could lock him into place for the next half-decade.
In a dream world, resentments fade. In reality, Mitchell’s happiness and comfort should be Utah’s priorities. Star basketball duos have broken up over a lot less than this life-changing, society-altering event. Trading Gobert wouldn’t be an act of scapegoating or appeasement. Rather, it would be an acknowledgment of the extraordinary, emotional circumstances and a pragmatic play for a fresh start.
Utah definitely would be worse without Gobert in the short term, but there would be clear long-term benefits for Mitchell. This isn’t exactly a Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant situation, but a trade would grant Mitchell more acclaim, more touches, more shots, more room to work and a more modern offense.
Gobert is one of the NBA’s least stretchy players: 84 percent of his shots this season came from within three feet, and 99 percent came from within 10 feet. He’s a high-efficiency finisher who creates room for shooters as a lob threat, but he invariably closes driving lanes for his guards. Utah also plays at the sixth-slowest pace in the league, in part because Gobert is a dominant half-court defender who isn’t the fleetest of foot end to end.
Even though it might take a few years to rework the roster around Mitchell, the possibilities are tantalizing. Imagine a younger version of Russell Westbrook on the new-look Houston Rockets, surrounded by four shooters so he can attack the basket with no help defenders in the paint. Mitchell would get to the free throw line, finish around the basket and take off in transition more often, thereby generating more opportunities for him as a drive-and-kick playmaker.
At their peak, the John Stockton- and Karl Malone-led Jazz was methodical and feisty — not necessarily action-packed. A team crafted in Mitchell’s image could be the most dynamic in recent franchise history.
Perhaps more importantly, the NBA’s style of play is getting faster and more versatile every year. Gobert is a major positive impact player capable of lifting a team’s floor, but his limitations as a defender in space and the dependent nature of his offense have contributed to Utah’s quick postseason losses against the Western Conference’s best teams. More likely than not, Gobert’s utility and ability to command a game will slip as he ages and as the game continues to evolve.
Outside suitors seeking a stable building block still should have interest in Gobert, who is 27 and under contract through the 2020-21 season. Drop Gobert on almost any of the league’s bottom-10 teams, and their outlooks markedly improve. Although Utah is unlikely to receive a haul in return because of his impending free agency and on-court limitations, this trade would be more about choosing a path rather than asset accumulation.
If Williams and Sloan represent the perils of inaction, the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent retooling effort offers a blueprint for moving on from a major split. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland as a free agent in 2015, stranding ascendant guard Damian Lillard. Expectations plunged, and the front office’s subsequent moves weren’t always ideal. Yet Lillard blossomed as a leader and an alpha scorer without Aldridge, cementing his bond with the fan base with dramatic game-winners and all-star selections. Portland made the playoffs every year from 2015 to 2019, including a surprise trip to the conference finals last season.
Betting on and gradually building around Lillard, a dynamic scorer and beloved local icon like Mitchell, has paid major dividends. The Jazz is in an unprecedented situation through no fault of its own, but it must remember that an unhappy Mitchell would make things far worse.
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