“I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level,” O’Neal told Mitchell, the Utah Jazz’s all-star guard. “I said it on purpose, and I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?”
Mitchell, who had just scored 36 points to lead the streaking Jazz to its seventh straight win, replied: “All right.” After a long pause that turned the tables back on O’Neal, Mitchell added: “That’s it. That’s it. Shaq, I’ve been hearing that since my rookie year. I’m just going to get better and do what I do.”
Online, Jazz fans erupted at O’Neal for his clumsy motivational query. In O’Neal’s defense, the coronavirus pandemic has limited media access at games, forcing the analyst and entertainer to play out of position.
The Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday came to Mitchell’s defense, passing “House Resolution Honoring Donovan Mitchell over Shaquille O’Neal,” which poked fun at O’Neal’s free throw shooting percentage and “Kazaam,” among other things.
Ironically, O’Neal’s question to Mitchell got at the heart of Utah’s early-season success, which has been driven collectively rather than individually. The Jazz doesn’t need Mitchell to be a one-man army because it has constructed a high-efficiency attack around him that relies on scoring balance.
Mitchell, 24, is averaging a career-high 24.3 points, but his numbers are virtually identical to last season’s. Even so, the Jazz (12-4) has responded to its first-round bubble exit by storming out of the gates with the NBA’s third-best record through Sunday. And after years of crafting a defense-first identity around Rudy Gobert, the Jazz boasts a top-five offense to pair with a top-five defense.
Utah’s red-hot start owes largely to its historic three-point shooting and its deep commitment to perimeter offense. Through Sunday, the Jazz was attempting 41.6 three-pointers per game and making 40.3 percent. No team in NBA history — not even Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors or James Harden’s Houston Rockets at their peaks — has finished a season in the 40/40 club by attempting 40 threes per game and hitting 40 percent of them.
Utah’s efficiency will almost certainly regress, but the fact that it has climbed to these heights is a major development, given the franchise’s reluctance to shoot threes dating from the Jerry Sloan era. Utah ranked 15th or worse on three-point attempts every year from 2000 through 2017, often placing in the bottom five.
Quin Snyder’s 2014 arrival as coach and Mitchell’s 2017 draft selection changed that, although the Jazz still spent most of the past decade looking like dinosaurs in the modern era. While cutting-edge teams pushed the pace, constructed outside-in offenses and deployed small-ball lineups, the Jazz typically played slow, sometimes used lineups with two centers and lost to more prolific shooting teams such as the Warriors and the Rockets in the playoffs.
This season, though, the Jazz ranks third in three-point attempts and second in three-point efficiency, thanks to Mitchell, point guard Mike Conley and sixth man Jordan Clarkson, who are averaging career highs for three-point attempts. While Gobert and backup center Derrick Favors remain non-shooters, virtually every other rotation player is a threat from beyond the arc. Utah’s favorite lineups feature four shooters, and Snyder’s egalitarian offense encourages ball movement and precise passing that set up higher-percentage catch-and-shoot opportunities. Six Jazz players are attempting at least four three-pointers per game, and five average at least two assists.
When things are rolling, the Utah attack can be a thing of beauty: The Jazz claimed its eighth straight win by smacking the Warriors, 127-108, on Saturday, scoring 77 points in the first half and jacking up 50 three-pointers on the night. Eight Jazz players hit at least one three, and six finished in double figures.
“They’re trying to win a championship right now, and I think they’re capable of doing so,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “The continuity is apparent right away. They execute their stuff beautifully. What’s different this year is that they’re hunting threes more quickly and more often. That’s given them an even tougher dynamic.”
O’Neal might be right that Mitchell isn’t capable of carrying a team to the promised land by himself, but the Jazz would be foolish to ask that of him. Utah’s path to upsetting superstar-driven teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets cannot rely on Mitchell outdueling LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant.
Instead, Utah’s championship formula resembles the 2004 Detroit Pistons or the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, hoping that discipline, unselfishness and togetherness can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It might not work, but it clearly beats the alternative. O’Neal should know: His Lakers lost to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals.
Challenging Mitchell to raise his solo game misses the whole point of the Jazz, which thrives on its star guard’s willingness to buy into an offense that spreads the wealth at the expense of his statistics and fame. Snyder has praised Mitchell’s “focus on his efficiency and his decision-making,” and rightfully so. Mitchell’s commitments have modernized the Jazz and positioned it as a new threat to the two Los Angeles favorites in the West.
“When we shoot the ball well and defend,” Mitchell said Saturday, “we can be scary.”