A Partnership in Peril

The relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is complicated, and while the two Jazz stars say they're cool, NBA execs wonder if their partnership in Utah will last.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJuly 29, 2020

The novel coronavirus that infected Utah Jazz teammates Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell didn't just prompt the entire NBA to shut down or Mitchell to give Gobert the silent treatment. It also shed light on the fact that the relationship between Mitchell and Gobert was already wobbly.

Which is why, as the NBA resumes play this week, any lingering resentment Mitchell may have over how Gobert initially didn't appear to take the virus seriously around the team is only one of the elements they must overcome to forge a bond strong enough to make the Jazz a title contender.

An even greater one, say scouts and executives around the league, is the succession of team leadership from Gobert, 28, to Mitchell, 23, a transition that is underway and will be cemented to some extent if Mitchell signs a maximum salary extension this offseason. No one questions that the Jazz would be best served with Mitchell as the undisputed team leader. No one except, perhaps, Gobert.

"Donovan is on the level of Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry and LeBron [James], as far as he can be your leader on and off the court," a Western Conference executive says. "He can be the face of your franchise. But I don't know if that can happen with Rudy there because he was the incumbent."

The organizational masthead of an NBA franchise doesn't include the playing roster, but rest assured there is a hierarchy, particularly when it comes to the team's stars. The list of perks that go to the undisputed No. 1 player is both long and varied: featured prominently on tickets, posters and other team advertising; first choice of seats on the team plane and bus and hotel suites; first choice on a variety of endorsements; depending on the team, first word on changes in practice or the team schedule.

How demanding or sensitive a player is to being given star treatment varies. One NBA coach says he once coached a star player who, whenever he came into his office, looked around and counted how many photos featured him versus other players on the team. The coach asked not to be identified out of concern it might give away the player's identity.

The challenge comes when one star player is supplanted by the emergence of another. Gobert's arrival in Salt Lake City preceded Mitchell's by four seasons. Gobert didn't become a full-time starter until the end of his third season, but he was part of the Jazz's steady evolution from a 25-win team his rookie year to a 51-win squad that pulled a first-round upset against the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2017 playoffs. That season, he also earned his first of three selections to the league's All-Defensive first team, and he further was named to the league's All-NBA second team.


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When newly minted All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward bolted for the Boston Celtics as a free agent that summer, it left Gobert as the most accomplished player on the team and, by default, as the primary building block. But not for long.

Mitchell, drafted 13th in 2017 by the Denver Nuggets and acquired for the 24th pick (Tyler Lydon) and Trey Lyles, arrived the following season. Whereas Gobert—coincidentally also acquired in a draft-night trade with the Nuggets in 2013—played sparingly his first season and spent time in the NBA Development League, Mitchell was an instant hit and helped Jazz fans get over the heartache of losing Hayward. Gobert won his first of two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards, while Mitchell finished a close second to the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons for NBA Rookie of the Year and won the award as selected by the NBPA.

The inherent message: Gobert was a great defender, while Mitchell was on his way to being a great all-around player. That inference was driven home last season when Gobert openly complained about not being selected by coaches to the Western Conference All-Star team. Fighting back tears, he told media covering the Jazz, "It's my legacy." Upon hearing that, several opponents, among them Andre Iguodala and Isaiah Thomas, mocked him via Twitter:

Gobert has fought the "defensive specialist" label ever since, never more so than this season, when his scoring average dipped for the second time in his seven-year career. The first time was when Mitchell came on board.

"Rudy wasn't doing what they wanted him to do at a certain point this season," a rival scout says. "He became enamored with his offense. He's a hard dude to play with. He can only do so much on offense. He's not a particularly skilled player."

As with most big men, he is dependent upon ball-handlers to feed him on offense. That has been a combination of Mitchell and either Ricky Rubio, now with the Phoenix Suns, or Mike Conley, acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies last summer for a package of four players and a protected first-round pick. Gobert has not been shy about letting his guards know when he was open and they missed him. When Mitchell tried to distract Gobert while he gave a postgame TV interview in mid-January, Gobert shouted at him, "Hey, pass the ball, goddamn it!"

A former Jazz teammate concedes Gobert can wear on people but dismisses the idea that he's a malcontent.

"Some people get frustrated with Rudy, but he's just French," he jokes. "He's a good guy. But he's focused on being as great as he can be, and he wants to show he can do more than just defense. ... All of us get frustrated when we're missed. [But] there are much worse ... NBA personalities than Rudy. I hate to even comment because I think it's only going to get bad if it's overspeculated in the media. If it's not, they will figure it out and be professional."

That is one benefit of being in a small media market such as Salt Lake City. In New York or Los Angeles, their issues would've provided considerably more national attention. But one Eastern Conference GM isn't convinced their rift will end.

"They should be past it, but I don't think their egos will allow it," he says. "They both want to be superstars."

The shutdown added a new dimension to what has become a complicated relationship.

In March, Gobert tested positive after a press conference in which he made light of the league's new protocol for media members to distance themselves from players and team personnel by touching the recorders and microphones on the podium. When Mitchell subsequently tested positive, there was still little known about the virus, and the fear factor was particularly high. Though Gobert issued an apology on Instagram "to the people that I may have endangered," and Jazz officials reportedly told Mitchell there was no way to know who transmitted the virus to whom or if they got it some other way, Mitchell went weeks without communicating with his co-star. According to league sources, he apparently was angry with Gobert not just for his belief Gobert infected him, thereby forcing him to undergo the uncomfortable test procedure and remain in quarantine for 14 days, but also for potentially putting more vulnerable members of the Jazz organization at risk. "Donovan is probably one of the smartest, most empathetic players in the league," one rival GM says.

Gobert and Mitchell have been asked about their relationship. "Right now, we're good," Mitchell said in a virtual press conference with reporters three weeks ago. "We're going out there ready to hoop."

For his part, Gobert told Bleacher Report in April: "Everyone has different relationships. It's never perfect. People that are married, it's never perfect. Me and my teammates, it's far from perfect, but at the end of the day, we both want the same thing, and it's winning."

The rise of Donovan Mitchell as the Jazz's leader has not gone over smoothly with the team's defensive star, Rudy Gobert.
The rise of Donovan Mitchell as the Jazz's leader has not gone over smoothly with the team's defensive star, Rudy Gobert.Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

How much of that the Jazz can do with their roster and with Mitchell and Gobert as their highest-paid players in the future is up for debate. The scouts and executives surveyed consider them a solid playoff team but not a title contender. They have more than $117 million committed to next season and only $45 million for the 2021-22 season, but that doesn't include the anticipated massive raise for Mitchell, nor Gobert or Conley, who will be unrestricted free agents.

"I wouldn't even say they're a player away from being a title contender," one Eastern Conference GM says.

They may have even taken a step back by replacing Rubio with Conley. The former longtime Grizzlies point guard was expected to be more of an inside-outside scoring threat over the passing maestro Rubio, but the scoring upgrade has been negligible. The difference on defense, meanwhile, has been noticeable. Rubio, at 6'3" and 190 pounds, has two inches and 15 pounds on Conley. With Mitchell also undersized at 6'1", it has left the Jazz vulnerable to big backcourts.

"I don't like their team with Donovan at the 2 and Conley at the 1," an Eastern Conference executive says. "They're too small. It takes size and defense away from them."

The rival scout agrees. "Mike looks like he's lost a step," he says. "It just hasn't worked out. They might want to win a championship, but it's not a realistic goal. I think they top out as a second-round team. They have too many holes. ... [Quin Snyder] is a really good coach, but he can only coach a certain type of player. They don't take risks on high-maintenance players."

That is the downside of being in a small market—it's not easy to land top-tier free agents unless a team is willing to overpay or take a chance on a player with a checkered reputation. That the Jazz have a combo as talented and accomplished as Mitchell and Gobert is a testament to executive vice president of basketball operaations Dennis Lindsey's drafting savvy. That their combo has issues to iron out is not exactly uncommon. League sources have raised questions about how well Denver's Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Washington's John Wall and Bradley Beal and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons get along. And recent NBA history is littered with dynamic duos who had highly publicized conflicts: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, to name three examples.

The Jazz would be thrilled if Mitchell and Gobert rose to the level of those latter pairs, all of whom reached the Finals at least once together. And while Mitchell and Gobert were first-time All-Stars this season, they're not there yet. Of course, there's one other distinction those last accomplished duos have.

They're no longer together.

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.

Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher and Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.


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