Rudy Gobert, in the run-up to an NBA regular season that is now barreling toward the Jazz, said something that deserves further review. He said, “We want to be world champions.”
As is his way, Gobert was being 100-percent earnest, as serious as a boss on a deep-sea oil rig. He wasn’t fooling around, or joking in any manner. He said it with a face as straight as they come.
The question is: Is he delusional?
And another: Was this a case of a supremely confident athlete purposely overshooting the mark, an optimistic, proud man who was aiming for the stars, knowing full well he would land in the trees, as opposed to one who was aiming for the trees and landing in the mud?
No, it was not. He said it a second time, for emphasis, as though the person for whom the words were intended, the one who was doubting them, wasn’t quite able to hear.
Yet another question: Can anyone hear them?
When Donovan Mitchell recently said the “Jazz can be great,” still another question arose: What exactly does that mean?
Does it mean, great, as in great great, great like Rudy said they want to be, or does it mean great in the sense that the Jazz can improve and be better than they’ve been for a decade or so, that they can surprise beyond what they did last season, when they made the playoffs and worked through to the conference semifinals?
He put no qualifiers on it, even if he might have meant to.
The Jazz were a nice little story last season. Now, they say they aim to get serious. To get this whole thing out on the track to see what it can really do.
In the West, the obvious buzzkill to such positivity by the Jazz’s two best players is … You-Know-Who, the Golden State Warriors, the defending champs and one of the best teams ever to play in the NBA.
They are, or at least have been, great great.
They are the diamond-ring-wearing standard by which even Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said the team measures itself. And there are other not-so-buried landmines around the conference, opponents such as the Rockets, a slightly different version of which bumped the Jazz out of the postseason last time around.
There hasn’t been as much optimism around the Jazz as exists around them now since Stockton and Malone were combining for their best runs. And that was some 20 seasons back. Even when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer took the Jazz to the conference finals, there wasn’t this kind of stir.
The players, including Gobert and Mitchell, have expressed that positive vibe without disturbing it by way of bombastic predictions or pronouncements. Giving just hints. Gobert said the Jazz want to be world champs, not that they are planning on it. Mitchell’s definition of great remained unadorned with or unencumbered by specificity.
Again, a question: Is there any way the Jazz could win the West?
They are a fashionable pick to be one of the best teams in the conference, much of that stemming from their 29-6 run to finish last season. Their defensive performance, crafted as it was by Quin Snyder and led by Gobert, the NBA’s best defender, is primary evidence for those kinds of favorable guesses.
With those, though, under the best of circumstances, is the splash around the Jazz just a treading of the water until the Warriors are decimated by free agency or injury or ego or disinterest or some other decline that has little or less or nothing to do with the Jazz’s ascent? Which is to ask, is the entire exercise in 2018-19 a foregone conclusion, one that might be enjoyable deep in the throes of the night-by-night battle, in the entertainment that emanates via the overarching love of the game, but also, ultimately, a competitive waste of time?
That’s not the way Gobert looks at it.
Although they were utterly different situations, far removed from the urgency and intensity of the postseason, he remembers what the Jazz did to Golden State in those three lopsided wins last year, games in which Utah’s resistance troubled the Warriors and its offense piled up ridiculous margins of victory.
Maybe Golden State was injured or bored during those contests — yes, probably — but the Jazz have not forgotten them, nor what worked in achieving them. The way they figure it, there was more to those outcomes than simple happy, advantageous fortune.
If any individual outcome matters one iota in the elongated grind of a brutal NBA schedule, a slate that numbs some teams to the point of fogging over particular performances, circle the game on the night of Oct. 19 at Vivint Arena, a game that will be nationally televised, and which happens to be the second game of the season. That’s when the Warriors will face off with the Jazz.
It’s probably a regular-season game like any other for Golden State, a glistening franchise so successful that it gets every opponent’s best shot every time out. But for the Jazz, it means a little something more. If they lose, they’ll brush it off as just another game, but if they win, they’ll see it as more. How they do in their 81 other games will matter numerically just as much.
But when you’re aiming for the stars to land among them, not in the trees or in the mud, that’s the kind of competitive moment that is a big deal, one that can remind — and reinforce to — a young aspiring team of what it is capable.
It opens ears and removes some of the doubt lodged between them.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.