This column is fundamentally unfair. I’ll admit that right up front. But it’s called for, at least in a general sense.
Donovan Mitchell needs to play the role of James Harden.
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.
Mitchell is not Harden and likely never will be. The reigning MVP’s streak as the Rockets have launched themselves from subterranean levels to the upper reaches of the West has been remarkable, hitting shots like the bobbing-and-weaving number he put on the Warriors the other night for the win.
That latest achievement, stacked on top of everything else he’s done as the Rockets have transformed themselves from disappointing to dynamic, re-establishing themselves as a real threat, is emblematic of what a single great player can do for his team when his team is struggling.
The sheer force of Harden’s offensive presence has propelled the Rockets, even in the absence of the injured Chris Paul. He’s, at times, carried his teammates, giving them the confidence that comes with the knowledge that they can count on him to make big shots, make smart plays, make a difference, as the rest of them rely on what they can do to contribute.
It started with Harden and is ending with everybody else pitching in. And when that last part falls a bit, Harden is there for his guys to give them a two-stage boost.
And so, the Rockets have won 10 of 11 games and, in the jammed-up Western Conference, have risen straight through the crowd, passing other teams above them like a Saturn Five lifting off at Cape Canaveral.
Over that span, Harden is averaging over 40 points, more than nine assists and seven rebounds. In the game against the Warriors, in addition to hitting the last-second game-winner from beyond the arc, he went for 44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds.
The Rockets needed him to do what he’s done.
The Jazz are in similar need.
Over a difficult stretch of games that seems to have commenced on opening night straight through now, they’ve taken two steps up, two steps back, one step up, three steps back, three steps up, one step back. They’ve struggled to find the kind of consistency they had over that 35-game span to finish last season, when defense defined them and gave them enough of a spring forward to be adequate offensively.
The defense is rising, moving toward the elite status Quin Snyder has said it needs to find in order for the Jazz to flourish. But that’s not good enough. They still have to score the ball, maybe not like the Rockets or the Warriors, but enough to win. All that stiff resistance goes for naught when the team regularly rejects opponents, and then repeatedly hurls shots at the rim with all the touch of a Howitzer.
How many times this season have you seen the Jazz on nights when they labored to score, when one guy misses, then another, then another, then another, and the basket appears to shrink to the size of a whiskey glass?
And on other nights, one guy makes, then another, then another, then another, and the basket appears to expand to the size of a bathtub?
On the Jazz, scoring is communicable.
That’s where Mitchell comes in.
He has to make shots, not necessarily at the clip of Harden, but at least at a rate where his teammates can count on him, can rally around, can lean on him. Thus far this season, he has not done that.
He has done the exact opposite of what he said he had aimed to improve upon during the offseason — his efficiency. He said when he reviewed film of last season’s games, he couldn’t believe his coaches and veteran teammates “allowed” him to take some of the “crazy” shots he took. He planned on taking smarter shots this time around, knowing full well that he would sneak up on nobody in his second season, that teams would be keying on him.
“I’m on their board,” he said, “and I’ve got to be ready for it.”
He hasn’t been, not in any rocksteady way.
Instead, Mitchell has continued to take too many crazy shots and he’s made a low percentage of them. His shooting sits now at 41 percent, 29 percent from deep. He scores 20 points a game.
In the games the Jazz have won, Mitchell has shot 44 percent.
In the games the Jazz have lost, he’s shot 37 percent.
It’s fairly clear, and it will continue to become clearer, that when Mitchell takes and makes sane shots, the Jazz are much more likely to win. When he makes shots, it’s catching, his teammates make more shots and the Jazz as a whole become more efficient and proficient.
As their defense ascends to that elite level, the degree to which the offense rises will determine whether the Jazz will put themselves in a position in the West to not just make the playoffs, but to be favorably positioned for them.
That won’t happen without an offensive leader, a leader who hits good shots, a leader who can be relied upon by teammates to set the attack without forcing it.
Mitchell has said he needs to stay aggressive at the offensive end. Snyder has encouraged him to do so. But not to the extent where he launches bombs indiscriminately, or takes on three players in the paint on drives. He’s got to know when to stop and pop, when to dish off, when to ease off the trigger. He’s got to lower the degree of difficulty on those scoring opportunities, and avoid sloppy play.
For a player with his brains and his talent, that’s certainly attainable.
And when he attains it, the benefits that come with that discipline and productivity will beam a bright light not just on his game, but on his team’s results.
He may not be James Freaking Harden, but he is Donovan Freaking Mitchell.
And just like the Jazz, Mitchell is better than what he’s shown thus far this season.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.