One by one, and, in some cases, two by two, the Jazz entered the interview room on Monday during the team’s media day at Vivint Arena. It was symbolic and fitting that Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert took their turn together.
With all the moves the Jazz made during their offseason, one fact remains the same: If the Jazz are going to realize their ambitious intention of contending for a title this season, a season that starts in earnest now, these two will be not just at the heart of it, they will be the heart of it.
Noting the Jazz’s additions and improvements, Mitchell said: “It shows how much they want to support the two of us. It’s really on us at this point. We’re ready for that challenge.”
Said Gobert: “They built the team around us. … It’s on me to be the guy I’ve been defensively, even better, and offensively, to be the guy that I’ve been and keep showing that I’m getting better every year. … If we share the ball and play as a team and defend with the mindset that we know every possession matters, I think we’re going to be very hard to beat.”
A team that strengthened itself, then, in the very areas where it was the weakest — namely, everywhere but at the center and off-guard positions — with the substantial services of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay, still will depend on its two stars to be … bigger stars. Maybe you can throw Conley into that category, as well, but no matter how much help the Jazz get from the players listed above, Mitchell and Gobert remain the core.
Mitchell, in particular, has to be better, smarter, more efficient.
It’s two-pronged, actually. If he is, his team will follow suit. If his team is, he will be, too.
At least he will have the opportunity to be better. Here’s why: No longer will opponents get away with loading up on Mitchell at their defensive end, knowing full well they could do so with relative impunity. Last season, teams often left Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, among others, as lonely men on the floor, preferring to make life hectic for the talented second-year pro. Those opponents also were fairly confident Derrick Favors couldn’t hurt them from distance.
Now, the Jazz will beg teams to stick with yesterday’s strategy, jamming Mitchell and, on some possessions, Gobert, while leaving the spaces around Conley, Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles vacated. If they do that, Mitchell still might be the team’s MVP, even if his numerical production drops. When those three shooters/scorers are left unattended, their positive percentages skyrocket. They’re good when they’re guarded. When they are unguarded, they’re impossible.
“It makes my life easier,” Mitchell said. “Trying to find guys. [Opponents] have a harder decision to make on defense. You have probably the most dynamic roller in the NBA, you have Bojan in one corner, you got Mike, you got Joe, you got Royce, and on down the line. That make it a lot easier.”
In the playoffs, the Rockets, much to their advantage, surrounded Mitchell and Gobert, and the rest of the Jazz couldn’t use their own solitude to aid their heavily burdened teammates. In fact, with the primary lineup Quin Snyder had to put on the court, his work manufacturing points through ball movement was remarkable. Over the whole season, Mitchell averaged 23.8 points and Gobert 15.9.
If all of that is true, it might seem as though the two stars’ significance on the offensive end might be reduced, not enhanced, what with Conley averaging 21 points a year ago, and Bogdanovic getting 18. Right?
Not so, and here’s the reason: The Jazz are aiming higher now. They’ve not only rearranged their roster, they’ve rearranged their collective mindset, from a team that was on the rise to a team that is risen. Not that they have already arrived — that presumptuous attitude would get any team beat — but that they really do have the players necessary, if they properly apply themselves, to righteously contend.
“The biggest thing for us is focusing on what we can do, what we can control,” said Mitchell. “… We have eight new guys, we have to start from scratch. We have a base, but we have to build from that.”
Gobert and Mitchell are the base.
Last season, they won 50 games, finishing fifth in the West, and were sent packing out of the playoffs in the first round. This is different. They have that additional firepower, more numbers on attack, and will attempt to maintain their elite defense without the guys they lost. “Defensively, we’re all going to have to do a little more,” Gobert said.
And in the deep waters of authentic contention, two guys will have to be the clutch dudes, the collective rudder on the ship, the forces to make plays when they must be made.
“[Our] expectation is to go out and take it all,” said Georges Niang. “We want to have home-court advantage in the playoffs. And make it to the Finals, and win.”
Yeah, well, to do that, You-Know-Who and You-Know-Who will have to be the best they’ve ever been.
Mitchell left it like this: “I’m just excited to play basketball.”
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.