Rudy Gobert’s response was perfect when he was asked after his NBA All-Star debut if he was trying to prove something in the game.
Nah, he said, “You prove something by winning championships.”
Yes, you do.
And so, now, it is left to the Jazz’s two All-Stars, Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, to show what they’ve really got, what they really are. Few teams win championships without two stars leading the way for a competent team, a team adequately equipped to handle the challenge. But it is the stars who are the key. They must be in top form, not just by setting the tone and tenor for the group, but by blowing past whatever the other team’s stars do, physically and mentally.
That’s a heavy responsibility. But its weight lessens the reality not one bit.
Winston Churchill, a Hall of Famer of one kind or another, once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
Your move Donovan and Rudy.
Look around the West. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Can Gobert and Mitchell surpass them?
In their own way, they’ll have to.
Some say the team with the best player usually wins. More accurately, the team with the two best players gets the trophy. Sometimes, it takes three.
Look at the history books, back over the past 40 years, where the narrative comes to the fore, again and again, starting in 1980. That’s the season Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the thing. Next, Larry Bird and Robert Parish. Then Magic and Kareem. Then Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Then Bird and Parish. Then Magic and Kareem. Then Bird and Kevin McHale. Then Magic and Kareem. And you get the idea.
Same with the Bulls, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The Spurs with Tim Duncan and David Robinson and then with Duncan and Tony Parker. The Lakers with Shaq and Kobe, with Kobe and Pau Gasol. The Heat with Dwyane Wade and Shaq, with LeBron and Wade. The Celtics with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Warriors with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, with Steph and Kevin Durant. The Cavs with LeBron and Kyrie Irving. The Raptors with Leonard and Pascal Siakam.
There are exceptions, such as in 1994, when it was Olajuwon and a bunch of guys who on their own couldn’t have won the Brazilian League. And in 2011, when the Mavs were led by Dirk Nowitzki and a few guys named Jason and Tyson.
Point is, as helpful and significant as Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson are, when it comes time to contest for Larry O’Brien’s trophy, it will require the long reach of Gobert and Mitchell.
They are the ones who must play like champions.
They are the foundational pieces upon which everything else is built.
They are the leaders who must prioritize beating those other teams, with their star players, come what may, including the teams and stars in the East. Truth is, the odds are leaning away from them.
The way Mitchell and Gobert conquer all isn’t just by scoring their points, getting their rebounds and assists, playing efficient ball, getting chosen as All-Stars, but by defending like madmen, diving for loose balls, avoiding turnovers, treating every trip on offense as though they’re delivering needed medicine to the children’s hospital, every defensive stand not as though it’s game point, rather like they’re intercepting ill-intentioned invaders.
It’s as much attitude as it is athleticism.
And that’s crucial — taking on that mindset without freaking themselves or their teammates out.
Over these final 28 regular-season games, straight into the playoffs, Gobert and Mitchell have to lead that way, even, especially, if they’re dinged up, fatigued, facing adversity, temporarily struggling with their shots, lifting teammates who are lurching, basically, by doing it all.
As of now, Mitchell is averaging 24.3 points and 4.3 assists. Gobert is averaging 15.6 points and 14.6 rebounds.
Those numbers must go up. Why? Because any shot at a championship will require it. Not just stats in volume, but in efficiency, too. And maniacal effort, like Gobert’s standard, at the defensive end. Along with inspiration provided for their teammates to step up, too.
If there’s anything Gobert and Mitchell should have learned over the past three seasons it is that positioning for the playoffs, and the playoffs themselves, ask not just for an increase, they ask for everything.
Michael Jordan put it like this: “Earn your leadership every day.”
Starting with the Jazz’s next game on Friday, Gobert and Mitchell have 53 days left in their regular season, and as many days thereafter in the playoffs as they will earn.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.