There are a couple of ways of looking at the Great Ru-Don Divide, the now famous showdown between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, and the effect it will have on the Jazz moving forward.
One is negative, the other positive.
Gobert recently tried to clear the air on the mess, admitting that there had been a kerfuffle involving the two Jazz stars, exacerbated by their positive tests for the coronavirus. But he said they had talked “a few days ago,” that they are “grown men,” and that they want the same thing, “a championship.”
They are prepared, he said, when basketball starts up again to pursue that goal together.
Sounds reasonable, right?
But sometimes reasonable people disagree, and those disagreements go beyond what’s on the surface. In the case of Mitchell and Gobert, the COVID-19 straw may have been the one that, while not breaking the camel’s back, caused the beast to groan and lurch and stumble a bit.
Back the thing up to before the season started and note that Gobert wants a max deal, maybe a super-max, one that will pay him a gazillion dollars when his current deal ends after next season. Only the best players in the NBA are privileged to get that kind of contract, one that could take up to 35 percent of a team’s payroll, and — yeah, here’s a shock — Gobert wants to prove to everyone that he is, in fact, one of the best.
In order for that to happen, the proudest premier rim protector on the planet is set on showing that he is more than just that, especially in a league that is evolving away from the traditional role of the traditional center. Gobert is eager to demonstrate that he is an offensive threat, too, that he can be dominant at both ends.
So, the season commences and to the surprise of no objective observer, Mitchell is the Jazz’s primary weapon on offense. The team has other emphasized scorers, as well, including newcomers Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, each of whom is trying to get acclimated to the Jazz’s blended attack.
Gobert sees and feels what’s happening, while he’s not getting the ball enough, working his tail at the defensive end, cleaning up at the basket the Jazz’s loose perimeter deficiencies and being called upon to handle a huge share of the team’s rebounding responsibilities, and he does what Gobert is prone to do.
He complains openly, telling reporters he wants the ball more, he should get the ball more.
And while he might be right, at least in some situations, his teammates don’t like his public candor. They are annoyed by it, in part, because they, too, are trying to find their place on a team around which a whole lot of expectations had been building. Gobert’s not the only one who wants to see offensive success, and thereby team success.
In time, Conley suffers an injury and Joe Ingles, who is crafty and proficient at feeding Gobert the ball, is inserted into the starting lineup, and essentially is given the job of properly handling Rudy.
Mitchell, meanwhile, continues on, doing his thing, leading the Jazz in scoring by a significant margin (24.2 points), taking nearly 20 shots a game, making almost nine, with a straight field-goal percentage of .453. Gobert averages just over eight shots, making nearly six per game, getting 15.1 points, with a shooting percentage of .698. Mix in that Mitchell takes 428 3-pointers, and Gobert none.
Some people claim defenses were keying on stopping Gobert, a frustrating condition for the Jazz big considering he’s dependent on others getting him touches, but Mitchell, who has the advantage of being capable of creating on his own, also knows all about opponents building walls around himself.
Mitchell can — and likes to — slash to the basket and prefers not to run into traffic, a bunch of players, defenders and his own teammates, stacked up like planes at LaGuardia, in the paint, the familiar place Gobert likes to hang, anticipating passes.
Both players are driven, both players are hungry, both players want to win.
They both are All-Stars.
And when they don’t win — the season was suspended as the Jazz were 41-23, fourth in the West, enhanced by winning streaks and vexed by losing skids — the Jazz are appropriately irritated.
If Mitchell and Gobert wanted to bark at each other, as they wrestle for the mantle of team leadership, one could complain about the other’s offensive limitations, the other about a lingering lack of efficiency and consistency.
Throw the COVID-19 thing over all of that, and the ingredients for a feud could be brewing.
That’s the negative.
Here’s the positive.
Mitchell is still young, at 23. While Gobert’s contract should be decided upon during this next offseason, requiring decisions on both the Jazz’s part and Gobert’s, Mitchell will most certainly be extended, committing him to the Jazz for another four years.
If those two things can co-exist, if common ground can be found there, the Jazz will fully know upon what foundation they are building. If the Jazz want legitimate title contention, Mitchell and Gobert, as the team’s stars, will have to improve, to the point where they can match the levels and capabilities of paid stars on other teams. That’s a huge ask, but it is possible.
The embryonic Mitchell is bound to get better, smarter, savvier. Gobert already has followed a remarkable trajectory, and if the Jazz can find a way to keep his progress relevant to the modern NBA, a league so dependent on shots around the basket and from deep, the goal of contention is reasonable in the seasons ahead.
Now that Mitchell and Gobert are talking again, their bond might form stronger than it was before. Shared experiences, even, maybe especially, those flecked with imperfections and blemishes, can do that, can provide that.
The unique combination of Mitchell’s and Goberts’ personalities, emboldened not just by their profound strength and uncommon character from within, but by the acumen of a coach like Quin Snyder, alongside his capable assistants, and the support of managers such as Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik, and teammates who have shown periods of promise, all provide an opportunity here for something beyond what has been achieved thus far.
So much of it is up to Mitchell and Gobert.
We have yet to hear from Donovan.
If they, like each and both of them has and have said, want to contend for a championship here in Utah, it’s up to them, together, to make it happen.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.