A discussion with one of the NBA’s most respected observers broke out a couple of seasons ago regarding the Jazz, the future of the Jazz, the ceiling on the Jazz, the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Jazz.
This was his conclusion: “They’ve got some nice players. Their problem is, they don’t have a bona fide star to lead them through the playoffs.”
He was right then.
He’s wrong now.
The Jazz, indeed, have their star.
Actually, they did back then, as well. He just wasn’t quite him, yet. Not the whole him. He had bits and pieces of him, elements that showed promise for authentic stardom — athleticism, ability to move and jump and score the ball and acumen and conscientiousness and charisma — but the entire thing wasn’t completely put together in a way that was necessary.
Now it is.
And Donovan Mitchell is being remunerated in a manner that suggests that it is, him having signed his potential five-year, $195 million extension, which kicks in after this season, the final year being at his option.
He’s all in now. All of him.
The Jazz are, too.
And heavy is the responsibility that comes with that kind of headlining role, that kind of cash. Proper handling of it requires solitary strength in the midst of a tall crowd. And as Mitchell’s demonstrated by way of his loud calls for racial and social justice in a much larger realm than just basketball, he understands, for him, there is no backing away from the moment, moments he can influence off the court and on it, in what’s real and what’s real competitive.
Every player wants his name up on the marquee, etched onto the inner walls of a Brinks truck. Every one of them wants generational money that blows past security for the family straight into excess wealth. And every team wants a player worthy in the wacky world of NBA economics of that sort of financial commitment, because if they have that player, so the hopeful thinking goes, they’re going to win.
It doesn’t always work out that way, and when it doesn’t, the competitive endeavor collapses.
The worst thing for an NBA team isn’t losing. It’s awarding players longterm leaden contracts who don’t carry their weight, which leads to not enough winning, which leads to NBA purgatory, which leads to hovering in the hellish in-between of not being elite and not being bad enough to qualify to draft out of that shadowland.
The Jazz, led by Mitchell, intend to lean hard away from the shadows, edge hard into the elite.
They spent considerable resources in the re-signing of Jordan Clarkson. They regained, re-upped Derrick Favors. They extended Mitchell. They’re paying Mike Conley $34.5 million and Bojan Bogdanovic $17.8 to $19.5 million over the next three years as part of a $73.1 million deal.
What this means is that the Jazz have drafted, traded for, signed and developed talent from without and within, building and collecting pieces, so many of them expensive. And unlike some other teams in moderate-sized markets, they’re identifying and holding onto what’s worth keeping.
No small feat.
For them to achieve their goal of contending for a title — and as Mitchell mentioned again just the other day, winning a championship — their stars will have to match and at a minimum cancel out the stars on their primary competition.
Hello, Donovan. Hello, Rudy.
So-called role players — “nice players” — are important, but stars are the ones who win rings in the NBA.
That’s what Donovan Mitchell has now signed up for with the Jazz. No longer will he be compared to other promising young players — though he is just 24 — rather, he will be measured against the best players on God’s green earth. He’ll have to not only join in with them, he’ll have to beat them.
And when he recently discussed his new deal with reporters, he detailed the areas in which he had improved, much of that having to do with his own shot selection, along with overall floor awareness and pacing and spacing and creating opportunities for his teammates, knowing how and when and where to do what, and why, too.
That’s what a star gets, that’s what a star does.
He doesn’t just wow everybody by scoring 50-plus points in playoff games. He wins playoff games and playoff series. He steps on the heads of playoff opponents en route to victory. He doesn’t allow his team to surrender 3-1 playoff leads.
Mitchell is fully aware.
“A championship is what I want,” he’s said.
The charge, the obligation, the burden is his.
Yeah, the glory is great, the money sweet, the security reassuring, the living oh-so good. But the Bentleys and the Gucci gear, the city estates and the beach houses, the stock portfolios and the extravagances don’t satisfy on the most significant real estate in Mitchell’s work life — the 94-by-50-foot hard space where the winning is done.
That’s where a star lights up and burns brightest, everything else aside.
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.