From ‘unsalvageable’ to MVP candidates: How Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell took their next huge steps

By setting aside their disagreement, then continuing to elevate their individual games as well as the Utah Jazz’s collective chemistry, they’ve turned the team into a Finals contender.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27), Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 12, 2021.

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A year ago, a number of pundits were questioning if Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell could ever play basketball together again.

And now, many of those same pundits are mentioning the Utah Jazz’s superstar duo as fringe candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.

Pretty amazing how that happened.

Actually, how did that happen?

“We sat around a bonfire and sung ‘Kumbaya’ and wrote love letters to each other, and the ‘unsalvageableness’ was gone,” said Joe Ingles, his sarcasm dialed up to 100%.

More seriously, though …

“Whatever happened and whoever wrote articles about whatever relationship, I think I’ve been on record saying I think it got blown way out of proportion. I think this year’s been a special kind of thing, to be honest,” Ingles added. “I guess we saw little bits and pieces of it last year, of what we could do when we were playing well together, we were healthy, and we were all out there together. And we all know — from myself to Mike [Conley] to Don to Rudy to, I mean, you can go down the list — we all realize we’re better with each other, that we can all help each other in different ways.”

Indeed, both Gobert and Mitchell, when separately discussing their new long-term contract extensions with the Jazz prior to the season, pointed out that once they settled down from their COVID-19-induced spat and talked, they each realized they needed the other around to maximize their goals, to accomplish their biggest dreams.

The Jazz’s continuity and chemistry and, yes, camaraderie have been a major theme for opposing coaches discussing what makes the Utah team tick this year.

And they’re all valid points.

But it’s not merely that the coalescing of the team into a legitimate championship contender has elevated Gobert and Mitchell — it’s also that Gobert and Mitchell finding new ways elevate themselves helped the team coalesce into a legitimate championship contender.

[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]

Conley has seen his two ultra-competitive teammates make big improvements to their respective games from even a year ago.

“I think both those guys just have taken leaps on both sides of the ball,” he said. “I think Rudy, we obviously know what he does defensively, but offensively, his ability to improve around the rim, and catching the ball and finishing in different ways, it’s another dynamic.

“And Donovan, obviously, through his leadership and ability to just find something new in his game every year, whether that’s … being more of a playmaker at certain times and then also being able to know when to go down the court to score 10, 12 points straight,” Conley added. “And that kind of mindset is his growth. They all have the talent, but to really put it out there and do it is a different story.”

Derrick Favors, who spent last season with the Pelicans, said the differences he noticed from those two upon his return to Utah were sizable.

He spoke of Mitchell’s improved playmaking and passing, his increased ability to create his own shot and be “that closer in the fourth quarter or whenever we need a bucket,” his communicating on the defensive end, doing little things such as boxing out or talking on the switches, and generally being more of a leader in the locker room.

As for Gobert, Favors rattled off the big man’s ability to contain and force perimeter players into taking tough shots, his improving hands and capacity for catching the ball and being strong with it, his more communicative style in directing traffic defensively, and the work he’s doing to diversify his offensive repertoire: “Every day in practice, after practice, before practice, before games, he’s always out there working on his jump shot, working on his post moves, just trying to get better. I think he’s still got another level he can reach offensively.”

Former Grizzlies front office exec John Hollinger, who now writes for The Athletic, recently named Gobert the most underrated player in the league, calling him “a top-five MVP candidate by any objective measure. I remain stunned this isn’t more obvious.” TrueHoop’s David Thorpe called Gobert “a top-five player in the league, in my opinion.”

Gobert, for his part, said that while such recognition is nice, what’s really driving him and his star teammate to new heights is their increased desire to bring a Larry O’Brien Trophy to Salt Lake City for the first time.

“Regarding the MVP, I think neither me nor Donovan are focused on that right now. For us — for me, and I’ll speak for him, but I think he’s the same way — it’s really about what we do as a team, and we know that that recognition doesn’t mean much for us if we don’t win,” Gobert said. “That’s pretty much the mindset that we all have as a team. We all try to give more to the team because we understand that, at the end of the day, we’re playing for something bigger, bigger than us. We’re playing for a championship. It would be better than any individual reward at the end.”

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