Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert caused a bit of a stir on Friday when he said in an interview that the Utah Jazz were not presently championship contenders, and that they lagged behind teams such as the Suns and Warriors in terms of “winning habits.” He also seemed to be making a point by specifically praising the defensive improvement of Phoenix shooting guard Devin Booker.
The potential for his public comments to create tension within the team took a further bizarre turn when a reporter’s tweet disseminating Gobert’s statement got liked on Twitter by both of the Jazz’s primary two-guards, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson.
On Saturday morning, in between a practice session and the team’s flight to Denver for Sunday’s matchup with the Nuggets, both guards addressed the perception that the three-time DPOY appeared to call them out publicly for a lack of defense.
“We all, as a group, find ways to hold each other accountable. That’s just his way about it, I guess,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know. I’m not really concerned about it. At the end of the day, we gotta all find ways to get better. That’s really it. We all have individual ways of doing it, and his just happens to be this way. So, cool.”
When asked why he liked the tweet, Mitchell remained silent for several seconds before responding, “We just gotta win tomorrow. And lock in defensively.”
Clarkson, meanwhile, when asked about the tweet, said it was self-evident the Jazz have not been good lately on that side of the ball.
“It’s just defense. It’s all focus. It is what it is,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to hold our hat on, that’s what we’ve been talking about all year. Just defense. … We know what we gotta do.”
He added that the players recognize they’ve become something of an imbalanced team.
“Sometimes I think we fall into the [trap] of feeling like we can outscore a lot of teams, just ’cause we know how powerful we are offensively,” he said. “All [our] effort has just gotta come on the defensive end.”
When a follow-up came about whether the Jazz’s perimeter players felt like they were being obliquely referred to in Gobert’s comments, Clarkson replied: “I ain’t gonna talk about it no more. It ain’t like he pointed out a big man. We know what we gotta do.”
During the five-game stretch that Gobert missed owing to testing positive for COVID-19, Utah’s defense cratered. While they had a solid performance vs. the Nuggets, and perhaps little can be gleaned from either the game in Toronto when all five starters and eight total rotation players sat out, or the finale vs. the Cavs, when they had zero centers available, there still weren’t a lot of positives during that time, particularly in losses to the Pacers and Pistons.
In those five games, the Jazz allowed 118.6 points per game, and had the league’s lowest-rated defense.
Clarkson said it was “black and white” what the Jazz needed to focus on, but added the dig, “We know what we got to do. We don’t need nobody coming out in the media saying that. But it’s all good.”
When another reporter subsequently attempted to query Mitchell about a recent ESPN report suggesting he’d like to play in a bigger market than Utah, Mitchell animatedly interrupted.
“Y’all like to talk a lot when we lose. I don’t understand. Y’all just like to keep all the negative stuff for when we start losing,” he said. “When we win, there’s nothing said. So I’ll just go ahead and say, we’re trying to championship.”
He then expressed further frustration, suggesting that reporters see it as their job to intentionally try and create drama —”It’s annoying, but that’s how this business is. That’s the media for you.” — but added that everyone in the Jazz’s locker room was remaining focused on finding ways to get better.
Coach Quin Snyder, however, didn’t seem to take any of the drama too seriously.
He noted that seasons have peaks and valleys, and that it shouldn’t be surprising that the team finds itself in a bit of a low spot at the moment given all the players they’ve been missing of late.
“The key for us and for me is, just foundationally, are we getting better?” Snyder said. “The last week or whatever, you’re not going to play like a contending team if you don’t have your Defensive Player of the Year, your center who anchors your team. We’re not going to play like a contending team if we don’t have Donovan Mitchell. We’re not going to play like a contending team if we don’t have Mike Conley.”
That said, he did agree with Gobert’s sentiment that, no matter who is available, there needs to be an awareness that the Jazz still have areas they can improve in. And he thinks that is the case.
The coach added that there have been internal discussions about what players say in interview sessions, and about what reporters write, but pointed out that the team ultimately getting on the right track again would render all of this irrelevant and forgettable. And he has zero doubt that the Jazz are capable of doing that.
“We’re halfway through the season. Everybody wanted to congratulate us last year; let’s remember the context here — we ended up having the best record in the league, and lost in the playoffs, so none of that mattered,” Snyder said. “So you could make the argument that none of this matters, if indeed we’re playing at our best at the right time. And that’s my focus, for us to be the best version of ourselves at the end of the year.”