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The play this season has been a bit erratic. The rumors of internal dissension have become, if not rampant, at least persistent.
And so, with 24 regular-season games remaining for the Utah Jazz after the All-Star break, hard-and-fast conclusions about this team remain frustratingly elusive and impalpable.
Are they talented enough to be legitimate contenders? Driven enough? Healthy enough? Focused enough?
Lingering over everything else that’s occurred in this maddeningly chaotic season thus far is the question of whether the interests of franchise tentpoles Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are aligned, whether they are capable of working symbiotically enough to help this team be a legitimate contender for an NBA championship.
In short: What on earth is going on inside that Vivint Arena locker room?
That’s the question that not only has the greatest capacity to define the outcome of this specific season, but to shape the future of the organization for years to come.
An early-February podcast including ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Tim MacMahon characterized the All-Stars’ relationship as “back to being passively-aggressively awkward.” A little over a week later, a podcast featuring Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck and Chris Mannix included the former saying the situation had deteriorated further still.
“I think they’re in trouble. I think they’re in trouble because this thing has run its course, and we know there are some tensions that are in that locker room,” Beck said. “I’ve been told recently that they might be a little worse than we’ve even been led to believe. And so, if this doesn’t end well this postseason, and there’s no reason to think that it will … those ‘Donovan Mitchell wants out’ rumors are going to be starting as soon as the season is over.”
Beck followed up with an article for SI that focused broadly on the consequences that “superstar empowerment” is having upon teams that suddenly find themselves out of favor with their key players, and almost casually mentioned that “team executives are already bracing (and/or plotting) for the next disenchanted star to ask out, with speculation focused on Zion Williamson in New Orleans, Damian Lillard in Portland and Donovan Mitchell in Utah.”
Not good, right?
Then again …
It’s hardly nothing that the players involved continue to vehemently insist that there’s not even smoke, let alone fire.
“First of all, we’re good. I just want to go on record saying that,” Mitchell told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes in an exclusive interview during the All-Star break before an illness limited his further participation. “I think it’s interesting that that stuff happens, and [yet] him and I have never played at this high of a level together since we’ve been here. So I make the joke — for a group that [allegedly] hates each other, man, we’re playing pretty well. And we can be even better.”
Gobert concurred in an All-Star weekend media session in Cleveland, noting that while the two have their arguments like any teammates do, theirs mostly stem from trying to make each other better.
“We’re in a great place. Like everything, in every aspect of life, you always have some ups and downs. But for me, it’s try to keep having his back — try to have his back, try to keep pushing him to be the best he can be. And I expect the same from him,” Gobert said. “We keep trying to push each other, and we’re supporting each other. The team’s success is gonna start with us.”
If nothing else, they can agree on that.
“It starts at me and big fella,” Mitchell told Haynes. “If we want to ultimately win a championship, it’s going to start with us.”
And yet, it’s undeniable that this process of pushing one another has sometimes entailed bruised egos and hurt feelings.
Gobert, just back from his latest bout with COVID-19 in January, roasted the team’s defensive performance without him during a media session, famously critiquing them for their lack of “winning habits,” and infamously taking a very-thinly-veiled shot at Mitchell by praising the improved defensive acumen of Suns guard and perceived rival Devin Booker.
The Jazz guard expressed annoyance at the time with the public flogging, and reiterated to Haynes that, in his view, a private airing of grievances would have been more constructive. That said, he elaborated that “it’s water under the bridge for me now,” and added that he was chalking it up to the Frenchman’s fierce competitiveness.
Which is a trait he admires and sees in himself.
“When you have two people that are competitive, you want to ultimately be the best. I would take that as opposed to two dudes who just want to sit on their a-- and do nothing, you know what I mean?” Mitchell told Haynes. “You have two guys who are going to go out there and compete. He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, I’m a three-time All-Star; we’re going to find ways to get better individually and collectively as a group.”
Perhaps this detente is a mere facade, a public front meant to appease the masses and slow the onslaught of questions while, below the surface, the waters continue to roil and churn.
Maybe. Or maybe Mitchell is to be taken at face value when he insists — as he did when the ESPN podcast came out — that any reports of his alleged dissatisfaction between them are to be dismissed until or unless you hear it directly from one of them.
In the meantime, Mitchell says of himself and Gobert: “We’re good — we’re focused on winning, we’re working towards a common goal.” And Gobert says of himself and Mitchell: “It’s been fun, it’s been a great process for us. We both wanna win a championship, and we know that supporting each other is the way we’re gonna give ourselves the best shot at it.”
And so, the guard says he’s not concerning himself any more with “reports,” that outsiders can say what they want, and the ultimate way to shut them down is to go and win a championship.
Not exactly an easy proposition, considering that when the Jazz start up again this Friday against Dallas, they do so while pretty solidly entrenched as no better than the fourth-best team in the Western Conference, and facing questions about their mental toughness following another inexplicable loss to the Lakers.
Gobert understands the doubts. He recognizes the perceived gulf between last year’s top seed derailed by injuries and this year’s group beset by inconsistency.
And yet, he remains insistent that there’s more than one pathway to a championship.
“Every season is different, every season is a long process, but I really feel like we have the right mindset right now, which is keep getting better every game, keep building good habits. We’re hungry for winning. That’s what I feel within our group,” Gobert said. “… When you want to win, you can’t be too worried about perception. People don’t really believe you can accomplish something until you actually do it. If that can motivate us, that’s great. We believe in our group, we believe in ourselves — in our talent, in our ability to accomplish anything. And now it’s just about executing and doing it as a team, and being the best team we can be.”