Donovan Mitchell has an outsized influence over the Utah Jazz organization.
In an NBA that has embraced player empowerment, this isn’t a surprise: Every team caters to their star player and the Utah Jazz have arguably never had a bigger star — certainly not in terms of magnetism and marketability.
Innumerable aspects of the organization are catered to Mitchell’s preferences. You see them pop up in ways both big and small: a change in training personnel after Mitchell and Vice President of Health Care Mike Elliott clashed last season about the guard’s availability for the start of the playoffs; arranging travel plans so the team spends more time in Mitchell’s hometown; acquiring his childhood best friend, Eric Paschall, in the offseason. (Paschall has proved to be good value for the pick, but it certainly wasn’t an accident that Paschall was the player acquired with the asset.)
But because that organizational influence has been given, now Mitchell has to reward it by becoming a true leader on the floor. To this point, he’s disappointed in that respect in this regular season and in this playoffs.
We’ll turn our eyes to the offensive end of the floor first. Mitchell is an absurdly talented offensive player — one of the only players in the NBA who can truly score at all three levels. He has an excellent 3-point shot, shows craft and balance in the midrange, and still shows off an impressive dunk or crafty layup finish at least once or twice per game.
Remarkably, he’s also an extremely gifted passer, capable of dishing on-the-move assists that, oh, five to 10 players in the world can throw. The clichè “total package” was invented for skillsets like Mitchell’s.
But when push comes to shove, Mitchell’s decision-making can become a problem late in games. In this year’s regular season, he shot 33% from the field, 18% from the 3-point line, and 61% from the free-throw line when the game was within five points in the last five minutes. I don’t have to tell you: That’s abysmal. He’s 1 for 6 in these situations in the playoffs so far, or 8 for 24 in the fourth quarter.
What’s going on? Well, Mitchell starts forcing the issue in the clutch. He slows the ball down, then drives or shoots over a set defense. He’s taking inefficient shots rather than the right ones.
One troubling fact is that Mitchell isn’t acknowledging the issue. When the Jazz lost to the Phoenix Suns in the penultimate game of the regular season, losing a 17-point lead in the fourth in part due to Mitchell’s poor offensive decisions, he was asked what he’d like to change about his approach in those moments.
“Make shots,” Mitchell said. “The same shots you all may consider tough are the ones I’ve been repping all summer, all year, so I work to take those shots in those moments. I just gotta go out and hit them, there’s no other formula to it.”
In actuality, the better formula for the team as a whole has been when Mitchell chooses not to take those bad shots, and instead creates for others. When Mitchell has passed out of the pick and roll in this year’s playoffs, the team averages 1.7 points per possession. When Mitchell tries to score himself, they’re averaging 0.6 points per possession. Despite this, he leads the NBA in playoff shots taken so far, with 80.
But it’s Mitchell’s defense that has earned most of the national criticism. The eye test has been relatively damning on this issue, as Mitchell simply isn’t giving the effort required to have success on the floor.
Sometimes it’s a lack of effort when a player is driving by him:
And sometimes it’s a lack of effort when getting around screens:
And sometimes it’s a lack of effort when matching up in transition:
What’s discouraging about Mitchell’s defense is that he has the tools to do better. He was drafted to be a defensive star, most frequently compared to Avery Bradley. He’s been blessed with a 6-9 wingspan, and is one of the best athletes on planet Earth. He has a nearly unmatched sense of space and balance. He should be good at this.
Recently, he’s had good intentions as well. Two years ago, when in Australia with USA Basketball, he heavily emphasized that he wanted to become an elite defender: “For me, the biggest thing is just to get back to my roots. The biggest thing is to elevate my defense, to get back to what got me drafted.”
We haven’t seen that in actual game action, though. Mitchell was rated as a bottom-20 defender in the NBA by FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, which analyzes shot and tracking data to estimate a player’s impact on that end of the floor.
And in the playoffs, when it matters, Mitchell’s defense is having a negative impact: Players are shooting 11% better than their normal FG% when guarded by the Jazz’s star in the first three games of this series. Jalen Brunson, especially, has had a field day.
And again, Mitchell’s recent comments on the issue leave something to be desired. When he was asked about Dallas targeting him on defense, he responded: “I wouldn’t say I felt targeted, to be honest. I didn’t feel like it was like ‘Go at Donovan.’ But if that’s what they decide to do, I’m confident in my abilities on defense, and so are my teammates. But I’m not too worried about it.”
Mitchell’s responding here like we somehow don’t have the ability to watch the games — he is, unquestionably, being targeted on the defensive end of the floor. The Mavericks feel that Brunson isolating against Mitchell will be successful, and they have been right in Games 2 and 3. Mitchell has been a significant part of the Jazz’s problem defensively, and they’ll need him to improve if they want to stand a chance defensively in this series.
In short, he needs to be worried about it.
I believe that Mitchell is well-intentioned. He’s a good person, his heart is in the right place. Of this, I have no doubt.
And Mitchell has done so much for the Jazz. There’s last year’s league’s leading regular-season record, yes, but truly carrying the Jazz out of the expected dark days after Gordon Hayward’s departure was remarkable, especially for someone so unheralded, so young.
But he has asked for the weight of the organization to be put on his shoulders, and then has recently shirked responsibility for its failures.
The Jazz’s two major issues this season — of blown fourth quarter leads and an inability to defend the perimeter — have their roots in Mitchell’s approach to his play. Repeatedly, he has said things will change, but the Jazz now stand a disappointing 2-1 down in a series they were decisively favored to win after an indisputably disappointing regular season.
For decades, “Jazz Basketball” was a slogan that defined the team’s approach to its play. The Jazz were known for executing and sharing the ball offensively, no matter the circumstance. On defense, they were known for their tough, take-no-prisoners attitude. Under Frank Layden, Jerry Sloan, and even most of Quin Snyder tenure, the Jazz have had that consistent bedrock.
As the Jazz move forward in their partnership with Mitchell, they need their star guard to take those team tenets to heart. We’ve seen what happens when he doesn’t.