Donovan Mitchell has a whole lot of say and sway inside Jazz operations, everything from the way the team plays on the floor to personnel decisions to strategies to culture to coaching hires to team branding.
He has the ear of Ryan Smith and the team is eager to consider Mitchell’s thoughts on matters of all kinds.
To be sure, the man is smart … charismatic … deep-thinking … connected to other cool players around the NBA … still young … talented.
The question is: How talented?
He’s not Magic. He’s not Bird. He’s not Kawhi. He’s not Doncic. Not yet anyway. Not even if he wants to be, or if he’s been told by some loud voices that he is. It’s one thing for him to be confident, it’s another to be real with himself, about what and who he actually is, what he has to do to take the next step forward.
When Mitchell played in space and properly created, played to his strengths, he connected the Jazz. When he didn’t, feeling as though he had to do too much alone, it splintered the team. The execution broke down and the results suffered.
I’m no psychologist, but I don’t think his attempts come from a bad place. Mitchell is fully aware the Jazz need a superstar to succeed. And he wants to be that dominant force. But he’s not there, yet. On occasions, he can do it, but he has not done it consistently enough to elevate himself into superstardom.
Better for him to work with the guys around him — it would certainly help if the Jazz could somehow, some way upgrade the surrounding cast — en route to playoff-quality winning.
The club, however, is giving — has given — him the reins, as though he has already ascended. Or perhaps, more accurately, because he’s thought to be the best they can get.
Let’s back up here for a minute.
The notion that star players in the NBA have a grip on the team for which they play is nothing new. As they say, it’s a player’s league. And that possessive extends much further when we’re talking about an elite player. But that extension seems more prevalent today than it’s ever been.
And it was prevalent before.
Remember Magic Johnson getting Paul Westhead fired, right here in Salt Lake City? Isiah Thomas insisting that Adrian Dantley be traded for his pal Mark Aguirre? That all happened … what, 40 years ago? And it’s happened since, many times, in many forms, stemming from the wishes of players the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James.
It’s also been evident, even with a typically steady franchise like the Jazz.
In the run-up to the ‘94 season, Karl Malone announced in an interview that, after a heart-to-heart with Larry Miller, he was being promoted from his theretofore position as a Jazz power forward and regular NBA All-Star to a team decision-maker, having newfound influence on trades, draft choices and free-agent signings. It may have come as some surprise to Jazz executives and coaches — maybe not — but that, in so many words, was his humble declaration.
He might as well have had an office built onto his personal space in the Jazz’s locker room, with a desk, a phone, filing cabinets, a big screen on which to study film, a computer, a coffee machine, and all the accoutrements attendant with a vice president in charge of advising.
In that particular case, it’s not completely clear whether anyone was listening, or whether he was just made to think folks were listening.
And seasons later, when star guard Deron Williams infamously exerted his influence on the team, the Jazz, rather shockingly, were left looking for a new coach.
Should it happen? How great does a player have to be in order to rightfully wield such power?
The central issue now swirls around Mitchell.
Players make so much money, especially at the All-Star level and up, their talents being rare, their value to the franchise so high competitively and commercially, it all snowballs into the P-word.
Power comes with the idea that fans fill the arena not to directly watch a club president or vice president or a general manager or coach do his job, although each greatly enhances the overall success and enjoyment of the product, rather they come to watch the player excel at his. It’s sports’ appeal to the customers.
There is kind of a blurry delineation, though, as to how advanced a player needs to be in order to swing an authoritative hammer.
Is Mitchell there?
He is, for better or worse, if Smith thinks he is. And that’s a big, big deal.
I once asked Miller to specify the pecking order in terms of power on the Jazz, including himself, Kevin O’Connor, Jerry Sloan, Malone, John Stockton, and all the others.
He struggled with his answer, never really giving it, although, as he once so famously pointed out, all the seats were his. Still, he wasn’t sure, even being a more traditional guy who didn’t like to allow things to get out of order.
Owners, and thereby VPs, GMs, and coaches, must give berth to their exceptional performers, if they already are in the fold, and that includes enabling them to have their way sometimes.
But only to a graduated limit.
As tough and respected a man as Sloan was, a Jazz coach of that era told me back then that if Malone had gone off about something he felt deeply about, barking at the respected one, Jerry would have shrunk away. Hard to imagine, in his younger/tougher years, but that’s what the coach said.
If that license puts others in an uncomfortable and untenable and awkward position, so be it. Otherwise, on-the-floor performances suffer, the team lurches, and trade-demands are made or re-signings are made less likely.
Even though Mitchell is yet nowhere near Malone’s level, the Jazz are handing him — have handed him — that license. Mitchell is, or certainly appears to be, the designated Jazz kingmaker.
But he’s not worthy of it, not yet. Maybe one day he will be.
To do so, aside from all the aforementioned, he has to lead whoever his teammates are in a way they will follow. He must earn it by improving and maturing, making himself better before eliciting or requiring it from anyone else.
If he wants to be the man at the end of important games, he must win the lion’s share of them — by making the right decision at the right time with the right intent with the right result. If he goes iso-ball, make the play, the shot. If he moves the ball, get it in the open hands of the open-and-willing shooter who will make the other team pay. Play authentic, not faux defense.
If the mantle is given, responsibility follows.
You got to carry that weight, as a couple of great songwriters once put it.
Best case, Mitchell rises to the occasion, and appeals to other talented players to join him.
Worst case, Mitchell bobbles and fumbles his privileges, and somewhere along the route of his nearly $200-million deal, he leaves for what’s perceived to be a better opportunity elsewhere, while the Jazz are left holding the bag they gave him.