Gordon Monson: A farewell to Donovan Mitchell, who breathed life back into the Utah Jazz

The All-Star guard revitalized the franchise but wasn’t able to deliver on championship aspirations.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives the decibel level up from the fans for a free throw by the Nicks as the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

”You love her but she loves him, and he loves somebody else, you just can’t win. And so it goes, ‘til the day you die, this thing they call love is gonna make you cry. I’ve had the blues, the reds and the pinks, one thing for sure, love stinks.” — J. Geils Band

Everyone around here loved Donovan Mitchell.

Love rarely lasts, and sometimes it stinks, yeah, yeah.

Now, after trade rumors caromed for months from Jazz offices off every cavern wall in the NBA, Mitchell is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ to love.

In the Jazz/Mitchell coupling’s case, right from jump there had been good reasons for the love. Utah needed somebody to pour its affections on, and it wasn’t sure it could so easily do that, not anymore, not on account of the fact it recently had been knifed in the heart and left to bleed by a former lover.

You remember.

The Summer of ‘17. The Summer of Betrayal that turned into the Summer of Love.

And now, the love is gone again, hung out to dry and then traded away to the Cavs, ironically enough by that same person who played a major role in stealing love from the Jazz the first time.

Danny Ainge is the Heartbreak Kid.

Swiping away Gordon Hayward in free agency for the Celtics then, swapping away Mitchell for a sack of draft picks and pick swaps and a few players now.

Faded hope traded for future hope.

Between the haul of picks they got for Rudy Gobert and now what they’re getting for Mitchell, the Jazz have a chance to be darn good — what, three years from now, if we’re all still alive, if all the meteors haven’t caused Jazz fans to become extinct? A basketball poet once said, “Draft picks are valuable and all, but I’ve never seen one hit a big jumper or make a big play or win a big game.”

Check back with us in 2025.

Maybe those picks will bring quicker assets, sooner positive results, in forthcoming deals.

And maybe they’ll make everyone look back and wish the Jazz had gone on building with Mitchell and Gobert, not without them.

Think about that for a moment. If with all these newfound picks, with the draft being the crapshoot that it is, the Jazz find and select two players in the future as talented as Mitchell and Gobert, wouldn’t they consider that a success?

Back to the past: Just as the Jazz and their fans were dragging emotional anchor in the offseason of 2017, after Hayward’s clandestinely planned and dishonest departure, Mitchell showed up with a sweet smile and a sweet shot, an attitude of gratitude and athleticism that brought new vigor to a franchise and a fanbase that was desperate for it.

And the town fell hard for the young one.

There was reason to dream, and room to grow.

His No. 45 Jazz jersey turned buzzard-hot for reasons that went beyond his promising play on the floor. Mitchell seemed to actually like playing pro basketball and he liked playing it in Salt Lake City. He was smart and backed good causes, he showed up not only at local university basketball and football games, he also arrived unannounced at fans’ backyard barbecues. How could anyone not like this guy?

He was the light and life of Utah’s sports scene.

It seemed almost too good to be true.

It was.

Five years later, the light’s switched off, Mitchell used as a chip, a traded brick in the Jazz’s massive rebuilding project, seen as less valuable than what the club got in return — potential for and promise of a bright outlook. All of it juxtaposed against the question: Does — did — Donovan even want to play here?

Optimism in what might happen replaced optimism for what would’ve happened.

Blown away by a string of playoff losses, love was no longer in the air.

The worst of it is, everyone can see the logic in the move. Some around here will be excited about it.

A few years ago, nobody would have seen it.

A lot of things happened over that span, foremost among them a pandemic that affected the Jazz, it can be said, more than any other NBA outfit. The team’s plate tectonics between its two major continents — Gobert and Mitchell — widened during that time, with allegedly little hope of reversing the crustal float.

Postseason collapses exacerbated the drift, including consecutive disappointments, first in the bubble against Denver and then, last season against the Clippers. What happened this past season was even worse, the team splintering into a spiral of selfishness and discombobulation that would have been unimaginable in Mitchell’s first seasons in Utah.

You know the story.

The kid’s fresh face transformed into one that bore the creases of concern, the wrinkles of responsibility, the high gaze for something more, triggering too often in Mitchell a tendency to try to do too much himself.

Given Mitchell’s max contract, Ainge saw the guard’s value now more as a commodity than a contribution.

All the bold talk that once came from Mitchell and Gobert about winning a championship will now only be fulfilled by them apart, on separate teams in separate cities in different states, if at all.

Gobert was magnanimous in his departure, graceful and grateful to the end. It will be interesting to see what Mitchell’s departure brings, as he heads for Cleveland.

He did more than play basketball in Utah, he tried to help a fanbase, a community, anyone who would listen, gain greater understanding of topics of our times, of education for every child, of racial issues. He bravely and articulately spoke out to people who needed to hear what he said.

Did they listen? Beats me.

Another element to Mitchell’s overall presence was what in short order appeared to be a yearning for the bright lights, seen by way of the aforementioned high gaze of a burgeoning star. As aw-shucks as he made himself out to be in those first seasons, when he claimed he would never let the attention go to his head because, he said, his mother would “kill him” if he did, the fact that he grew up near his favored big city — the country’s biggest city — seeped to the surface. Stopping the seepage was like playing Whack-a-Mole. It was here, there, everywhere.

Mitchell was Hollywood. Utah was Hooterville.

And now, what’s this … not New York, but Cleveland? Some call that city the Mistake by the Lake, others label it the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.

Mitchell will hope it’s the latter, on and off the court.

And so, the young guy who pumped passion and breath back into a franchise and a community when they slumped in a state of fragile vulnerability now leaves them behind, not because he demanded to be traded, only because it seemed as though he wanted to be. That, and because he wasn’t quite great enough to be what he wanted to be, what the Jazz wanted him to be, what they needed him to be.

How will Salt Lake City look at Mitchell in the seasons ahead, when he reappears on the Vivint Arena floor, wearing another team’s uniform?

Who knows.

All there is to know is that the line between love and whatever it is that fans here feel for Donovan Mitchell now is … thin, made thinner still by the changed product the Jazz are bound to put on the court in the near future. Maybe Ainge will be blamed — or praised — for that, not Mitchell.

One last thing. The B-side of the J. Geils Band single quoted above, “Love Stinks,” was … “Till the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down.” Funny. The once-promising weight-bearing walls upon which the Jazz’s aspirations for a championship were built have done exactly that.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.