On Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, adversity, and the paradoxical nature of competitiveness and cohesion:
Donovan Mitchell is a winner. He won in high school, going 34-1 in his senior year at Brewster Academy, which ended the season ranked among the top 200 schools in the nation. He won in college, where when given a chance to carry the offensive load in his sophomore year he led his team to a No. 2 seed the season after Louisville missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. He won in the NBA, where he catapulted into success, leading a 48-win Jazz team to a surprising second round appearance after Utah started the season 19-28 yet finished 29-6.
Rudy Gobert is a fighter. While his natural measurements gave him a chance to be drafted, his fight made it impossible for coach Quin Snyder to keep Gobert in the NBA’s G-League. He climbed quickly, and when given a chance to start, Gobert didn’t look back. While Mitchell was winning games at Brewster, Gobert was finding his footing among the 7-footers of the NBA – the Jazz would course-correct midway through Gobert’s second season to hand him Enes Kanter’s starting position, and they wouldn’t look back. The Utah Jazz, on the backs of Gobert and then-teammate Gordon Hayward, pivoted from a miserable 44-91 in Gobert’s first season and a half as a pro (27-win pace) to a solid 19-10 (54-win pace) record once they made Gobert the full-time starter.
You could argue that both Gobert and Mitchell were destined for greatness in this league because of their natural drive to win as alphas. It’s a quality that NBA players must have to reach the league, but it’s also one that Gobert and Mitchell have in devious amounts. So, naturally, the development of their careers into who they’ve each become as basketball players has not been a surprise. Gobert has become a three-time defensive player of the year, Mitchell has found himself in and out of discussions of the best offensive players in the league.
Cohesion (n): The action or fact of forming a united whole.
The surprise, for me, came not at what either player was able to achieve as professionals, but at the point of adversity for Gobert and Mitchell. Or, as they’d become in March 2020, the NBA’s Patient Zero and Patient One.
Gobert was the first major public figure in the United States to test positive for COVID-19, and Mitchell was the second. The two were already forever linked due to their success together as teammates, but now they were part of the country’s COVID-19 history. Of course, this part of their shared story turned sour. There was loud, vocal, public frustration, and early on the relationship was described in an article by The Athletic as “unsalvageable.” It didn’t get much better as the NBA returned to basketball in the Orlando bubble and, despite heroic efforts from Mitchell, Utah tripped up in three consecutive close-out games and walked away from the season shocked.
At this particular point of adversity, though, the Jazz found new life. A number of players on the roster began the 2020-21 season particularly well, Jazz coach Quin Snyder transformed the offense around a historic proliferation of 3-point shots, and suddenly the Jazz were winning. And winning changes everything. The tension between their stars temporarily seemed to dissipate.
But you know what they say: ”In your highest moments, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”
The Utah Jazz are now tied (Bovada) or outright (Fanduel) betting favorites to win the NBA title in some sportsbooks. https://t.co/0T2eG7QKCI
— Riley Gisseman (@rgiss11) June 14, 2021
Adversity, pride, cohesion, fight, competitiveness. There is a tug and pull between each term, and finding a balance between them all is key to being successful. Competitive spirits like Gobert and Mitchell, ones that have fought for everything since their childhood, they attack a fight-or-flight situation. They dig deep within themselves to find the power needed to improve, and their instinct is to do it independently. It’s an admirable trait, but one that can result in trouble in the team context.
Like it did in the second half of Jazz-Clippers Game 5 in Salt Lake City.
Before the game, Kawhi Leonard was ruled out with a non-contact knee injury, one we now know to have been a partially torn ACL. Utah was given life again after appearing to have faltered with back-to-back blowout losses in Los Angeles, and they snatched their opportunity by building a 10-point lead with five minutes remaining in the first half. Just 10 months prior, they’d blown an opportunity to close the door on Denver in game 5 of the playoffs, but this group was better. This group was cohesive. Or so we thought.
One mistake rattled against another as the end of the first half approached, and the team only led by 5 as they entered halftime. This, despite setting a playoff record for a half with 17 three pointers, and alongside Leonard’s absence, gave a bit of an uneasy feeling. Utah had done this before – they set the regular season record for threes in a half against the Orlando Magic two months prior – but Utah led that game 78-38 with 38 seconds left in the half, when Mitchell broke the record. It didn’t feel right that the Jazz only led by 5. The players arrived back from halftime, and the dam broke. The Clippers extended their 4-point run into a 27-9 stretch that put them up by nine. There was time still, but the wind had been knocked out of the Jazz. Defensive mistakes piled up, ball movement suffered, Paul George totaled 37 points, and the team suffered another Game 5 heartbreaker; this time in front of their home crowd in Salt Lake City.
It feels now, looking back, that the Game 5 heartbreaker was truly what broke Utah, despite the spectacular fashion in which Game 6 was fumbled away. That fifth game gave a blueprint on how to beat Utah: make them prove how much they trust each other on the basketball court.
Going into the 2022 season, the beliefs of an open championship window remained for many fans and players alike. Gobert and Mitchell both remained steady in interviews that their focus was on winning a championship. This, of course, was and remains true. New free agent additions like Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gay each remarked on how important the championship window was in their decision to sign in Utah. Yet, especially as the season progressed, there was a feeling of uneasiness about the team. They had aspirations to remain one of the top teams in the league during the regular season, and the disappointment as Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis, and eventually Dallas all seemed to pass them up was real. But hope remained, and there was still time to find a groove. They’d really been quite good when totally healthy, and playoff positioning didn’t yet seem totally set.
That set the stage for last Tuesday, when Gobert, Mitchell, and the rest of the team lined up in LA. This was the first time they’d been to LA to play the Clippers since they unbelievably blew a 75-50 lead. This felt, in a way, like a chance to put everything that had gone on between then and now in the past and regroup in time for the playoffs. George would be making his return from a 3-month absence, but would ostensibly be on some kind of minutes restriction, especially if Utah dominated early.
That they did. The lead grew to 18 by the end of the first quarter, and continued to the point that it was 76-51 just minutes into the second half. When the lead his 25, some fans joked: we all know what happens from here! Of course, it wouldn’t happen again. Right?
Speechless. It happened again. It’s happened again and again and again, and it just happened again.
The same names, the same faces, the same lead, the same court, the same grandiosity about it all. The player interviews started to sound petty. Gobert blamed ball movement, Mitchell blamed defense. Snyder downplayed it all but the team we’d been watching develop and grow for years felt like it was finally all falling apart.
Days later, it would happen again, this time with second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic and defensive reserve Danuel House back in the lineup. Against a wounded Golden State Warrior team, the team once again managed to spectacularly lose a 21-point lead. Yet, the weirdest thing about it all was that it didn’t make sense. Utah had problems, absolutely. But there were no longer excuses. Everything – from the known issues of defense to mindless turnovers being repeated time and time again – was going wrong. Everything was falling apart.
Here we stand, the team no longer on the verge of collapse but perhaps at the wrecksite of the collapse itself. Yet, I find hope in something different: opportunity.
Four games remain until the playoffs, and substantial roster changes aren’t available anymore. The players have attempted to fix issues by tackling them individually, and they’ve failed spectacularly. It seems to me that, if each individual player on the team truly wants to win a championship, and I believe they do, they’ll recognize the opportunity lies using one another’s strengths and weaknesses to capitalize on the masses of talent and competitiveness they have. They finally have a chance to play with nothing to lose.
The way I view it, hope is not something born from rationality. It’s defined as a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. It’s a trait, and one that is necessary for ultimate success.
Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson brought a song to my attention just under a year ago, one that I feel lyrically applies better now than it did then, as it warns of the consequences of a thirst for achieving victory yet doing so in a self-destructive manner:
So glad we’ve almost made it,
So sad they had to fade it.
Everybody wants to rule the world
All for freedom and for pleasure,
Nothing ever lasts forever.
Everybody wants to rule the world.
-Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World“