Back in March, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert made headlines for all the wrong reasons: his carelessness surrounding the coronavirus, his positive test forcing the suspension of the NBA season and the way his behavior caused a rift between him and All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell.
In the early days, after Mitchell also tested positive, the two weren’t even on speaking terms, and a report from The Athletic stated that the situation “doesn’t appear salvageable.” Time has helped heal those wounds somewhat, and Mitchell said last week “right now we’re good.” For now, at least, they’ll be able to play together, even if they aren’t best friends.
The thing is, they never really were. According to a fascinating deep-dive into the duo’s relationship by Tim MacMahon of ESPN, Gobert and Mitchell had a strained relationship for some time now, and the coronavirus incident was just the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
One of the main issues stem’s from Gobert’s belief that Mitchell doesn’t pass him the ball enough. This is a lengthy anecdote, but it’s worth including in full:
Gobert had just put the finishing touches on one of his most dominant performances, an 18-point, 25-rebound, two-block, plus-20 outing in a Jan. 14, 2019, home win over the Detroit Pistons. He had dominated two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond, a couple of weeks before the coaches made their selections for All-Star reserves and in the team’s sixth win in seven games. Jazz TV sideline reporter Kristen Kenney corralled Gobert for the postgame interview, which played over the speakers at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Midway through the interview, Gobert’s attention was diverted by Mitchell, who often playfully interrupts teammates’ postgame TV hits, sometimes squirting them with water. As a smiling Mitchell sneaked up from behind and made some silly sounds, Gobert looked over his left shoulder and delivered a one-liner into the microphone:
“Hey, pass the ball, god damn it!”
Mitchell, who had 28 points on 21 shots and two assists, laughed and turned toward the tunnel to the Jazz locker room, altering his path to give high-fives to a couple of kids in the courtside seats who were wearing his No. 45 jersey.
It was a moment that made many within the Jazz organization uncomfortable. They knew Gobert’s quip contained a lot of truth about his feelings on Mitchell’s passing.
Though he’s averaged a respectable 15-plus points in each of the last two seasons, Gobert is not much of an offensive player. He doesn’t have a very refined game around the rim and has no outside jumper whatsoever. When your main skill is catching lobs at the rim, it’s naturally going to limit the number of touches you get; that look just isn’t available on a consistent basis.
Still, when you work as hard on the defensive end as Gobert does, and do so much dirty work to help your team win, it’s natural to want some kind of reward on the other end. It’s not that Gobert is wrong for wanting more touches — who wouldn’t want to score more points? — it’s just that the Jazz feel he could go about it in a different way. Even Gobert acknowledged that he can be “annoying.”
Mitchell hears it the most, simply because as the Jazz’s go-to guy, he has the ball in his hands the most. That, according to MacMahon’s Jazz sources, has been the primary irritant in an overall successful partnership.
“If you take a paper towel and just drip water on it, the paper towel is going to get moist and then it’s going to get damp and eventually it’s going to break,” a Jazz source said. “Rudy has to pick his spots, and Donovan can’t react to everything. Sometimes you have to play chess and appease your teammates.
“It’s not about being right all the time. Sometimes it’s like, ‘It happened and let’s move on.’ Is it about you trying to prove your point to one another or us trying to win?”
If there’s a silver lining for the Jazz, it’s that for all the apparent strife between the two, they’ve been good together on the floor. In 1,607 minutes this season, Utah is plus-six points per 100 possessions with Gobert and Mitchell playing together. As long as they’ve mended the relationship to the point that they can play together, the Jazz are going to be a good team.
Whether they can take that next step and make some noise in the postseason, however, remains to be seen. They head into the bubble in fourth place in the Western Conference at 41-23 but will be without Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgery back in May. Without him, the Jazz will need the Gobert and Mitchell partnership to be functioning at a high level.
If it isn’t, they could be heading for another quick playoff exit.