Inside the rift between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, and what comes nexton August 1, 2020 at 4:10 pm

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on July 7. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell combined for 34 points in Utah’s win in the opening game of the NBA restart. The Jazz return to action Saturday against the Thunder (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).

THE DAY AFTER Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, triggering the suspension of the NBA season, the Utah Jazz center tried to get in touch with his co-star, Donovan Mitchell. Gobert had just learned that Mitchell was the only other member of the team’s 58-person traveling party to test positive.

Gobert called Mitchell on March 12, then texted and later direct-messaged him on Instagram. Mitchell didn’t respond.

Earlier that afternoon, Gobert had apologized in an Instagram post to the people he had potentially exposed to the virus, calling his behavior “careless.” Two days before his positive result, the 7-foot-1 Frenchman touched all the microphones and recording devices in front of him at a news conference, jokingly mocking the NBA’s new physical distancing media policies. Gobert’s hunch that Mitchell was upset with him was soon confirmed by a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Mitchell acknowledged during a “Good Morning America” appearance four days after his positive test that “it took me a while to kind of cool off,” but he avoided the question about whether he had been in touch with Gobert.

Utah’s franchise cornerstones went weeks without any communication, and Mitchell didn’t comment again publicly until July 2. The silence fueled speculation about whether the Jazz would have to choose between their All-Stars, even if people within the organization considered the rift between Mitchell and Gobert overblown, believing it could have been managed relatively easily if they had to be in the same locker room.

There had long been friction between the two, the kind typical with NBA duos, particularly if those star players are relatively early in their careers — and especially in a roller-coaster season such as this one for the Jazz, who have basically played .500 ball aside from a 19-2 run in December and January. One high-ranking Jazz source categorized the pre-pandemic issues between the 28-year-old Gobert and Mitchell, 23, as “a 2 out of 10 on the NBA drama scale.”

But when their strained relationship following the positive tests lingered in public view for months, it increased the intensity of their issues and put a spotlight on an already-tense dynamic. It’s a spotlight that was created because, according to sources, Mitchell blamed Gobert for infecting him with COVID-19.

“You know, I tried to put myself in his shoes,” Gobert told ESPN. “There was a lot of fear, and I think more than anything, he reacted out of fear. That’s why I don’t really blame him. We all have different character; we all react differently. When it’s something like that, when he tested [positive] for a virus that we don’t know a lot about, it’s scary. It was scary for me, and I’m sure it was scary for him.

“The most important thing is what you do from there.”

Joe Ingles, a respected veteran whose wry sense of humor is often an important element of the Jazz’s chemistry, privately told them several weeks into the hiatus that it would be selfish and hurt their teammates if the stars held grudges against each other.

The Jazz wanted to start virtual team meetings and workouts, but Gobert told teammates in early April that he wouldn’t feel right participating until he had a discussion with Mitchell. A month into the NBA hiatus, Gobert and Mitchell talked.

“We told each other what we had to say to each other,” Gobert said. “We are both on the same page. We both want to win. We both think that we have a great opportunity, and we know that we need each other. We talked about a lot of things, but the main thing was that we are on the same page and the fact that our team needs us. We can win together. That’s the most important thing.”

When Mitchell spoke on July 2, he said he was ready to move on.

“Right now, we’re good,” Mitchell said in a virtual news conference with reporters. (He declined requests to comment for this story through his agent.) “We’re going out there ready to hoop.”

That aligned with Gobert’s feelings about moving forward.

“The virus or not, it’s never perfect,” Gobert said. “Relationships are never perfect. The most important thing is to have respect for one another.”

Both Mitchell and Gobert are in line for big raises, and the team plans to keep building around them. But amid the public revelation of these long-simmering tensions, the Jazz face a question: Is the future of the organization secure in the hands of two players who aren’t friendly with each other?

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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 for the team’s sixth win in seven games, a couple of weeks before the coaches made their selections for All-Star reserves. 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, goddamn 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.

Gobert rarely hesitates to let teammates know if they miss him when he is open around the rim. He’ll occasionally point up during play in animated fashion, sometimes as he is running back on defense, to note that a lob should have been thrown. He’ll often air his gripes verbally, during games and again in film sessions.

“Rudy has to pick his spots, and Donovan can’t react to everything. Sometimes you have to play chess and appease your teammates. … Is it about you trying to prove your point to one another or us trying to win?”
A Jazz source, on the relationship between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell

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 several 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?”

Gobert acknowledges that Mitchell and other Jazz teammates have passed him the ball a lot, considering he set an NBA record in 2018-19 for the most dunks in a season since shot types started being recorded in 2000.

Gobert also understands that whether he is right often is irrelevant if the tone and timing of his delivery are off-putting, something frequently stressed by Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen, whose blunt, direct approach has guided Gobert’s development from skinny project to one of the NBA’s premier big men. Gobert knows his lobbying for lobs wears on teammates to the point of being counterproductive, like the wide receiver who gripes at the quarterback after every play when a pass isn’t thrown his way, regardless of the pass rush.

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

GOBERT INSISTS THAT the reason he is so demanding of his teammates, and Mitchell in particular, is that he is so proud of what the Jazz have built during his career that he refuses to lower his standards.

Utah won 25 games during Gobert’s rookie season, when he spent much of his time in the then D-League, and the Jazz didn’t finish with a winning record or make the playoffs until his fourth campaign. Their lone All-Star, Gordon Hayward, bolted for the Boston Celtics in free agency weeks after that first postseason taste. But after getting a glimpse of Mitchell tearing up the summer leagues, Gobert boldly declared that the Jazz would be just as good without their departed leading scorer.

Gobert was unexpectedly proved right when Mitchell showed within the first month of his career that he was capable of carrying a heavier offensive burden in the NBA than he did at Louisville, a role much larger than the Jazz anticipated when they traded up to select him with the 13th pick of the 2017 draft.

Mitchell, who is the son of a New York Mets executive and considered baseball his main sport until he was 16, readily acknowledges that he is still learning on the fly as a primary playmaker. He often says making reads is the area of his game that requires the most work. There also are times when he tries to do too much, common for young stars.

“Sometimes he’ll try to be the hero and take big shots,” a Jazz source said. “I know he wants to be the guy, but sometimes the play is right in front of you and he needs to pass the ball. He has to grow in that area and trust his teammates more.”

Utah coach Quin Snyder and his staff have attempted to help facilitate that trust, especially between Mitchell and Gobert. That duo have had dozens of two-man workouts under the watch of coaches, with a focus on ironing out intricacies of their pick-and-roll partnership and lob chemistry. They also occasionally join coaches — usually some combination of Snyder, Jensen and Johnnie Bryant, the assistant who works most with Mitchell — for small-group film sessions at the team’s facility.

Those sessions typically — perhaps fittingly — take place in either the Stockton Room or the Malone Room. The rooms, located next to each other, are decorated with photos of John Stockton and Karl Malone, further honoring the legends whose statues sit outside the arena near the intersection of the streets named after them.

It’s another reminder of the high standard for teamwork in Utah, lessons the young stars are still learning.

“It’s all about how we learn to try to have empathy for one another,” Gobert said. “The best teams, it’s never perfect, but you understand your strengths and you understand how to make each other better. You want to make each other better.”

In recent comments, both Gobert and Mitchell mentioned the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant partnership that produced three titles for the Los Angeles Lakers as proof that co-stars don’t have to necessarily be friends to be successful. (They also both noted that they weren’t trying to compare themselves to the legends in terms of talent or production.)

“For us, it’s like, there’s going to be tension,” said Mitchell, who was adamant that their long-uneasy relationship didn’t influence his reaction toward Gobert after testing positive for the coronavirus. “There’s going to be back-and-forth. Obviously, I feel like I should be right here, he feels like he should be right there. But it’s always going to happen. It happens on every team …

“So I feel like in a work environment, you’re not going to always get along or go out to eat and hang out with your teammates. So that’s that.”

JAZZ COACHES CONSIDER the screen assist — crediting a player for setting a pick that leads directly to a teammate’s basket — a gift from the stat geeks.

It’s been available on the NBA’s stats site since the start of the 2016-17 season. Gobert has ranked first or tied for first in screen assists in each of those seasons.

It’s tangible evidence that Gobert is the best in the game at something that had long fallen under the category of an intangible, a way of helping teammates score that is rarely noticed by casual fans and never appears in a traditional box score.

“I just think it helps my team win, and if it does, I’m going to keep doing it,” Gobert said.

Publicly and privately, Gobert constantly emphasizes that winning is his top priority. He embraces doing the dirty work necessary to achieve that goal — but also craves the recognition for doing so.

It’s no secret that being snubbed for a couple of All-Star Games really stung Gobert. He believed he had earned a spot, a contention supported by advanced statistics; he has ranked among the NBA’s top four players in win shares in three of the past four seasons, the lone exception being when injuries limited him to 56 games in 2016-17. Gobert memorably teared up the day after All-Star reserves were announced in 2019 — and he wasn’t included — while discussing his mother’s disappointment at a post-practice media availability.

That’s why some within the Jazz organization wonder whether Gobert has subconsciously allowed his motivation and relationships to be muddied by his thirst for status — and, by extension, statistics.

“I can totally see that,” Gobert said, referring to concern that he had started caring too much about scoring.

“The thing is, it’s a paradox, because I play every game to win. I compete every single possession to win. Of course you want accomplishments. You want legacy. When you realize that you help your team win and you’re still not selected …”

Gobert’s voice trailed off mid-sentence. Those snubs still sting, even after he made his All-Star debut along with Mitchell this season, adding to a list of honors headlined by two All-NBA selections and two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards.

“When you want to be the best at your position, the best at what you do, you want the accolades that go with it,” Gobert continued. “When you do your best to help your team win, your team is winning, and then you get snubbed for people that get better numbers that don’t win as much or maybe don’t have the same impact, then it’s like, what do I need to do more?”

That, Gobert added, certainly doesn’t make him an exception. As he put it, “every single player in the NBA thinks about his stats.”

That desire for acknowledgement — or to prove doubters wrong — has been a driving force in Gobert’s ascent. He wears No. 27 as a constant reminder that he slid to the 27th pick in the 2013 draft. A scroll through his likes on Twitter reveals an NBA star who searches for both disrespect and praise as fuel. It’s also why the Jazz strength coaches don’t include upper-body work in Gobert’s weightlifting program, knowing he’ll get those reps in for the sake of shirtless selfie posts on Instagram.

Some close to Gobert believe this blend of insecurity and vanity is rooted in his experience growing up in France as a gangly kid with glasses.

“Part of it is he’s always trying to overcome being that goofy kid in high school,” a Jazz source said. “It’s that constant never enough, which is good, but it’s also been bad.”

It’s against that backdrop that Mitchell’s marketing success and popularity, particularly as compared to that of Gobert, are seen by some in Utah as sensitive subjects. It can be categorized more as an awareness than a concern in the organization, but there have been cringes when a SportsCenter highlight package focuses on a Mitchell dunk or two after Gobert dominated in a Jazz win.

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell.”
Rudy Gobert

Gobert, however, insists he doesn’t mind that Mitchell has a signature shoe deal with Adidas and a Stance Socks shop in a Salt Lake City mall — the sort of marketing opportunities beyond Gobert’s reach.

“He’s the governor, not the mayor,” one source joked about Mitchell, who plays to Utah fans by asking for tips on finding good Fourth of July barbecues or high school basketball games, then showing up.

Gobert sees the same thing in Mitchell that the marketing executives do — a charismatic young star with a flashy game, a polish developed while attending prestigious New England prep schools, the cachet of winning the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie and the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency pushing his brand.

But Gobert also sees Mitchell’s dedication to working on his game behind the scenes.

“Obviously, a lot of things happened really fast for him, but I don’t think he ever lost track of what’s really important,” the big man said.

If Mitchell is seen as the face of the Jazz franchise, Gobert is adamant it’s just fine with him.

“I don’t mind Donovan being in the spotlight more than I am,” Gobert said. “I want to win games. That’s it. At the end of the day, it’s not like I [don’t] have any spotlight.

“Donovan has a very bright personality and all that, and the way he plays, he’s more fun to watch than me,” Gobert added. “If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey and the rest of the Jazz front office certainly don’t see any need to entertain thoughts of choosing between Gobert or Mitchell. Both players have committed to move forward together, both in conversations between the players and the ownership group, front office, coaching staff and with their teammates.

“This isn’t, ‘Whose team is it?’ like Steph Marbury and Kevin Garnett in Minnesota,” a Jazz source said. “This is trying to figure out how to win. The things that bind them together is they’re both competitive as hell, they both want to win and they both know they need each other.”

The decision to give Mitchell, who has a year remaining on his rookie contract, a maximum deal before he can test restricted free agency qualifies as a no-brainer.

Gobert’s looming contract negotiations are likely to be more complicated, as he is a potential 2021 unrestricted free agent eligible for a supermax extension this summer, which could put a small-market franchise in a financial crunch. But the Jazz have been clear that they plan to build around the pair for the foreseeable future. Nothing that has happened since March 11, when their game in Oklahoma City was called off seconds before the scheduled tip, has altered that thinking.

“As we’ve stated before, we’re looking to add players with the physical talent and the competitive makeup of Donovan and Rudy,” Lindsey said. “By definition, we want to build around them moving forward.”

There’s even hope within the organization that this saga could lead Gobert and Mitchell, who are neighbors in the home locker room but don’t often socialize outside of team dinners and outings, to have more productive conversations with each other.

“When adversity comes, it can pull the group together or it can push them away,” a team source said. “That’s the reality of the situation. It’s up to them.”

Mitchell expressed regret that the attention his rift with Gobert generated “took away from what the guys on the team were trying to do” and said moving forward he wishes and believes that the Jazz will “focus on the team as a whole.”

Asked why he didn’t address the dynamic with Gobert publicly for 3 1/2 months, whether via social media or in an interview, Mitchell said his initial feelings were no secret and he didn’t see value in trying to shoot down a report from The Athletic that quoted an anonymous source describing the situation as “unsalvageable.”

“We know what it is internally as a team, and that should be it,” Mitchell said. “That’s part of that maturity and growing up. I could have easily gone back and forth with whoever on Twitter and kind of addressed it, but I’m just like, you know what, there’s no need for that. My teammates and my coaches know how I feel, and I feel like that was over with. That’s it, and I’m leaving it at that.”

There isn’t an expectation that Gobert and Mitchell will suddenly form a close friendship. But that isn’t necessary for the Jazz co-stars — completely different personalities but complementary on-court pieces — to continue as one of the NBA’s most productive duos.

“I think we can accomplish some great things, so that’s the moral of the story,” Gobert said. “It’s never going to be perfect. Sometimes we’re going to be very happy, and sometimes we’re going to be frustrated with each other.

“But as long as we, as men, respect each other and keep things between him and myself, and approach it as men, we’re going to be fine.”

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