In this era of player empowerment, star movement and superteams, the Utah Jazz have largely existed off to the side. They won around 50 games for three straight seasons and were on pace to do it again before this year’s shutdown, largely because they used the 27th pick of the 2013 draft on a raw 7-footer from a town 90 minutes northeast of Paris. When they lost a homegrown All-Star in free agency, they recovered largely because they had traded up in the 2017 draft to acquire the No. 13 pick, which they used on a 6-foot-1 guard from Westchester County.
Now those two stars, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, are at the center of the kind of drama that Utah usually avoids. While Gobert has apologized for failing to take the coronavirus seriously before he and Mitchell tested positive for it, a source told The Athletic that their relationship “doesn’t appear salvageable.” In fact, David Aldridge of The Athletic suggested that the Jazz “were growing weary of Gobert” even before this pandemic.
In an Instagram Live interview with Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks, Gobert downplayed the reported rift, saying the two didn’t speak for a while but had spoken recently. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported that the conversation was the first step in them trying to work things out.
Two months after they played in their first All-Star Game, have Gobert and Mitchell already played their last game together? If so, what might the future of the Jazz look like? CBS Sports’ James Herbert and Sam Quinn discuss:
James Herbert: I’d find this story easier to dismiss if Mitchell had publicly shown support for Gobert at any point in the last six weeks. Even if they smooth things over, though, the Jazz have to figure out how much their rim-protecting franchise center is worth to them. Gobert is eligible for a supermax extension, which would pay him almost $250 million over five years (using pre-coronavirus salary-cap calculations), and Utah risks alienating him if it doesn’t put it on the table.
In my estimation, only a handful of players can provide that kind of value and Gobert isn’t one of them. Am I underrating the two-time DPOY? Am I disrespecting a model small-market organization by suggesting they might not be able to afford to keep their core together?
Sam Quinn: Suggesting that the small-market Jazz might not be able to afford a $250 million contract for an unspectacular offensive player at the modern NBA‘s least important position is far from disrespectful, James. Especially in light of their other financial obligations. Utah owes around $117 million to Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale beyond this season, and will presumably offer Mitchell a max extension this offseason.
But history says that anything less than a supermax offer will likely alienate Gobert. Remember what happened with Kemba Walker last summer? Players of Gobert’s caliber tend to expect the max whether or not they fully deserve it.
And at this point, I’m not convinced Gobert is worth even a typical five-year max, much less a supermax. Most metrics suggest that he is slipping defensively, even if only slightly. His playing style relies heavily on athleticism that won’t fade overnight, but almost certainly will within five years. Only five players have ever signed a supermax contract: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and John Wall. The shooters on that list have been far more successful than their more athletic counterparts. Paying a non-shooter $50 million per year is dangerous even if they’re flawless everywhere else. Gobert isn’t.
So we seem to be barreling toward a split of some sort. We’ll sort out some of the specifics momentarily, but before we go into Gobert’s future, I’m fascinated by Utah’s. What are the Jazz for the next half decade if Rudy Gobert isn’t on their team?
Herbert: The simple answer is that they’re Mitchell’s team. Taking Gobert out of the mix would potentially allow them to play five-out, push the pace and become more adaptable. If they replace Gobert with a stretchy, switchy big, they could simplify their offense and add more defensive coverages.
But that is a best-case scenario. If Utah can’t put together a perfect trade package, it could take years to put the right pieces around Mitchell. I am something of a zealot when it comes to versatility and shooting, but even I have to acknowledge there is enormous risk in trading Gobert. He is an incredible rim protector, whose presence alone nudges opponents toward inefficient shots. It’s foolish to devalue his skills because they’re not as exciting as Mitchell’s.
I think that moving Gobert opens up a bunch of team-building possibilities that aren’t available with a paint-bound center on an enormous, long-term deal. I also think that Gobert is the Jazz’s best player. Without him, is there even a point in having veterans like Ingles, Bogdanovic and Mike Conley on the roster? I challenge you to find a Gobert trade that makes Utah better in the short term.
Quinn: The trouble with finding a Gobert trade is that so many theoretical suitors have recently filled holes at center. The Atlanta Hawks would have made perfect sense before the Clint Capela deal. The Cleveland Cavaliers nabbed Andre Drummond at the deadline. Most teams are either happy with their center or comfortable wading into what is consistently a buyer’s market for them in free agency. Why give up real assets to pay Gobert the max when you can get Daniel Theis or Richaun Holmes for less than the mid-level exception?
Finding Gobert a new home that is also capable of furnishing the Jazz with enough immediate talent to remain competitive means finding a team so desperate to win now that it is willing and able to pay a premium at a non-premium position. I can think of only three such teams.
The Nets could be in the market for a third star, which would mean cashing in one of their spare guards. While neither Caris LeVert nor Spencer Dinwiddie is an ideal fit with Mitchell, either one would give Utah plenty of offensive firepower. Jarrett Allen is a young rim protector with potential, and would be redundant alongside Gobert and the apparently untouchable DeAndre Jordan. As little as Jordan should matter in a deal of this magnitude, his presence is a possible deterrent. Would Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant put friendship aside for an obvious upgrade?
The second team is the Boston Celtics, but it’s worth asking how obvious the upgrade would be there. Theis has been stellar this season, and Brad Stevens has always preferred versatility to pure rim protection and size. Gobert is far better than Theis, and Stevens could adjust his system, but should the Celtics even be considering making a big swing? It would be a pricey one. A Gobert trade would almost certainly send Gordon Hayward back to Utah.
And then there’s Sacramento. The Kings have thrived offensively with Holmes, but their defense has been underwhelming. Adding Gobert could not only fix that, but relieve them of their headache at shooting guard. Buddy Hield’s shooting would give Mitchell unparalleled space to work with offensively, especially alongside Ingles and Bogdanovic, and the Kings could transition to Bogdan Bogdanovic as their full-time starter.
None of these hypothetical deals actually make Utah better in the short term, though. Such a trade doesn’t exist, so I’d like to pose an alternative: Trading the 27-year-old Gobert for younger players and picks that could prove invaluable toward the end of Mitchell’s next contract rather than fighting a losing battle against the Lakers and Clippers.
Do you have any deals in mind that might push the Jazz out of the playoff picture in the short term, but could get them back into contention within a few seasons?
Herbert: A Gobert-for-Hayward trade? Fighting a losing battle? Congratulations on angering every Utah fan who has made it this far.
Before I get to future-focused trade ideas, it’s worth bringing up where the Jazz are now. They had the best offense in the league from Jan. 1 onward, but their defense had become weirdly unreliable. It was a confusing season, and even if they didn’t have to worry about this Gobert-Mitchell thing, they’d have to make an honest assessment of their roster. That’s difficult without seeing this group in a playoff game.
If the front office isn’t interested a total teardown, why not see what it can pry away from the Thunder? Steven Adams can play Gobert’s role, albeit not at an All-NBA level, and Oklahoma City has all sorts of draft picks to make a swap worth Utah’s while.
Alternatively, the Jazz could go young, as you described. Maybe the Portland Trail Blazers see Gobert as their missing piece. Zach Collins is the exact type of big man Utah should be looking at if it’s focused on giving Mitchell space, and Anfernee Simons has upside. Trevor Ariza or Jusuf Nurkic could be used for salary-matching purposes (and then traded elsewhere), and Portland would presumably be willing to part with future picks in order to maximize the rest of Lillard’s prime.
Are these ideas realistic to you? Do you think Gobert can make a good team great? If so, isn’t there a compelling case for keeping Gobert instead of Mitchell, or at least giving them time to work things out?
Quinn: Portland is a nice match, especially given the lengths Terry Stotts is willing to go to protect his center from playing perimeter defense. I’m not convinced about the Oklahoma City Thunder just because I doubt their commitment to short-term winning, especially if doing so means a hefty financial commitment to a center. Gobert doesn’t exactly fit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s timeline, and I’m not convinced the Thunder are operating on Chris Paul’s timeline, either.
Before we move back to Utah specifically, I’m going to drop a grenade into this chat and propose the NBA’s doomsday scenario. The Golden State Warriors have two premium first-round picks sitting in the bank: their own this year and Minnesota’s in 2021. They also have a contract that could be swapped for Gobert one-for-one in Andrew Wiggins. Could the Warriors either send all that to Utah or reroute it elsewhere for players the Jazz prefer? It seems appropriate that, four years after adding perhaps the NBA’s best offensive player, they’d turn around and grab arguably its best defender.
On the Utah front, you don’t trade for 32-year-old Mike Conley or sign 30-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic for four years unless your plan is to win a championship right now and pay the piper down the line. If their goal hasn’t changed, I don’t think the Jazz have a choice but to try to make it work. Yet I think we’d agree that even before this purported rift, a Jazz championship prior to Gobert’s free agency was unlikely.
Which brings us to the idea of trading Mitchell. Utah would need to receive a player in Mitchell’s general age range, with similar on-court value. Players like that are almost never on the market. Would Philadelphia be interested in moving Ben Simmons for Mitchell and Conley? Save for something that radical, I don’t see the point of moving Mitchell and keeping Gobert.
With that in mind, it’s worth at least mentioning the nuclear option. Rarely do teams trade two stars at once, but it just worked for the Thunder. The mid-90s Mavericks recovered from the Jason Kidd-Jimmy Jackson-maybe Toni Braxton feud by landing Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Sometimes, a few painful years can pay off spectacularly, though it’s hard to imagine Jazz ownership endorsing a tank job. There’s a reason so few teams actually try this.
So, Utah’s options are to trade Gobert, trade Mitchell, keep both or trade both. If you were running the Jazz, what would you do?
Herbert: It depends on what trade offers are on the table, how Gobert feels about signing a non-supermax extension and how Mitchell feels about everything. My guess is that I’d land on trading Gobert, mostly because of the supermax situation.
They are complementary players, though, and if they patch things up I’d try to extend both of their contracts (without paying Gobert like he’s Harden). This brings up yet another variable: Would ownership be willing to make that kind of investment? IN THIS ECONOMY?
Quinn: The short answer is we don’t know. Barring a blockbuster, Utah’s roster is mostly locked in for next season. Bringing back Gobert and Mitchell essentially removes any flexibility the Jazz might have had. That might be acceptable for a top-two seed, but it’s a tougher sell for a team hovering in the four-to-six range in one of the NBA’s smaller markets. If the Miller family is concerned about payroll, the reported feud gives them an excuse to deal Gobert rather than extending him.
Hopefully that won’t be the case. The NBA is a better place when teams as good as the Jazz commit to contending, and while there are legitimate basketball arguments in favor of small-scale rebuild, it’d be a shame if this era were over.
But a number of teams, including current contenders (we’re looking at you, Houston Rockets) are going to have to ask themselves difficult questions in the coming months. Financial concerns will inevitably affect the product on the court. In that sense, while we don’t have enough information to call a Gobert trade likely, I would at the very least characterize one as highly plausible, bordering on sensible. Jazz fans won’t want to hear it, but the team that takes the floor when basketball returns could look very different from the one that walked off of it in Oklahoma City on March 11.