Since the curtain closed on Karl Malone and John Stockton’s partnership nearly two decades ago, the Utah Jazz have only sent five players to the All-Star game: Andrei Kirilenko (2004), Mehmet Okur (2007), Carlos Boozer (2007, 2008), Deron Williams (2010, 2011), and Gordon Hayward (2017).
This year Utah has Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, two strong candidates with unique qualities none of those aforementioned All-Stars ever had. Both are deserving on a second place, 28-12 steamroller that’s won 10 in a row and has led the NBA in net rating for a month. There’s easily a world where both qualify, but the field is crowded, with solid cases to be made for several non-lock hopefuls such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Ingram, and a couple others.
For the sake of conversation we’ll operate under the assumption that coaches will only vote one Jazz player in. And for reasons that go beyond surface-level frivolousness implied by this sort of thought exercise, I’ve spent way too much time wondering who it will be. The following questions don’t necessarily apply to choosing an All-Star off half-a-season’s worth of action, but allow for more important issues to be explored on the journey towards an answer: Who is more essential to Utah’s identity? Who raises their ceiling? Who stabilizes their floor? Who is better?
Before I sat down to actually do research for this piece my answer to most of these questions was split, with a slight tilt towards Mitchell. Chalk that up to offensive bias, youth, and him occupying a role that’s harder to replace, but after I dug through numbers, watched a bunch of Jazz games, and talked to a few people around the team, parsing out an advantage one way or another quickly became impossible.
Let’s start with a look at Gobert, a 27-year-old on track to win his third-straight Defensive Player of the Year award and a fourth-straight first-place finish in defensive real plus-minus. Unimpeachable dominance on half his team’s possessions isn’t the only reason Gobert stands out among his peers. The guy brings it on the other end, every night, knowing there won’t be more than three or four plays called for him to score. His usage rate has never cleared 17.5 percent. This year it’s 16.6, below Ivika Zubac, Bismack Biyombo, Mason Plumlee, and, of all people, Al Horford.
And when his number does get called it’s usually circa deception, with him cutting off a back screen, hands raised for an easy dunk.
Gobert’s effort is critical because he also happens to be at the crux of everything the Jazz want to do with the ball. They lead the league in possessions finished by a pick-and-roll ball-handler because Gobert is the best screen setter in the league, and capable of not only sucking help defenders in from the corners but also occupying his own man’s attention.
This is his third-straight season leading the league in screen assists, while averaging a full two more than he did last year. Whether he’s dancing with Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, or even a newcomer like Jordan Clarkson, when the ball-handler and Gobert read the same sheet of music there’s very little two defenders can do to stop it.
Without him the Jazz would have to change everything about how they play, from the carefully plotted dribble hand-offs to their conservatively taut approach towards getting stops. (Utah’s defense is first in location effective field goal percentage, which basically means they do a better job than anyone at forcing opponents to take shots they don’t want to take.) He seems stronger this year, committed to his role with an admirable discipline that gives the Jazz a threshold they can’t sink below when he’s on the court.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t several small drawbacks that accumulate in an unfortunate way during the playoffs. All those hard rolls that prevent his man from selling out to stop the ball go stagnant against teams that are happy to switch the screen. Gobert doesn’t post up—Aron Baynes averages twice as many per game—because he isn’t graceful doing it. Turnovers are a common occurrence, especially against smaller defenders who step up without fear.
Gobert led the league in field goal percentage last year and he’s currently making 67.6 percent of his 8.6 shots per game—something that’s never been done (non-Wilt Chamberlain division)—but he can’t score efficiently without assistance, and is a liability dribbling the ball with his face towards the basket while 20 feet from the rim. That hurts. Space creation is synonymous with effective offense in a playoff series, and for all Gobert’s activity—how he screens away, cuts at the right time, and hunts every missed shot—he still can’t make defenders who ignore him pay with a reliable jumper. In that way he’s not Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, or Towns.
Defensively, he’s still vulnerable in space, which forces the Jazz to drop him back into the paint against pick-and-rolls, regardless of how lethal the opposing ball-handler’s pull-up three might be. That lessens his flexibility in certain matchups, but it’s not powerful enough to disqualify Utah from title contention or anything like that.
It’s easier to appreciate Gobert’s awesomeness if you watch a lot of Utah Jazz basketball. If not, it’s easy to gloss over his strengths and scrutinize his weaknesses. There’s something antiquated about Gobert’s game, which is in the mold of an entire class of centers who came before him. But right now he is the A+ iteration. If you’re going to have any one big who rim runs, sets screens, protects the basket, grabs 15 rebounds a night, and can’t shoot but doesn’t wish or pretend he could, there’s no better option.
As a counter to Gobert’s subtle, steady impact stands Mitchell, an infinity-pool-tucked-inside-a-wine-cave luxury for a team that already has enough shooting and playmakers to manufacture solid offense for 3.5 quarters. Mitchell envelops the Jazz in his own panache whenever he’s on the floor, but when their system stalls in crunch time he asserts his greatest value (only Zach LaVine and Chris Paul have taken more clutch shots all season) and becomes the shot-creating privilege Utah needs if it wants to win it all.
Mitchell’s 24.2 points per game are attached to a star’s sheen that can’t be discounted and is nearly impossible to replace. He puts constant pressure on the opponent, be it with the 8.8 field goal attempts he gets from driving the ball (third most this season) or pulling up on defenders who have to respect that first step. His 51.5 effective field goal percentage on off-the-dribble shots is near the top of the league.
Every team wants a player who can make broken possessions look like they’re part of the game plan. Mitchell already does.
He’s able to inflict trauma with gymnastic feats that tug at the sleeve of his team’s patient offensive structure. (The Jazz rank dead last in transition frequency, per Cleaning the Glass.) More often than not that creates an advantage, but sometimes it’s a defect. Mitchell’s shot selection can be erratic, set to a rhythm that’s outside the game’s. To actually make his first All-Star team he will have to clear two of Booker, Ingram, and Paul. That’s not impossible, even though he’s the least efficient of the four by a decent margin.
Mitchell can get buckets in a variety of electrifying ways and he throws passes that are incomprehensible when seen live.
But his playmaking is still more sizzle than substance. For every pinpoint frozen rope that he’ll whip to a teammate who’s just barely open, Mitchell will launch three off-the-dribble jump shots that bail out the defense. Impatience is understandable for someone with whom the laws of gravity do not apply, but that’s one area where marked improvement can make him flawless.
“It takes some time to find yourself in new situations, in order to get better at them,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “So some things you can’t rush, and I think he’s recognizing more of those ... whether it be making a pass that’s more accurate in a situation or all kinds of little nuances that he’s recognizing and working on and taking a lot of pride in.”
As he matures, Mitchell will get a better sense of when it’s acceptable to yank the pin from a grenade and toss it into a possession, and when he just needs to flow inside Utah’s action—integral but not overwhelming.
Until that balance is discovered, it’s OK to wonder the degree to which Mitchell actually makes his teammates better—a question that does not apply to Gobert, whose sheer activity raises everybody else’s floor.
When stacking Gobert’s value beside Mitchell’s, it’s worth noting that Utah’s net rating goes from +11.4 to -3.8 points per 100 possessions when the dynamic combo guard is without his anchor. Flip them around and Utah is still +5.3 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays without Mitchell.
That disparity is noisy but also not the world’s biggest coincidence. And even though I’d prefer having Mitchell on my team for the next five years—particularly in the playoffs—it’s impossible to deny Gobert’s centripetal impact on his team’s foundational success. He’s less glamorous than every other All-Star candidate, but it’s so hard to picture the Jazz actually getting better on one side of the ball if he missed significant time with an injury, as the Minnesota Timberwolves have since Towns went down over a month ago.