There have been very few times in NBA history where All-Star duos had to be broken up due to off-court issues. The most notable one that comes to mind is the separation of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on the Lakers. Both players were still in their primes during the 2003-04 season and went to their fourth NBA Finals in five seasons. Despite their tremendous success together, the two didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Eventually, the Lakers had to make a decision, and they decided to trade O’Neal while his value was still high and keep the younger Bryant. Bryant was only 26 years old and yet to reach his peak, and so the Lakers built around him for the rest of his career.
The Utah Jazz might have to face a similar decision regarding their two All-Stars. When both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19, things got rocky. Where things currently stand, they have a lot of work to do to mend their relationship before playing together again. Teammate Joe Ingles is confident that the two will work things out, and with potentially many months before basketball can resume, time should certainly heal everything.
In the event the two cannot reconcile by the time the offseason begins, the Jazz may have to choose between trading one of Mitchell and Gobert. If they follow the Lakers’ blueprint, chances are they’ll trade Gobert and keep Mitchell. Mitchell is four years younger than Gobert and just made his first All-Star appearance. The best from Mitchell has yet to come, and now that he is about to become extension-eligible, he could hold that against the Jazz if they don’t move Gobert.
Gobert currently has a base salary of $25.8 million in 2020-21 but has a cap hit of $27.5 million with likely incentives included. Barring any changes to the cap hit amount, the most an over-the-cap team would have to send in outgoing salary for Gobert is $21.9 million. The most incoming salary the Jazz could incur for Gobert is $34.5 million.
Trading Gobert brings another set of problems. The two-time defensive player of the year is the cornerstone of the Jazz’s defense and led them to 11th in defensive rating for 2019-20. Without him, the Jazz cannot get away with playing a small lineup that is fantastic on offense but can be pushed around on defense. What Gobert brings is irreplaceable and invaluable, and with the rest of the Jazz team set, trading Gobert is likely a lateral move in both the short and long term. Whatever the Jazz get in return for Gobert will likely decimate their defense and completely change the team’s identity. With centers being undervalued and most teams being set on center, the Jazz are unlikely to get a player of equal value or impact. However, if the NBA continues to shift towards small-ball without centers, now may be the perfect time to capitalize on a return for Gobert while his value is at an all-time high.
The biggest need that the Jazz will look to address in a potential deal for Gobert is center. Even if the Jazz want to explore lineups without a traditional one, taking the route of having no viable centers is risky. It might be more rational for the Jazz to decide that they can win the same amount of games paying their starting center $10-15 million annually instead of $25 million. This would eliminate trading Gobert for a big man like Andre Drummond ($28.6 million) or Nikola Vucevic ($26 million) since they lose the elite defense while staying in the same position financially. Trading for centers that expensive only makes sense provided they can re-sign or extend for much less on their next contracts.
If money isn’t an issue, it may be more worth it to make a deal with Oklahoma City for Steven Adams and a handful of their first-round draft picks. Although he isn’t known as a rim-protector, he has improved his rebounding and overall defense this season. Along with Adams, the Thunder have many first-round picks owed to them in the foreseeable future by the Clippers, Heat, and Rockets. Getting those picks alone could be worth it for Gobert in the long-term since they could potentially flip them in the future for an All-Star.
If they’re looking to lock in an affordable center now, a deal with Atlanta featuring Clint Capela makes a lot of sense. Although the Hawks just acquired Capela, they could look to upgrade again at center, provided they attach a pick and/or young player in the package. Capela plays a similar style as Gobert offensively and is a great rebounder, shot-blocker, and rim-protector. He might be the most cost-effective replacement for Gobert with $51.3 million owed to him over the next three seasons.
The Knicks could be looking to trade their young players and future picks for an established All-Star like Gobert. With no player seemingly safe under the new Knicks front office, they could offer a package that includes Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and a future first-round pick for Gobert. The Jazz get their center of the future in Robinson who, like Gobert, came into the league very raw but with attributes that suggested elite defensive potential. They also get a viable power forward in Randle who could be a great small-ball center.
If the Jazz decide to punt on having an average starting center for the foreseeable future, they could get multiple valuable first-round picks from the Warriors for Gobert. The Jazz could potentially get their center of the future in James Wiseman, should they acquire the Warriors 2020 pick which will likely be in the Top 5. They could also get the Timberwolves Top 4 protected 2021 first-round pick from the Warriors on top of that. The Jazz would most likely have to take on Andrew Wiggins to make the salaries match, who would be redundant with both Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic on the team. The Jazz could work around that if they really value having top picks in the next two drafts.
With Gobert’s entering the final year of his contract next season, it is notable that Gobert is eligible to sign a supermax extension with the Jazz in the 2020 offseason. The maximum amount he can sign for is $253 million over five years, although it is unlikely he gets the full amount. If he were to demand close to the maximum, trading Gobert this offseason could be their way out from getting locked into paying him near-maximum money. While the fallout with Mitchell may not push the Jazz to trade Gobert, his contract status should push them to evaluate him and decide how much they are willing to pay him going forward.