NBA Rumor: Mitchell-Gobert Dynamic

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I don’t want to make you look backward too much, but I do wonder: When do you feel like you and the rest of the team — and specifically, you and Donovan — really start healing this and solving it and getting it to a place that’s really positive. How did you get from there to here? Rudy Gobert: It was a tough experience, for me personally and I think for everyone — obviously in the world, but for our team (too). It was tough. But at the same time, I think the experience really helped me and helped us grow. Not as players, but as human beings. For Donovan, I think it really helped us put ourselves in each other’s shoes. For me, it was really that, being able to put myself in his shoes and I think he was able to put himself in my shoes. As two young leaders of this team, when two leaders are able to do that, it can become really powerful. And I believe that’s really how we were able to grow. And in a way, we have celebrated our growth as players, as human beings, as players too. And that’s a big reason why today we believe we can win a championship together.

That’s a very honest answer. So when it comes to the two of you, was it having dinners together or talking on the phone? What did it take to put yourself in each other’s shoes? Rudy Gobert: I think it happened within ourselves first. But then with some articles coming out and some shit coming out about (the team), all that was before the bubble. And I decided to just tell everyone, ‘Let’s just talk on the phone.’ We can’t be having media and people putting out articles about some stuff, that are not helping us and helping the team. So we just had very honest phone conversations. And then after that, I really think we were able to move forward and to grow.
2 months ago via ESPN

Salters: There were a lot of questions about you and Donovan [Mitchell]. How was your relationship? He may have felt some kind of way because he also tested positive for the coronavirus. How did you and Donovan work that out? Gobert: When you look back at it, there was a lot of fear. It was a situation that was really unusual for every single person on this planet. We had conversations as grown men, and we told each other what we had on our minds. And the end of the conversation was that our goal was to win a championship together and, you know, I thought it was really mature from both of us to come out of the conversation like that. I said many times, relationships are never perfect. There is some up, there is some down, but as long as you stay true to one another, you stay honest and respectful to people around you, that it’s really about being the best you can be.

Rudy Gobert: I want to win with Donovan Mitchell

It wasn’t just who scored the game-winning free throws, it was how he got there that was also fitting. With the clock winding down and the game tied, on a second-chance opportunity, Mitchell drove into the lane, Jrue Holiday hounding him the entire way, and as soon as Derrick Favors’ attention turned toward Mitchell rather than Gobert, Spida dished off to the Stifle Tower and the rest was history. “Hopefully that kind of stops y’all from talking about it to be honest,” Mitchell said of the play and his and Gobert’s recent history. “At the end of the day, we’re basketball players and we go out there and make the right plays and he did a hell of a job today.”

He tried to piece together how he had contracted the virus, concluding that it probably happened on the road trip in New York, Boston or Detroit. He wondered how it was possible that other members of the Jazz didn’t test positive given that he shared locker rooms with his teammates and received massages from team staffers. As he recovered, he concluded that he probably wasn’t the first NBA player to contract the virus — just the first to return a positive test. He might have been careless with the microphones, but Mitchell or Wood easily could have exposed him to the virus rather than the other way around.

“When everything happened, [Mitchell] was frustrated,” Gobert said. “I was frustrated. I really wanted to make sure that he was fine. It wasn’t really about going into a conflict or arguing. [After time passed], I was able to call him and tell him what was on my mind, and he did the same. I think that’s what men should do. Don’t put the business out there in the media. People were seeing this as something that could destroy the group. I see it as something that could make the group even stronger. If you’re able to come back from that, we won’t be worried about a team beating us or a bad defensive quarter. It gives perspective.”

It’s hard to hear Rudy Gobert or understand what he says, by his own admission. He’s a low talker and speaks in a thick, French accent. Talking through a mask only makes it tougher, and he didn’t want to wear one for his postgame press conference Saturday. But Patient Zero for the NBA and COVID-19 did put one on. Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, one can clearly hear him. So as Gobert was in the chair Saturday, low talking to the handful of reporters standing next to him and the others listening on Zoom, Mitchell and some Jazz teammates walked by and heckled Gobert. “Louder,” “Can’t hear you,” they said. And then Mitchell added: “Not one, not two, but three times.” And then, another, “Can’t hear you.”

Much has been made about the relationship between Utah’s two stars (it’s icy), and in an excellent ESPN story during the pandemic, an episode between them was discussed when Gobert grew angry at Mitchell for heckling him during an interview. Gobert’s response was “pass the damn ball.” No need to say that on Saturday. “I think we try to do the right thing for the team,” Gobert said of Mitchell. “I think we try to make plays for one another. I think we’re creating, communicating on defense, trying to do all the things to help the team.”

The NBA suspended the season on March 11 after Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and Mitchell tested positive shortly afterwards. That led to tension over how Gobert initially did not take the virus seriously, including when he touched reporters’ microphones shortly before his diagnosis. “People don’t have much to talk about for months. That was the topic of the moment,” Gobert said. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s time to put it behind. I get asked about it everyday. I can understand. But I hope they have some more interesting topics.”

To that end, when asked what component of his game he’s most been trying to bolster since the Jazz resumed group practices and scrimmages, Mitchell did not talk about how it would be incumbent upon him to find more ways to score now that Bogdanovic is sidelined by surgery to repair a ligament in his shooting hand. Instead, he answered, “Becoming a better passer, a more willing passer. “Getting into the lane, obviously, I get there and take certain shots or whatever, but I think being able to find my teammates — especially with Bojan being out — we’re gonna need guys to kind of pick it up and pick up the slack,” Mitchell added. “So for me, obviously taking the shots that I can get, but also being able to find my teammates, getting them easier looks, which will then also come back and make it easier on myself. But being able to do that will not just help me for where we are now, but help me for years upon my career.”

In that story, Gobert said he can be “annoying” when it comes to demanding the ball and that he didn’t blame Mitchell for how he responded after both tested positive for the virus. He admitted there had been issues between the two players in the past — and he wasn’t blameless. “I was very impressed at how open Rudy was; how he owned certain points,” Lindsey said. “There was a real vulnerability and some self-reflection. I’ve just seen some real maturity. You know there are some things that we all have to look at ourselves when we get critiqued and I’m not sure I’m good at that at 51 years old. But I was quite impressed that Rudy at 28 could reflect and share how he’s felt about a number of things.”

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.”

“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.”

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.”

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.

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. 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.

Utah Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey expressed optimism about the continued partnership of franchise cornerstones Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the wake of their rift following their positive tests for COVID-19. Gobert and Mitchell did not speak to each other for a month after Gobert’s positive test on March 11 triggered the suspension of the NBA season. Mitchell, who tested positive the next day, has acknowledged that he was upset with Gobert, who publicly apologized for careless behavior before he was aware that he was infected with coronavirus.

“They’re ready to put this behind them, move forward, act professionally,” Lindsey said on a Zoom call Tuesday with media. “Look, the COVID-19 night of March [11] was really unprecedented. It brought a microscope to our team, and we get it. With that said, we’re very pleased with the collective makeup of our group, Donovan and Rudy in particular. “We look forward to moving forward. They’ve said their piece to each other. They’ve both visited at the ownership level, at management level, at the coaches level, at the players level with each other.”

I genuinely think Donovan is a great person and great leader. I think of him as a Damian Lillard-type guy who can create a very positive, winning, and stable culture with his franchise. Why is he so unwilling to make a public comment on what has unfolded? — Jordan R. Because he wants the situation to dissipate. My thought has always been the Jazz — and specifically Mitchell and Gobert — will get through this. The Jazz are too stable an organization for those two to not find a way to co-exist as teammates. They are fierce competitors who ultimately want to win, and those are some of the biggest reasons the Jazz have made them franchise cornerstones.

One thing about Gobert: his hunger, his will to keep advancing himself as a basketball player, it may have worked against him a bit this season. His biggest strength has been to never be satisfied with his progress. And he didn’t harness that enough this season, which could be a reason he and Mitchell sometimes clashed. Gobert wanting the ball is a good thing. He clearly felt he had progressed enough as a player to warrant consistent touches offensively. But he still needed to be the same defender if he didn’t find touches within the offense, and he clearly wasn’t at times.

At the same time, Mitchell has got to do more in the future to acquiesce to his mercurial star big man. If he misses him on a pick and roll, a simple pat on the back and “My bad big fella, I’ll hit you next time,” could do wonders for their relationship. Mitchell is so precocious that we all forget he’s still just 23 years old. Nobody was perfect in this situation they find themselves in. But that doesn’t mean Mitchell and Gobert can’t have a long and productive relationship as teammates, once things get further ironed out.

On Friday, veteran guard Mike Conley became the latest to stress the point that NBA players are allowed to argue and not get along with one another and still be successful on the court. “Some of the best players in the world, in our game ever, have disagreed on things or had arguments or fought in practices, whatever it may be, and have went on to win championships and be successful and be brothers for life,” Conley said on a video conference with reporters.

Mitchell-Gobert relationship not salvageable?

Considering all the efforts the Jazz had taken to educate their players on the matter and to ensure their safety, it’s not hard to see why there would be frustration with anyone who was still downplaying the disease. Now, though, they must find a way to move forward. The Jazz have already begun working on the Mitchell-Gobert relationship, but sources say Mitchell remains reluctant to fix what might have been broken. “It doesn’t appear salvageable,” one source with knowledge of the situation said.

In the two travel days leading into Utah’s game at Oklahoma City, Gobert and Mitchell shared space on a regular basis, sitting near each other on buses and the team plane, according to sources. Still, there’s no way to know if Gobert gave it to Mitchell or if it was the other way around or some other factor. That’s something the team tried to make clear to Mitchell, according to sources. Mitchell also declined an interview request for this story.

The Jazz convened in the lobby of the Residence Inn on Thursday morning, still stunned by the events of the night before. Players milled around, making small talk, laughing and conversing with each other, checking their phones. Soon after, they took a chartered flight back to Salt Lake City, relieved to be going home, even if it was to quarantine for two weeks. Gobert traveled back to Utah on a private flight. Sources said Mitchell went elsewhere: New York, where he could be closer to his family. He wanted to be near his mother, Nicole Mitchell, as the two share a close relationship. He spent the following days quarantined in a basement. The process itself, of getting Gobert and Mitchell on their flights, wasn’t easy, according to sources. Because of the duo’s positive tests, the Jazz had to go through a special protocol for Gobert and Mitchell to be cleared to get onboard flights.

There is hope that the relationship will improve over time, and the fact that there could potentially be a lot of time to sort things out could work in Utah’s favor. “I’m confident our team is going to be totally fine,” Ingles said. “I heard Donovan’s response (on GMA), or whatever it was, to that question, and a part of that is on Donovan and Rudy to sort out if he’s frustrated with him or whatever. But I have no doubt when we go back to training, or when our season starts again, our team is going to be what we have been and what we are. … I’m confident our team will be completely fine. The chemistry will be fine.”

The reports of recent days have been multiple, and confirmed through The Athletic sourcing: Mitchell has been frustrated with Gobert in relation to his positive test. Those reports first surfaced on Thursday, the day of Mitchell’s positive test, and the day after Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive, which prompted a league-wide shutdown. They continued through the weekend, as Mitchell’s Instagram post stoked the rumors, because some of the wording is seemingly directed at Gobert. They were confirmed on Monday morning in Mitchell’s interview with Good Morning America.

Privately, according to sources, Utah hopes the time off does the team well. Neither Mitchell nor Gobert are the type to hold a grudge. Both are affable. And, privately, the Jazz know that they have doused fires before. Teammates everywhere get tired of each other over the course of a long season, and Mitchell and Gobert are no different. When Mitchell showed poor body language towards Gobert in a December home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, he realized his mistake and apologized to his big man. After games, their lockers are next to each other and can often be seen talking to each other about what transpired on the floor. They are without question the leaders of this team. They are both accountable to their teammates and to the media.

On Friday night, Mitchell was involved in a video game stream on Twitch with teammate and friend Royce O’Neale. At one point, O’Neale was asked about the status of Mitchell and Gobert’s relationship, to which O’Neale replied, “Ask Donovan.” Mitchell largely stayed silent throughout the stream, laughing here and there. But when a clip of the “Ask Donovan” line started circulating on social media, O’Neale and Mitchell laughed at the drama and downplayed the “beef” on the stream. Someone associated with O’Neale and Mitchell asked the fan who posted the clip to take it down, and the fan complied.
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