NBA playoffs 2022: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the fragile future of the Utah Jazz

RYAN SMITH AND Dwyane Wade, the tech billionaire and recently retired NBA legend who are the faces of the Utah Jazz's new ownership group, boarded a private jet and flew across the country for an important meeting.

Their destination was Greenwich, Connecticut, an affluent suburb of New York City where Jazz star Donovan Mitchell had spent much of his childhood and makes his offseason home.

This was a few weeks after the Jazz were eliminated in the second round of last season's playoffs, losing four straight games to the LA Clippers after building a 2-0 lead, a major disappointment after Utah had rolled to the league's best regular-season record (52-20).

It had been a rocky postseason, beginning with Mitchell's public fallout with the Jazz's medical staff over the handling of his ankle sprain entering the playoffs.

Smith and Wade had wanted to have the type of talk that top decision-makers of NBA organizations have with superstars, particularly those who play for small-market franchises.

The crux of the conversation: How can the Jazz make Mitchell happy? They talked about a lot of aspects of the organization, but the Jazz ultimately didn't achieve the simplest answer: a deep playoff run.

It's one of many goals the Jazz did not accomplish during a turbulent 2021-22 season that ended Thursday night with a first-round exit against the Dallas Mavericks.

The potential fallout of another early postseason loss has been a subject of much discussion around the NBA all season, particularly among teams that would be eager to trade for Mitchell or fellow franchise cornerstone Rudy Gobert if Utah ultimately decides to break up their partnership.

"No matter what, I'm always going to do my best to be the best Rudy I can be on and off the floor and to win," Gobert said after Utah's 98-96 Game 6 loss. "The rest is out of my control."

Back in Greenwich last summer, Smith, Wade and Mitchell discussed all sorts of issues, big and small, exchanging ideas about how the Jazz organization could be better. Smith, who declined to be interviewed for this story, considered the meeting to be a pleasant, casual exchange of ideas between prominent Jazz stakeholders while sharing a meal.

This meeting marked the second straight summer that Smith traveled across the country to meet Mitchell in his hometown. Establishing a rapport with the Jazz's 25-year-old star has been a top priority.

The threat of Mitchell deciding he wants to leave Salt Lake City for a larger market looms over the Jazz, a franchise that despite a West-best six straight playoff berths, has yet to break through with a legitimate playoff run.

And now, after a Jazz season that featured much more friction than fun ended with another first-round exit, a significant step back for an expensive roster under pressure to win right now, major questions are swirling across the NBA.

Will Smith and CEO Danny Ainge, the former Boston Celtics president hired by the Jazz in midseason, attempt to reshape the roster around Mitchell, hoping he'll stay in Utah?

Will coach Quin Snyder, who league sources say declined a contract extension last summer and would be coveted by teams with coaching vacancies, decide that eight seasons in Utah is long enough?

How much longer will Mitchell, who has three years and a fourth-year player option left on his contract, remain committed to the organization that drafted him?

Multiple teams are anxiously awaiting the answer, league sources say, and have been planning and plotting for months in anticipation of the three-time All-Star asking to be traded as soon as this offseason. Mitchell was noncommittal when asked about the possibility in the wake of elimination.

"My mindset is to win. Like I said, right now, I'm not really looking at [asking for a trade]," Mitchell said. "For me, I just want to win."

Mitchell paused, sighing deeply before continuing.

"This hurts," Mitchell said. "Like I said, I'll think about it in a week and go from there, but right now, I'm not really thinking about any of that."

MITCHELL'S INFLUENCE WAS felt in a flurry of moves during the 2021 offseason, including one noteworthy departure and several additions. Mike Elliott, vice president of performance health care, "decided to pursue other opportunities outside the organization," the Jazz announced in a news release at the beginning of training camp.

Mitchell, team sources said, had lost confidence in Elliott during the recovery process after spraining his right ankle in mid-April 2021, an injury that sidelined the All-Star the final month of the regular season.

Mitchell then increasingly relied on the expertise of his personal athletic training staff, which was assembled by his representation at Creative Arts Agency and led by Miami-based David Alexander.

Mitchell became irate when Elliott determined before Utah's playoff opener that he wasn't ready to return, a decision made after Mitchell had been informed by another member of the team's medical staff that he was cleared and participated in the morning shootaround.

Sources say Mitchell, who aggravated the injury later in the first round and was hampered defensively due to his limited lateral quickness the rest of the playoffs, didn't demand Elliott's departure.

Smith, Wade and team executives had been alarmed by how the situation unfolded. And staffers who clash with stars -- and by extension the front office and ownership -- usually don't stick around.

Among the additions:

  • Murphy Grant was hired by the Jazz as an athletic trainer dedicated solely to Mitchell. Grant, who had been a senior associate athletic director and athletics health care administrator at Wake Forest, interviewed initially with Mitchell, Mitchell's mother Nicole, and one of his agents.

  • Irv Roland, a respected player development coach who worked with James Harden in Houston, was added to Snyder's coaching staff. Mitchell had often worked during offseasons with Roland, who has emerged as a strong voice for social justice causes in his native Oklahoma and around the nation in recent years. Roland works with Mitchell during pregame and individual sessions.

  • Frank Donalds, Mitchell's personal security guard, was put on the Jazz's payroll, a perk that is common for NBA franchises to give high-profile stars.

  • Mitchell strongly suggested the Jazz acquire forward Eric Paschall, his childhood friend. Paschall, who like Mitchell is represented by CAA agent Ty Sullivan, had been a first-team All-Rookie selection in 2019-20 but fell out of the Golden State Warriors' rotation in the latter half of last season. The Jazz ultimately traded a protected future second-round pick for Paschall.

A clear message had been sent: Mitchell's comfort in Utah was a top organizational priority.

QUESTIONS TO GOBERT bounced back and forth, everything from his second bout with COVID-19 to his general views on the state of the Jazz. The All-NBA big man was fresh off a five-game stint in the league's health and safety protocols, and Utah had struggled without him, going 1-4 and giving up points at a rate that would've ranked last in the league by a wide margin.

"Right now, we are not at that championship level," Gobert said on Jan. 14. "Sometimes you need a tough stretch to remind you of that."

Gobert then delved into the Jazz's defensive issues and his concern that they had been guilty of coasting. It was a concern shared by many in the organization.

"We know that when the playoffs come, we're not just going to flip a switch and all of the sudden communicate, all of the sudden be able to stay in front of our man, all of the sudden be able to rebound," Gobert said. "When I watch some of these other teams like the Suns or the Warriors, for example, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits. I feel like they take every game personally.

"You can tell Devin Booker is playing his ass off defensively."

The mention of Booker was a record-scratch moment for Mitchell, his inner circle and many with the Jazz, who immediately recognized how that reference would be received. Whether it was intended -- Gobert insists it wasn't -- bringing up Booker was widely perceived as a thinly veiled shot at Mitchell.

Back at the lectern, the big man kept rolling.

"I've been watching him compared to, like, two years ago," Gobert said of Booker. "Guys like that, they buy in and you can tell that they take pride in playing defense, stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture."

The example made some within Mitchell's inner circle seethe, league sources said, feeling like Gobert violated locker room protocols by publicly pointing a finger at his teammate.

"Anything [Gobert] says, he doesn't mean bad by it," forward Royce O'Neale, the Jazz's best perimeter defender and one of Mitchell's closest friends on the team, said later that month. "[But] you don't have to say those comments [to the media]."

Mitchell responded hours later, tapping the like button on a tweet of the quote from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Eric Walden.

"I'm not really concerned about it," Mitchell told the media the next day. "At the end of the day, we've got to all find ways to get better. That's really it. We all have individual ways of doing it, and his just happens to be this way.

"So, cool."

Jazz point guard Mike Conley, for his part, had made a similar comparison during a discussion with his teammates inside the locker room, citing the NBA-leading Suns as an example of a team playing with relentless effort and consistent focus. Conley even mentioned Booker, but he said Chris Paul's name in the same breath, using the star player at his own position to emphasize the point and make the message inclusive.

"It ain't like [Gobert] pointed out a big man or nothing," Clarkson, seated next to Mitchell, said the next day.

In hindsight, Gobert said he understood why the mention of Booker, in particular, raised so many eyebrows and put the spotlight back on his dynamic with Mitchell.

"Sometimes I can be clumsy with what I say, but I always speak my mind and it always comes from a place of wanting to win," Gobert said a few weeks later.

"Like I said to Don privately, everything that I do on the court is to help him be better. All the things that I do to get him open, to communicate with him, to try to push him defensively. Whether it's Donovan or all my teammates, all the things I do is to help them be better."

From Gobert's perspective, this hadn't risen to the level of the "issues that were much more important than basketball a [couple of] years ago," referring to the acrimony with Mitchell that resulted in them not talking for months at the beginning of the pandemic.

At the urging of their teammates, in particular Ingles, Gobert and Mitchell had settled that beef before the team began training for the NBA bubble.

"The noise is always going to be there," Gobert said, shrugging off any concern.

Mitchell has consistently dismissed the notion that his dynamic with Gobert has become awkward again.

"Nah, we're good. That's just not true," Mitchell said in early February, when the Jazz were on the heels of the worst month (4-12) of Snyder's eight-year tenure, in large part due to lengthy absences by both Utah All-Stars.

"Blatantly not true at all. We've never had this stretch of losses in a row, so now's the time for all these things to come out, I guess.

"But it's like, 'C'mon, bro.' Nah, we're good."

AFTER THE JAZZ had just blown a 25-point lead on the road against the Clippers -- just like in their Game 6 elimination last year -- for their fifth straight loss on March 29, Gobert called out his team for a lack of toughness.

"Nobody hits nobody," Gobert said. "We don't get our hands dirty. We never get our hands dirty."

The Jazz had just fallen to fifth in the Western Conference standings. The Mavericks had moved ahead of Utah by beating the Jazz in Dallas two nights earlier, a game that Gobert missed when he was a late scratch after feeling sudden pain in his lower right leg.

"It's tough to just kind of think all day doing one thing and then [have to change]," Mitchell said that night. "And then to come out there against a team that's hungry and wants this. We came out with some energy, some fire, so I'm really happy with the guys that suited up."

Was that a snipe at Gobert? It's hard to say, but after Gobert's criticism after the loss to the Clippers, Snyder said that his preference would be for such comments to be made in a "forum for that that's maybe more productive." In other words, not to the media.

Several days later, Snyder went off on a 19-minute soliloquy during a pregame availability with local media.

The coach focused on two subjects he felt had been overblown: the Jazz's tendency to give up big leads and Mitchell's tendency to rarely pass the ball to Gobert.

Snyder concluded the speech with an unintentionally comedic observation:

"They sit at the same table when they eat sometimes. I don't know if they ride to practice together -- probably not, but anyway."

That didn't quite hush the conversation about the Jazz stars' chemistry.

Gobert had grown frustrated that his pleas to focus on the issues he felt hurt the Jazz most frequently - defense and ball movement -- often fell on deaf ears. He was acutely aware that his constructive criticism -- of Mitchell, in particular, even if he didn't mention him by name -- often didn't go over well.

Gobert, who believes Mitchell has all the tools to be the impact defender when was projected to be as a draft prospect, doesn't necessarily care. "Sometimes it's not going to always be butterflies and rainbows, but we both want to win and everything I do is to try to help him be a better player on the court," Gobert told ESPN in midseason. "I sacrifice myself to help him score and defensively to keep pushing him. I need that from all of my teammates as well. ...

"It doesn't have to always be comfortable. Sometimes it has to be uncomfortable."

MITCHELL'S FIVE-YEAR, $163 million maximum extension was an easy decision in November 2020.

So was including a supermax escalator, which would have increased the value of the contract to $195 million if Mitchell qualified by earning All-NBA honors last season. (He wasn't one of the six guards selected, finishing ninth in the voting, his case diminished due to missing the last month of the regular season after spraining his ankle.)

There was no haggling about money.

The sticky subject in the negotiations centered on the duration: Would Mitchell get a player option for the final season of the deal? Of course he would. Because Mitchell gets what he wants in Utah.

That fifth-year player option on a rookie extension had been a rarity before Mitchell received his. Boston's Jayson Tatum also got one, agreeing to his deal with the Celtics hours after Mitchell, and then the table was set for Dallas' Luka Doncic and Atlanta's Trae Young to get player options in their extensions signed last summer. Before then, under the current collective bargaining agreement that went into place following the 2011 lockout, only three of the 17 rookie max extensions included a player option.

Those three deals: Paul George with the Indiana Pacers, Kyrie Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans. All three successfully pushed for trades from their small-market teams in the middle of their contracts.

That history, in part, has fueled widespread belief throughout the league that Mitchell's long-term status in Utah is tenuous at best. Several executives from other teams have also speculated that market size matters to Mitchell, a polished pitchman whose endorsement portfolio is headlined by a signature shoe deal with Adidas.

"Y'all like to talk a lot when we lose," Mitchell told reporters when the topic was broached during his Jan. 15 availability. "I don't understand. Y'all just like to keep all the negative stuff for when we start losing. When we win, there's nothing said.

"So I'll just go ahead and say, we're trying to win the championship."

There has been a sense of urgency within the organization to win while the window is open for the Jazz, although it wasn't necessarily reflected by the front office's action before the Feb. 10 trade deadline, when Utah traded the injured Joe Ingles' expiring contract essentially to take a flier on 2019 first-round pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker and trim Smith's luxury tax bill by $11 million.

Conley and forward Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah's two major additions as the franchise retooled the roster around their cornerstones to construct the NBA's most efficient offense, are 34 and 33 years old, respectively. And the Jazz players weren't immune to the discussion around the league about whether Mitchell might seek a move in the not-too-distant future.

"My only focus is on trying to make this team better and trying to win a championship," Gobert, who is in the first season of a five-year, $205 million extension that also has a player option in the final year, told ESPN in midseason. "Of course, being in a small market, there's a lot of things that can come to a player's mind, like it'd be good to leave and go to a bigger market and play for a different team. ... I can't [focus on] those things.

"Let's focus on today and see what we can make happen."

That's the commitment that Mitchell, Gobert and the rest of the Jazz made to each other leading into the playoffs. They vowed to try to seize the opportunity, not worry about what might happen in the future, even if that includes massive changes to their roster.

Or, as Gobert put it during his TNT postgame interview moments after that storybook Game 4-winning, series-tying alley-oop connection with Mitchell: "Man, f--- the talk."

IF THE JAZZ needed a reminder of what the future could hold for their franchise superstar, all they needed to do was look courtside during their April 16 playoff opener at Dallas' American Airlines Center.

New York Knicks executive vice president William Wesley sat next to power forward Julius Randle, a Dallas native, the duo visible to television viewers every time the action changed ends of the floor. Allan Houston, the former All-Star shooting guard who is now the Knicks' assistant general manager, sat a few rows behind the Jazz's bench.

It was reminiscent of when Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and other team executives would frequently appear at Toronto Raptors games when they were preparing to recruit Kawhi Leonard. With one notable exception: Leonard was entering free agency, whereas Mitchell has at least three years before he can change teams without the Jazz's cooperation.

Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson, the breakout star of the series, is expected to be targeted by the Knicks in free agency this summer. However, executives from other teams assume that the Knicks executives' prominent appearance -- particularly "World Wide Wes," a former CAA consultant considered one of the game's great relationship builders -- was part of New York's long-running, wink-wink plan of trying to get Mitchell to push the Jazz to trade him to his hometown team.

That buzz has been building since one of the first moves by Knicks president Leon Rose -- the former power agent who launched CAA's basketball division -- was hiring Johnnie Bryant to be the Knicks' associate head coach. The former Jazz assistant worked with Mitchell daily during the first three years of his career and continues to wear his signature Adidas shoes.

"Amateurish," one Western Conference general manager said the night of the playoff-opener display, comparing it to AAU coaches trying to poach players from other programs.

The Jazz pulled out a Game 1 win, with Doncic sitting out due to a strained left calf, because Mitchell scored 30 points in the second half and Gobert (17 rebounds, three blocks) dominated a game in which he had only one field goal attempt. Utah pulled out Game 4 in storybook fashion when Mitchell delivered a lob to Gobert for the game-winning dunk with 11 seconds remaining.

But Mitchell was an inefficient volume scorer for much of the series, crediting Dallas defensive stopper Dorian Finney-Smith for his struggles. He was also a major part of the Jazz's perimeter defensive problems, particularly when Brunson torched them for a pair of Mavs wins while Doncic recovered, frequently hunting for matchups against Mitchell.

The Mavs managed to both hold the Jazz, who had the NBA's top-ranked offense, far under their usual amount of 3-point attempts and limit Gobert's lob-finishing opportunities. And the Jazz, just like in last season's exit against the Clippers, were shredded by a five-out offense when Gobert kept being put in the unenviable position of having to help at the rim and sprint to challenge wide-open shooters.

Mitchell, Gobert and the Jazz weren't good enough to get past a team that didn't have its MVP candidate for the first few games of the series, much less contend for a championship. The duo has spent five mostly successful seasons together, but the Jazz have won only two playoff series in that time, leading to questions about whether the Mitchell-Gobert era in Utah will end for good this summer.

Now Utah waits to see if the other signature shoe will drop.