Rudy’s a tough one. There are people who like him, sure there are, even outside of Utah, but he’s a heady brew of misunderstood big man sulk, French curtness, and Kyrie-fried Deep Thoughts. You hear things, stuff you wouldn’t put in a column because it’s not fair to the guy to bring unverifiable Reddit chatter and off-record journo gossip into print, but enough news about him stepping on toes, rubbing folks the wrong way, that you get the impression he’s not popular among his colleagues. There’s nothing wrong, really, with being difficult. Maybe you yourself are difficult. When people say unflattering things about you, you get defensive. Because they’re mostly true.
You can see whatever you want in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell’s relationship. There’s been some friction, according to Gobert, and what ESPN’s Tim MacMahon calls a “high-ranking Jazz source” says that they’re “a two out of 10 on the NBA drama scale.” To me, this smacks of an underplay. Team officials don’t go around announcing that the bond between their two stars is basically fine but a little bit contentious, even though that’s probably the case in a lot of places. It’s not something you advertise, it’s something you’re asked about, because reporters have noticed, so when it happens, because you can’t flat out deny there’s a problem, you play the straight shooter. Are there arguments? Absolutely. But it’s nothing unmanageable. This is a high-stress environment.
You don’t have to be a mark to buy that. It’s the NBA. Men cuss each other out on the practice court and go out to dinner together afterwards. Their disagreements often aren’t all that deep, just heat of the moment stuff. Sloppy passes, blown rotations. But there are also genuine rifts: personalities that don’t jibe, one dude thinking the other is stubborn, or lazy, or simply a jerk. LeBron and Kyrie didn’t connect at all. During their final year together, Draymond’s contempt for Kevin Durant was obvious. You’ve worked with people you didn’t like or respect. You get it.
That two out of 10 drama rating, whatever it means, is the Jazz source’s estimation of Rudy and Donovan Mitchell’s relationship before Gobert might have gotten Mitchell sick. You’ll remember that Gobert was the league’s most visible COVID truther, mocking new-at-the-time social distancing rules and touching every recording device and microphone on the table in front of him at a press conference. Then he was the first one who tested positive for the virus, and the NBA shut down in March. Then Mitchell got it, maybe from Gobert or maybe somewhere else, but he certainly blamed the Frenchman. Gobert texted him, and he didn’t text back. He DM’d him and still got no response. There was a rather long stretch where the two didn’t communicate.
They’ve reportedly patched things up, with good old Joe Ingles playing peacemaker. It’s hard to know whether a grudge still lingers on Mitchell’s end, but he does his best to be a good teammate, and Gobert has apologized. Thankfully, neither one of them seem to be suffering permanent effects from having contracted the virus. They’re at least on speaking terms. It’s not like anyone’s requesting a trade.
Can you win a title with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert? Probably not. But it’s Utah: you work with the talent you draft. Mitchell translates universally. He’s an awesome scoring guard any team in the league would be happy to have. With Gobert, it’s like his game and his personality are intertwined. He’s not for everybody. He’s a dominant defender, except when the other team has a loaded backcourt, and he’s got to either sink and leave a deadeye shooter open or shuffle along the perimeter with a fluidity that’s impressive for a 7-foot-1 fella but still not enough to stay in front of extremely twitchy guards. He also tends to get beaten up by Nikola Jokić, which is a problem because the beefy Serb is going to be direct playoff competition for the foreseeable future.
Offensively, he has the same issue Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan developed years back, where he’s so efficient on lobs and putbacks that he wants more touches, but he’s actually doing all that he should. Posting him up is effective only insofar as it sates his ego. Last season, Jazz radio man David Locke got clowned for tweeting about how many screen assists—picks that lead to points—Gobert had racked up in a win over the Nets. It’s a silly stat, sort of useful in highlighting that Gobert is indeed an excellent screener, but also a way to puff up his offensive importance. As if creating some space for a teammate with your massive frame were the same thing as feeding them a wide open three.
Gobert needs that kind of coddling, though. He’s sensitive to the idea that he’s only a defensive stopper. Which is frustrating, because he is a two-way player, if not a terribly skilled offensive one. You can play both ends of the floor well and still be noticeably better on one than the other. Plus he’s reliable: even great jump-shooters have off nights. If the bulk of your buckets are dunks, you’re a sure thing. But Rudy is a tough one. He demands praise, to the point of importunance. In 2019, he cried when he was asked about not making the All-Star team. “It,” he managed through tears, “is what it is.”
Would it be a shock if Donovan Mitchell didn’t particularly like him? That his teammates think he’s a bit much? It’s okay to be difficult. But it does help if you know you’re that way, and are at least occasionally apologetic about it. A smidgen of self-deprecation does wonders. Otherwise, the people you work with are always going to feel like they’re operating around your absurd sensitivities and they will, inevitably, resent you for it.
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