ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is probably nothing short of an NBA championship that will force a hug between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, which drips with irony because close contact is being blamed for creating a wedge among those Utah Jazz teammates in the first place.
It was Gobert, at least the theory goes, who exposed Mitchell to Covid-19 when the NBA shut down on March 11. Or maybe Mitchell had the virus first and infected Gobert. Whatever the case, that possible transmission caused a rift that famously simmered during the four-month hiatus. Neither will deny that.
But usually in such cases, one incident may not be the sole reason for so much ill will. Perhaps the buildup was juiced by Mitchell’s dominance of the ball? That’s the whisper, anyway.
If so, and regardless of what Gobert and Mitchell think of each other personally, their on-court chemistry is all that matters. And in this prickly situation, for the well-being of the Jazz and their hopes of going deep into the playoffs, this is where Mike Conley comes in.
Remember him? Remember the veteran point guard obtained from the Memphis Grizzlies last offseason who was supposed to relieve Mitchell of the ball and decide who gets it?
Since arriving from Memphis, Conley either hasn’t received enough of an opportunity in this system to be the true point guard, or never maximized the chance when he did. Perhaps it’s a bit of both as his transition can politely be described as disappointing. He then reached rock-bottom with a brief run at midseason as a reserve.
While Mitchell is the undeniable force on this team, might Conley be the basketball intermediary needed between lukewarm teammates and the key to Utah’s reboot?
In this strangely interrupted NBA season, you can get a second chance to make a first impression, and Conley says thank goodness for that.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’ll be a lot better for this team and hopefully they’re see a different me.”
It’s unusual how ball-sharing can possibly be a subject for a franchise once led by John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assists leader. Yet, aside from a handful of All-Star seasons by Deron Williams, the Jazz haven’t been in secure hands at that position since Stockton retired.
A pass-first point guard is now nearly extinct in today’s NBA, although a pass-minded point guard is always welcomed. Utah put the ball in Mitchell’s hands two years ago partly out of necessity. As a rookie, he commanded respect for his talent. That, and the reality that Utah thought Mitchell was a better option than Ricky Rubio made him the primary ball-handler -- even though he wasn’t and isn’t a true point guard.
The Jazz still had some lingering doubts. Why would they trade for Conley, who never played off the ball in 12 years with Memphis?The Conley-Mitchell collaboration was heavily anticipated prior to the season yet never really materialized as imagined. Conley shot 32.3% in October, 37.4% in November and never rose above 44.7% in any month since. He was also averaging less than five assists when troubled by a persistent hamstring injury that caused him to miss 23 games and prompted Jazz coach Quin Snyder to bring Conley off the bench from Jan. 1-29 while giving Mitchell back the ball. (Conley resumed his starting role on Feb. 1 and hasn't let go of it since.)
I’ve had plenty of arguments in Memphis with Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph ... you ride with each other for so many years, you have a situation where you go at one another to push each other. It’s normal in basketball, normal in life.”
Through it all, Conley never complained or issued blame, therefore staying true to his reputation for being a professional.
“I would describe it as a big adjustment that I thought I had a handle on going in, but it turned out to be just like being a rookie again,” he said. “Learning a new city, new team, different people and personalities, different system and different role. Everything was a change and it took me some time. Then before the Covid hit I was playing some of the best ball I’ve played.”
Gobert is the league’s premier defensive big man, a seven-foot swatsman who is again in the running for Kia Defensive Player of the Year. He has worked on his post moves and mid-range jumper in hopes of proving he can be a secondary option and maybe have some plays drawn for him.
Did Mitchell, who averaged just 4.2 assists in 34.4 minutes this season, have an epiphany and hear Gobert’s plea during the hiatus? Asked what type of player he wants to be in this reboot, the All-Star guard didn’t hesitate.
“A more willing passer,” Mitchell said. “Take the shots I can get but also find my teammates to get them easier looks, which will then come back and make it easier on myself.”
In a perfect world here, Conley will return and inspire his teammates and Snyder and gain more confidence in them. His play will command more minutes and he’ll control the ball as much as Mitchell, maybe more.
Conley said: “I’m a guy who wants to fit in. I want our run to be perfect. So I wasn’t trying to be overbearing, wasn’t trying to get the ball and do things. But I still have to find my spaces where I can get aggressive and I can have an impact. When you do make the sacrifice it can look negative, like you’re taking a step back instead of letting everyone else on your team function well.”
A more aggressive and bolder Conley would be a boost since Utah's restart will take place without Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist surgery) and his 20.2 ppg. The ball must find the open man and hot hand. If Utah's scrimmages here are any indication, Mitchell and Gobert are buying into that.
“Both Rudy and Donovan are learning every game, every practice how to play better together,” Snyder said. “In Donovan's case, I feel great about what he's doing and what he's doing with Rudy and with all the guys on our team. We've got an unbelievably unselfish team.’’
For those who suspect there’s a thawing between Mitchell and Gobert, Conley doesn’t believe this situation ever fit the perception.
“I have not seen a thing nor have I paid attention to it,” Conley said. “It’s that good, that seamless, between them. To be on the court with the two of them, and we’re all hanging out afterward in the dining room eating together, it’s all normal, no friction, no tension. Both of those guys are two of the most competitive guys on our team. They’re leaders. They know they need each other and they want to win, whatever it takes. It’ll be fine. I’m expecting those guys to go out there like they normally do, play for each other, be unselfish.
“I’ve had plenty of arguments in Memphis with Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, we all go through that spell, you ride with each other for so many years, you have a situation where you go at one another to push each other. It’s normal in basketball, normal in life. It’s just so public in this game.”
Gobert and Donovan are saying all the right things, confirming the chemistry they’ve shown in the scrimmages.
“People (on the outside) didn’t have much to talk about for months -- that was kind of the topic of the moment. But we’re trying to do anything for the team," Gobert said recently. "We’re trying to make plays for one another -- passing to one another, screening, communicating on defense -- just try to do all the little things to help the team.
“As long as we respect one another and we both share the same goals and we both do what's best for the team, that's what matters.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.