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Everything is uneven in Utah right now, the floor cramped almost as an allergic reaction to the team’s competing timelines.
The Jazz were constructed to win in the present. They prepared for this – they stocked the fridge and set the table. But the most important guest never returned from the bathroom, flying to Massachusetts instead.
A superstar leaving is typically a death knell for a small-market NBA franchise, although the Pacers and Thunder are proving to be exceptions to the rule – as are, surprisingly, the Jazz, who were left in the middle of nowhere by Gordon Hayward’s departure but have already set a determined course back to ‘somewhere’.
The beauty of last season’s Utah squad was that it truly was a squad – an array of shining above-average talents, a team that compensated for its lack of individual transcendence through its unrelenting volume of competent bodies.
Most of that impressive depth remains, but without a star to weaponise competence and put it in a position to succeed the Jazz could have become the Atlanta Hawks, just with a frustrating Spanish point guard instead of a frustrating German point guard.
The presence of Rudy Gobert, a top-20 player in the NBA when healthy, always meant that things would never be quite so dire. But Gobert is a complicated franchise player, perhaps the one superstar in the league who most requires another beside him, because he’ll never be able to be an offensive fulcrum.
Enter Donovan Mitchell, who has come in and saved the scene – almost like Jake Gyllenhaal abandoning your budget-strapped indie film only for Tom Hardy to stroll onto the set five minutes later and say he’ll fill the role for longer and for less money. The movie will be different, but it might be better.
Mitchell is a revelation, a tenacious defender and precocious offensive talent. He already feels the game with unusual poise, reading the shifting lines of the defence, making the right passes and knowing when to take over. He’s built like Kyle Lowry, a mean, bulldozing small body, but moves in Dwyane Wade-type slithers, patiently and gracefully snaking his way around the court, rising up or exploding to the rim only when he’s found his spot and his moment.
There is daylight between Mitchell and Utah’s next best offensive weapon, and his ability to shoulder this much offensive responsibility and be as efficient as he has been verges on historic. In Mitchell and Gobert the Jazz have their foundation.
The question becomes: who from the current team will stay the course with them? The team is so uneven at the moment because it was built for other players. This is not the ‘Mitchell and Gobert Jazz’ yet – it’s the ‘Gobert and we thought Hayward was staying Jazz’.
Outside of Joe Ingles, a seamless fit almost anywhere, everyone’s future is in question. Derrick Favors is a starting centre – just not Utah’s. He makes no sense next to Gobert, a spacing problem made unsolvable when Ricky Rubio is also on the floor. Favors has value around the league – just like Rodney Hood, a mercurial, seemingly eternally unfulfilled talent – and should be moved at the deadline.
Rubio is the most awkward piece. He remains one of the NBA’s most tantalising paradoxes: he makes everyone around him better but doesn’t help them win.
He is a beautiful existential crisis on the court. He does all the things we cherish but few of the things we really want deep down. His work on the margins is exquisite; in clear black and white in the middle of the page, though, not so good.
Rubio will always hold a place in the heart of basketball purists. He is a joy to watch, constantly in motion, playing at pace, a wonderful reprieve from watching entitled – and infinitely more effective – superstars like Russell Westbrook and John Wall stand around doing nothing when the spotlight isn’t on them.
Rubio’s passing is supernatural. He is one of the greatest in NBA history at unlocking angles and finding teammates. The scything bounce passes to the roll man, the deft no-look gives to the player cutting the opposite way across the paint for a dunk and the implausibly quick and accurate heaving outlet passes are all magnificent.
In Utah’s previous game, a gutsy win in Toronto, Rubio’s assists to Royce O’Neale in the second quarter – an instantaneous, searing, bouncing outlet through traffic for a fast-break dunk – and Donovan Mitchell in the third – a pristine full-court pass that was somehow both low and lofted – were as special as anything you’ll see on the court.
And yet there is still the unrelenting reality of that jump-shot: a reluctant far-too-narrow push of the ball in hope towards the hoop. The marvellous passing is born both out of selflessness and fear: for all the brief hot stretches he’s had, the fleeting shimmering moments – like, for example, the no-hesitation dagger three that he sunk to beat Toronto – one gets the sense that at this stage, at 27 and in his seventh NBA season, nothing is going to change with Rubio.
To see him have his shot effortlessly rejected at the rim, to see his uneasy mid-range pull-up clang off the side of the rim, is to see a man confronted by inevitability and, sadly, reconciled to it.
Inevitability doesn’t have to be so inevitable, though, as Utah have found out this season. Rubio likely won’t be a part of their long-term plans in any case – plans that have only two important names. With Gobert and Mitchell, a top-20 player and one who in all reasonable hope seems destined to join him, the Jazz have their future – one that seemed to be taken away from them just a few months ago.