Non Superstar Mitchell Leads Jazz To Seventh Straight Win

Jan 22, 2021, 12:50 AM | Updated: 1:00 am
Donovan Mitchell attacks the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)...
Donovan Mitchell attacks the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Salt Lake City, Utah – The Utah Jazz beat the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday night 129-118 for the second win in as many games between the two teams.

Donovan Mitchell scored 36 points in the victory in one of his best performances so far this season, while Mike Conley added 20 points including several baskets late to keep the game at arm’s length.

The Jazz have won seven straight games with the victory, the longest streak in the NBA, and own the second-best record in the league at 11-4.

Donovan Mitchell – Not A Superstar?

Though the Jazz won their seventh straight game, and are now tied for the second-best record in the NBA, much of the narrative surrounding the game was dominated by the conversation had between Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson on NBA on TNT.

To summarize, Shaq said he didn’t believe Mitchell was a superstar in the NBA and was better served as the second or third option on a championship team.

Barkley and Smith added that to be a true superstar in the NBA, a player has to be able to control more than one or two aspects of the game i.e. scoring, rebounding, assists, defense, leadership, and pace.

Let’s start here… It’s not an argument without merit.

Quickly, most players in the NBA are better served as the second or third option on a championship team. Heck, even Shaq himself was the second option to Kobe Bryant in 2003 and Dwyane Wade in 2006 when he got the final two rings of his career.

There’s a very convincing argument that LeBron James is the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball, and he was the Los Angeles Lakers second option last season as a scorer in their championship run.

James Harden is a three-time scoring champion and was named MVP in 2018, and he just forced a trade to the Brooklyn Nets where he may find himself as a third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Durant himself maybe the greatest pure scorer in modern NBA history and was a second option on the Golden State Warriors behind Steph Curry for a championship run.

Most players would benefit from being the second or third scoring option on a championship team, and the same applies to Mitchell, even if he’s proven that he’s more than capable of carrying a team to the playoffs as the leading scorer, something he’s done each of his first three years in the NBA.

Second, at this point in his young career, Mitchell won’t control four of the six elements listed by Smith and Barkley as keys to what superstars can provide every time he steps on the floor.

Mitchell can and does change nearly every game with his scoring, as he did against the Pelicans with 36 points on 11-19 shooting, including 6-8 from three.

He also controls the pace, which is a new element of his game. The guard rarely gets sped up in his fourth season and knows how to use that pace to set a tone for a game, as he did to the tune of 13 first-quarter points on 5-6 shooting. Mitchell did it on Tuesday night against the same Pelicans roster.

It won’t happen every night, but it’s more common than it used to be.

Additionally, Mitchell’s leadership is inarguably one of his strongest traits, and maybe his most consistent offering over four seasons in Utah.

The Jazz guard led a team to the playoffs in his rookie season after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics with no compensation in return.

He did it two more times in the following seasons, with two series wins to boot.

Off the floor, he’s been even more impactful. Mitchell radically, and it cannot be overstated, radically changed the culture of the Jazz after his arrival.

From the overall lockerroom enthusiasm to making Utah a destination to sign for free-agents, to handling off the floor issues with teammates while being a voice for minorities in an overwhelmingly white community, Mitchell has led the organization to places very few players in the history of the NBA could have.

It exists on the court as Mitchell is one of the NBA’s most prolific fourth-quarter scorers, but his off the court impact is the type of leadership every city hopes to find in their professional franchise, and he does it as well as anyone.

However, Barkley and Smith aren’t wrong that Mitchell is fundamentally flawed in his ability to impact games, and it may be due to his height.

Throughout the history of the game, the league’s best players are 6’6 and taller.

There are exceptions to the rule; Steph Curry at 6’3 and Isiah Thomas at 6’1 each won championships as the best players on their teams. Allen Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals standing just 6’0.

Chauncey Billups at 6’3 may have been the best player on the 2004 Detroit Pistons that won a championship, but it’s rare.

The league has been dominated historically by 6’8 Lebron James, 7’0 Kevin Durant, 6’11 Tim Duncan, 6’6 Kobe Bryant, 7’0 Shaquille O’Neal, 6’6 Michael Jordan, 6’9 Magic Johnson, 6’9 Larry Bird, etc.

Mitchell won’t ever be an elite versatile defensive player standing just 6’1. Simply put, bigger players will push through or shoot over him.

Futhermore, in Quin Snyder’s team-first pass-happy offensive system he might never average more than five assists per game. He’s an above-average rebounder for his size, but he won’t regularly grab double-digit boards with Rudy Gobert on the roster. He’s really not asked to.

It also may not matter. Russell Westbrook is a walking triple-double and maybe the least impactful “star” in the NBA. Ben Simmons is no stranger to triple-doubles, yet the guard seems to be quickly wearing out his welcome with Philadelphia 76ers fans.

Ultimately, it’s fair for Shaq, Barkley, and Smith to feel Mitchell would be better served playing around better players. Or to mention that he can’t do enough of the things to impact games to elevate him to the same class as James, Durant, Jordan, Magic, or Bird, but the criticism of Mitchell’s game felt oddly focused on the things he can’t do, and not on the things he does, and that’s poor evaluation.

The TNT crew’s job is to generate conversation,  and sometimes controversy to increase ratings. They did that tonight, even if what they said was mostly wrong.

For his part, Mitchell handled himself with extreme dignity, the type you’d want from a leader on and off the court.

“I hate to take a win like this and make it about what they said about me,” Mitchell said. “Look at how we played, look at how we guarded. I’m happy.”

Jazz Makes Most Of Their Free-Throws

The Jazz have been brilliant most areas on the basketball floor this season. One exception is the free-throw line where they entered the game as the league’s second-worst free-throw shooting team, connecting on just 68 percent of their attempts.

That changed against the Pelicans when the team earned 25 trips to the line and connect on 24 of them. The 96 percent completion rate was by far the team’s best of the season which had yet to crack the 80 percent mark in any game this season.

After the game, Snyder said it was something the team was looking at improving on.

“We shot a bunch of them in practice the other day, which I think was important,” Snyder said.”Guys just getting their comfort level and placing some emphasis on it where our focus and concentration is good.”

It was a stark difference from the Jazz Sunday night win in Denver where the team missed 12 of their 28 attempts, including a bizarre 0-4 performance from Conley.

“You’re going to have some nights where you don’t make them,” Snyder said. “I don’t think Mike Conley is ever going to go 0-4 again in his career, I doubt he’s ever done that. So there’s some of that that are an anomaly.”

As a sidenote, Conley last went 0-4 from the free-throw line in February of 2017 against the Indiana Pacers as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, but Snyder’s point remains.

The Jazz are already one of the league’s best offensive teams, and if free-throw shooting which has been one of their true weak points can improve, so will their overall efficiency.

The team was able to climb back from a 16 point deficit in the second quarter by hitting 12 free-throws after the Pelicans found themselves in the penalty with seven minutes left in the quarter, and continue to knock down the freebies in the second half.

The Jazz have Friday off before hosting the Golden State Warriors in Salt Lake City on Saturday night.

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