The Utah Jazz’s “Reunion Tour” is in full effect.
They’ve already faced Rudy Gobert and the Timberwolves twice this season — once back in October and again on Dec. 9 at Vivint Arena. They visited Joe Ingles in Milwaukee this past Saturday. They lost to Bojan Bogdanovic and the Pistons in Salt Lake City, and will see them again in Detroit on Tuesday night.
None of those games, however, will carry quite the same intrigue as Monday’s matchup in Cleveland against the Donovan Mitchell-led Cavaliers.
Especially given that the three-time All-Star guard — who’s taken his game to another level after being traded to the Cavs — has had a series of media sessions that peeved Jazz fans might collectively label the “Foot in Mouth Tour.”
The first comments to draw the ire of Jazz Nation came back on Dec. 4.
“This is no shot at my guys in Utah, so I don’t want the message to get misconstrued or whatever, especially on Twitter, but I’m having fun again,” Mitchell said.
Needless to say, the final word of that quote did a lot of heavy lifting in fans’ eyes, carrying, as it did, the implication that he hadn’t been having fun with the Jazz for at least some portion of the end of his tenure here.
Even if he meant it innocuously, merely as an acknowledgment of the good early vibes with his new team and city, to fans in Utah, it was apparent confirmation of all their worst suspicions — that his failure to definitively commit to wanting to return to the team following its playoff loss to the Mavericks indicated his desire to leave; that in spite of the years left on his contract with the organization, he already had one foot out the door and was looking toward a future with another roster.
Speaking of that playoff loss to the Mavericks …
Whatever benefit of the doubt Mitchell may have gotten from some fans perhaps went out the window following the Cavs’ 105-90 victory over Dallas on Dec. 14, when he acknowledged the momentous role the Mavs played in shaping his NBA path.
“For me, it’s just understanding, at the end of the day, they’re kind of the reason I’m in Cleveland,” Mitchell said. “They did a great job in the playoff series, so, I’m thankful. I’m here. I’m glad to be here.”
Again, viewed a certain way, his being “thankful” and “glad” to be with the Cavs could be interpreted as meaning he’s thankful and glad to no longer be with the Jazz.
Whatever his intent, three of his former Jazz teammates still with the team are opting not to view his comments in a negative light ahead of their coming together again Monday.
“I don’t really interpret it in any bad way at all. I think when you’re winning and you’re successful, when you have a career year and you’re playing well, you’re having fun,” said point guard Mike Conley. “And I’m sure he had that same fun when we were playing really well, like we all did. So, you know, we’re all having fun now. I think everybody who’s been moving around and in different locations or the same location, we’re all having a good time, we’re all enjoying basketball.”
Jordan Clarkson, who took over the starting backcourt spot that Mitchell vacated with his trade to the Cavs, agreed that it shouldn’t be taken personally, though he conceded that the way things ended in Utah — with infighting on the roster and another too-early postseason ouster — could well contribute to Mitchell’s feelings.
“I think that ain’t no shot at us. Maybe it was something he just didn’t have fun with. And maybe he just found a new love, a different aspect or a vision of the game,” said Clarkson. “It’s not really, like I said, a shot at us. We had a great time, we just didn’t achieve what I felt like we wanted to in terms of winning the championship. Maybe that’s what he’s talking about [regarding] not having fun. But we loved playing with each other, we loved being on the court, competing for games. We’re all happy [now].”
Veteran forward Rudy Gay can empathize with Mitchell’s statements, having acknowledged earlier in the year that his goal for this season was to “Get the joy back from playing basketball and just try to have fun.”
His situation was different from Mitchell’s, obviously, as he’d been relegated from then-coach Quin Snyder’s rotation altogether. Still, as someone who’s played for both well-run and poorly run organizations, he can appreciate the impact that a change of scenery can have sometimes.
“From what I experienced last year, it felt like a lot of things were compounding. For Donovan to come here and be here his whole career, you know, I don’t know — maybe he felt like he outgrew some things or some people. It is what it is. It’s the NBA, you know?” Gay said. “He’s going to look back at it and appreciate his time here, just like I will [regarding] this point in my career. It is what it is — everything’s a learning experience. Donovan played well, he played great. I can’t be inside of his head, but he looks good.”
The Jazz players note that it’s important to evaluate Mitchell’s comments logically rather than emotionally, to keep the context in mind.
When those quotes are juxtaposed against an often-stressful season that saw a team with championship aspirations struggle to gain any real traction, then be dealt an ignominious playoff defeat, it’s easier to see where he’s coming from.
“There was moments we didn’t [enjoy] because we lost, we came up short,” Conley said. “… To have the expectations that we’ve had over the last few years and to not accomplish them, and come up short, we all go home feeling a certain type of way. And then when you come into a new year, you’re just like, ‘Man, I don’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to come up short. I don’t want to let the people down. I don’t want to let the city down. I want to be better.’ And in order to do that, you’ve just got to let go of a lot of things.
“Let go of things that are stressing you out and, just truthfully, be [like] a kid when you play, like just have fun and enjoy it,” he added. “Because as you get older — as Rudy and I can attest to — you start to realize yeah, it’s a game, but it’s a game we’re blessed to play and hopefully for a long, long, long time, and we can’t take it for granted. You can’t be overthinking it, you can’t be thinking about what we didn’t accomplish and things that have held us back or anything. Just truthfully enjoy it, and you can come out and make some some really good things happen.”
Beyond the big-picture perspective, Clarkson chimed in that he’s convinced Mitchell didn’t mean those comments in a negative way because they still speak frequently — and the former Jazz guard honestly seems to treat his trade as a win-win for everyone involved.
“I think he’s happy for us — I talked to him after the game when we beat Golden State,” said Clarkson. “Like I said, I don’t think it’s no shot towards us. But I think for him, I don’t think it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m having fun again; I didn’t have fun here.’ It was one of them things like, ‘Yo, I need something new, a new experience.’ Whatever it was where he just fell in love with the game — having fun, going out there [and] competing every night.”