SALT LAKE CITY — I once co-hosted a sports radio show for a day, and the interviewee was Karl Malone — who was in rare form.
As he put the headset on, he said, “Fire away.”
So we did. I asked the Mailman whether he or John Stockton would have been the better player without the other. He answered a lot of questions in two hours, but not that one. Who could blame him? I certainly didn’t know the answer.
As the Jazz continued rolling toward the playoffs by routing the Clippers on Thursday, I pose the modern-day equivalent: Rudy Gobert or Donovan Mitchell. Who mattered most this year?
The Jazz just launched promotions for both — Mitchell for Rookie of the Year and Gobert for Defensive Player of the Year. This season, one player embodied the team’s resolve in the days after Gordon Hayward left, the other used his rookie campaign to start a new era.
Both are at the top of their trade.
Gobert is among the best defensive players in the league every year and should be named DPOY. Mitchell is arguably the NBA’s best rookie. But was it Gobert’s defense or Mitchell’s offense that propelled the Jazz? Gobert’s scowl or Mitchell’s smile?
Maybe it’s a pointless and never-ending comparison.
But I’m going down that path anyway.
Although the Jazz would have missed the playoffs without either player, the most important factor has been the always-imposing, ever-improving, fear-inducing Stifle Tower.
While Jazz fans were sinking in despair, Gobert was improving his footwork. As others lashed out at Hayward for leaving, Gobert was saying, c’est la vie.
The Gobert-Mitchell debate comes at a time when comparison shopping is complicated. One car has a unique traction system, another exceptional headroom. One gets great mileage, the other has a primo sound system. There are so many factors to weigh, most people end up saying, “I’ll take the silver one.”
Gobert’s intensity is palpable, Mitchell’s positivity immeasurable. Mitchell could charm a badger, but Gobert’s observations are appealing and revealing.
Then come the countless game comparisons. Mitchell is the league’s top-scoring rookie, while Gobert leads the league in defensive win shares. Mitchell heads all rookies in player efficiency, while Gobert is third in blocks per game. Mitchell is six 3-point baskets from an NBA rookie record, and is putting up certain stats comparable to Carmelo Anthony, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan in their freshman seasons.
“An absolute stud,” is how Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg put it.
Gobert makes an easy case for DPOY, despite missing 26 games. He has the highest field goal percentage in team history, is second in the league in blocks per game, and is averaging 15.7 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks since March 1.
Quin Snyder calls his DPOY worthiness “an empirical fact.”
“I’ve been the most impactful player this year,” Gobert casually told ESPN.
He won’t get an argument from me.
The Jazz are 11-15 with Gobert out, 35-18 with him present.
Mitchell made Jazz fans forget Hayward. But while he beamed away the gloom, Gobert scowled it back into obscurity.
Mitchell is sunny, while Gobert — who once complained “we’re too nice” — is pleasingly salty.
Last May, Gobert said he couldn’t fathom why the Jazz shouldn’t win 60 games in 2017-18. That was before Hayward left and Gobert got injured. Still, he shrugged off Hayward’s defection and basically told Jazz fans to calm down.
He had everyone’s back — fans and teammates alike.
Gobert entered the NBA incognito, straight outta Saint-Quentin — not to be confused with San Quentin — and is now a folk hero among defensive purists.
Mitchell is a future All-Star, but Gobert is a commodity nobody else has.
Good as the Jazz have been in the second half of the season, that’s largely due to their defense. Mitchell dominates games, but Gobert reframes them. That’s enough difference to make the call. Gobert is the Jazz’s MVP. Mitchell? He might one day be everyone’s.