Does It Matter Donovan Mitchell Isn’t Passing Rudy Gobert The Ball Much?

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert pairing in Utah and how we may be seeing the final season of their partnership.

The two Jazz All-Stars have long had a relationship that people have had questions about, namely how they never seemed particularly close and at times frustrations between the two were apparent. Both have insisted publicly that things are fine between them over the years, with Mitchell stating plainly that they don’t have to be best friends in order to win together. The main reason they are a topic of conversation is because they have underachieved in the postseason given their regular season success, and that naturally brings about questions of their viability as a star duo on a real championship contender.

However, in recent weeks there have been some signs that there is a growing divide between them, with some eyebrow raising statements from each in media scrums and visible on-court frustrations. Utah blowing a 20-point lead to the Warriors over the weekend brought about a viral moment in which Gobert got ignored by Mitchell and the rest of the Jazz despite having two feet in the restricted area and having Klay Thompson on a switch completely sealed off.

As Gobert clears the lane to avoid the three-second count, you can see how annoyed he is by not getting a touch, and that Mitchell had the ball and didn’t get it to the big man (who has long lamented his lack of consistent touches offensively) created a powder keg for fans inside and outside Utah.

Gobert said the team had a “great” players only meeting recently and the Jazz have picked up two wins since, but Quin Snyder still addressed all the chatter recently, expressing his frustration with how his two stars are covered and what he believes is the media trying to “drive a wedge” between them.

One of his points of contention is that some have pointed out that Mitchell is averaging just 2.3 passes per game to Gobert, which is a jaw-droppingly low total given how often they share the court. Snyder has scoffed at that being an issue, but it’s hard not to see that and wonder if it’s an indicator of deeper issues.

Using the NBA’s tracking data, I went back and looked at Donovan Mitchell’s pass rate to Gobert in the regular season and playoffs since the young star arrived in Utah as a rookie in 2017 to see just how much of an outlier this year’s low pass rate to his star big man is.

Donovan Mitchell Regular Season Passes To Rudy Gobert By Year
2017-18: 3.6 passes per game (9.7% pass frequency)
2018-19: 4.4 passes per game (12.7% pass frequency)
2019-20: 5.8 passes per game (14.2% pass frequency)
2020-21: 3.5 passes per game (7.5% pass frequency)
2021-22: 2.3 passes per game (5.6% pass frequency)

Donovan Mitchell Playoff Passes To Rudy Gobert By Year
2017-18: 4.3 passes per game (12.0% pass frequency)
2018-19: 2.0 passes per game (5.5% pass frequency)
2019-20: 6.0 passes per game (13.2% pass frequency)
2020-21: 4.2 passes per game (10.4% pass frequency)

The answer to the question of how strange is this season’s low pass total to Gobert from Mitchell is probably “a little bit,” because it’s not completely out of character for Mitchell to not be connecting a ton with his big man, but he’s more than a full pass per game below his previous low for a regular season. (The 2019-20 season numbers are particularly an outlier because Mitchell was playing point guard far more due to Mike Conley’s injury issues in both the regular season and playoffs, leading to more direct action between the two than they typically run.)

Still, while it’s not totally out of the ordinary for Mitchell and Gobert not to have a ton of on-court activity together (which, again, has long led to the speculation about whether they like playing with each other) Snyder’s assertion that there’s nothing to the rumors of discontent between the two is almost assuredly false. That’s what he has to say, as they are still going to the playoffs and will try to get themselves together for a run, so publicly backing his guys is about all he can do, but at the same time, we wouldn’t be getting this much noise from this many reputable reporters if people weren’t talking behind the scenes.

This postseason very well be the end of an era in Utah if they have another early exit, as there are rumblings that Snyder is a candidate for the Lakers and Spurs jobs on top of the rumors that Mitchell and Gobert could both end up on the trade block. Winning, as always, would solve a lot of these problems for the Jazz, but the team’s two stars will have to get on the same page to have any chance of suddenly turning around their playoff fortunes.