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Big money, big expectations. How Utah’s 1-2 punch is dealing with pressure of rich new contracts

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert inked lucrative new deals in the offseason. Has it impacted the way they approach their jobs?

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) talks with guard Donovan Mitchell, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, in Detroit Saturday, March 7, 2020.
Duane Burleson, Associated Press

When the Utah Jazz committed this offseason to spending $400 million over the next five years on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in the form of lengthy and lucrative extensions, the contracts that were signed included the financial terms and legal jargon that’s necessary for the deal to be done.

What wasn’t laid out in the fine print are the expectations and pressures that come with becoming the highest paid players on the team and two of the highest paid players in the league.

Mitchell and Gobert were already the best players on the Jazz roster and the leaders of the team. They are the offensive and defensive anchors that make Quin Snyder’s system work and who have continued to improve each year.

When the 2021-22 season begins they will have paychecks that reflect their accomplishments, which include Mitchell becoming one of the most dynamic scorers in the league, Gobert earning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and both earning All-Star nods last season.

Spending $60-$70 million on the two best players on the roster is not uncommon to the league’s top- and middle-tier teams. The Jazz will join the lengthy list of NBA franchises paying top dollar to their stars and believe they have a legitimate chance at a title.

The Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers will all have the same kind of money invested in two players next season with dreams of reaching the Finals and taking home the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy.

To be fair, there are some teams on that list that have higher external expectations than others. People are inclined to expect great things from teams that have already proven they can achieve such heights. Therein lies an important distinction between internal and external expectations and the expectations of a team’s success versus the expectations of its star players’ abilities to elevate them.

But there’s also a difference between the expectations that are admitted and those that go unsaid.

Mitchell, Gobert, their teammates, Snyder and likely anyone else close to them are staunch in the belief that there’s no extra pressure or expectation for the two stars now that they’ve signed big contracts, at least from within the Jazz organization.

“Being paid is something that, I’m able to take care of my family, if anything that’s a relief,” Mitchell said. “You can say what you want but I think we’re both focused on just what helps the team win. We have our ups and downs but I don’t, and I know he does as well, really look at it as like we got to go out there and be miraculous every night. At the end of the day we’re humans and we’re going to make mistakes but we’re going to do really good things as long as it’s for the benefit of the team.”

It’s probably the right attitude to have about the situation, because the reality of what is truly expected of Mitchell and Gobert could generate enough pressure to be crushing.

The Jazz are not spending $400 million over the next five years to have players that want to win and be good teammates. Sure, that’s part of the equation, but ultimately they are spending the money to win an NBA title.

The Jazz brass are not going to be OK with the Jazz remaining a middling team that exits the playoffs by the end of the second round. That would already be a disappointment and failure if it were to happen again this season.

If that trend were to continue into the 2021-22 season, when the Jazz are paying a combined $63.4 million for Mitchell and Gobert’s services, or into the 2022-23 season when that number reaches $68.5 million, or the season that follows when their combined cost eclipses $70 million, there would certainly be internal discussions about whether Gobert and Mitchell are worth keeping around.

The league is littered with players who were expected to take their team to a championship but now are just seen as good players on inflated contracts, players who aged and their talent dwindled or who plateaued while their price tag continued to grow.

There are players like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Kemba Walker. They have all been great NBA players. Many of them will probably end up in the Hall of Fame. But they’ve yet to take a team to the destination that has been expected of them since they started earning top money.

There’s still time for those players, but the next generation of stars like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Luka Doncic are all chasing the same thing. Mitchell and Gobert are up against all of them.

“I put the pressure on myself to be the best I can be,” Gobert said. “That didn’t change when I signed the first contract (extension), it’s not going to change now. I’m going to keep trying to get better every day.”

The pressure that each player puts on themselves might not change, but the dual faces of the Jazz franchise are already experiencing the extra scrutiny that comes with being max-contract players.

Every game they’re under a microscope. Every time they are praised for something great they do, a mistake will be brought up to minimize their standing. For every fan, there is a hater.

Shaquille O’Neal became the most recent person with a large platform to take umbrage with the size of Gobert’s contract extension, pointing to Gobert’s career averages of 11.7 points and 11 rebounds per game and questioning how that deserves a $205 million deal.

The Gobert faithful would point out that those numbers ignore some of the less popular metrics and the defensive impact that Gobert has on a game.

Likewise, the Jazz, just a handful of games into the 2020-21 season, are facing national criticism about how much Mitchell can truly do for the team.

With perimeter defense a weakness, can Mitchell become the defender the Jazz need while also being their top scorer? Can he score efficiently if he’s tasked with defending the opposition’s best wing for the entirety of a game? Can he play at a high level consistently?

The scrutiny will not stop. The pressure won’t ease up. And expectations are only going to increase when Mitchell’s and Gobert’s newly inked deals kick in next season. How they handle the pressure will be a huge part of what Mitchell and Gobert are able to make of their careers and their time with the Jazz.

“Who knows what type of impact it will have,” Snyder said of the pressure that comes with max contracts. “Sometimes it may make them play harder. I’m not suggesting that I think both of those guys don’t play hard every night. But certainly that’s a life-changing event. ... Eventually, it’s still basketball, and you’ve got two guys that want to win and want to perform well regardless of how much money they’re making.”

In the end, what Mitchell and Gobert do on the court, whether they play up to the value of their contracts, rise above the pressure and meet the expectations placed on them, will ultimately determine their basketball legacies.

The Jazz signed Mitchell to a five-year, $195 million extension and Rudy Gobert to a five-year, $205 million extension with the expectation that the duo will lead the team to an NBA championship.

The pressure is on.