The Utah Jazz have three players that are deserving of being named 2021 All-Stars. But, being deserving of an honor and actually receiving that honor are two totally different things.
Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have guided this Jazz team to the top of the Western Conference and they’ve each played an integral part in the team’s success. Whether each is rewarded for their efforts by way of an All-Star selection remains to be seen.
Having three players from one team named an All-Star is not a new or novel idea, even in the stacked Western Conference. The Golden State Warriors had four players named to the All-Star team in 2017 and 2018, and three players in 2016 and 2019. No one is arguing that Conley, Mitchell and Gobert are on the same level as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green as individual players during the Warriors’ dynasty run, but team success has a lot to do with players being named to All-Star teams.
In 2015, the Atlanta Hawks had four players on the Eastern Conference All-Star team (Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver) and it wasn’t because any of them were legitimate MVP-caliber players, but was because of the team’s prowess and the collective style of basketball that had made them a lethal opponent.
But, it’s not just about what team is playing well and who on that team is performing at an All-Star level — which is a very abstract and unmeasurable metric. Becoming an All-Star has a lot to do with exposure.
Voting for NBA All-Star starters is weighted. Fan balloting accounts for 50% of the vote, current players account for 25% of the vote, and the final 25% comes from a panel of media members.
Teams with larger fanbases and from larger markets often fare better not just in fan voting but in the other two categories as well, which makes a ton of sense. If a team has a lot of national exposure and is talked about by analysts and pundits more often than other teams, then name recognition goes a long way in earning votes.
When an audience tunes into TNT only to hear Shaquille O’Neal tell Donovan Mitchell on national television that Mitchell doesn’t “have what it takes to get to the next level,” it carries weight with basketball fans.
For a small-market team, that plays fewer nationally televised games than some of the other teams in the league, it can be hard to reach an audience and make them fully understand the impact of a particular player on a team.
On the media side, there are reporters that vote whose job is to cover one team throughout the season. It’s unfair to expect them to understand the nuance and impact of every player on their respective teams.
None of this is to say that exposure leading to votes or the way the votes are weighted is right. There’s a lot about the voting process that doesn’t work properly. I’ve had players tell me that they just fill out their ballot without even thinking about it and sometimes look at it as a joke.
There are also players that are voted in just because they are fan favorites, not because they have played well in a particular season.
With all of that in mind, there is a strong case to be made that Mitchell, Gobert and Conley all deserve to be NBA All-Stars.
The case for Donovan Mitchell
Looking to be named to a second consecutive All-Star team after making his All-Star debut in 2020, Mitchell has maintained his production from last season while making some significant tweaks to his game to better fit with the overall style of play of the Jazz.
“He’s our best player and our leader,” Bojan Bogdanovic said of Mitchell.
To that point, Mitchell has been the Jazz’s leading scorer since his rookie season and has grown in different respects each year.
Averaging 20-plus points per game through the 2020-21 campaign, Mitchell has lowered the number of midrange shots he takes and increased his 3-point attempts while shooting a career-high 41.6% from beyond the arc through the first 24 games of the season.
It’s not just in the scoring department that Mitchell has experienced growth, he’s also averaging a career-high in assists this season, becoming a more dynamic, willing and efficient passer as well as averaging a career-high in offensive rebounding, which obviously positions the Jazz to have more scoring opportunities.
Aside from the tangible evidence of production and efficiency that Mitchell demonstrates on a daily basis, perhaps the most compelling argument for him to make his second All-Star team is his growth as a leader and his maturity.
Before the 2020-21 season began, the Deseret News asked Mitchell about some of his personal goals for the upcoming season and his response was to ignore personal accolades because his focus has to be on the team rather than himself.
“The biggest thing is, how do I impact the team and allow us to win, to become the top seed in the West?”
With the Jazz sitting atop the Western Conference as of Feb. 9, the answer is that Mitchell has impacted the team in nearly every way possible. He controls the pace of the game, he sets his teammates up to succeed, he forces the defense to respect him from every point on the court, and he carries the team when it needs its leader to step up.
Simply put, Mitchell is the best player on the best team in the NBA, a fact that should make Mitchell a shoo-in on the All-Star team.
The case for Rudy Gobert
Like Mitchell, Gobert is looking for his second consecutive All-Star bid after making his debut alongside Mitchell last season.
Gobert’s strength has always been his defense. The 2018 and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year has never been touted as an offensive powerhouse and it was his defense and overall impact on the game that earned him his first All-Star bid last season. So, let’s look at overall impact and defense.
Through the first 24 games of the season, Gobert had the fifth best total plus-minus in the league behind Conley, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Khris Middleton. That puts him in front of two-time reigning MVP and reigning DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That list of players has a couple things in common; first, they are all incredibly talented basketball players and two, they should all be All-Stars.
Additionally Gobert is averaging a career-high in blocks (2.7 per game) and rebounds, while fouling at a lower rate than he has since the 2014-15 season.
With the Jazz ranking in the top five for both offense and defense, it makes sense to look at the leaders they have on both sides and their defensive leader is clearly Gobert.
On the offensive side, it would be negligent to see that Gobert averages roughly 13 points a game and brush it off as average.
The Jazz’s style of play has completely changed, with speed and perimeter shooting making up the bulk of the offense. That leaves Gobert with far fewer plays designed for him and makes his continued and steady production even more impressive.
After making his All-Star debut last season, following multiple years of feeling snubbed, Gobert has been clear about his feelings.
“Of course I would love to be a part of it,” he said.
But, like Mitchell, he insists that there are bigger prizes that he is focused on.
The case for Mike Conley
In 14 years in the NBA, Conley has never been on an All-Star team
“I can’t lie, I still think about it,” Conley recently said on “The Woj Pod.” “It’s something in my career that I’ve always kind of strived for.”
Why hasn’t it happened before now? Well, Conley has spent the entirety of his career in a stacked Western Conference and been on a small-market Memphis Grizzlies team that never had any outstanding success.
Why should things be different this year for Conley? He’s having arguably his most successful season and doing it on the team with the best record in the league.
Remember that plus-minus list that had Gobert ranked fifth? Conley tops that list and he tops it by a mile. The difference between the total plus-minus between No. 2 on that list (James) and No. 5 (Gobert) is just 14. Conley leads James in total plus-minus by 47 (265-218).
Conley leads the league in nearly every cumulative advanced metric and of starters who have played at least 15 games he has a league-leading defensive rating of 98.9.
On a more personal and individual level, Conley is averaging a career high in 3-point attempts, while shooting at a career-high percentage and grabbing more rebounds than he ever has.
“It’s pretty obvious and clear to people that are around us daily and our team, how big a part of our team he is and what he does for our team,” Joe Ingles said of Conley. “I think it’s pretty clear that he should get a lot of votes.”
Like Mitchell, Conley’s most valuable attributes might be the least tangible. There is a calm that Conley brings to the Jazz, while he also often is able to control the tempo whether that’s at a high speed or a slowed down more methodical approach. He adds a level of veteran knowledge of the game that can’t be taught and after 14 years, this could be the season he’s rewarded for it all.
What’s working against the Jazz trio?
As stated above, there are exposure issues that are built into the system. The Jazz are a small-market team that aren’t seen as much as other teams in the league and even when they have the best record in the NBA, they are doubted.
More than anything else, the sheer number of All-Star caliber players in the West is what could work against the Jazz in their attempt to get three players on the All-Star team.
There are only 12 spots on the Western Conference All-Star team and the Jazz’s players will be competing against the likes of James, Leonard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Zion Williamson, Andrew Wiggins, Christian Wood, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and Ja Morant, all who earned more fan votes than Mitchell in the first voting returns. Then there’s also Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Klay Thompson, and the list goes on.
It’s not going to be an easy task to take three of the 12 spots.
What’s working in the Jazz’s favor?
With more front-court spots available there is more of a chance for Gobert to make the team than might meet the eye. Mitchell has been gaining some national recognition as deserving of a starting spot, which could boost his numbers for votes and all of that is good news for the Jazz.
The reserve positions though, are not voted on by the fans. They are selected by the 30 NBA coaches.
This is where the impact players have on the game and some of the nuance that might be missed by a casual fan would come into play.
You might remember that last season Warriors coach Steve Kerr was flabbergasted to hear that two-time DPOY Gobert had yet to make an All-Star team.
“He has not made it yet?” he asked. “That’s surprising to me.”
Weeks later, Gobert was selected as a reserve.
The Jazz’s winning record is something that certainly doesn’t hurt and neither does the praise they’ve been receiving in interviews with other top players and head coaches.
There could also be a chance that the NBA’s choice to hold an All-Star game could impact the selection process.
The NBA released its schedule for the first half of the season back in December, penciling in an All-Star break for March 5-10. But rather than schedule an All-Star Game in Indianapolis, they canceled the event and awarded Indianapolis the 2024 All-Star Game, the first year that had not yet been awarded to a city.
Many believed that was the end of that conversation, that while the league would field All-Star teams, that no event would take place due to the impact COVID-19 had already had on scheduling issues and safety concerns.
That has changed in recent weeks with the league and players association discussing the possibility of holding an All-Star game in Atlanta.
Since discussions have continued to progress, many players including some of the league’s most high-profile names like James have spoken out against the idea of holding even a stripped-down event with the two biggest points against an All-Star Game being unnecessary travel during the coronavirus pandemic, and taking away a shortened break that they players had been expecting after a quick turnaround between seasons.
“Obviously it can be a good thing for the fans, for the game of basketball, for the finances,” Gobert said. “At the same time we all know we are playing games and it’s the only break that players and coaches are going to have. I mean, it’s good to have that conversation.”
There’s a chance that players will end up opting out of attending an All-Star game this season if it actually is held, and replacement players would be selected by commissioner Adam Silver.
There’s no doubt that Mitchell, Gobert and Conley all deserve to be All-Stars, but there are a lot of players who deserve the annual honor.
The Jazz’s chances of having a player on the All-Star team this season are very good. The Jazz’s chances of having three players on the All-Star team are more slim, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.