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Is it time to give up on Donovan Mitchell’s defense?

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Donovan’s defense is declining at a nearly inverse rate as he comments on his personal defensive improvement

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell is a star, but is it time to give up hope on him being a “two-way” star?
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

With 13 of the NBA season in the rearview mirror, the Utah Jazz boast the NBA’s best record at 19-5. They have the best NRTG in the league and a top 5 offense and defense, per CleaningTheGlass.com.

Utah is looking to have 2-3 All-Stars named this season, and for good reason.

Mike Conley is having a historic impact on the team, Rudy Gobert is yet again the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, and Donovan Mitchell is having his most efficient offensive season to date.

While the majority of Jazz buzz is rightfully optimistic and praise-worthy, this team is not without any concern, though insignificant concerns they may be. Some of these include their inability to force extra possessions and score efficiently at the rim. We’ve discussed these before.

A growing concern generating buzz around the fanbase of late revolves around Donovan Mitchell’s defense. There have been a number of defensive plays where Mitchell falls asleep, overplays, doesn’t fight to regain position, etc. The eye test is a bit ugly most of the time.

And it’s not just individual plays. His defensive impact has been waning for a while now. Take a look at the below chart showing some advanced defensive metrics for Donovan since his rookie year:

Donovan Mitchell’s advanced defensive numbers
Donovan Mitchell’s advanced defensive numbers by season, trending down
FiveThirtyEight, Basketball Reference, B-Ball Index

Donovan’s defense has been trailing off since his first season. While there has been some defensive impact improvement this year, his impact is still well below average and not even close to a high impact defensive player.

The fact is Donovan can and should be better. There are many quick to defend Mitchell for his poor defense, citing a handful of common excuses. Let’s take a look at some of those and judge their validity.

Donovan isn’t a natural defender

Some have cited the above excuse for Donovan’s poor defense, particularly pointing to his height at 6’1” as an inherent disadvantage.

What is often left out of this analysis is Mitchell’s 6’10” wingspan, 215 lb frame, and 36.5” standing vertical.

Coming into the 2017-18 draft, the perspective on these measurables and his reputation at Louisville made scouts and analysts particularly bullish on his defensive potential in the NBA.

Take a look at what NBADraft.net had to say about Donovan Mitchell ahead of the draft night trade that would bring Mitchell to Utah:

Even the great draft analyst Chad Ford, formerly of ESPN, remarked about Donovan Mitchell’s defensive potential in his June 2017 NBA Big Board:

Even Donovan considered himself a good defender out of college, with enormous potential to impact the NBA game at that end. Take a look at his interview immediately following his Utah Jazz workout ahead of the draft.

What about his KSL interview draft night.

He owed his defensive prowess to former Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino for instilling in him defensive fundamentals. He specifically cited his desire to contribute on that end, saying it was something he could do from day 1.

Donovan is short by NBA standards, but that’s about the only evidence in his career that he doesn’t possess natural skills and an inherent desire on the defensive end.

Donovan just needs more time to figure it out

If the advanced defensive metrics for Donovan’s career didn’t throw this excuse out the window, consider the fact that Donovan has been talking about personal defensive improvement since his rookie season.

Consider his comments in the exit interview of his rookie year:

As shocking as it may be, Mitchell did in fact say he wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year award winner at some point in his career. Given his defensive impact metric values for the 2017-18 season, it seemed rather possible he could compete one day.

Little did we know at the time that his defensive metrics would nose-dive practically every season henceforth. However, Donovan didn’t stop talking about evolving his defense.

As recent as the exit interview following the heartbreaking loss to Denver in the 2020 playoffs, Donovan vowed to improve his defense and make a serious impact on that end.

While 1 on the 3 impact metrics cited above shows marginal improvement in defensive impact, what we’re seeing from him overall on that end isn’t really what we’d have expected.

With 13 of the season behind him, Donovan is running out of time to make this season a career turnaround point for defensive impact. Should his season slip by without improvement, it’s hard to imagine he develops enough inertia midway through his career to make such a drastic change.

In short, he doesn’t just need more time. He may be running out of it.

Donovan has his hands full offensively

When Donovan Mitchell was drafted, he arrived on a Utah Jazz team that could not create offense without constant movement, multiple passes per possession, and intricate angles, screens, and decoys. They finished the year as the 16th offense.

That team’s bread and butter was defense. With Jae Crowder, Ricky Rubio, and Derrick Favors starting at the 4, Utah had the best defense in the league. What they needed was an offensive spark, and that was Donovan.

During that season Utah was 4.0 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Mitchell on the court. Donovan boasted a usage rate in the 89%tile his rookie year that ballooned to the 93%tile the next season (per CleaningTheGlass.com).

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell dazzled offensively as a rookie versus the league’s elite players and teams
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

He may have come into the NBA defense ready, but Utah needed his offense.

Fast forward to the 2019-20 season where the Utah Jazz trade for Mike Conley and sign Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason, only to trade for Jordan Clarkson early in the season. Utah no longer was desperate for his ability to create offense on every possession.

Utah’s offense improved to 10th in 2019-20 and to 4th in 2020-21. Even with the new weapons, Donovan has continued his high usage: 95%tile in his 3rd season, 92%tile in his 4th season (this season). His hands are full on offense, but does the team need him to be?

The Jazz don’t need Donovan’s defense

This argument is an interesting one.

On one hand, Utah has the #2 ranked defense per CleaningTheGlass.com. Mike Conley is showing the defensive impact he made as a youngster to “Grind City” Grizzlies, Rudy Gobert is the frontrunner for DPOY, Derrick Favors is manning the backup 5 minutes, and others around the roster and exerting more defensive effort and focus.

On the other hand, despite having the best regular season defense in the NBA since Donovan Mitchell was drafted, they’ve only been average defensively in the playoffs (11th of 23 teams, per PBPstats.com). The Jazz defense further nosedives when excluding the OKC-UTA playoff series.

The most likely teams the Jazz will face deep in the playoffs all possess dynamic players on the perimeter:

Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Monte Morris
Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges
LA Clippers: Paul George, Lou Williams, Luke Kennard
LA Lakers: LeBron James, Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets
Donovan Mitchell navigates a Nikola Jokic screen while defending Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Having an additional impact defender against those teams would be an incredible luxury, not a millstone.


The excuses are out

Donovan Mitchell has the physical tools, mental aptitude, experience, and desire to be an impactful defender. His team needs this side of him and he finally has the offensive help needed for him to focus on defense. He’s had over 3 years to find a solid defensive footing.

The excuses are out.

Either Donovan Mitchell puts up the defense he’s been talking about since college or he shuts up about needing to improve on that end of the floor. The Jazz organization and fans have been holding out hope for a two-way player so long, it’s time to make it happen or give it up.

To be clear, Donovan Mitchell is a borderline top-20 NBA player DESPITE his poor defense. He is an incredible player who continues to make strides with his offense, particularly with his passing, efficiency, and 3P shot.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Indiana Pacers
Donovan Mitchell dissects the Indiana defense with his passing, a vastly improved area of his game.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Should Mitchell forego his defensive development, he’ll continue to have an amazing career. While two-way players pepper the league’s truly elite super stars, Donovan can join the ranks of Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Trae Young, etc.: offensive stars who don’t contribute on the defensive end.

There’s absolutely no shame in such an accomplishment. However, it makes ascending into super-stardom a truly difficult task.

Is Donovan Mitchell’s defense the difference between a Larry O’Brien trophy and a WCF exit? Most likely, no.

Does such development heighten UTA’s ceiling with virtually no cost? Most likely, yes.

The only reason Jazz fans cling to hope of having a two-way star in Donovan Mitchell is due to his continual comments about personal improvement on that end. With that, a letter to Donovan:

To Spida,

It’s time to put up or shut up on defense. Either way, we love and root for you!

From Jazz Fans