Utah Jazz: How Donovan Mitchell can compete for the 2021-22 MVP

Fans of the Utah Jazz know they have a special player in Donovan Mitchell. How close is the 24-year-old All-Star to competing for the league’s highest individual award? 

Longtime fans of the Utah Jazz have waited a considerable amount of time for one of their favorite players to receive the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. The last Jazzman to receive that honor was Karl Malone during the 1996-97 season. Since then, the Jazz have rostered a number of talented players, but none have hoisted the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Donovan Mitchell just might have the talent to do it. The immensely talented young guard has made steady improvements to his statistical output in every season he’s been in the NBA so far, culminating in stellar averages of 26.4 points and 5.2 assists per game last season. He’s answered just about every question anyone could ask about his game, but at least one remains: how close is he to an MVP caliber player?

To answer that question, we compared Mitchell’s 2020-21 season to James Harden’s 2017-18 season, which was the last instance of a guard winning the trophy. We compared the two All-Star guards in the traditional statistics of points, rebounds, assists and steals, as well as two advanced metrics: Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares (WS).

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell vs 2017-18 James Harden

From roughly 2016-17 to 2019-20, the NBA’s most feared beard stretched our understanding of how much offense it was possible for one player to generate as a member of the Houston Rockets. It was truly one of the most impressive individual runs in NBA history, resulting in one MVP award (and several runner-up finishes).

In comparing Harden’s 2017-18 MVP campaign to Donovan Mitchell’s 2020-21 season, we do see that the Utah Jazz star has a considerable distance to travel before he reaches peak Harden territory. Harden’s 2017-18 traditional stats included 30.4 points per game, 8.8 assists per game, 5.4 rebounds per game and 1.8 steals per game. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell contributed 26.4 points per game, 5.2 assists per game, 4.4 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals per game.

Those are some fairly large discrepancies, and they’re reflected in the advanced statistics. Harden’s PER in 2017-18 was a robust 29.8, whereas Mitchell posted a 21.3 figure last season. Meanwhile, Harden generated 15.4 WS in his MVP season, a number that dwarfs Mitchell’s 6.2 number from last season.

How can Donovan Mitchell improve his game to reach Harden’s lofty 2017-18 heights?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell’s usage rate

One surefire method for enhancing a player’s statistical output is to increase their usage rate. Last season, Mitchell’s usage rate was 33.5%: a high figure, to be sure, but lower than Harden’s 36.1% figure from 2017-18. That slight uptick in usage could easily result in a few extra points and a couple of extra assists for Mitchell, which could bump his advanced metrics into MVP territory.

On the other hand, such an increase in usage rate for Mitchell feels unlikely for the 2021-22 season. Usage is typically borne out of necessity, and with the depth of playmaking on the Utah Jazz’s roster in Mike Conley Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles, it’s hard to envision Quin Snyder deciding to hand Mitchell more offensive responsibility at the cost of sacrificing responsibilities for other talented players.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell’s defense

If there won’t be more touches for Mitchell in the Jazz’s offense, there might be one more path to MVP consideration: strap on the hardhat, and do some dirty work.

To garner MVP votes, Mitchell won’t necessarily need to put on the historic offensive clinic that Harden did in 2017-18. Last season, Mitchell finished with a -0.6 Defensive Rating. If he could make strides on the less glamorous end of the floor, while maintaining or (ideally) slightly improving his offensive statistics, and the Utah Jazz could replicate the feat of finishing with the NBA’s best regular season record, Mitchell’s name could gain steam in the MVP narrative.

Ultimately, fans of the Utah Jazz and Donovan Mitchell alike are hopefully less focused on the MVP award, and more focused on a different trophy: the Larry O’Brien trophy. Nonetheless, should Mitchell have a desire to be crowned with the NBA’s highest individual award, he’ll need to either increase his usage rate or improve his defense.