The Utah Jazz have been building a potential juggernaut for a couple of years now. They’ve shown this potential in smaller doses — be it the final two months of the 2014-15 season when they played historically good defense, trudging through injury after injury in 2015-16 to nearly snag the No. 8 seed, or being one of the five most dominant teams in the NBA over the last five weeks.
While the Jazz struggled a year ago because of the injuries and let a playoff berth slip through their grasp, they’ve found ways to persevere through the inconsistency of bodies in the rotation this time around. The Jazz sit 20-13 as the calendar year turns the corner, despite their intended starting lineup having only played two games and 22 minutes together overall. The biggest reason for their success and perseverance so far also happens to be the biggest player on this deep and diverse roster of pseudo and non-stars. Rudy Gobert and his limitless bandwidth of wingspan have anchored the Jazz this season on both ends of the floor, thanks to his own acceptance of the request from coaches to make sacrifices on both ends for the greater good of the team.
The Jazz’s starting lineup quintet alone has missed a combined 48 games already this season. Here’s a rundown of the missed games just from the starting lineup so far:
Gordon Hayward — 7 games, finger
Derrick Favors — 15 games, left knee
George Hill — 21 games, sprained toe and sprained thumb
Rodney Hood — 5 games, hamstring and flu
However, Gobert has been there for all 33 games thus far. Despite all of the team’s missed games due to injury, the Jazz still rank fourth in the NBA in defensive rating and ninth on offense.
Their defensive system is simple. Gobert protects the paint with various acts of help positioning and expert show-and-recover on pick-and-roll plays that make him look like a creature Godzilla may have to extradite from a city. That allows the rest of the defenders to get after their assignment aggressively to keep Jazz opponents off the 3-point line and dare them to attack the paint where Gobert lurks.
The results speak glowingly about the defensive process of Snyder’s group. Utah may allow the ninth highest 3-point percentage in the NBA (36.0 percent) but they also allow just the second-lowest percentage of 3-point attempts (27.1 percent). Research has shown that the second number is much more indicative of quality defensive execution. The Jazz also don’t force a lot of turnovers (11.3 percent, second lowest turnover rate in the NBA for opponents) because their version of forcing mistakes is making you shoot over the skyscraper reach of Gobert.
Utah funnels the ball handler into the paint, where the Jazz allow the fifth highest percentage of attempts (30.9 percent) within three feet of the rim. They also allow the third lowest success rate (57.4 percent) inside of three feet. And even then, a lot of that damage happens when Gobert is on the bench.
Gobert’s spot in the system can leave him hanging out to dry during mistakes and breakdowns by teammates, but that’s the sacrifice he’s asked to make. Defend everything. Protect everybody. Sure, you’ll get dunked on spectacularly at times (see: DeRozan, DeMar and Wiggins, Andrew) but for every wrong side of a Vine Gobert ends up on, there are a few dozen highlights of his own turning shots away or forcing big misses.
The Jazz trust Gobert to make what’s supposed to be the most efficient spot on the floor become a wasteland for conversion. Nobody defends more shots at the rim per game (11.4) than Gobert; only Kristaps Porzingis is defending the rim as well as Gobert for percentage allowed (42.1 percent for both players), according to NBA.com/stats.
Utah, by design, dares referees to call defensive three seconds against their big men. It may happen a couple times in a week, which far outweighs the times Gobert is camped in or near the lane ready to turn away a hopeful attempt by an opponent. And because he’s become such a savvy mover in help defense, it doesn’t take much for him to get within reach of a defender to negate calling three seconds against him.
“When they acquired Hill, my immediate thought was, ‘How is anybody going to score on this team?’” a Western Conference scout joked. “It’s hard enough with Gobert out there and he’s gotten better at all the little, veteran positioning stuff. Think of how good [that defense is] without Hill or their regular lineup. Now give them a couple of months to gel leading up to the playoffs. Who wants to play them in the first round?”
With Gobert on the floor, the Jazz allow 99.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s 7.1 points per 100 possessions fewer than when he’s on the bench. It’s easy to laud Gobert for his defensive prowess. He’s a lock to garner at least a couple of Defensive Player of the Year awards by the time his career is done. Even in an era with Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green showing you the value of switchy defenders, Gobert’s presence inside can’t be ignored. As we get into the season of recognizing potential All-Stars in both conferences, it’s the value that Gobert now adds on the offensive end of the floor that nearly matches his defensive impact.
Gobert doesn’t get a lot of plays called for him, but he’s involved in everything. That’s the sacrifice he’s asked to accept on the offensive end of the floor. With some defensive big men, there’s a requirement to burn a post-up opportunity or three each game to keep them engaged, but that’s not the case for the Jazz and Gobert. Constantly being asked to set screens (tied for second in the NBA with 5.8 screen assists per game) means the ball movement will eventually lead to an opportunity for the big man, and that’s where he accepts his place in the offense: he’s the beneficiary of offensively designed gravity.
Snyder’s biggest hope for Gobert on the offensive end of the floor this season has been to sacrifice himself as an individual in order to open the floor for a deadeye shooting bunch. And in doing this, it forces the defense to make a decision on which areas of the floor they must sacrifice. Weak side 3-point shooters from both the corner and the wing end up putting the defense at a huge disadvantage. But as the ball handler and the shooters become targets, it opens up the middle of the floor for Gobert. From there, the assignment for the French center is simple: finish the play.
“He’s finished better,” Synder said when asked about Gobert’s offensive impact. “I consider his free throws as part of the finishing. Really, as much as anything, he gives himself up on offense for his teammates. We all remember that but then when the stats come out and print the media guide, it doesn’t say, ‘Rudy gives himself up. What a great screener.’
“For him to be willing and committed to playing pick-and-roll and being a roller — screening for Gordon and Rodney and those guys off the ball — it’s a huge impact. Whether he’s out on the floor and they’re not guarding him as closely so he can be a screener or he’s out on the floor and he’s rolling, he has an opportunity to impact the game.”
While Gobert won’t make anybody forget about Rick Barry at the charity stripe any time soon, his 64.8 percent success rate is a career high. So is his free throw attempt rate of 95.1 percent and his league-leading true shooting percentage of 70.7 percent. He’s currently on pace to become the first player in NBA history to block at least 4 shots per 100 possessions and have a true shooting percentage of at least 70 percent.
Aside from the improved free throw performance, Gobert has also become the best pick-and-roll big man in the league to date. Last season, Gobert was very solid. He can obviously extend the play vertically and throw down lobs, but he struggled with contact at times. There wasn’t an innate comfort to catching the ball against resistance and then making a play. He scored 108.5 points per 100 possessions (60.6 field goal percentage) as a pick-and-roll man, which was 24th among players with at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions.
This season, not only has Gobert nearly cut his turnover rate in half in pick-and-rolls (9.4 percent down to 5.0), but he’s obliterating interior defenses when he takes a shot. He’s improved to converting 82.2 percent of his shots in pick-and-roll’s and he’s scoring 160.0 points per 100 possessions (on 60 possessions). Of players with at least 30 possessions, the next closest is Tyson Chandler at 146.7 per 100.
The Jazz feel more comfortable with using Gobert on side pick-and-roll plays this season because he is stronger with the ball. Before there was some concern that he needed to be in the middle of the floor on high pick-and-rolls because that was the main angle he could handle. Now you’ll see the different zones on the floor more evenly distributed in pick-and-roll action with Gobert as the screener because they know he can handle scoring there.
This improvement in the pick-and-roll has helped buoy the Jazz offense despite their lack of consistency in the starting lineup. Some of this is personnel Gobert plays alongside, overall, but the Jazz offense drops off by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he heads to the bench.
As has been the case for the Jazz for almost a year and a half, they’re a healthy rotation away from showing what Dennis Lindsey has been rebuilding and Quin Snyder has been molding with his coaching staff. While Hayward and Favors have been the bigger names, Gobert has become the constant force. While his absence in 21 games a year ago was too tough to overcome, his presence in every game this season has been too great to ignore.