NBA Season Preview 2018-19: Rudy Gobert’s defensive bona fides

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 02: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets goes up for a shot defended by Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz in the second half during Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on May 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - MAY 02: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets goes up for a shot defended by Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz in the second half during Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on May 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /
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Rudy Gobert’s defensive impact is undeniable. Last season, he secured his first Defensive Player of the Year Award, despite playing just 56 games for the Utah Jazz. It may seem crazy to bestow that honor on a player who missed roughly a third of the season but by Defensive Win Shares (an imperfect stat but one that is cumulative, recognizing both effectiveness and time on the court) Gobert still finished in the top-10 offering roughly the same total value as Paul George, despite playing a thousand fewer minutes.

It his presence around the basket, and particularly his 7-foot-4 frame that makes the biggest impact. According to NBAwowy, the average distance of an opponent’s shot was 7.38 feet when Gobert was on the bench last season. When he was on the floor, it was more than a foot farther from the basket — 8.59 feet.

A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation, looking at the number of shots Gobert has contested and the field goal percentage opponents shoot on interior shots he contests, estimates that he has saved the Jazz defense 299 points over the past five seasons, as compared to an average center. That figure does not include points he’s saved by deterring opponents from even attempting shots around the basket.

Across a large sample, Gobert has proven that his defensive impact is essentially unmatched in the NBA. However, the Jazz’s championship aspirations are pinned almost entirely to his ability to maintain it situationally, specifically against teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.

Jazz stifled the Warriors in the regular season, winning three of their four matchups and holding them to just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets, however, swept the Jazz, averaging 118.1 points per 100 possessions. In the playoffs, they still managed 109.0 points per 100 possessions and only dropped one game in the series against Utah.

Gobert’s individual rim protection numbers were sensational in that series against Houston — 9.4 interior field goals defended per game, 40.4 field goal percentage allowed, both big improvements over his regular season numbers. Unfortunately, it barely made a difference in the Rockets overall efficiency — they scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, repeatedly drawing him away from the basket and getting their layups anyway.

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Gobert has proven his skills and production to be incredibly unique, as the Jazz look to build a deep playoff run this series continuing to manage matchups and surround him with strong defensive performances will be key as the context continues to change.