The Jazz find two-way balance as Rudy Gobert makes DPOY case

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images /

The Jazz have surged to the top of the West with Rudy Gobert moving to the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race. Is it enough to win an NBA title?

When Rudy Gobert inked a five-year, $205 million extension this offseason, it sparked conversation over the value a defensive anchor with limited offensive malleability could have in a league dominated by supremely versatile offensive superstars. The deal made Gobert the highest-paid center in NBA history (and makes MVP candidates Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić underpaid by comparison), and a bit of an outlier next to some of the league’s other highest earners. But while he may not fit the classical “Best Player on a Title Team” archetype, Gobert has been the most important contributor in Utah’s ensemble this year, providing the kind of balance and structure that might allow the Jazz to finally contend for an NBA title in earnest.

Unlike Embiid and Jokić, Gobert isn’t the type of offensive chameleon who fluidly moves his team from one action to the next. He can’t pierce opposing defenses from all over the floor or carry an offense with indomitable scoring or playmaking. Instead, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a court-bending force on the other end, and thus his own kind of catalyst. The Jazz — winners of 15 of their last 16 — currently own the NBA’s best record and net rating, and are the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. While those results have been realized through collective action and a well-conceived system, Gobert is the most critical ingredient to success. He singlehandedly provides a high defensive baseline, which allows his team to place maximum shooting and playmaking around him without compromising its defensive integrity. (Gobert’s pick-and-roll finishing makes him an offensive weapon in his own right.)

What makes Rudy Gobert different from the NBA’s other top defensive centers?

Utah has outscored teams by 14.2 points per 100 possessions with its anchor on the floor, largely because of the way he ties the unit together on defense. (For reference, the Nuggets and 76ers are plus-4.4 and plus-11.3, respectively, when their star centers play.) As offenses become more streamlined and pick-and-roll-oriented, defensive value hinges less on individual matchups and more on help responsibilities, rim-protection and error-mitigation. In those areas, Gobert is a generational talent who makes the most fertile areas of the court unprofitable.

While there’s value (and aesthetic appeal) in skywalking shot-blockers emphatically sending away layups, most teams would rather prevent those shots altogether. It’s in this second, less noticeable facet of rim protection that Gobert separates himself, even from other elite defenders. He not only perennially ranks near the top of the league in block rate, but reduces the share of efficient shots taken against the Jazz simply by stepping onto the court. Other players fear Gobert — or at least recognize the futility in challenging him — and thus most incursions against him end something like this:

This season, just 30 percent of enemy shot attempts with Gobert on the floor have come at the rim, and those daring enough to try him have converted less than half of their attempts. Just as impressively, he’s fouling at a career-low rate and the Jazz have held teams to a minuscule free-throw rate, thus denying opponents their two most efficient potential sources of offense. Despite his lanky frame, Gobert also has the strength to stymie the rare bigs who attempt to post him up:

That impact isn’t limited to the paint, even if Gobert’s physical presence largely is. Having a 7-foot-1 safety net behind them means Utah’s perimeter defenders can more aggressively run shooters off the 3-point line and toward the lurking Gobert. That ever-present barricade at the rim allows guards and wings to keep a step closer to their man rather than leave shooters to help elsewhere. That kind of cover is especially useful to a defense that lacks elite defense on the wing. Royce O’Neale comes closest to a true stopper, but even he can only do so much when routinely giving up three or four inches to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Luka Dončić. The insurance Gobert provides allows O’Neale — or anyone else — to take the extra step into his man, jump the occasional passing lane, or take a well-timed swipe at a live dribble.

Without the rim, foul line, or 3-point line readily available, Utah’s enemies get squeezed into an inefficient mid-range diet that reduces a given possession’s chances of success before a shot even goes up. Opponents take more mid-rangers than 3s when Gobert plays, which should protect against significant slippage if opponent 3-point shooting moves toward league-average:

Gobert — and, by extension, the Jazz defense — will be stretched against centers like Jokić, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kristaps Porzingis, whose shooting drags paint-roamers away from the rim. Quin Synder typically counters those matchups by pinning a wing to the problematic center, keeping Gobert near the rim, and daring power forwards to shoot jumpers; but Denver and the L.A. juggernauts tout enough shooting, frontcourt scoring, or both to force Utah into some potentially uncomfortable choices. It may be mathematically sound to prioritize the rim and lay off so-so shooters, but playoff series don’t always allow for regression to the mean. Matchup-hunting wings will put enormous strain on Gobert both in one-on-one matchups and as a help defender, and an ugly showing or two could again prompt questions over the gangly center’s viability in the postseason.

A force that central, however, can’t simply be pushed to the periphery. The coming month — in which Utah faces the Lakers, Clippers (twice), and 76ers (twice) — could offer glimpses at the precise challenges the Jazz face and how it might manage them. For now, Utah is rightfully considered a step below the Lakers and Clippers in the NBA title race, and Gobert a rung below Jokić and Embiid in the league’s center hierarchy. But both he and the Jazz are creating enough separation from the rest of the league to beg the question of whether they belong in a different, weightier conversation.

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