Rudy Gobert is the Catalyst for Utah Jazz Success
Over the past few weeks, Rudy Gobert has hijacked all of your Twitter feeds.
It feels like every time the Utah Jazz play, there’s a new viral video of Gobert either swatting a shot out of mid-air with a look of disdain on his face that asks “Did you really just try that?” or pulverizing the rim with a ferocious dunk that opponents didn’t even attempt to contest.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the uptick in Gobert coverage, too. And it’s come with good reason.
Since March 16, Utah’s center has seen his numbers go from excellent to outright preposterous. In that span, he’s averaging 20.1 points, 14.8 rebounds (5.7 offensive), 1.7 assists and 3.9 blocks on 68.2 percent shooting from the floor. Just to reiterate, Gobert is scoring 20 points per game while attempting fewer than 12 shots nightly. Again, preposterous.
Against the New York Knicks on March 22, the big man put up one of the most unique stat lines in NBA history. He became the only player since 1983-84 to score at least 35 points on no more than 15 field-goal attempts while also pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking four shots.
His numbers haven’t been empty, either. In fact, his play helped the Jazz clinch their first playoff berth since 2012 with over three weeks left in the regular season. They’re now the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, and the team trailing them, the Los Angeles Clippers, is hobbling to the finish line.
This newfound success in Salt Lake City is happening despite the Jazz serving as one of the most injury-plagued teams in the league. Per Man Games Lost, Utah is No. 2 in lost win shares, No. 7 in total player games injured and No. 5 in lost VORP.
Gobert, however, has served as a rare exception, suiting up in all but one outing. And it’s thanks to his consistently dominant presence that the Jazz are enjoying this resurgent season.
He’s Putting the Team on his Back, Though
Dated reference aside, Gobert has been the stalwart behind Utah’s elite defense—the primary spark behind the return to prominence.
On the year, the Jazz allow a league-low 96.5 points per game. Some of that stems from their ultra-slow pace, as head coach Quin Snyder implements a system that yields an average of 93.7 possessions per 48 minutes—again, the NBA’s lowest number. But even if we take pace into account, their defensive numbers are still top-notch: No. 3 in defensive rating (102.3), No. 4 in defensive field-goal percentage allowed (44.3) and No. 3 in defensive rebound rate (79.0).
On a macro level, they’re particularly adept at preventing teams from getting good looks beyond the arc. The Jazz allow the second fewest three-point attempts per contest and, even more importantly, the lowest amount from the corners. Utah gives up 4.7 corner threes on average; for comparison’s sake, the Milwaukee Bucks allow 4.4 just from the right corner.
As opposing teams are spurred off the three-point line, they’re left with two places to go. And neither is all that appealing.
The first is the forsaken, barren and abandoned zone known as the mid-range, which is exactly where the Jazz want opponents shooting: They force their foes into the fourth-most shots from 10-16 feet. And if the enemy doesn’t pull up from that least efficient spot on the court, it can try its luck in even more reckless fashion by going after Gobert in the paint.
Only 14 centers defend at least 18 attempts from within five feet of the rim on a regular basis. None allow a lower shooting percentage than Gobert.
Attacking the paint when he’s manning Utah’s defense is a heroic, but ultimately fallible, endeavor.
Gobert is simply a specimen. Men his size (7’1” and 245 pound with an NBA Combine record-setting 7’8.5” wingspan) shouldn’t be able to move their feet so nimbly.
He rarely switches on pick-and-rolls (just five defensive possessions against PnR ball-handlers all season), but he does a great job of showing and either contesting without chasing blocks or covering just long enough for his teammates to recover, then finding his man and boxing out.
Thanks to his freakishness and plus instincts, the Jazz are one of just three teams (along with the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics) who rank top six both defending post-ups and pick-and-roll roll men, per NBA.com.
The French phenom is in the 84.5 percentile defending roll guys and the 84.6 percentile when guarding post-up attempts, with 0.70 and 0.71 points allowed per possession (PPP), respectively. When he goes to the bench, Utah’s defense gets 6.7 points per 100 possessions worse, which speaks to his importance to their overall scheme.
Even if he hasn’t yet emerged as a runaway favorite for Defensive Player of the Year (thanks a lot, Draymond Green), no one alters outcomes on the defensive end more than Gobert.
Not Just a Defensive Specialist
Along with his improvements on defense, the Jazz center has also turned himself into the model of offensive efficiency.
Gobert is 12th in the NBA in offensive win shares and second in overall win shares. He also leads the league in free-throw rate (among players with at least 1500 minutes played) with a 0.792 clip. Although that mark is actually lower than the one he boasted last season, his newfound ability to convert his opportunities makes his foul-drawing tendencies all the more valuable.
After serving as a 58.5 percent free-throw shooter over the first three years of his career, Gobert has improved that number to 65 percent in his fourth season. No one will mistake him for Ray Allen anytime soon, but that’s still a healthy clip for a big who shoots so frequently from the stripe.
Simultaneously, he’s become one of the two best pick-and-roll finishers in the NBA. Gobert is scoring 1.38 PPP as a roll man, which trails only DeAndre Jordan for the league’s No. 1 mark among players who have used at least 100 such possessions. Last season, he was at 1.08 PPP—a score that would move him behind 20 more players on this year’s leaderboard.
Improved touch, patience and deft footwork around the basket are the primary factors behind his transformation. In 2015-16, the center finished a rather ordinary 58.5 percent of his chances within five feet of the basket. (For reference, Rajon Rondo was more effective in the paint.) Now, Gobert is making an astounding 68 percent of looks from the same range.
In essence, the future All-NBA center has metamorphosed from an awkward 7-footer with poor dexterity to a basketball demigod capable of dominating on both ends.
Green may ultimately end up taking home Defensive Player of the Year, and that wouldn’t be a travesty. Sure, Gobert leads in defensive win shares while placing second in defensive box plus/minus (among players with at least 2000 minutes). But the player he trails in the latter category is a more than worthy candidate, as well.
Either way, Gobert is merely 24-years old. There’s plenty of time for him to win that award—and many others—in the not-so-distant future. And if he continues on his current trajectory over the next few seasons, we’ll eventually be discussing not just his DPOY candidacy, but also his case for MVP.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.