Rudy Gobert joined some pretty rare company last season, becoming only the 10th player in NBA history to win the defensive player of the year award twice. Since he became the full time starter in 2015, Utah’s defense has been one of the best in the league. His presence on the court changes games like few in the game. To show that difference and value, this is still one of my favorite graphics.
I know the typical definition of “MVP” is really “league’s best stats collector”, but if it were taken literally as “Most Valuable Player” to any team’s success, this graph is a clear testament that @rudygobert27 should be in consideration. pic.twitter.com/C2oyZTtozc— Landon Parker (@parelkid) March 5, 2018
Can you tell when Gobert came back from injury to lead the Jazz on a season-ending tear? Gobert is a difference maker and a top 15, arguably top 10 player in the league. As the best defensive player in the world, he’s the key to Utah’s recent success and the most important player on the roster for winning.
So how much more can the Jazz ask of him?
According to NBA stats, the Jazz defensive rating in the last 4 years has been good for 7th, 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in the league. Rudy is a repeat Defensive Player of the Year winner for a reason. But for the most part, the Jazz have had other plus defenders around him as well. Dennis Lindsey wanted a trip to Utah to feel like a visit to the world’s worst dentist. The fabric and fibers of this team have been defense. And that defense has won a LOT of basketball games, including playoff series.
And then the Jazz hit a ceiling.
In that same timespan, the Jazz offensive rating was 16th, 12th, 16th, and 14th. An average offense will only get you so far. Historically, NBA champions have had a top 10 offense and a top 10 defense. Sure there are some outliers, but you get the point. After some early playoff exists, the front office decided some changes were necessary. And looking at the roster it was relatively easy to see what needed to improve. Utah’s shooting woes in the playoffs had to be addressed. Despite creating some of the most open looks of anyone in the playoffs, their percentages were one of the worse.
So Justin Zanik went to work.
In came Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. Two players a little older in age and more known for their offense than their defense. Over their careers, Rubio and Favors have arguably or very clearly been the better defenders. Even Jae Crowder to Jeff Green is probably a step up offensively but step down defensively. The Jazz found their versatile shooting players that they feel like would address their offensive needs. But what does that mean for the defense?
Rudy Gobert’s defensive burden is already one of, if not the greatest, most taxing burdens in the league. At 15.8 per game, he contested the 2nd most shots in the NBA last season. On top of manning his own guy, he’s expected to be the backside help, which lead him to having the 2nd most blocked shots in the league. Not only does he have to defend the pick and roll, he has to secure the defensive rebound, where he had the 4th most overall.
The Jazz also have the luxury of aggressively running teams off the three point line because everyone knows Rudy has their back. A guard or wing gets over-aggressive on the outside? That’s ok, Rudy’s there. Someone gets beat off the dribble and is driving into the lane? No worries, Rudy’s there. You know that thought is going through literally everyone’s head in the entire arena. And somehow the Stifle Tower has delivered over, and over, and over again.
But what happens if those situations become more frequent? What if even more is asked of Rudy? After a demanding summer carrying the French National Team to the FIBA bronze, can he carry a heavier burden for the Jazz as well?
A big factor to Utah’s defensive success may actually fall on Donovan Mitchell’s shoulders. Now that he has some offensive help he may have more energy and focus for the defensive end. He looked like a great defender at FIBA and has looked like Utah’s best perimeter defender in the preseason. That’s a byproduct I hadn’t anticipated, but will gladly welcome.
Unfortunately, the overall defense hasn’t been there in the preseason. The team has given up 133, 128, and 128 points to the NBA teams they’ve faced. Is that a concerning trend or just the preseason? That could be a sign of things to come that the Jazz sacrificed a little too much on defense. I might not expect the Jazz to have a top 10 defense this year. Or the guys are still adjusting to their new teammates, rotations, and defensive call-outs and this takes time. Just last season the Jazz were only 12th defensively after 28 games. But Quin Snyder and team figured it out and finished the season 2nd overall. Don’t panic if it takes a few weeks for guys to settle in and this defense to start stifling again. And don’t panic if the team goes from the 2nd best defense to the 8th or 9th best. The offensive payout should make up for that.
Personally, I’m not worried about what Rudy Gobert can or cannot do. He’s the best defender on the planet and likely the frontrunner to three-peat as DPOY. The Jazz are about to ask even more of Rudy Gobert, and he’s going to deliver. That’s what he’s done night in and night out for several years. There’s no way that’s going to change now.