There are still far too many NBA fans who base the vast majority of their opinions and analysis of the game on the almighty “points per game.” With the help of Rudy Gobert, I’m on a mission to educate those fans on the fact that there’s more to basketball.
On Monday, I posted a simple tweet with my “MVP tiers.”
My current MVP tiers...— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) February 12, 2019
1: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden
2: Paul George, Nikola Jokic
3: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gobert
The responses were, as you’d expect, measured, reasonable and on-point. Except they weren’t. Actually, those tiers led to plenty of the old Twitter-standard “LMAOOO,” “hahahaha,” “stay off the weed,” etc.
What many still don’t seem to understand about MVP conversations is that the second letter in that acronym stands for “Valuable.” And you don’t have to score 20 points per game to be valuable. Difficult as that concept may be to accept, it’s true. And Gobert is running, screening, dunking, blocking, defending evidence of that.
Over the course of this season, Utah’s Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) is eight points better when Gobert is on the floor. That Net Rating swing is almost double James Harden’s and only 1.4 points behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s.
That swing is the product of what Gobert does on both ends of the floor, but we’ll start with defense, where his impact is undeniably massive.
For the third straight season, Gobert is leading the NBA in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM). The only players with a higher Offensive Real Plus-Minus (ORPM) than Gobert’s DRPM are Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic and Paul George.
It’s a similar story with Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus. There, Gobert is again first in the defensive variant of the metric (D-PIPM). The only players with a higher Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (O-PIPM) than Gobert’s D-PIPM are Curry, Harden, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, George and Kyrie Irving.
Gobert’s impact on defense isn’t there just because he blocks shots and grabs defensive rebounds, though those things certainly help. Utah’s whole defensive scheme is possible because of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He’s a defensive system unto himself, much like Harden is an offense unto himself (or, like Curry before Durant joined the Golden State Warriors).
What’s difficult to measure is how many shots Gobert changes (he trails only Brook Lopez in shots contested per game); how many drivers do an abrupt U-turn when they see Gobert in the paint; and how much more aggressive Jazz perimeter defenders can be with Gobert on the floor.
That’s where these catch-all defensive metrics come in. No, they’re not perfect. But Gobert being first for three straight seasons in DRPM (he’s also first in Goldstein’s multi-year D-PIPM) passes the eye test.
And even if he did nothing on offense (which we know isn’t true), being the game’s most impactful defender should have some weight in any conversation about “value.” Ben Wallace finished as high as seventh in MVP voting in 2004, when he had a True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of .441 and an Offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) of minus-1.6. This season, Gobert’s TS% is .676, and his OBPM is two. In the season in which Dwight Howard finished second in MVP voting (2011), his TS% was .616, and his OBPM was 0.9.
Gobert is the kind of dominant defensive force Wallace or Howard were in their primes, and he provides more efficient offense to boot. Do people just care less about defense now than they did in 2004 or 2011? NBA coaches’ reserve selections for this season’s All-Star Game would certainly suggest that’s the case.
Next NBA Coach that opens training camp talking about the importance of defense should have every player call BS - If you don't vote for the best defensive player in the world for an all-star don't preach defense— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) February 1, 2019
As would the discussion, or lack thereof, surrounding Gobert’s value this season.
And again, it’s not just on defense where he makes an impact.
This season, the Jazz score 7.2 more points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the floor. The team’s TS% is a full point higher when Gobert is in. Its Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) is a point and a half higher. And, in several cases, his impact on individual eFG% is wild:
The bump Donovan Mitchell gets there is perhaps most significant. When Gobert is on the floor, defenses have to account for his rolls to the basket. Much like Curry’s gravity bends a defense outward, Gobert’s sucks defenders in toward the paint. That leaves more room on the perimeter for guys like Mitchell, and is probably a big part of why Mitchell’s three-point percentage (3P%) more than doubles when Gobert is on the floor (17.4 to 35.8).
One thing that often goes hand-in-hand with Gobert’s gravity are his screens. This season, he has a total of 350 screen assists. Jusuf Nurkic is in second place there, and trails by almost 100. Gobert also leads the league in screen assists per game. And his screen assists generate an NBA-leading 14.2 points per game.
If you combine the points Gobert generates with screen assists with the points he generates with traditional assists, you get 19.7 points per game. Harden’s combined points generated from screen assists and traditional assists is 19.2 per game.
The fans who think Gobert is all-defense and no-offense are either uninformed or willfully ignorant. The Holy Church of Points per Game doesn’t preach about impact, rim-rolling, efficiency or screens.
If I were to give a guest sermon there, I’d start with all of the above and finish with this: Among players with at least as many field goal attempts, Gobert is 54th in the NBA in Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus, 35th in Offensive Box Plus-Minus, sixth in Offensive Win Shares per 48 Minutes and first in TS%.
So, in addition to the undeniable defense, a handful of numbers suggest he’s, at worst, a top-50 offensive player.
And when you combine what he does on both ends of the floor, Gobert’s overall impact is matched by very few players.
If you sort every player in the NBA with 500-plus minutes by the average of their ranks in 10 different catch-all metrics, Gobert trails only Harden, Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, George and Jokic.
Harden and Antetokounmpo are justifiably at the top of about everyone’s list of MVP candidates. George and Jokic aren’t terribly far behind. Davis is out, for what should be obvious reasons. And seemingly no one (certainly not on the national stage) will even whisper Gobert’s name.
No, he doesn’t have a stronger case than the frontrunners. But anyone who has an MVP ladder (or tiers) that goes around 10 players deep isn’t seeing the whole game if Gobert isn’t included.