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Stop saying Rudy Gobert was played off the court in the playoffs, it isn’t true

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The dumbest common myth that somehow still survives in educated NBA circles.

Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’ve been anywhere near the dumpster fire that is NBA offseason twitter, you probably ran into the garbage opinion that Rudy Gobert cannot stay on the floor in the NBA Playoffs due to some combination of Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, or—if people want to go three years back—Draymond Green. The NBA twitter hive mind usually runs like this:

The problem is it’s patently false. In today’s NBA fandom, it’s easier to judge a player by their most memorable twitter highlights which are five to nine seconds snippets of someone getting posterized or embarrassed rather than seeing the entirety of a game. Due to Utah’s lack of spacing and outside shooters, Rudy Gobert’s weaknesses are magnified 10,000x in the playoffs due to great scouting and the Jazz’s limited toolbox of shooters and playmakers.

There’s also the BIG issue that defense continues to be criminally under-appreciated in the league. Despite Rudy Gobert being voted by his NBA peers as the NBA’s best defender AND by the media two years in a row, his once in a generation defensive gifts get talked about less than Carmelo Anthony’s offseason workout videos. A solid defensive possession that results in no points for an opposing team without a big highlight doesn’t exactly trend on Social Media.

Despite Rudy Gobert’s strong defense, many ignorant folks like to point that Rudy Gobert is a limited player because he doesn’t have a back to the basket game—as if the year is 1999 and not 2019. They assumption is Gobert doesn’t take midrange shots or post players up so he must suck at being good at basketball. There’s some problems with that line of thinking, but those arguments get larger when on the big stage and Gobert’s team is overmatched talent-wise because of roster balance.

Let’s talk about Rudy Gobert’s real impact on the game then get into whether he was “played off the court in the playoffs” like every idiotic twitter troll LOVES to tweet.

Rudy Gobert is the catalyst for all of Utah’s offense

Dennis Lindsey likes to refer to Rudy Gobert’s screening like “the trigger on a gun.” Tim McMahon for ESPN.com wrote about that impact:

The Jazz initiate so much of their offense off of Gobert picks, whether it’s pick-and-roll action with their playmakers or off-ball screens to free 3-point sharpshooters Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver. According to Second Spectrum data, Gobert has set a league-high 3,309 screens this season, and no other player comes within 500 picks of that number.

This is where every twitter troll loves to pop in and say that any big bodied guy can set a screen, and you’d be wrong. It requires so much strength to seal off players on the perimeter. Donovan Mitchell acted as the ball-handler in pick and roll situations for 857 possessions. Now not all those possessions were screens set by Rudy Gobert, but think that the opposing team’s best defender is usually put on Donovan Mitchell. Think how many times Donovan Mitchell got “free” from his defender in these situations. That’s the Rudy Gobert effect. He makes life so much easier for offensive players. It’s why players like Joe Ingles somehow become improved pick and roll players in Utah.

Donovan Mitchell told ESPN.com that Rudy’s offense isn’t just limited to being the trigger on Utah’s offensive system, it’s because Rudy Gobert is an insane threat as the roller on a pick and roll.

“He’s one of the most dynamic rollers in the league, if not the most dynamic roller,” said Mitchell, who had 25 points and five assists in the victory over the Hornets. “A lot of it is just making that lob a threat. That goes a long way.”

Donovan Mitchell is right. As a roll man, Rudy Gobert averaged ~1.33 points per possession. To put that in perspective, a player would have to shoot 45% from three in order for it to be a more efficient shot than Rudy Gobert’s shot as a roller in the pick and roll. It’s why you’d see Joe Ingles somehow beat his much quicker man in the pick and roll. His man was worried about Rudy Gobert as the roll man and so what’s Rudy Gobert’s defender that they drop the ball defending Joe.

That super efficient shot near the rim also creates an insane amount of gravity. Most assume spacing is created solely by superb three point shooters, but that’s oversimplifying a complex equation. Just as three point shooting is necessary to spacing, so are efficient roll men. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago when explaining “What Is Spacing?” where I mentioned a quote from Model 284:

How do we account for DeAndre Jordan, who doesn’t catch the ball outside very often? To capture the finisher at the rim, we look at scoring less than 5 feet from the hoop (minus drives). The idea behind this is to capture the inside presence that draws help defenders down low, opening the perimeter shooters.

So we have four different types of shooting: Catch and Shoot, Pull-up, Drives, and Shots at the Rim. For each of these statistics, we start at the individual player level and roll up to the lineup level. For Catch and Shoots, Pull-ups, and Drives, we average the frequency with which each player attempts each shot weighted by their usage and adjusted for efficiency, resulting in a lineup-level measure for each of the aforementioned types of shots. Next, we scale these lineup level estimates for each shot type and return a standard deviation.

With shots from less than 5 feet, we take the maximum frequency-adjusted percentage among the individual players in the lineup. This should theoretically give us an indication of the effectiveness of our center. For reference, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela would all be tops in this category.

Rudy Gobert is necessary for running a modern NBA offense and he is an elite offensive player in the NBA at what he does. Yes, elite. He can collapse a defense by his presence on the offensive end. Utah has now added shooters to take care of that, but last season that wasn’t a luxury Gobert was afforded.

What makes Rudy Gobert an elite defensive player

Every year we have to review why Rudy Gobert isn’t just a really good defensive player at center, but the best defensive player. End of sentence. It is partly a result of defense being criminally overlooked and there being difficult ways other than just watching film of how opposing offenses just breakdown with Rudy Gobert collapsing space.

Often Rudy Gobert is blamed for bad spacing because he “can’t stretch the floor,” but the truth is Rudy Gobert is being blamed for that issue on the wrong end of the floor. He should be blamed for an opponent’s bad spacing in their offensive sets. Rudy Gobert can absolutely shrink a floor. That’s the difference between Rudy Gobert being a great defensive center and being the best defensive player in the NBA. Spacing in the NBA is oxygen, and Rudy Gobert’s defensive ability can burn it out with just his mere presence on the floor.

Zach Lowe explained this floor shrinking phenomenon when he picked Rudy Gobert as the most deserving of Defensive Player of the Year:

On those possessions when Gobert doesn’t directly challenge shots, he still defines what kinds of shots opponents get. He is a one-man defensive architecture. (Embiid is, too.) Because of Gobert, Utah allows the fifth-lowest share of shots at the basket -- and that understates his impact, since that share plummets when Gobert is on the floor. Because of Gobert, perimeter defenders can stick to shooters; Utah allows the lowest share of opponent 3s.

When one looks at Utah’s opponents’ on-off stats with Rudy Gobert and without Rudy Gobert, you would expect Utah’s opponent shooting at the rim to increase when he leaves the floor, but you wouldn’t expect their three point shooting to also increase when he leaves the floor. Opponents shoot 2.1% better from three when Rudy Gobert is off the court. That’s a 0.063 point increase per shot. The spacing on the floor is greater without Rudy Gobert on the floor. Utah’s defense has to collapse more when Gobert isn’t out there which opens more lanes for cutters and more chaos opens more open catch and shoot opportunities for three point shooters.

“Rudy Gobert can’t play in the playoffs”

All of this is to bring us to the series where this fallacy got its legs. This myth comes in many forms: “PJ Tucker played Rudy Gobert off the court,” “Rudy Gobert is an offensive liability once playoff time rolls around,” or “Rudy Gobert can’t stay on the floor in the playoffs.” They’re all the same. It stems from the first two games of the Houston Rockets vs Utah Jazz game where the Utah Jazz played Houston so insanely that they were dragged online, on tv, and in every sports bar around the country for it. It stemmed from this highlight that got played everywhere:

It made Utah the butt of every joke. Utah had gone absolutely mad scientist with their defense without a Frankenstein monster to show for it. Stephen A Smith roasted Utah. Scott Van Pelt dragged Quin Snyder’s stupid decision. Zach Lowe said James Harden had the Jazz shook. As Utah’s punishing defense was getting torched to shreds, Rudy Gobert took the main brunt of the blame. How could a Defensive Player of the Year allow such nonsense to happen? That’s where it’s important to look back to Zach Lowe’s piece about James Harden tearing up Utah’s defense. He says one very important thing that shouldn’t be forgotten:

But every Jazz player has screwed up parts of Utah’s revamped scheme. That can happen when you defend in one style for 82 games, and overhaul it for a single playoff series. ... Utah’s players now find themselves in unfamiliar positions, with unfamiliar responsibilities. Houston compounds the confusion by shifting the chess pieces around. ... It is tempting to say Utah should abandon the “force Harden right” gimmick and defend him straight up.

And that’s the important thing, it was tempting. Even us here called for Utah to abandon it. Rudy Gobert was getting overextended play after play:

It was so easy to make jokes about this offense that we didn’t realize that Gobert was actually doing his job with this game plan. The problem was Rubio wasn’t switching on the open shooter as he was trailing in time to execute this HIGH STAKES switch with the best offensive player in the game.

Look at Houston’s numbers at the series progressed:

If you’d like to see it in table form.

Stats via Cleaning the Glass

Utah figured out something. Defensive possessions increasingly looked like this:

For those saying, well, that’s because Rudy Gobert played less ... well ... you may be disappointed.

Rudy Gobert MPG Playoffs

Minutes Per Game Total Minutes Available Percentage of Minutes Available Played
Minutes Per Game Total Minutes Available Percentage of Minutes Available Played
33:42:00 48:00:00 70.21%
31:11:00 48:00:00 64.97%
32:57:00 48:00:00 68.65%
23:47:00 48:00:00 49.55%
30:25:00 48:00:00 63.37%
152:02:00 240:00:00 63.35%
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com

For reference, Rudy Gobert played 66% of all available minutes per game during the regular season. The only thing that throws this off is he was in foul trouble in Game 4. The problem is the narrative for many is that is why Utah won. Unfortunately, that, too, is incorrect. Utah lost because they couldn’t make shots.

The other part of this silly myth is Rudy Gobert struggled offensively. That part is true, but it goes back to why Utah lost in the first place. Utah couldn’t hit open shots. Just look at Utah’s shooting as the series progressed.

Stats via Cleaning the Glass

If you look at the film, it appears that Rudy Gobert is struggling offensively, but during the playoffs, Rudy Gobert shot 73% at the rim per Cleaning the Glass. Take a look at that chart, where’s a better shot on the floor for Utah? You can’t find it. For all the talk of Rudy Gobert was terrible offensively, Rudy Gobert was doing EXACTLY what Gobert is supposed to do. Finish at an insanely high percentage at the rim. The problem—JUST LIKE THE DEFENSIVE SCHEME IN GAMES 1 AND 2—was that the rest of the game plan fell through. Utah got open look after open look. In Game 5, Utah shot 24.3% from three, and only lost by seven points while playing on the road in an elimination game. That’s insanity.

There will be those that point to Net Rating in the playoffs that the Utah Jazz were better when Rudy was off the court than on. Want to know who the only players in the Jazz’s series against Utah were who made Utah better when they were on the court rather than off? Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale. While both can be defensive pests, I dare you to find any educated NBA scout, coach, or executive who believes that those two players are better or more impactful than Rudy Gobert. If anything the numbers show where defensive pressure was applied—on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert—and not applied—literally everyone not named Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. That’s where small sample size Net Rating can get you. In a small sample size, it basically shows who won/lost a game and where an opposing gameplan’s focus was.

Rudy Gobert wasn’t played off the floor by PJ Tucker or by the Houston Rockets, he was played off the floor by his teammates not making the correct rotations or not hitting open shots. That’s why Utah went after Mike Conley who shot 45% from the corner three position—good for 88th percentile. That’s why Utah went after Bojan Bogdanovic who shot 52% from the corner three position—good for 98th(!!!) percentile in the NBA.

Rudy Gobert will never be “played off the floor” again because he has teammates who will capitalize on his elite ability to open up the perimeter by his rolling gravity to the rim. Next offseason when the Utah Jazz thrive in the playoffs, there will inevitably be pundits who say, “Rudy Gobert improved his game so that he could stay on the floor during the playoffs.” They will be wrong. Rudy Gobert will still be the same elite defensive and offensive player. He will just finally have more elite teammates.

Stop saying Rudy Gobert was played off the court in the playoffs, it just flat out isn’t true.