Utah’s identity over the past 5 seasons is Rudy Gobert. FULL STOP.
It is not lockdown defense. It is not team over everything. It is not Quin Snyder’s system. It is not In Dennis Lindsey We Trust. It’s Rudy Gobert.
From the time Rudy Gobert was promoted from the then D-League Idaho Stampede to the Utah Jazz, Utah’s identity went from Quin Snyder trying to create an offensive juggernaut to a team centered around their center. They traded away a former #3 pick center in Enes Kanter in favor of Rudy Gobert. They would eventually demote another #3 pick center, Derrick Favors, as a perpetual back up to Rudy Gobert. They would sign and trade for floor spacing fours in Joe Johnson and Jae Crowder to space the floor for Rudy Gobert. Even while Gordon Hayward got all the headlines as Utah’s “star player”, the real star was Rudy Gobert. Gobert was the reason for Utah’s turnaround, success, and identity.
That continued into the 2018-2019 season as Rudy Gobert dominated the NBA. Any speculation that Rudy would have a letdown year after earning Defensive Player of the Year honors was quickly shut out as he led the Utah Jazz to the 2nd best defensive rating in the league and 50 wins. He averaged an Offensive Rating of 133 and a Defensive Rating of 100. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, he averaged +4.5 compared to Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo who had a +2.85.
According to Zach Lowe, Rudy Gobert does more work and impacts the game more defensively night in and night out than any other player.
He challenged about 27 shots per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum; Antetokounmpo and George faced about 15.5 apiece. Few regular-season opponents overhaul their rotation to add the level of shooting that yanks Gobert out of his comfort zone. (Gobert has also looked more spry and at ease against those who have.)
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.
Offensively he averaged 15.9 points and 12.9 rebounds a game, both career highs. He increased his assists per game. He had a league best 66.9% eFG%. He became a lob machine. He has not only shaken the stereotype that he’s a stiff offensively, but now he’s a real weapon. Teams have to account for the lob pass at the rim even if they would drop a guard off of Rubio to disrupt Gobert’s dives into the paint. Despite a crammed paint, Gobert could sky over people for the lob and get to the line. Gobert accrued a total of 522 free throws this season, the highest of his career.
This season was the second year of Rudy Gobert’s extension which is paying huge dividends for Utah. Gobert is on track to win his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award which would put him in rare company. Andy Bailey wrote about this a few months ago.
Sidney Moncrief, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard and Kawhi Leonard are the only players in NBA history who won back-to-back DPOY awards.
Rudy Gobert is on track to become the 10th player to do so. An impressive feat. Rudy Gobert has become a leader in Utah. Demanding excellence on the defensive end and becoming a star on Twitter. An instant must follow for any aspiring Twitter-er.
If Donovan Mitchell is the sizzle, Rudy Gobert is the steak. Donovan Mitchell enjoys the highlights, the paparazzi, and the widespread popularity, but Rudy Gobert is the foundation upon which all of Utah is built on. This past season just confirmed it. Other players like George Hill, Gordon Hayward, and, most recently, Donovan Mitchell have enjoyed the fruits of Rudy Gobert’s labors. His intense screens allow for Utah’s offense to work and his ability to close out on opponents on the perimeter while recover in the paint allow Utah to stay aggressive defensively. He allows his teammates to be the best version of themselves due to his sheer talent.
In the playoffs, Rudy Gobert once again struggled a bit. Some of that is not a fault of his own but the way the NBA has been changing to a five out offense. While Derrick Favors closed a couple games against Houston, Rudy Gobert’s improved ability to guard the perimeter allowed him to close games. Houston tried to go incredibly small with Tucker at the 5 and Utah was able to punish them.
Rudy Gobert’s insane defensive ability also allowed Utah to take away James Harden’s stepback three by unconventionally guarding him from behind. For literally any other team in the league, that would mean giving Harden a wide open lane to the paint, but for Utah that meant giving Harden a wide open lane to Rudy Gobert. Harden had his worst series statistically as he struggled. Unfortunately for Rudy, he couldn’t play 4 other positions and hit the wide open threes that his lob threat gave Utah. If Utah hits just 30% of their threes instead of 20%, we would be talking about the insane 1st round upset of the Houston Rockets.
Outlook for 2019-2020
Rudy Gobert will hit his prime next year as he turns 27. The Utah Jazz have him on contract until 2021. That, coincidentally, is the same summer that Donovan Mitchell’s contract would turn over to what can only be anticipated as a BIG TIME payday for the young phenom. Utah conceivably only has two guaranteed years for a contention window with a prime Rudy Gobert and a young and improving superstar in Donovan Mitchell. Tick, tock.
Rudy Gobert will back in Utah guaranteed, but there are some definite things the Stifle Tower needs to start working on. The first is future proofing his game. Rudy Gobert—and big man in general—start to decline at age 30. Gravity can be a b****. Rudy Gobert’s defensive strengths can be tied to his sheer athleticism. While Rudy Gobert has the body of a Parisian God, nothing gold can stay. There is a precedence for big men learning how to stretch their game out to the three point line. Brook Lopez being the most recent. Most of those big men, however, already had a midrange game, something Rudy Gobert doesn’t have or has been discouraged from using. Rudy Gobert stretching his game out to the three point line would give Utah a lot more comfort when it comes to his impending free agency in 2021.
The very immediate next step is improving his free throw shooting. Rudy Gobert is a 63% free throw shooter. That means out of his 552 free throws he only made 332. He’s a little bit better than a coin flip at the stripe. If he were to improve to 75% from the line, he’d average a point more per game. That would allow Utah’s lob play to become even more of a weapon as teams right now would rather foul Gobert on the lob and send him to the line than the alternative. That would also give Snyder and company more confidence in letting Gobert do work down low and earn a foul.
Another thing that would help Utah is Rudy Gobert working on his passing ability. Part of the reason Derrick Favors saw himself in more late game situations in the playoffs was his ability to find the open man when he was diving to the paint off the screen with the ball. Defenses collapse on Rudy Gobert when he’s rim running and usually they do so without much of a fear of the ball getting swung out after the catch. If he can punish them with the pass, he continues his offensive evolution that began this year with finishing better around the rim.