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Rudy Gobert: The Best Center in the NBA

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An in-depth look at what puts The Stifle Tower head and shoulders above other NBA big men.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, I felt confident in saying that Rudy Gobert was easily a top 5 center in the NBA. 25~ games into the NBA season, I now feel confident in saying that our very own French Rejection is the cream of the crop among NBA centers.

Using Basketball-Reference.com, I looked at all the players listed as C, C/F, and F/C who had qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard. That list was 61 players long, so I decided to only include the players who had played at least 600 minutes so far this season (gotta be on the court to be the best), and the list shrunk to 21 players. Pau Gasol barely made the cut here (603 minutes played), while Jonas Valanciunas, Frank Kaminsky, and Brook Lopez barely missed the cut - as well as a few starters like Jusuf Nurkic, Timofey Mosgov, Omer Asik, etc who have started 18+ games each but don’t play many minutes per game.

21 players was still too many to look at, so I narrowed the field again by only including players who had at least 2 win shares on the season (the best players help their team win games). Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Marcin Gortat squeaking in with exactly 2 win shares each while a few other players fell off the list. The field of players was lowered to 16. Getting there, but still not quite down to the best of the best. I chose to include one last stipulation, and got rid of any player who didn’t have a Box Plus/Minus of at least 3 (the best players produce at a high level). This left us with 5 players: Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, and Andre Drummond.

For the sake of fairness, I’m going to make an exception for a couple of players who are commonly considered to be some of the best players at the position, or who are considered young, up-and-coming players who will take the league by storm. DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, and Karl Anthony-Towns bring our list of players to 8.

We’ll take a look at how those players stack up against each other in both simple and advanced metrics, including things like real plus/minus, ORtg, DRtg, TS%, WS/48, rim protection, etc.

First off, let’s get the simple stats out of the way. I looked at the overall production from each of these players in all major statistical categories: Points, Rebounds, Assists, Blocks, Steals, Turnovers, FG%, and FT% (raw, per-game numbers - which actually handicaps Gobert, as the Jazz play at the league’s slowest pace).

Gobert leads in blocks, turnovers, and FG%, and has an average rank of 4 across all categories.

Anthony Davis ranks 1st in points, blocks, steals, and FT%, and has an average rank of 3 across all categories.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t lead any categories, and has an average rank of 4.88 across all categories.

Marc Gasol ranks 1st in assists and has an average rank of 4.25.

Andre Drummond leads no categories and has an average rank of 4.63.

DeAndre Jordan is tied with Gobert for the #1 rank in turnovers, and has an average ranking of 5 across all categories.

Hassan Whiteside ranks #1 in rebounds and has an average rank of 4.5 across all categories.

Karl Anthony-Towns leads no categories and has an average rank of 5 across all categories.

Based on purely per game production, it would appear that Anthony Davis is the top F/C, with Gobert close behind, followed by Gasol. This group of players is rather tightly grouped based on the raw numbers, though. In order to get a more in-depth understanding of the impact each of these players has, we’ll need to look past surface-level numbers.

When it comes to rim protection, Gobert has a significant edge among this group. So far this season, he is holding opponents to 42% at the rim on 11.2 attempts per game (attempts per game = number of at-the-rim shots per game contested by the player), good for 3rd in the NBA. Whiteside is 2nd in our group of centers, at 45.1% on 9.7 attempts per game, with DeAndre Jordan just a hair behind him at 45.7% on 6.8 attempts per game. Anthony Davis is next, allowing 46.9% on 7.3 attempts per game, followed by Cousins at 48.8% on 7.2 attempts per game, Marc Gasol at 49.3% on 6.3 attempts per game, and then Karl Anthony-Towns at 50.3% on 6.5 attempts per game. Andre Drummond, supposedly a defensive monster, allows 53% at the rim on 7.9 attempts per game.

This means that Gobert is contesting more shots than anyone else in our group, while holding opponents to the lowest field goal percentage. In fact, Gobert contests more shots at the rim than any player in the nba this season, per nba.com. Robin Lopez is 2nd at 11 per game, and Whiteside is 3rd with his 9.7 per game. Gobert’s defensive presence and impact is monumental.

The Jazz as a team boast the league’s 5th-best FG% allowed at the rim. The next highest team that includes on of the players on our list? The Pistons, at 8th best - and based on Drummond’s bad rim protection numbers, it is certainly in spite of him, not because of him.

The Jazz also have the league’s 5th best defensive rating this season, at 101.3, despite being constantly depleted with injuries (see Amar’s post about the Jazz missing just under 3 rotation players per game, on average, this season). To be fair, the Grizzlies, Clippers, and Pistons are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively. But none of those teams have dealt with the level of injuries the Jazz have faced so far. I imagine that Utah’s DRtg will climb as they get healthier.

The NBA has started tracking the “player overall diff%”, which is described as such by nba.com: The difference between the normal field goal percentage of a shooter throughout the season and the field goal percentage when the defensive player is guarding the shooter. A good defensive number will be negative because the defensive player holds his opponent to a lower field goal percentage than normal.

Guess which player in our group has defended the most field goal attempts? Rudy Gobert, at 381. Guess which player in our group has the best FG% differential? Rudy Gobert, at -5.6%. For comparison, DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside have 332 and 327 FGA defended, respectively, and have FG% differentials of -1.9% and -1.8%, respectively. Once again, Gobert is defending and contesting more than anyone else, and is still the most productive and has the most significant impact. The Jazz, as a team, have the 2nd-best FG% differential, at -1.6%.

Gobzilla has the highest WS/48 at .249 (next highest is Davis at .230, then a huge drop-off to DeAndre Jordan with WS/48 of .193), the best defensive real plus/minus in the group (4th best overall real plus/minus), and the most win shares despite playing fewer minutes than all but 2 of his counterparts in this group. Rudy has the highest TS% by a long shot and has a ridiculous FTr of .953 - next highest is DeAndre Jordan at .685. Rudy currently has a silly ORtg of 131 with a DRtg of 98. That ORtg is tops in the group by a mile, and his DRtg is 2nd only to Andre Drummond - who doesn’t appear to be defending well this year based on all the other metrics and stats I’ve been able to dig up. So that one is a mystery to me.

Gobert may not use up a lot of offensive possessions. He won’t take 15+ shots a game and score 25 or 30 a night for an entire season. He doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the guys who track stats at NBA games (*cough cough* Anthony Davis’ inflated block numbers *cough cough*). He won’t ever be a #1 option on the offensive side of the ball.

What he will give you is elite defense - the closest thing to a defensive #1 option the NBA has seen in recent memory. He’ll give you the best rim protection and shot blocking in the NBA. He’ll give you 100% effort. And while he’s busy being the best damn defender in the league, he’ll also throw in enough hyper-efficient shots a game to frustrate defenses. He’ll give you enough 2nd chances on offensive rebounds that opposing coaches will waste timeouts. He’ll finish through contact. And if you decide to foul him, he’ll hit his free throws often enough that it won’t be a good strategy for you in the long run.

Gobert won’t give you sexy, eye-popping offensive production. But he will win the hell out of some basketball games for you. And in the end, aren’t wins all that matter? I’ll take 12/12/3 with efficient shooting and a W over Cousins and his 28/11/2 and a loss.