The Utah Jazz finished the 2020-2021 season with the best record in the NBA. I repeat, the Utah Jazz, for the first time in 23 years, won more games than anyone else in the league this season.
There are a lot of reasons for this. From Donovan Mitchell’s progression as a player into a star, to Mike Conley getting more comfortable running the Jazz system, to Quin Snyder pushing the right buttons through injuries, to Joe Ingles return to greatness. But nothing and no one is more responsible for Utah’s success this season than Rudy Gobert.
As the no-brainer, odds-on favorite to win his 3rd Defensive Player of the Year aware, I don’t think I really need to dig into his defensive metrics much. You Jazz fans know very well just how much his presence changes the entire game of basketball on that end. He just completed the most prolific defensive season in the history of the NBA. Don’t believe me?
IT’S OFFICIAL: Rudy Gobert has set records in 5 different metrics for defensive impact.— Jake Lee (@JakeRexLee) May 17, 2021
Greatest. Defensive. Szn. Of. All. Time. pic.twitter.com/ca5IkHPjhk
He literally broke the record for basically any and all advanced defensive metrics. He’s been absolutely ridiculous this season.
But he’s also been more than the greatest defensive player on this planet.
His value has been that of an MVP in this league. Now, before you get all worked up, no I don’t think Rudy Gobert should be the MVP this year. That’s Nikola Jokic. What I am saying, however, is that Gobert deserves to be in at least the top 5 of voting. And there is a clear historical reason for that.
I went back and looked at the correlation between the team with the best record in the league and how they fared in MVP voting that season. Here’s my a table demonstrating that research:
After going back to the 1990 season, the team with the best record in the NBA has also had the MVP in 19 of the past 31 seasons (61.3%). 26 times the team with the most wins had someone that was at least top 5 in the MVP voting (84%).
That leaves us with just 5 instances in which the league’s best team did NOT have a top 5 MVP candidate from that season. Let’s take a minute to review each of those.
1991, 1994, and 2017: The Split Vote
I’ve classified 3 of these years as the Split Vote conundrum. These are teams that had elite seasons from multiple players on the same roster. These cases include Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, then Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. In each of these cases, these teams had 2 guys finish in the top 10 of voting. Both players probably could have been an MVP on their own right, but because they both had such great seasons voters didn’t coalesce around just 1 of them. This led to both players being left outside of the top 5 in voting, but both in the top 10.
Most recently that was Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Obviously both are legitimate MVP candidates when healthy. When KD joined the Warriors and they continued to roll during that dynasty timeframe, it sometimes became difficult who to really give the most credit for their success. Some leaned one way while others leaned on the other side. So neither got in the top 5 even though both were arguably deserving.
2014: The Sum is Greater than the Parts
The late San Antonio Spurs were amazing to behold at times. As they continued to age, they just never went away. While their individual greatness began to descend, their collective team did not. Tim Duncan won some MVP’s on his own, but by 2014 he was getting up there in age. Tony Parker was a multi-time All Star himself, but again, he was getting old too. So while the Spurs were still insanely good, the individual numbers for these guys weren’t MVP-level anymore.
2002 (and 2012): Not enough games played
Chris Webber was a beast in 2001-2002, helping the Sacramento Kings win a league-best 61 games that season. He averaged a double-double of 24.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, but also added 4.8 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.4 blocks as well. Why wasn’t he in the top 5 of MVP voting? Because he only played in 54 out of the 82 possible games. That was enough for plenty of voters to understandably bump him down their ballots.
The same could actually be said of Derrick Rose in 2012, where I realized later that the Chicago Bulls tied the Spurs for most wins that season. But Rose only played in 39 out of the 66 games that season. So once again, he just missed too much time to justify putting him high on MVP ballots.
The 2021 Utah Jazz?
So what about the Utah Jazz? They are the sole owners of of 52 wins this year, more than anyone else in the league. Historically, that would mean they either had the MVP that season, or at least had someone solidly in the top 5 of voting. At worst they had two that received plenty of votes. But they probably won’t.
Because people love to hate on Rudy Gobert. He’s probably the most misunderstood and undervalued player in the entire NBA right now. Before Donovan Mitchell’s injury, I think enough people may have talked themselves into giving Mitchell some votes to get him into at least the top 10. But then he got hurt. And the Jazz kept winning anyways. And then Mike Conley got hurt. And the Jazz kept winning anyways.
Despite 40 total games missed from their 2 All Stars, the Utah Jazz were able to secure the #1 overall seed headed into the playoffs because Rudy Gobert is that dang good. Look, I get it. He doesn’t score 25+ a game. But’s that’s just what’s crazy, he doesn’t have to in order to take over a game and force his team to victory. I mean, just look at basketball-reference’s leaderboard page and see how many times Gobert finds himself at the top in various statistics:
Both he and assumed MVP Jokic lead 9 distinct statistical categories. And there are others on other sites (as mentioned earlier) that Rudy Gobert was also the lead or in the top 5 on. Such as 538’s RAPTOR (overall, not just defensive) and Bball-Index’s LeBRON.
So while very few in the media will actually get it (thanks John Hollinger), most won’t.
The Jazz have the best record in the league with an entire system built around Rudy Gobert at both ends, @johnhollinger writes.— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) May 17, 2021
“If that isn’t value, then what is?”
Hollinger’s NBA awards ballot and Play-In picks ⤵️https://t.co/PBA1s1S5yS
So let’s just hope the Jazz take the pressure of being #1 overall and finally prove on a national scale just how good their All-NBA center truly is. That he doesn’t get played off the court. That he can ruin an entire team’s offense single-handedly. That he’s a handful to game plan for defensively as well. That he’s not just the Defensive Player of the Year, but that he’s been a bonafide MVP candidate in the 2020-2021 season.