Image Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but a lot can change in just a few months’ time in the NBA. Throughout ‘The Association,’ teams can end their seasons on sour notes and turn into contenders seemingly overnight. Inversely, others regarded as elite can become bottom-dwellers by the time October basketball rolls around. While the season is still young and there’s plenty of hoops left to be played, the Utah Jazz is a team attempting to avoid being the latter. Before we touch on this year’s Jazz team and where Gobert fits in, let’s relive the previous season in Salt Lake City.
2017-18 was a whirlwind for Utah. Starting the season 19-28 and missing shot-blocking center Rudy Gobert for a lot of that stretch, the campaign appeared to be all doom and gloom. Once Gobert returned, though, something changed. In conjunction with then-rookie Donovan Mitchell’s rise to stardom, Gobert’s return sparked a 29-5 Jazz run to end the season.
Heading into the playoffs as the five-seed and upsetting the Oklahoma City Thunder before losing to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, Quin Snyder’s players had many reasons to hold their heads high after a good season with hopes of a bright future. More so than anyone, this was true for Gobert, who had won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the first time.
Fast forward two-thirds of a year later, and the Jazz are 17-18. This record puts the team in 11th place in the super competitive Wes3tern Conference, but still just six games out of first place. Remarkably, Utah has never been more than three games below .500 or two games above .500 all season.
The 21st-ranked offensive team and 6th-ranked defensive team by OFF rating and DEF rating this year, this is a clear (yet not huge) regression from being 16th and 1st in the same categories a year ago. Utah didn’t have a very eventful offseason that would have caused such a change. So… what’s the problem?
There isn’t just one answer. While the Jazz have certainly gotten a bit worse on both ends of the floor this year as a team, it’s largely due to individual players’ shots simply not falling like they did in 2017-18. Donovan Mitchell has been a slightly worse version of his ROY runner-up self, seeing his field goal and three-point percentages drop three percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. For point guard Ricky Rubio, those figures are 1.8 and 1.2. For sharpshooter Joe Ingles, they’re 1.6 and 5.3. While the defense remains elite in Utah, its “bread and butter” has been a lot more bread than butter thus far.
Gobert remains one of the only players on the Jazz roster that has failed to regress completely. While his defensive rating is the worst of his career, it’s still good for fifth among centers with at least 20 MPG played. A block percentage of 60.5% puts him fourth in the same group. Do these numbers scream “he deserves another DPOY award” or “Gobert’s still the best defensive player in the league”? No. However, looking at his splits in Utah’s wins and losses tell a bigger story.
In 18 Jazz losses this season, Rudy Gobert is averaging 1.4 blocks per game. That figure would easily be the lowest of his career as a starter. In those games, Utah posts a defensive rating of 111.2. That would qualify for the 26th-ranked overall DRTG this season. It is clear that when Gobert doesn’t bring his A-game as a lockdown defender, the team suffers immensely.
On the contrary, when Gobert is locked in on defense, Utah is phenomenal. In 17 wins, he’s averaging 2.9 blocks per game. That would not only be a career-high for the 26-year-old center, but it would tie Myles Turner for the NBA lead this year. The Jazz have a defensive rating of 98.6 in their wins, which would be the only double-digit DRTG in the entire league overall.
We’ve touched on defense. When Gobert is at the top of his game, Utah is unstoppable defensively. What sets the 2018-19 version of Gobert apart from his 2017-18 counterpart, though, is his offensive improvement. While it may not seem like a huge deal, the slight tweaks Gobert has made to his game have allowed him to be one of the very few members of the Jazz to increase both his efficiency and PPG averages.
On less than a full shot more per game, the French-born center has raised his scoring average from 13.5 a year ago to nearly 15 points now. Leading the league in both field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage, Gobert has been a model of efficiency for all centers throughout all 30 teams. While he still refuses to expand his game to beyond the three-point arc and remains a poor free throw shooter, converting on more than 65% of his attempts from the field will suffice.
Back to wins and losses:
It’s not night and day, but the importance of Gobert’s level of engagement on the offensive end is evident. Scoring three more points per game on just .6 more shots per game and converting on nearly 70% of his field goal attempts, the former first-round pick elevates Utah’s offensive game as a whole when he elevates his own. A team ORTG difference of 14.7 in wins compared to losses further proves that. Averaging a career-high assist percentage, Gobert has also become more involved in facilitating for his teammates, despite their regression from the field.
We just went over a ton of information in a short period of time. It’s a lot to digest. To put it briefly, Rudy Gobert has been the most consistent player for the Utah Jazz this season. His value to the team has never been more apparent than it is right now.
At his worst, he’s a 61% shooter that can give you 13 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game with very good defense. At his best, he gives you 16/13, puts nearly 70% of his shots in the basket, is arguably the best defender in the league and completely changes the identity of Utah on both ends of the floor. 35 games into a Jazz season that has been marred by inefficiency and inconsistency, Quin Snyder and company have to be thanking their lucky stars Gobert has continued to progress as a player. The team goes as Gobert goes, which could either prove to be risky or pay off big moving forward.