To the Jazz, it’s obvious: he’s the Defensive Player of the Year.
DALLAS — Utah Jazz players know that Rudy Gobert will be there when they screw up on defense, because Rudy Gobert tells them exactly that. When he doesn’t cover their mistakes, they’ll yell at him for breaking his promise — all in good fun, Joe Ingles says, while explaining this phenomenon to me. But they don’t get too many chances.
Ask his teammates, and they marvel at Gobert’s incomparable length that seems to cover the entire paint. Ask Derrick Favors, and he’ll admit that he often thinks, “Rudy just saved my ***,” during games.
Ask Jazz head coach Quinn Synder, and he’ll give a 90-second case for Rudy Gobert as Defensive Player of the Year.
“Objectively, Rudy’s the guy,” Synder tells SB Nation.
You know what? He might be right.
The Defensive Player of the Year award has been muddied this year. The past two winners aren’t true candidates: Kawhi Leonard has missed nearly all of the season and Draymond Green hasn’t played up to his normal standards. A dark horse candidate, Andre Roberson, suffered a season-ending injury halfway through the year. Kevin Durant and Paul George have been propped up by flashes of brilliance more than consistency. Joel Embiid has been sensational, but he plays less than many his peers.
Then there’s Gobert, who’s had 11-game and 15-game absences with injuries this season. If not for that, this award would like be locked up already — it would be hard to argue that anyone has been more outstanding than a healthy Gobert. But even his biggest apologists can admit those absences hurt him.
“If he played 20 more games, he would have more impact, because he’s playing more,” Synder admits before a game against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday.
But Synder continues: “In baseball, they have an at bats limitation. We don’t have that. So until we get that, it’s subjective. When you talk about subjectivity, whether it’s blocks or whatnot ... look at the team. Look at what the team does when he’s around.”
We can do that.
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In an era of offensive explosion, it’s staggering what the Utah Jazz have done since Gobert’s second return. Since re-entering the lineup on Jan. 19, the Jazz have played 28 games and won 23 of them, all while holding teams to 96.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s a 5.9-point advantage over the second-best team during this span — which is the same difference between the No. 2 team and the No. 18 team.
“If you look at efficiency rating, which is empirically what we look at to see how a team’s playing defensively, it’s directly attributable to your wins and losses on the court,” Synder says. “If he gets 10 blocks, that’s great, but our [defensive] efficiency is 90, then the probability of us winning is probably about 90, too. And that’s Rudy.”
We credit this impact to Gobert because we know how bad Utah was without him. From Nov. 11 to Jan. 18 — which includes six games Gobert played at less than 100 percent, sandwiched by his two absences — the Jazz allowed 107.3 points per 100 possessions defensively. That’s about league average, and nowhere near the huge lead that Utah has possessed since his return.
“It starts out when you watch Rudy play. You see him and his effectiveness, but you almost have to watch what players do when he’s not there,” Synder says.
The other stats check out, too. Gobert’s 2.4 blocks per game would be second in the league, if he qualified. With Gobert defending, opposing players shoot about 58 percent within five feet of the rim. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus — a stat that attempts to measure impact while accounting for teammates and opponents — is plus-5.46, best in the league.
Gobert’s real value, though, comes from what he prevents offenses from doing. That 58 percent field goal percentage against near the rim is good, but not spectacular. The best centers this season are allowing just 51 or 52 percent of shots like that to go in.
But in many instances, teams have stopped challenging Gobert altogether. His percentage is higher because many players driving to the rim won’t even bother attempting the difficult layups over him that they’d try and miss against anyone else.
The stats bear that out. Since Gobert’s last return, no team allows fewer field goals attempts in the restricted area than Utah. Only one team allows more field goals attempts in the non-restricted area portion of the paint, indicating how many opposing players pull up short of the rim.
“You can’t really get anything going at the rim back there, because he’s going to contest every shot,” Derrick Favors tells me.
Another benefit: Gobert under the rim means Utah’s perimeter defenders can stay home on three-point shooters. This is especially true for the corner three-pointer, which is statistically the most valuable shot in the NBA other than a layup. Since Gobert’s return, Utah is allowing just 4.4 corner three-point attempts per game, best in the league. Only three other teams allow fewer than five.
If you don’t allow opponents to take good shots, it should be no surprise that they struggle to score.
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We’ve admittedly honed in on a slice of Utah’s season — 28 total games since Gobert’s been back — when we only look at the Jazz since Gobert’s return. They’ve been incredible in that slice (including 21 wins in 23 tries at one point!), and Gobert’s the biggest reason for that. But Defensive Player of the Year awards, of course, aren’t handed out for 28 games alone.
Still, this same effect happened during Gobert’s start to the season and even in his brief six game return from injury, though not to quite as much of an extreme. You can find similar metrics from past seasons, although again, these past 28 games have been more pronounced.
There are also signs recently that Utah’s abnormally good defense is unsustainable at this level. The lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks dropped 112 on them Thursday night thanks to hot three-point shooting. Opponents have hit jumpers at rates a bit lower than expected over the past two months, even given Utah’s favorable shot distribution, and those numbers may balance themselves out.
Still, the argument for Gobert winning Defensive Player of the Year is that his impact is so much greater than other defenders that it still eclipses someone playing two-thirds of the year. It helps that Embiid, who many see as his top challenger, isn’t averaging 36 minutes per night or playing 80 games.
To those around Gobert, though, this is an easy decision. He’s the Defensive Player of the Year by a wide margin.
“I won’t even say that I’m biased,” Synder says. “I’m with him every day, so I see more, but it’s not a bias. It’s clear based on what you see our team doing when he’s there.”
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