Nobody will doubt Rudy Gobert’s defensive prowess entering 2019-20. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year anchored the NBA’s No. 2 defense last year while swatting 187 shots, the second-most in basketball. No player has blocked more shots in the last two seasons. Only Andre Drummond has generated more defensive win shares. The Stifle Tower is certainly an apt nickname for the 7’1” Frenchman.
Gobert’s defensive dominance has gone far from unnoticed, though his offensive development last year may be the biggest reason for optimism in Salt Lake City entering 2019-20. Gobert led the NBA with a 66.9 field goal percentage last year, and he tallied a career-high 15.9 points per game. Utah posted a 33–12 record once the calendar turned to 2019, registering a 114.8 offensive rating (fourth in the league). Such an ascent wouldn't be possible with the Gobert of years prior.
The scoring stats don’t tell the full story of Gobert’s offensive impact. He absolutely pummeled teams as a screener last season, generating a league-best 1,107 points via screen assist, per NBA data. By comparison, the league’s No. 2 screener was the Nets’ Jarrett Allen, who generated just 871 points via screens. Gobert’s physicality initiating the pick-and-roll is unmatched.
Gobert didn’t necessarily thrive next to Donovan Mitchell in the duo’s first year in 2017-18. The Louisville product averaged a better offensive rating with five different teammates before Gobert, as the two scored a meager 107.3 points per 100 possessions. The growing pains were typical for a developing center and a rookie guard. Mitchell had trouble deciphering whether to throw a lob or bounce pass. Gobert slipped screens too early. The early struggles produced an offensive slog as Utah finished 2017-18 with a below average offense despite the league’s eighth-best record.
Mitchell and Gobert quickly found their groove last season. The duo led Utah with 111.8 points per 100 possessions, and Gobert finished second in the league with 367 points as a roll man. Gobert’s 70.9% effective field goal percentage as a roller ranked sixth in the NBA last season. His 1.35 points per possession ranked fourth. Another year of growth from Mitchell paid major dividends, with crisper lobs and decisive dives to the tin. Utah will hope to milk Mitchell and Gobert’s two-man game for the next decade.
It’s not just Mitchell who will dance with Gobert this season. The Jazz acquired former Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in June, adding another dynamic piece alongside Mitchell. It’s not inconceivable for the deal to swing the Western Conference. Ricky Rubio’s efficiency dropped across the board in 2018-19, with his shortcomings increasingly highlighted in the postseason. Teams sagged off Rubio to double Gobert. The pair were outscored by 11.7 points per 100 possessions in five games against Houston in the playoffs, hamstrung by a putrid 102.3 offensive rating. Conley is a completely different point guard.
The former Memphis stalwart carried his greatest offensive burden of his career last season with a 27.3 usage rate and 21.1 points per game, both career highs. But the increased volume didn’t resulted in a sacrificed efficiency. Conley’s 50.7 effective field goal percentage last season was the second-best of his career, as was his 56.9 true shooting percentage. Conley shined despite an undermanned supporting cast.
Conley paired with Marc Gasol for 11 years in Memphis, and the pairing formed one of the West’s most underrated offensive duos over the last decade. Conley snaked in-and-out of Gasol picks, and the Spanish center was a master at making the extra pass as a roll man. Gasol is a markedly more cerebral player than Gobert on the offensive end, though Gobert’s vertical extension should open new avenues for Conley. Expect a jump from his 0.96 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season.
Utah’s personnel advancement didn’t generate the same headlines as Houston or either Los Angeles team, though the roster’s improvement entering 2019-20 could land Dennis Lindsey the Executive of the Year. Conley is a large upgrade over Rubio and Bojan Bogdanovic adds some extra potency on the wing. Yet Utah’s run to the Finals could hinge on their returning dynamic duo. Gobert made a true offensive leap last season. Improvement in 2019-20 could win Utah the Western Conference.