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The Jazz currently find themselves tied 2–2 against a Clippers team that finished the regular season third in offensive rating. Their attack has been even more efficient in the playoffs: Through 11 games, the Clippers have generated 121.5 points per possession; in the second round that number has leapt to an unconscionable 124.7.
A quick look at those numbers, plus the realization that Los Angeles’s most common lineup (by far) has a 6' 8" wing at center, might lead you to assume that Rudy Gobert is struggling to mirror his regular-season dominance in this series.
Despite how much he’s celebrated—last week, Gobert became the fourth player in NBA history to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards—the same qualities that make him a force tend to spin around in the postseason when confronting offenses that have time to game-plan for his ostensible rigidity. Their goal is to either draw him outside the paint or punish him for staying inside it by flooding the court with as much shooting as they can. Drive and kick and drive and kick until something pops.
But so far, Gobert’s imperfections have yet to become a concern. The Jazz have been fine on defense when he’s on the floor, especially versus the Clippers’ center-less starting five. Utah’s defensive rating in Gobert’s 36 minutes facing that unit is 108.2—aka somewhere between what the Pistons and Timberwolves were able to score this season. Plays like the one below, where Gobert is caught scrambling against a drive-kick, drive-kick, drive-kick flow have been few and far between.
“You can tell they’re scheming for him,” Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen told me over the weekend. “But the confidence I have, regardless if they go small, [is in] how much area he can cover.”
Watching this series unfold, several questions come to mind when thinking about Gobert’s defense, both against the Clippers and in an NBA that’s increasingly decided by bucket getters. It might be too much to ask what Defensive Player of the Year even means, specifically for Gobert, as the league accelerates its perimeter-oriented obsession. It’s also worth asking how today’s version of Gobert is different from the one who first established himself as one of basketball’s most important defenders five years ago.
Gobert is not perfect, but his steady improvement in an offense-everything league that’s chewed up and spit out the exact archetype he’s long embodied is as meaningful as it is hard to parse.
In 2017 when he first cracked the All-Defensive team, Rudy’s initial taste of the postseason was marred 17 seconds in when he sprained his knee. The Jazz survived, though, after an injured big toe kept Clippers forward Blake Griffin out of Games 4, 5, 6 and 7. The eventual champion Warriors and their all-time assemblage of offensive weapons then swept Utah out of Round 2, with Gobert’s defensive rating ballooning up to 115.7 (or 3.7 points worse than the 30th ranked Lakers and 13.7 points higher than Gobert’s defensive rating during the regular season).
The following year Gobert won his first Defensive Player of the Year trophy and was dominant in a first-round win over MVP Russell Westbrook. What followed was a savage five-game evisceration against James Harden and Chris Paul’s Rockets. Gobert’s defensive rating against the Thunder was 101.4. Against the Rockets, it was 112.1 (a mark that was slightly worse than that regular season’s 30th-ranked defense).
Fair or not, another five-game dice up against the same team one year later helped shape Gobert’s reputation as an exceptional regular-season defender who could be exposed in certain postseason matchups. His defensive rating in that series was 114.3. Then it ballooned to 119.4 inside the bubble where Gobert had to match up against the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić, who went 22-for-46 behind the three-point line on a string of pick-and-pops that Gobert struggled to cover.
Gleaning how Gobert excelled and/or was a liability over the years is difficult from these numbers alone. Still, it’s hard not to watch some of that film and conclude that skilled ballhandlers and stretch bigs can spoil the same recipe that he and the Jazz had so much success with during the regular season. This naturally brings us to why Gobert’s development on that side of the ball matters.
For Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, what’s most noticeable since 2017 has been Gobert’s adaptability in a league that’s always in a state of metamorphosis. “His ability to evolve with the game is something that’s unique,” he said. “Particularly for someone of that size.”
Snyder then compared his franchise center with the NBA’s other defining defensive presence of the last half decade. “Really one of the guys that to me has been—probably unknowingly—impactful on Rudy is Draymond Green, and the way that Draymond is able defensively to control a game from a leadership standpoint. His ability to make multiple plays, his instincts on where to be and what to do, and his communication. That’s something that we’ve really tried to encourage Rudy … to be up on pick-and-roll, to get back and defend the rim, to be able to get out and contest shots, to defend isolation and at the same time don’t forget to protect the rim.”
Statistics make it easier to appreciate annual growth from an offensive player compared with someone whose primary job revolves around getting stops. Are they more accurate on pull-up threes? Is their assist rate climbing? Did their usage rate drop? Are they turning the ball over more or struggling to finish at the basket? There are countless measurements that help illustrate individual maturation with the ball, even if their role/supporting cast/coach has changed.
Those same observations don’t happen on the same scale for defenders, especially when applied to those who are already recognized as excellent. At the same time, it’s also hard to take note (sorry) of how the league changed around Gobert the past five years and not conclude that he’s better because he’s had to be.
“Like anything, as you find yourself in new situations you become more and more comfortable making plays,” Snyder said. “Your instincts improve. It’s really no different than an offensive player.”
In 2017 the league’s three-point rate was 31.8% while 31.9% of all shots were at the rim. This season, the rim rate is down to 29.8%, while 39.2% of all shots are threes. Now consider this: In the ’17 playoffs the rim rate was 32.2%. In these playoffs it’s down to 26.8%, the lowest it’s been since at least ’00. That’s not particularly great when your most elite skill is creating “thought at the rim,” as Snyder once described Gobert’s main duty.
The NBA’s average offensive rating during the 2016–17 regular season was 109.2. This year it was 112.8, when Gobert’s own team finished with the fourth-most efficient offense ever. Nearly half of the Jazz’s shots were threes, and they made 16.7 per game during the regular season (an NBA record).
To win Defensive Player of the Year during a season that yielded, literally, the seven best offenses (and seven of the 20 worst defenses) since 1974 almost feels beside the point. And yet, certain metrics suggest Gobert’s defense reached a new peak. Take defensive real plus-minus as an example. Not only did he rank first (again), but Gobert’s mark more than tripled what it was when he won DPOY in 2018 and ’19.
Look at FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR. Gobert’s 2020–21 score is the best any player has had on record, which goes back to the ’13–14 season. His on/off splits were typically stout, especially when it came to deterring shots at the rim. And opposing shooters were 3.3% less accurate than they otherwise were on threes defended by Gobert—the same difference registered by Ben Simmons, albeit against fewer attempts. (In these playoffs, opponents are a whopping 16..4% less accurate on threes launched over Gobert. Threes currently account for 27.5% of all the shots Gobert defends. Two postseasons ago, that number was 13%.)
“You’d think a big man would be less effective [defensively], but he’s been more effective,” Jensen says. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Gobert echoed Snyder when asked how he sees himself as a defender today versus who he used to be. “I think I’ve improved a lot, obviously. Not just physically but all the things that come with experience,” he said. “And obviously with the way the game has evolved in the last five years … half the teams have a big who can space the floor and like to play small lineups at times. I think it’s been an area where I’ve gotten better and more comfortable, at being able to keep being the presence I am at the rim, and at the same time being able to be aware of what’s going on on the floor, and being able to be better in closeout situations and guarding in space.”
After every game, Jensen pulls a few clips to show Gobert. One thing he likes to highlight is how every time the other team’s star touches the ball they’re aware of where Utah’s center is, that includes Kawhi Leonard (who will miss Game 5 with a knee injury) and Paul George. Here’s what happens when Leonard thinks the 7' 1" Frenchman is stuck to Batum at the top of the key:
And here’s another example from Game X, when Gobert switch-picked up Reggie Jackson, let him tap dance on the perimeter before snuffing out his drive at the rim. (In the second round, 51 players have contested at least five shots at the basket. Only two players have held opponents to a lower shooting percentage than Gobert. Those two players combined to defend 11 shots. Gobert has defended 33.)
But sometimes Gobert’s instincts can be leveraged against him, as was the case on this brilliant play call in Game 4. Instead of actually setting a ball screen for Jackson, Ivica Zubac veers off and sets a flare for Luke Kennard. Jackson hits him for a wide-open three while Gobert is too deep to help.
The question of how high Gobert should be defending pick-and-rolls is not a new one. Should he plant himself near the basket to force midrange jumpers and floaters or be more active high on the floor to bother shooters and not allow any open looks. Matchups obviously factor into the answer, but Gobert’s increasing comfort in both scenarios is what makes him even more intimidating than he used to be.
“I'd say most centers can’t do both. He’s one of the few guys that’s back, but then he still will try to block a shot,” Jensen says. “A lot of the guys that are back try to stunt at the ball or poke at the ball or stay with their man, but he’s back and there’s a lot of times where h’ll jump to block the shot of the guy with the ball. … It’s kind of funny, really, because it’s a discussion w’ve had as a staff over the years, of up [versus] back and it’s kind of like, we’ll just call it ‘Rudy.’ Just be Rudy.”
For some who close their eyes and think of seminal moments throughout Gobert’s playoff career, the scenes are probably peppered with merciless pick-and-rolls that involved Harden’s Rockets or Paul’s Clippers (and Rockets) or Steph Curry’s Warriors, cringy duels that inspired hopelessness and sympathy. The Jazz never abandoned ship, though. Gobert has been a constant, identifiable pillar who stands at the center of everything they want to do on both sides of the ball.
And if they do eventually fall to the Clippers, or the Suns, or even a healthy Nets team, the primary reason why almost definitely won’t have anything to do with Gobert’s defense. That perception should change, if it hasn’t already.
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