2017-18 Rewind: Rudy Gobert Remains Utah’s Spiritual Leader & Ace in the Hole

June 18th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Rudy’s still the Jazz’s spiritual leader. (Melissa Marjchrzak via utahjazz.com)

Early in the second quarter of an April game against the Golden State Warriors, with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year coming straight at him, Rudy Gobert had another one of those moments.

Of the thousand little instants from the 2017-18 season that display Gobert’s unique value, this one wasn’t even especially highlight-worthy. It would be easy to miss just how remarkable a play it was, requiring a blend of physical tools, intuitive mental awareness and of course competitive motor that few players possess in quite the same proportions as Gobert.

The Jazz were already well on their way to their 48th win of the year, up 22 points on the eventual champs. That’s when Draymond Green found a seam and tried to attack the primary challenger to his DPOY throne. Derrick Favors had left Green for a planned trap on Kevin Durant, who was posting up at the elbow, so the versatile Warrior cut down the lane and received the pass. Gobert came over to challenge him, so Green flipped the pass over his shoulder to a waiting Kevon Looney.

Gobert had stepped into Green’s driving lane without committing too hard, so he was still able to recover to challenge the shot. Looney changed his release when he saw Gobert coming, but that infamous 9-foot-7 standing reach allowed Utah’s paint protector to get a fingertip on the shot attempt.

Gobert might be the best player in the league at holding two guys in check while the rest of his team’s defense shifts and then recovers. His combination of length, mobility and desire allows him to guard multiple guys, and that in turn enables four other Jazz players to defend aggressively without giving away the house.

“He’s one of the best at protecting the rim, and that helps me a lot,” Gobert’s teammate Ricky Rubio said at the close of the club’s postseason. “He covers my mistakes when I gamble a little bit.”

Truth is, it helps everybody a lot. It’s why Gobert is a finalist (and favorite) to be named the league’s top defender at next Monday’s year-end awards ceremony. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Gobert is exclusively a defensive weapon. He’s also an elite pick-and-roll finisher, an underrated passer and a deadly screener.

And that’s hardly all. Because the moment that most aptly sums up Gobert’s value to (and role on) the Utah Jazz wasn’t the one where Green came slicing down the lane. In fact, the defining moment of Gobert’s season didn’t happen on the court at all.

“Fine” indeed

Gobert didn’t play in the Jazz’s January 5th loss to Denver. His second knee injury in as many months confined the All-NBA center to the sideline for that Mile High showdown. Utah hung close through the first half, but the Nuggets blew the game open with a 38-16 third quarter. Despite trying to fight back back in the final frame, the Jazz ultimately suffered their twelfth loss in 15 games.

Shortly after the buzzer sounded on Utah’s 99-91 loss, their star player took to Twitter to air his tersely hopeful declaration on the state of Jazz basketball.

His team was a season-high1 seven games under .500, the schedule presented 12 road games in the club’s next 16, and Gobert himself was still working toward a return from injury. But there was his edict: the Jazz’s star center wasn’t worried.

“I feel like I always knew that we had that mentality, but just the competitiveness,” Gobert said after the season. “The will to not just lay down when things get hard, but actually do the opposite.”

Soon after that tweet, the Jazz would hit proverbial rock bottom, falling to 19-28 after a disappointing effort at Atlanta. At that point, most teams’ brain trusts would start weighing their options, considering the strategic benefit of looking ahead. But the leader of the team had spoken, and it was clear that his focus wasn’t on next year or on maximizing draft odds. Gobert was focused on getting the Jazz back on track. And eventually, he did just that.

“I’ve played against him a lot of times, but I never knew what type of winner he was,” Rubio said. “All he cares about is winning.”

Gobert is a dominant defender and an efficient finisher, but more than anything else, he’s Utah’s spiritual compass. He has put his stamp on the franchise with his fire and leadership, so much so that even the Jazz’s budding star recognizes that this is still a Gobert-led outfit.

“I still feel like Rudy is (the face of the franchise). It’s his team,” Donovan Mitchell said. “He’s been here the longest and I have a lot to learn from him. Whether people agree or not, that’s how I feel.”

For his part, Gobert has said he enjoys playing with Mitchell, too. (“It’s easy when you have a guy that wants to win and wants to be great.”) And moving forward, the Jazz can expect to get plenty of leadership from both guys. But for now, the job of being the club’s spiritual leader is still Gobert’s. Which is why his “We will be fine” tweet might literally be the single lasting memory of Gobert’s season.

It helps that it was also prophetic.

Steps forward

As it happens, the Jazz did in fact turn things around. They won 29 of their final 35 games after that 19-28 nadir. And while Gobert’s confidence and competitiveness had a lot to do with the turnaround, so did his on-the-court contributions.

Gobert reported for the 2017-18 season fresh of his first All-NBA selection and ready to continue his evolution as one of the game’s premier big men. Early on, though, it was evident that Utah’s spacing-challenged starting lineup was costing Gobert some of his efficiency on offense. It took he and Rubio a while to get on the same page, especially as defenses routinely backed away from Rubio-Gobert pick-and-rolls and forced the Spanish guard to beat them with pull-up jumpers. Gobert was getting the ball less and was usually surrounded by more bodies once he got it. Consequently, his scoring and efficiency stats slipped from the previous season’s levels.

Then came two knee injuries, further frustrating the upward arc and delaying what Gobert thought would be a season of offensive development and experimentation.

“I was focused from the day the season started,” he said, dismissing the notion that any of his early struggles were mindset-related. “When I went down the first time, I tried to come back pretty fast and then I went down again. So that time I really wanted to come back ready and come back stronger. And I did.”

He scored 23 points in his first game back after missing 26 games, but he clearly was still finding his rhythm and working to restore his conditioning in those first few games. Once he got his legs under him, both he and the Jazz were off to the races. It’s no coincidence that the start of Utah’s 29-6 turnaround happened to be Gobert’s first game back over the 30-minute mark following the injuries. 

And when we analyze his statistical output that same way — isolating those final 35 games to control for the Rubio learning curve and the games he played at less than 100 percent — you can see that Gobert did eventually get back to the task of making himself a better basketball player.

Getting back on track as a developing scorer. (Stats from B-Ref)

That’s certainly a more encouraging baseline from which to view Gobert’s offensive development moving forward. 

“I do what it takes to help my team win, like setting screens, running to the rim, finishing. But I think I can be even more than that,” Gobert said of his continued growth as a scorer. “I’ve been improving my shot every year since I got here. It’s time to be a real weapon and to be able to give (defenders) even more trouble when I have the ball in my hands.”

Gobert’s ambition there is certainly intriguing, although the main ingredient that helped Gobert get his scoring and efficiency back to the previous year’s level was simply getting back to being an elite pick-and-roll finisher. He finished 2016-17 in the 95th percentile for finishing plays as the roll man. After being fairly average in that department early on in 2017-18 — and again, his two main P&R partners from a year before had been replaced — he worked his way back to the 87th percentile by season’s end.

Some of this was the growth of the offense as a whole yielding outcomes for Rudy. As players one through 15 got more accustomed to the offense, Quin Snyder was able to deploy more wrinkles and layered actions to complicate the opponents’ schemes. But part of the improvement was just Gobert getting better at making the catch in traffic and finishing, oftentimes with a greater degree of creativity.

Both parts were on display on this play. Gobert sets a couple of decoy screens before heading into the meat of the action: a catch-and-go screen to the inside for Joe Ingles. Gobert is already rolling by the time Ingles has the ball, and when two defenders try to recover by flinging their bodies at the French giant, he simply double-clutches into a reverse layup.

Stuff like that is going to be the key to Gobert taking the next step offensively. His improved free-throw shooting is going to be a big key, but for Gobert to ever climb into the 16-20 points-per-game range, he’s going to have to be able to finish in traffic. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said after the season that he hopes Gobert will continue to strengthen his base so he can finish through contact, and the 25-year-old center sounded like he was on board with that plan.

“I’ve gotten stronger every year,” Gobert said, “but I think I still need to get stronger just to be able to dominate even more.”

Oh yeah, and that defense

But let’s finish where we started: that game-changing, scheme-busting, team-defining defensive ability.

Gobert’s ability to show on the ball while simultaneously containing his own defender has become the fulcrum of a stout Jazz defense, especially as it relates to guarding in today’s NBA.

Modern offenses are all about using the P&R to coerce rotations a team can punish. But Utah uses Rudy to wall off the paint while the guard fights back into the play. That means that instead of bringing help off of corner shooters, Utah is able to guard most pick-and-rolls two-on-two, giving up only midrange pull-ups. This is how they were able to sap efficiency from the Russell Westbrook P&R in the playoffs opening round. Russ actually scored more per game in that first-round series than he averaged during the season, and on similar (middling) efficiency. The key was that the Jazz were able to guard him without committing extra help. This kept the league’s leading assist man from involving his teammates to the same degree.

It’s similar to how they guarded in in the regular season, too. 

Of course, that same strategy backfired a bit against Houston, a team which features one of the greatest midrange shooters of all time in Chris Paul. That same “contain” defense that the Jazz used to declaw the Westbrook attack allowed CP3 to walk into open 15-footers, and without Rubio for much of that series, Utah didn’t haven’t the firepower to match the output on the other end. (“They give matchup problems to everyone,” Gobert confessed.)

But fundamentally, the Jazz find a ton of success in a defensive system built around Gobert’s ability to hold down the paint almost single-handedly. When the Jazz do throw more aggressive defenses at the P&R ball handler, it’s usually with Gobert behind the play, ready to neuter the resulting 4-on-3.

There, the Jazz situationally trapped Stephen Curry, which led to a play that the Warriors usually feast on: Green leading a 4-on-3. But Gobert is again able to keep both big men in check until Favors can get back into the play. As a result, Utah protects the rim while allowing Ingles and Mitchell to stay glued to Golden State’s elite shooters on the weak side. Neither Durant nor Klay Thompson get any airspace on this play, and Favors is able to get back to Green just in time to block the shot from behind.

Not a lot of teams have this option. Not a lot of teams get those results either. Utah had the league’s second-best defense for the season, holding opponents to 101.6 points per 100 possession. And if we again isolate those 35 games for which Gobert was at his best, opposing offenses only managed 96.5 against them. That’s just a ridiculous number to sustain over a sample size of nearly 1700 team minutes.

The center summed it up best: “We’ve done a great job and we’ve shown that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    I feel like a polygamist. As a fan, I’m still in absolute love with Rudy (as I have been ever since the Jazz first drafted him and we got a taste of who he could become), and now I am also in absolute love with Donovan Mitchell, as well. What a great time to be a Jazz fan.

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