“Can’t wait for next season.”
That’s what Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tweeted right after the announcement that Kawhi Leonard was the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. And now that “next season” is almost wrapped up, it looks like Gobert’s fifth-place finish was proper motivation.
If the season ended today, and the votes were based on the numbers, he might have the strongest case for 2017 Defensive Player of the Year. But of course, it’s about more than that.
Leonard and Draymond Green have history on their sides (potential three-peat for the former, and writers maybe thinking it’s his turn for the latter). And both have once again been great on that end. Neither is the league’s best defender, though. Gobert has been more impactful and important to his team than both.
As a way to set the stage, let’s take a look at what defensive metrics from various sources say about the race.
The numbers we use to analyze the NBA become more sophisticated all the time, but quantifying defense remains a difficult endeavor.
The old standard, steals and blocks, can be deceptive. Players gambling for either of those counting stats can take them out of position and leave the other four defenders vulnerable.
The swing in a team’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) based on whether a player’s on or off the floor can be heavily dependent on teammates.
And the formulas behind various catch-all metrics place emphasis on different aspects of the game.
When a player is near the top in every category, though, it’s safe to assume there’s something there. And as you can see above, that’s exactly what’s happening with Gobert.
WHAT MAKES GOBERT SO IMPORTANT?
Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around Gobert. Jazz perimeter players are constantly filtering drivers to him. And because that 7’2″ insurance policy is on the back line, they can pressure spot-up shooters without worrying about a blow-by on a closeout.
What tends to happen when an opponent gets past the first level of Utah’s defense? Jazz fans have gotten used to seeing players get within a few feet of Gobert, realize what that means and promptly U-turn out of there.
Those feeling brave enough to test the big man are often turned away (Gobert leads the league in blocks).
Here, the driving Bojan Bogdanovic is swatted after drawing Gobert on the switch:
He’s shown his disciplined brand of rim protection on several other plays this year, too. He has the patience to stay down on these pump fakes from Giannis Antetokounmpo:
He’s strong enough to withstand a battering-ram post-up from Karl-Anthony Towns:
And his ridiculous length allows him to eliminate space in front of pull-up shooters like Kyrie Irving in an instant:
All of this may just seem like a breakdown of what makes Gobert a great shot-blocker, but it’s about more than that.
He rarely, if ever, sells out the rest of his defense to chase a block. They generally come within the scheme. Again, Utah wants guys to end up trying Gobert inside. And over the course of a given game, someone from every position generally does.
And he’s usually quick to either find a man to box out or go straight for the ball when the shot goes up.
Long story short, numbers don’t come at the expense of positioning for Gobert. And that’s a big part of why his overall impact is so substantial.
THE CASE FOR THE OTHER GUYS
Despite what the numbers say, most probably agree that Leonard is the Spurs’ best defender. And as of the writing of this article, San Antonio has the league’s top defense. Being the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the best defender on the best defensive team, is a pretty strong case.
But ignoring those numbers is tough (though I’m sure plenty of writers will). As incredible as Leonard can look on any given night, he simply isn’t impacting games with his defense the way he once did. And he’s certainly not impacting them the way Gobert or Green is this season.
As for Green, his Warriors are barely behind the Spurs in defensive rating. If they finish first, the “best defender on the best defensive team” argument shifts to Green.
And then of course there’s Green’s versatility. No one else in the league can match up one-on-one against any position at any time of the game at the level Green can. His thick frame is rarely a problem against quicker point guards. And the fact that he’s only 6’7″ doesn’t kill him against centers.
There is a rebuttal to that for Gobert, though. While he may not get a full-time assignment on a point guard, he does defend all five guys, often on a single possession. He can hold his own against guards when he has to switch in a pick-and-roll. And literally everyone who comes within 5-10 feet of the rim is his assignment.
As strong as both Leonard and Green are on the defensive end of the floor, neither is having as impactful a season there as Gobert.
He is to Utah’s defense as James Harden or Russell Westbrook are to their respective teams’ offenses.
Gobert has the numbers on his side. And if you’re wary of those, just tune into any Jazz game from now until the end of the season to see him completely shut down the paint.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.
Video from 3ball.io.