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The case against Rudy Gobert

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The Dallas Mavericks are in an interesting place heading into this offseason. They are coming off a season that tied for the third most successful season in franchise history. They have one of the best assets in the NBA in Luka Doncic. They have fantastic “three yd” companion pieces on Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber. Assuming they can give up Jalen Brunson, he completes the NBA’s best point guard trio along with Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Conspicuously absent from the list above is a true center. It is right. The league no longer revolves around centers like it used to. Two-way wingers and perimeter creators are the motto of today’s league. That said, the most valuable shots in the game are still layups and dunks.

Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA. He does this through an incredible combination of length, positioning, and timing. He is able to completely block the rim. Unfortunately, this has proven to be more true during the regular season than in the playoffs for the past few seasons. The Utah Jazz have been a good to great defensive team for most of the last 5 regular seasons. They have gotten significantly worse during the playoffs each season.

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Utah Jazz Defensive Rating

Season Jazz RS DR Classification jazz playoff drawing
Season Jazz RS DR Classification jazz playoff drawing
2021-22 110.0 114.8
2020-21 107.5 121.7
2019-20 109.3 116.8
2018-19 105.3 108.5
2017-18 103.0 106.1

This does not necessarily indicate a failure of Gobert. Many things go into a team’s defense and the Jazz have systematically dismantled the perimeter defense in front of them to improve shooting and offense. But the appeal of Gobert is that, in theory, he is a defense in himself. He is also part of this meltdown as teams in the playoffs work so hard to target him specifically.

Rudy Gobert Rim field goal percentage allowed

Season Gobert Rim FG% Allowed RS Gobert Rim Fg% Playoffs Allowed
Season Gobert Rim FG% Allowed RS Gobert Rim Fg% Playoffs Allowed
2021-22 50.7% 59.1%
2020-21 49.3% 56.7%
2019-20 50.1% 58.6%
2018-19 52.4% 53.8%
2017-18 50.7% 48.6%

The decline in defensive effectiveness at the rim in the playoffs during this time period is extremely concerning. The last time Gobert’s elite rim protection carried over to the playoffs was in 2017-18. Ben Simmons won the rookie of the year award that year and Lamarcus Aldridge was one of the top ten scorers in the NBA. Perhaps most importantly in that season, both of the Jazz’s playoff opponents played a traditional center for more than 30 minutes per game. The Oklahoma City Thunder played Steven Adams for 33.4 minutes per game in the first round and the Houston Rockets played Clint Capela for 33.0 minutes per game.

Those crosses combined to shoot zero 3-pointers, allowing Gobert to stay closer to the rim where he is effective. Both players were actually relatively effective offensively, as each averaged double-digit scoring despite miniscule offensive roles. Their individual production didn’t matter as much as the fact that Gobert was allowed to stalk near the edge. When Gobert is allowed to play near the rim against a team with at least one spacer off the floor, he’s as good a rim taker as anyone. But teams just don’t allow him that luxury anymore.

In 2018-2019, the Jazz played the Rockets once again and Gobert again had the luxury of playing against a center with no room. His protection at the rim remained solid, if not elite, and the Jazz’s defense had its last effective run in the playoffs. Then the league changed and Gobert became a playoff liability.

In 2019-20, the Jazz played the Denver Nuggets and Gobert was forced to guard Nikola Jokic. Jokic shot 46 3-pointers and shot them at a rate of 47.8 percent on that drive. The Jazz’s defense fell apart under attack from Jokic and Jamal Murray. Gobert just couldn’t deal with Jokic’s modern offensive skills.

The Jazz then played the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round the following season. Instead of playing on the floor stretching out the big men to combat Gobert, the Clippers just didn’t play the big men at all. They were able to do this because of Gobert’s offensive limitations, which is the next part of this equation.

Gobert is an elite man who can finish off anyone and attack the offensive glass to get extra shots for his teammates. Unfortunately, he can’t create anything on his own, no matter how big a size advantage he has. The idea of ​​Gobert covering for Doncic’s defensive mistakes while catching lobs from him at the other end is tempting. But deep in the playoffs, teams just don’t allow as many lobs, so they can’t be the foundation of a team’s offense. Without those lobs, Gobert essentially can’t play offense despite putting up fantastic screens.

In the perfect scenario, Gobert is still an incredible player. If the Mavericks acquired him for the right price, they would surely be among the best regular-season teams in the league. The problem is that other teams now have the ability to take him out of that scenario. The Mavericks would be backed by two players who have proven exploitable in the playoffs on the defensive end. That’s not a recipe for playoff success and that’s all the Mavericks should be going after. The Phoenix Suns were the best team in basketball all season, but the season they just had should not be considered a success for the Mavericks going forward.

The Mavericks would likely have to part with at least one of Dorian Finney-Smith or Reggie Bullock in a Gobert trade. The most important thing to take away from any review of Gobert is that in the modern NBA he’s not capable of covering a terrible perimeter defense while protecting a five-out offense. Therefore, any trade that takes away the Mavericks’ perimeter defense is not a starter.

Gobert is a very good basketball player who came in just as the league was moving away from players with his skill set. He is under contract for approximately $42 million per season for the next four years if he exercises his player option. Because of that contract, it would be the last significant move the Mavericks could make for the foreseeable future. He would be the wrong one. The Mavericks are in a strange place with a lot of questions, but Rudy Gobert isn’t the answer.

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