When assessing the Utah Jazz before the season, opinions on their viability as a playoff contender differed. One thing was universally agreed upon: Their margin for error when it came to team health was small.
On Sunday afternoon, the Jazz received injury news that approaches a worst case scenario: Rudy Gobert — their best player — will miss significant time.
An MRI performed Saturday revealed a tibia contusion in his right leg, the Jazz announced. He will be re-evaluated in four weeks and could miss as much as six weeks. Gobert, a second team All-NBA center a year ago, is currently averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and a league-leading 2.5 blocked shots per game and is thought of as one of the best centers in the NBA.
Gobert was injured in Friday night’s loss to the Miami Heat, when shooting guard Dion Waiters dove for a loose ball and undercut Gobert at the knees. Utah’s star center stayed on the ground for a few moments, rubbing his leg. He limped to the locker room, but returned to finish the game. In the moments following the loss, Gobert said his leg would be fine. He then missed Saturday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, where Derrick Favors scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, starting at the center position in his stead.
According to multiple sources, the Jazz weren’t happy with the play made by Waiters when they reviewed the film. The Jazz, sources say, called the league office and asked the NBA to review the play. The league told the Jazz that, while Waiters should’ve been called for a foul on the play, they didn’t deem the act an intentional foul.
Gobert and Waiters, for their part, have waged a war of words since the incident. On Friday night, Gobert retweeted a video of the play on Twitter, and said “Dove for the ball, right,” clearly stating that he thought Waiters made a dirty play.
When asked about Gobert’s tweet, Waiters said this to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in response: “I’ve never been a dirty player in my life. I went for the ball,” Waiters said. “Tell him to get out of his feelings and that’s what it is, just like that.”
It will be impossible to replace Gobert’s defensive impact. But Favors is more than capable as a two-way center, and will slide over from the power forward spot. Thabo Sefolosha started at power forward on Saturday against the Nets and the Jazz were able to spread the floor more effectively.
When contacted Sunday by The Tribune, Favors said he’s ready and willing to fill the void caused by Gobert’s absence, but that replacing a talent such as Gobert will need to be a team endeavor.
“Obviously, it will be a difference,” Favors told The Tribune. “I just have to make sure I’m where I’m supposed to be offensively and defensively. I have to get back to doing what I do, and hold it down until he comes back. Guys are just going to have to step up for him. We have to be prepared.”
The next week will be challenging to the Jazz, as they will face multiple all-star caliber big men. On Monday night, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves visit Vivint Smart Home Arena. On Wednesday, the Jazz will face Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks. On Saturday, Utah will see Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic. And finally, a week from Monday brings Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Utah’s only reprieve from that gauntlet comes Friday against the Brooklyn Nets.
Scoring on the interior, rebounding and post defense will be a challenge for the Jazz.
Gobert represents the third major injury to a key member of Utah’s rotation this season. Point guard Dante Exum separated his shoulder in the preseason and is out indefinitely, following surgery. Scoring sub Joe Johnson has missed the last two weeks with tendon instability in his right wrist. He will be re-evaluated on Tuesday and hopes to play at some point during the upcoming road trip.
But Gobert’s injury is of a different level and consequence for the Jazz. He’s Utah’s entire defensive identity and the key to one of the best defenses in the league. If he misses six weeks, the Jazz could find themselves firmly out of playoff contention by Christmas and fighting an uphill climb for the remainder of the year. Two years ago, Gobert strained an MCL during practice — missing 22 games — and the Jazz missed the postseason largely because of that stretch of missed games.
Avoiding the same fate this season won’t be easy for Utah, a team that enters Monday night with a 6-7 record. The Jazz built a roster around Gobert’s talents on both ends.
And now, he’s gone for at least a month.