Charlotte, N.C. • It wouldn’t be right to say Rudy Gobert has been hovering in the background this season.
The Frenchman stands out by the very nature of his sprawling 7-foot-1 form. Even on the 23 nights Gobert hasn’t played this season, he’s accentuated his appearance with vivid red, green and sometimes leopard-print shirts, drawing the eyes of onlookers even when he’s not on the court.
The Jazz are 17-24 at the halfway point and clawing to keep ahold of 10th place in the Western Conference. It’s not a sunk season yet, but it also isn’t necessarily the season the Jazz have hoped for, either. After reaching the second round of the playoffs last season, the franchise still had aspirations of being a winning team despite losing Gordon Hayward.
Those ambitions were constructed in large part around Gobert’s defensive abilities. But his injuries so far have created a specter of what could have been this season.
“What we’re in the process of doing right now is kind of experiencing new things,” coach Quin Snyder said Wednesday night before the Jazz clinched a rare road win against the Wizards. “The injuries have exacerbated that because we’re experiencing new lineups.”
With the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, it’s easy to overlook who was expected to lead the Jazz before things began: It was Gobert’s team, and the playoffs were expected. In Snyder’s words, he was “an anchor for us.”
Two knee injuries — suffered in separate collisions against the Heat in November and Celtics in December — have pushed back that vision. While the Jazz had some success in the first stint without Gobert, winning six straight at one point, the second stint has seen reality set in.
Gobert has missed 12 straight games with his most recent injury — the Jazz said Thursday he has started to participate in non-contact portions of pratice — during which Utah has gone 3-9. While Utah has the 10th-ranked defense in the NBA this season, it has been the second-to-last ranked defense during those 12 games, although they have been against some of the toughest teams in the NBA. The team’s defensive rating climbs to 106.0 from 101.1 without him.
The Jazz always knew the December portion of the schedule would be challenging, but they barely had a chance on some nights. Nothing might emphasize that like Utah’s game against Golden State last month. The Jazz were competitive for a half, but they were outgunned when the Warriors turned it on with a 42-point third quarter. It was hard not to imagine Gobert’s presence at least could have helped the Jazz stay competitive.
“There’s been some games that we may have let slip away, but there’s been some games that have been tough games to win for our team right now,” Snyder said. “I think you have to lace the whole experience with an amount of realism, and at the same time try to set a high bar for our group and their improvement and their progress.”
The answer so far has been to embrace what Snyder calls a “pivot” season. That means a variety of lineups with an emphasis on building Mitchell into a future star. Even when Utah lost a one-point game at Miami on Sunday, the organization saw a silver lining. While Mitchell couldn’t make the game-winning play, he had the ball in his hands, something the team hopes he’ll gradually get more used to.
Mitchell’s learning curve has been short all season, but there was progress after only one game in this case. He dished off two 3-pointers to Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles in the last two minutes of play to help seal Wednesday’s win. Those plays were fed by the gnawing regret Mitchell felt from his game against the Heat, when he took a contested shot instead of passing to Rodney Hood.
“That’s just the adjustment I made,” Mitchell said. “I watched that last play five or six times.”
Mitchell may be starting to fill a leadership void in Gobert’s absence, but there’s dimensions of Gobert that no Jazzman can replace.
Utah still wants last season’s leading shot-blocker back. While Derrick Favors and Ekpe Udoh have helped protect the rim to a degree, they lack the pure intimidation factor of Gobert. The Jazz also miss Gobert’s propensity for finishing lobs at the rim or getting easy putbacks. They miss his wide, physical screening and his overall tenacity on the court.
What adds to Utah’s angst over missing Gobert is that it won’t necessarily be a smooth transition when he returns. They learned last time that it takes an adjustment period to get used to Gobert in the lineup. And that means even more of a wait to reach their competitive potential.
“More than anything, we’ve got a group that hasn’t played with him that much,” Snyder said. “What we have with Rudy and what we have with the group, we know who Rudy is as a player, but we’ll be able to continue to see who we are with Rudy.”
That doesn’t mean Gobert has no influence on the team. Gobert fed tips for guarding Marcin Gortat to Udoh, who had his best game of the season, throughout Utah’s win over the Wizards. He answered questions for rookie Tony Bradley on the bench. He stood in the huddle for timeouts.
“He’ll share some of his wisdom with me in a game,” Udoh said. “Just defensively, the players he’s played against throughout the game, possession after possession.”
He’s still there, and so is his intensity. And even though the Jazz miss his play, they’ll take whatever he has to offer now — and hope there’s still more to come in the second half of the season.
“I think that’s the biggest deal — he’s continuing to be vocal,” Mitchell said. “That’s what’s awesome about having a guy like that who’s still a leader, who doesn’t lose it. It’s tough. He understands his presence. There’s a large gap when he’s out. But continuing to be that leader is good.”
JAZZ AT HORNETS
Where • Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.
Tipoff • 5 p.m. MST Friday
TV • AT&T Sports Network
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone
Records • Utah (17-24); Charlotte (15-24)
Last meeting • Utah won 105-98 (Feb. 4, 2017)
About the Jazz • Center Ekpe Udoh is coming off season highs in scoring (16 points) and rebounding (9) in his start for Derrick Favors against the Wizards. … The Jazz rank fifth in the league in opponent turnover percentage (14.7 percent) and had 15 steals against the Wizards. … Rookie Donovan Mitchell has scored at least 13 points in eight straight games since returning from a toe bruise.
About the Hornets • Charlotte has won three of its last five games, including a win over the Golden State Warriors. … Center Dwight Howard is averaging 12.1 rebounds per game, fourth in the NBA, and has finished in the top five in rebounding in 11 of his 12 previous seasons. … The Hornets are second in the league in free throws attempted, averaging 27.3 foul shots per game.