Like Rudy Gobert blocking a shot, Quin Snyder stopped a question in its tracks on Saturday night.
He wanted to make a point after the reporter had suggested it was merely Snyder’s opinion that Gobert is the best defensive player in the NBA. So he interrupted.
“I think it’s an empirical fact,” he said. “Empirical from the standpoint that if you look at every number, he has been dominant. I’m not pining for him. I will. But I am just stating what is happening with our team and what Rudy is doing is special right now.”
The key ingredient that has put the Utah Jazz (40-30) on an unlikely run, during which they’ve won 21 of 23 games, has been defense. Not just good defense, but absolutely suffocating defense that is setting a standard that other NBA teams can’t touch. And Gobert, the 7-foot-1 center who returned from a banged-up knee in mid-January, has been central to what the Jazz have been able to do defensively, sparking debate about whether a player who has already missed 26 games to injury can win the NBA’s top defensive honor.
It’s a case that has statistical backing and also can pass the eye test in games like Utah’s 103-97 win over Sacramento on Saturday night. The Kings had a red-hot night from the 3-point line, so the directive for the perimeter players was to funnel shooters to Gobert — who obliged his role with a stunning, 12-foot-high, just-inside-his-reach block of Bogdan Bogdanovic to snuff feisty Sacramento for good. It was his fourth block of the night.
Joe Ingles said of this play last night that the primary goal was not to give up the three. Gobert just wanted him to funnel any drivers into the middle and then to let him do his thing. pic.twitter.com/NJttFwmC8e— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) March 18, 2018
After the win, Gobert, who missed DPOY to Golden State’s Draymond Green last season, wasn’t shy about stumping for his own candidacy.
“I don’t like to make my own case, but there’s nobody who impacts the game defensively like I do in the whole world,” Gobert said. “I watch a lot of games, and I don’t see anyone. Draymond had a great year last year, and he was close. But this year, it’s not close.”
And as Snyder suggested, there’s evidence to back that stance up.
Since the run began, the Jazz are allowing just 94.5 points per 100 possessions. Consider that the second-place team in that span, Eastern No. 1 seed Toronto(102.1), is as close to the Jazz as it is to the No. 21 team, Sacramento (109.6). The Jazz also have the best defensive rebounding percentage (53.4) in that stretch, which can be at least partially attributed to Gobert, Utah’s rebounding leader (10.7 rpg). Three of the four best defensive ratings for two-man combinations in the NBA all feature Gobert.
Gobert has long been feared a shot-blocker, and his block percentage (6.1 percent, second behind Kristaps Porzingis) is evidence of how he can affect offenses with his swats. But his mere presence affects how teams shoot — more teams choose simply not to challenge him.
“Have you seen that big guy they’ve got protecting the rim down there?” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said last week, even though his own player Anthony Davis leads the league in total blocks. “I think [Gobert is] probably the best rim protector in the league, not so much from the blocking of the shots, but just the intimidation of him being there. … Having two or three blocked shots is not a big deal, it’s the other seven or eight he bothers that would be layups that he ends up affecting.”
Then there’s simply wins: The Jazz are 29-15 with Gobert in the lineup, and just 11-15 with him out.
But it’s those games out of the lineup that create the most questions regarding postseason honors. There’s been only one time in the history of the DPOY award that a player has won it with fewer than 56 games: Miami’s Alonzo Mourning in the 1998-99 season, which was shortened by a lockout. In the 2014-15 season, Kawhi Leonard won playing in just 64 games, with 2,033 total minutes. With 12 games remaining in the season, Gobert is on pace to finish barely above 1,800 minutes.
What really gives Gobert a chance at all is the lack of vibrant competition. Last year’s winner, Green, has seen his defensive rating slip and his steals down as the Warriors have often oscillated between interested and uninterested on defense. Leonard is out. Porzingis will have missed more games than Gobert by season’s end. Other candidates, including Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Boston’s Al Horford, may not be the best defenders on their own teams (Andre Roberson and Marcus Smart), and neither can boast the pure dominance that Gobert does when he’s been healthy enough to play.
The closest candidate may be Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, who has a better rebounding percentage than Gobert, but is a less ferocious shot blocker. Philadelphia is just three places behind Utah in season-long defensive rating (101.8 to 103.3). But as the 76ers balance Embiid’s minutes and sit him for certain games, he’s on course to finish with just under 2,100 minutes himself — is that enough of a gap to say he’s more deserving?
That may be the defining question as long as the Jazz and Gobert keep up their caliber of defense that’s sent Utah zooming back into the playoff picture. Do you give it to the best defender who was able to play most of the season? Or do you just give it to the best defender regardless?
There’s no question among those in the Jazz locker room.
“The stuff [Gobert is] doing is unreal,” Donovan Mitchell said. “If you’ve look at what we’ve done since he’s come back … I don’t think any other player has had that impact on his team. He’s been in the running three years straight? I think this is his year.”
The case for Gobert<br>While Rudy Gobert has missed 26 games dueto injury this season, the fifth-year center has some compellingstatistics that back him to win his first Defensive Player of the Yearhonor:<br>• 6.1 block percentage (2nd); 2.3 blocks per game(3rd)<br>• 4.4 defensive box plus-minus (3rd);<br>• In threeof the top four defensive-rated two-man lineups in the NBA this season(with Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio)<br>• Jazzallow 97 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court; 105.7 whenhe’s off<br>• Jazz are 29-15 with Gobert in the lineup; 11-15 whenhe’s out