Santa Monica, Calif. • It’s the central tenet of the Utah Jazz defense: If you want to score in the paint, you have to go through Rudy Gobert.
Throughout his five NBA seasons, Gobert established himself as the most feared rim-protector in the league. On Tuesday night, he finally won an award that measures up to his reputation.
The French center donned a custom pink suit blanketing his 7-foot-9 wingspan as he accepted his first career Defensive Player of the Year honor for leading the No. 2 defense in the NBA. But while he was pleased to accept the individual honor, which he was also a finalist for last season, he cited the Jazz organization, which has structured its scheme around his shot-blocking prowess.
“I think when you’re a great defensive team, you give yourself a chance every night,” he said. “I think it’s a big, big factor and it’s a great thing to build around.”
For the last few seasons, the Jazz have built around the so-called “Stifle Tower.”
By the numbers, Gobert was one of the most impactful defenders in the league: The Jazz allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions last season, and fielded several of the best defensive lineups, all with Gobert on the floor. Gobert averaged 10.7 rebounds per game and blocked 2.3 shots per game, finishing fourth in total blocks despite playing just 56 games due to knee injuries.
One of Gobert’s best stats was simply results: The Jazz were 37-19 when Gobert started, including a 29-6 run to finish the regular season. While Gobert played fewer games this season than any other player who has ever won the award, his impact swayed voters to back his. He thrashed his competition, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, with 89 first-place votes to their combined seven.
What spoke most to his teammates was the rush of confidence they felt with him at their backs.
“Just knowing that he’s going to be back there, to protect the rim, to protect the paint gave us confidence to press the ball and play even harder defense,” Jazz guard Raul Neto said. “It worked out great for us.”
Gobert was the first Jazz DPOY since two-time honoree Mark Eaton last won the award in 1989.
In other award categories, the Jazz came up just a bit short.
Donovan Mitchell finished runner-up to Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons in a hotly debated Rookie of the Year competition. Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring (20.5 ppg) and set a rookie record for 3-pointers in a season (187), but ultimately couldn’t conquer Simmons’ stat-stuffing performance for the 76ers.
That didn’t mean Mitchell went quietly. He drove up to the awards show in a van bearing the slogan “ROOKIE?” — the last jab of an adidas advertising campaign playfully aimed Simmons, who some observers argued was not a true rookie after sitting out the 2016-17 season with an injury while on the Sixers roster.
“I had to make sure I pulled it out one last time while I was allowed to,” Mitchell said.
Quin Snyder finished as a runner-up in Coach of the Year after leading the Jazz to a 48-34 record and the fifth overall seed in the West, despite having to replace All-Star Gordon Hayward after he left in free agency. The winner, Dwane Casey, won 59 games with the Toronto Raptors, but was subsequently fired after a second-round playoff sweep and rehired as coach of the Detroit Pistons.
In Executive of the Year, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey finished runner up to Houston’s Daryl Morey, an old rival.
But it was still a big night for the Jazz, who brought four other players and several assistant coaches in addition to front office staffers. Team owner Gail Miller attended, standing to applaud during Gobert’s acceptance. Several players said that the three nominations reflected the achievements of the team.
It might have been that thought Gobert had in mind when he was asked by a reporter if he would ever consider joining a “super team” in another market to chase a championship. Gobert thinks it’s already taking shape in Utah.
“I think what’s happening, what we’re building means more than anything,” he said. “I truly believe we’re going to win a championship in the future, but it would mean so much more the way — all the things we’ve been through as a group, as an organization that it has more value in that for me.”