Is Rudy Gobert’s 2020-21 season the best defensive season in modern NBA history?
That’s the argument made by writer Ben Dowsett at FiveThirtyEight; it’s a statistical argument, but a compelling one. Essentially, Dowsett compiled the major metrics that public analysts use to evaluate defense. And while there’s some significant disagreement between the lists, there’s one thing that they agree on: Gobert at No. 1.
In 538′s Defensive RAPTOR, which goes back through 1977, Gobert’s season is first, ahead of Ben Wallace’s 2003-04 season. In ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which goes back through 1996, Gobert finishes ahead of Dikembe Mutombo’s 1996-98 seasons. In BBallIndex’s D-LEBRON stat, he finishes first over Dwight Howard’s 2010-11 season.
Yes, that’s a lot of alphabet soup. So perhaps Gobert’s defensive season is better summed up by what The Athletic’s John Hollinger wrote on his ballot for the Defensive Player of the Year award:
“Other players were very good on defense this year ... but Gobert allowed a team with four undersized offense-first players around him to finish fourth in defensive efficiency. He is an all-time great defender having his best season, and the eye test is more than clear enough in this case.”
Or perhaps you’d prefer to listen to Jazz forward Georges Niang’s explanation of his teammate’s value:
“The gravity that Rudy has as a defender with keeping guys out of the paint is one I’ve never seen,” Niang said. “The way we play defense, if your guy does beat you, continue to stay on his hip and good luck. I mean Rudy’s 7-2 and he’s a skilled shot blocker. He’s not just big, but he’s skilled and he has a great ability if he’s not going to block the shot to just make guys miss.”
It’s a case that voters have agreed on, so far. Twitter user Max Croes compiles all of the publicly-released 100 NBA media ballots in a public spreadsheet as they reveal them — on Twitter, in podcasts, or in articles for their publication. Of the 12 ballots revealed so far, 100% have voted for Gobert for DPOY. In fact, all had Gobert as an all-NBA center as well, either on the second team or the third team.
Perhaps it’s due to the league-leading impact that Gobert has at center. Gobert leads the league by a huge margin in plus-minus; the Jazz outscored opponents by 728 points this season when he was on the court. The next highest number is Mike Conley’s +548 — he spent most of his minutes with Gobert on the court. And the next highest non-Jazz member is Kawhi Leonard’s +448.
“I don’t know if it’s a pointless stat or not — that’s for the Twitter world to have a conversation about,” Joe Ingles said when asked about the plus-minus impact of Gobert and Conley. “But, I mean, if you told me something like that and the number that is, that’s a pretty ridiculously high number, so it shows the impact those guys have for sure.”
Gobert has stayed coy when asked about the award; he essentially forwards those curious about his take on who should win the award to the advanced metrics, which he knows he leads. It’s a different approach than his greatest competition for the award, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, who has loudly and repeatedly promoted his candidacy.
But voters don’t appear to be buying. As Hollinger jokingly wrote on his DPOY ballot, this was his vote: “1. Rudy Gobert, Utah, 2. Rudy Gobert, Utah, 3. Rudy Gobert, Utah.”
“This wasn’t even a competition,” he continued. “Any ballot that doesn’t list Gobert in the top spot is immediately suspect.”
After an elite season, it appears Gobert’s value to the Jazz will be recognized with a Defensive Player of the Year trophy — his third — and a place in the All-NBA ranks — his fourth.