The Utah Jazz are 25-36. They have no chance of making the playoffs, and since opening night, they have forged their way through the Western Conference with an average offense and the 18th-ranked defense in the NBA. Take all this into consideration, and it’s fair to assume they aren’t a very good basketball team.
But today’s Jazz aren’t even close to the team that began the 2014-15 season. Several trades and shifts in Utah’s rotation have turned it into a rising juggernaut. Increasing the minutes of 7’1” rim-protecting prodigy Rudy Gobert is the single biggest reason.
Since February 1, no team has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions. That is correct: Utah has the best defense in the NBA right now. How? When Gobert is within five feet of the basket and within five feet of an offensive player attempting a shot, the opposing player’s field-goal percentage is only 38.0 percent, per NBA.com. For the sake of comparison, last year, Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert held opponents to 41.1 percent shooting in the same situation.
Gobert is insanely good. Over the past couple of weeks, he's gone toe-to-toe with LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan—and crushed all three. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he leads the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and block percentage, and he is ninth in win shares per 48 minutes—all at the age of 22.
For the entire season, Utah allows 100.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and 107.3 when he’s off. The impact is clear.
Having the game’s most dominant defender anchor an entire unit has naturally had a contagious effect on everybody else. Gobert instills confidence in his teammates. They know they can gamble, take certain risks they otherwise wouldn’t dare and play with more aggressive pressure, without normal repercussions.
In other words, he makes everyone better. Not only does Gobert influence the game by blocking, altering and eliminating shots in the paint, but opposing ball-handlers trying to run action 20 feet from the basket feel his presence.
The term “safety net” gets thrown around a lot, and it couldn’t be more accurate than in this case. If a teammate lunges out of position trying to jump a passing lane, Gobert will slide over and prevent a basket. And when Utah’s perimeter defenders don’t make mistakes, and play sound defense on and off the ball, it only makes the unit that much tougher to score on.
They're playing great. It’s one of the more impressive teams I've seen since the All-Star break. Their defense has been outstanding. And it's to be expected somewhat when (Rudy) Gobert's minutes go up because he's an absolute force on that end of the floor, and he's becoming really good on the other end of the floor. I've always thought they had as good a young talent as there is around, and they're doing a good job. They're very active in helping. They can take some gambles and some risks because not only Gobert, but Favors is a good rim protector in his own right. So they've got some guys down there that can cover up some mistakes.
Look at this play from a recent drubbing of the Denver Nuggets. After putting Kenneth Faried to sleep, Gobert manages to convince a driving Ty Lawson that shooting the ball isn't wise. Gobert is everywhere, doing everything.
The emergence of Gobert as a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate is the most obvious explanation for Utah’s smothering success. But others have improved their play, too. Derrick Favors is a moose in the paint—long, massive and smart.
This tandem has potential to be one of the league’s best frontcourts on both ends of the floor. In this clip from a recent game against the Memphis Grizzlies, who know plenty about building around two bigs, watch how Favors quickly slides over to help Gobert after Marc Gasol beats the Frenchman with a slick post move:
It results in a late whistle, but more important than this individual possession is what it symbolizes for teams facing Utah over the next seven or eight years. (Favors is only 23 years old.) Getting through these two is just about the worst nightmare ever.
From there, Dante Exum—a rookie point guard who’s struggled with the ball in his hands—has already shown he can stay in front of the game’s most dynamic athletes on a nightly basis. He’s long, he's supremely athletic and he can instantly recover after making a mental mistake. Once those mistakes stop, he may become one of the better all-around defenders at his position.
Now, this play is terrifying. After failing to “ice” (aka funnel into help along the sideline) Mike Conley, Exum stays with the play, switching onto the 6’8” JaMychal Green and eventually blocking his shot. How many point guards can do this?
Gordon Hayward, Elijah Millsap and Joe Ingles (whose hands are roughly 1,300 times faster than his feet) are all intuitive defenders, too. They mostly understand where to be and make life miserable for ball-handlers who know the horror that awaits if they can break through Utah’s initial line of defense.
The Jazz aren’t perfect by any means. Going by average age, they’re still the second-youngest team in the league (only the Philadelphia 76ers are less mature), and with that come a ton of mistakes. Their transition defense is still an issue, with guys failing to identify their assignments before it’s too late. And sometimes they forget pick-and-roll coverages or don’t react as quickly as they should.
But the long view is the right view. The Jazz are far and away the most interesting story among teams who won’t make the postseason. Thanks to Gobert, by this time next season, Utah should be playing for so much more.
Michael Pina is an NBA writer who’s been published at Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, Rolling Stone, ESPN, Grantland and a few other very special places. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.