Rudy Gobert has all the makings of a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Such distinctions are difficult to earn. The metrics by which defensive impacts are quantified remain imperfect and, in comparison to offensive numbers, rather skimpy.
And that, while impressive, is only the beginning to a Defensive Player of the Year argument growing stronger by the game.
Even at the most fundamental level, Gobert has everything going for him.
Voters are inherently attracted to blocks. Only three times in the last 18 seasons has the Defensive Player of the Year averaged fewer than 1.5 swats per game.
Going against the grain isn't something Gobert has to worry about here. He's sending back 2.3 shots in just 23.5 minutes per game. He's been even better since permanently joining the starting five, rejecting 2.9 attempts in 33 minutes of action.
Opponents haven't scored more than 100 points against Utah's defense since Feb. 3, a streak that has spanned 14 games and is still alive. San Antonio is the only other team to accomplish the same this season.
At the heart of this defensive rise sits Gobert, whose performances incite hyperbolic descriptions that are actually more fact than fantasy. As Sports On Earth's Brett Koremenos writes:
The reason for such a massive turnaround is an equally gigantic human being and the reason the Jazz were OK with ditching Kanter in the first place: French center Rudy Gobert. Entering the season as a talented enigma, Gobert has blossomed into a defensive force. To call the young Jazz big man a shot blocker doesn't do him justice; he's more like a shot vaporizer.
Indeed, Gobert is most responsible for the Jazz's renaissance on the less-glamorous end.
Rookie head coach Quin Snyder is an offensive innovator, known for preaching passing and off-ball movement while milking corner three-pointers. Never, at any point before now, did illusions to the contrary exist. His job isn't to reinvent Utah's defense.
Up until now, the Jazz didn't come close to registering as a competent defensive team. They ranked 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions before inserting Gobert into the starting lineup, pinning themselves to blatant tank jobs (New York Knicks) and defensive disasters (Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves).
The timing behind this shift is no coincidence.
Says Snyder of Gobert's defensive value, per SB Nation's Paul Flannery: "His presence helped to accelerate the process of us beginning to identify with defense."
Rival scorers are shooting just 39 percent around the rim when challenging Gobert, a stingy mark that ranks first among the 79 players who contest at least five point-blank opportunities per game. He's blocking 7.7 percent of all opponent shots when on the floor, which ranks second in the league, behind only John Henson, who averages fewer than 20 minutes of burn.
It's also the third-highest block rate in league history for players aged 22 or younger who logged a minimum of 1,400 total minutes.
Blocking shots is not what makes Gobert truly unique, though. It speaks to his effectiveness, since he's distinguishing himself within a commonly loaded category, but he does so much more.
Like, everything else.
To be sure, the 7'1" Gobert won't step out on the perimeter and defend Chris Paul or Stephen Curry. But Utah's gangly guardian protects against everything—rim attacks, post-ups, floaters, face-ups, screens etc.
No matter where players are shooting from, he'll have a hand in their face so long as he's in the vicinity. And most of the time, relative to their season averages, those players are going to miss:
Keeping pace with his most direct competition for Defensive Player of the Year honors is Gobert's toughest task.
DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and Ibaka are all more established than Utah's sophomore. Does he measure up statistically?
Here's how Gobert's block percentage, block totals, steals, defensive net rating (team defensive rating with him vs. team defensive rating without him), defensive win shares and defensive win shares per 48 minutes hold up when pitted against those candidates:
Gobert only ranks last in defensive win shares, a standing no doubt related to limited playing time. He surges up the ladder when it comes to defensive win shares per 48 minutes—calculated by dividing defensive win shares by total minutes played, and then multiplying that number by 48—where he beats out Davis, Ibaka and Gasol.
In terms of statistics and the importance to team performance, Gobert refuses to be left behind.
Holes in the Case
Any and all arguments in favor of Gobert are not goofproof.
Although Defensive Player of the Year awards are largely subjective, there are a number unspoken qualifications he doesn't meet as of now. To wit:
- Dwight Howard and Alvin Robertson are the youngest recipients in league history. They began those respective seasons at the age of 23; Gobert is 22.
- Just two winners averaged under 30 minutes per game, while no one has logged below 27.5. Gobert is at 23.5.
- Previous winners have finished the season with a team that ranks outside the top 10 of defensive efficiency just four times. Only twice has the honor been given to someone who anchors a unit in the bottom half of the league. Utah is 18th in defensive efficiency.
- Every Defensive Player of the Year victor reached the playoffs. The Jazz will finish in the lottery.
If Gobert wins, he would make history in a number of different ways. He would be an exception.
An extreme outlier.
There, But Not There
Historical disparities in mind, Gobert belongs here, beside some of the NBA's biggest names, contending for Defensive Player of the Year.
Not to say he will win, because frankly, he won't. There are too many mitigating factors for him to belie, too many longstanding defensive demons for him to slay.
But his inclusion in this debate, however moot, is an accomplishment in itself for the same exact reason why he won't win: Gobert isn't supposed to be here.
“We thought he would be a good player but we didn’t know it would happen this soon, to this degree,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told the Desert News' Brad Rock. “No one had a crystal ball to say this is what he’s going to do in his second year.”
What Gobert's doing is exceeding expectations, forcing his way into a conversation to which he shouldn't actually belong.
Yet, irrespective of past trends, values and perception, here the 22-year-old Gobert is.
And, most importantly, here he'll stay.