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Rudy Gobert Is Running Away with the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Award

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2021

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, right, defends against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, May 7, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Whether you judge him with the eye test or the numbers, it's difficult to deny the NBA Defensive Player of the Year case for betting favorite Rudy Gobert, even if Ben Simmons is on his heels and Draymond Green would like an invite to the conversation.

Following the Golden State Warriors' upset of Gobert's Utah Jazz on Monday, Green was asked who he thought should be the DPOY. After nonverbally conveying his disgust that anyone else might have a claim, Green suggested the honor should be his.

There's no question Green is one of the game's premier defenders. He can guard all over the perimeter and body up bigs inside. The Warriors, who have the fifth-best defense in the league, give up 0.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays.

Among players with at least 500 minutes, Green is in the top 20 in defensive estimated plus-minus (EPM), defensive RAPTOR and defensive LEBRON, all of which are catch-all metrics that endeavor to encapsulate a player's overall contributions in a single number.

His defensive EPM is just ahead of Simmons, another candidate whose case is largely based on versatility.

Like Green, Simmons can be trusted to guard all over the floor. The five players he's spent the most time defending are RJ Barrett, Gordon Hayward, Pascal Siakam, Caris LeVert and Russell Westbrook (two wings, a big and two guards).

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But picking either for DPOY probably requires a substitution of opinion for evidence. 

That's acceptable, especially on defense, but objective analysis is easier to come by in the age of information. Traditional numbers like points per game or field-goal percentage were once the statistical holy grails, but they were perhaps more deceiving than fans of earlier eras realized.

Play-by-play and tracking data, advanced box scores, catch-all metrics and more accurate means of measuring efficiency have made us smarter. And though the the new numbers still struggle to fully capture defensive impact, catch-alls like those listed above are helpful guides when deployed in concert with film.

Regardless of how sophisticated stats become, the players themselves still bring loads of intangibles, including feel for the game, vision, anticipation, athleticism and timing, just to name a few. You still have to see those things. And with Gobert, there's an added requirement to analyze what you don't see.

"They're going to remember the highlight play. Maybe someone made a great offensive play around Rudy," Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey told Bleacher Report. "But there's no video for, and maybe there is of drives that don't happen because of him, the defensive game plan that we're able to enact because of him. You're not sitting there saying, 'Oh, look at the Jazz, they're holding on corner shooters because Rudy's taking care of the rim.' And yet, that happens night after night."

Something funny happens in just about any Utah game you might tune into. Players often break into the paint with an eye toward scoring before abruptly U-turning back to the perimeter. The cause is usually obvious, as it was for the Spurs earlier this month.

And in an era rife with spreadsheets, equations, geometry and lists, it's kind of nice to debate subjective points. There's still room for that in conversations about offense, the MVP, title contenders or any other aspect of the league, but the Defensive Player of the Year discussion is the best forum.

It's good, then, that the player who'll likely win the award checks the boxes for both the objective and subjective arguments, even if the latter is harder to recognize.

"Speed creates, skill finishes and size prevents," Lindsey said. "Of those three, the third is going to be least noticeable, least appreciated."

On the other hand, the numbers greatly appreciate Gobert. He is first in all three of the aforementioned catch-alls, and by massive margins. At 107.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, the Jazz have the No. 1 defense in the NBA, and he's undoubtedly the reason for it. Without Gobert on the floor, that mark jumps to 119.6. The 11.9-point swing is the biggest in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes. And just for good measure, he leads all qualified players in blocks and defensive rebounds per game.

But again, numbers don't even do his impact justice. 

Sure, the rare moments when someone actually dunks or scores on Gobert draw more attention. They're the plays that get more run on social media, so they feel more common than they are. Possessions like the one above are more routine, though. As Lindsey said, they happen night after night.

Gobert also has a knack for making big plays in big moments. Among players who've logged at least as much playing time in the clutch (defined by the league as the last five minutes of games within five points), he's tied for second in blocks per clutch minute. On Friday, he punctuated an eventual win by stuffing the odds-on favorite for MVP in a key moment.

The way Gobert locks in during those crucial moments is another trait that's hard to measure, though he has an astounding plus-14.0 net rating in "high" and "very high" leverage possessions over the last five seasons. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to assess.

Early in his career, Lindsey told Gobert that he was going to be Utah's modern version of Dikembe Mutombo. Prior to the French center's rookie season, Hall of Famer Karl Malone told the Jazz VP that he had something special in Gobert because of his "heart" and "fightback."

"Some of the defensive mentality, in my opinion, is how you view competition," Lindsey said. "Some people view it from a performer's lens. Some people view it, 'I'm going to do anything possible to get this win,' which many times extends to the defensive end. ... As unique as [Gobert's] physical characteristics are, his competitiveness matches that as well."

Green or Simmons may win a semantical argument. They're undeniably more switchable. And their own competitiveness isn't on trial here. If you prefer point-of-attack defense, you might be able to talk yourself into either. But even though you don't necessarily want Gobert chasing perimeter players, he's far more reliable out there than most Twitter accounts would have you believe.

"You have to take into account a lot of things that don't happen," Lindsey said. "It's the non-actions. ... He's one of the best people in the world at defending the three-point line. And he may not actually defend the three-point line. He allows us to defend the three-point line differently."

Because Gobert is such a menacing presence in the paint, Utah's perimeter players are able to apply much tighter defense to shooters. That's typically an invitation for an opponent to attack (reacting is easier when you give yourself a little cushion), but that driver meeting Gobert often means good things for the Jazz.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Gobert's bid for Defensive Player of the Year is about impact. He has carried a team with an undersized backcourt and likely one other player who'll even sniff an All-Defense nod (Royce O'Neale) to the best defense in the league.

Much like Stephen Curry with the Warriors, Luka Doncic with the Dallas Mavericks or any number of other offensive stars, Utah's defense is Gobert. He's the system. And it's running better than that of any other team in a season with otherworldly offensive production.

Green, Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and others can probably assume recognition with All-Defense selections, but their cases don't quite stack up to Gobert's for Defensive Player of the Year, even if his case is a little more nuanced.

"I almost revel that people do not get him," Lindsey said. "It allowed us to draft him. It allowed us to keep him."

With Gobert, the Jazz have had the league's best defensive culture. Since he was made the full-time starter in the 2015-16 season, no team has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions (and no team is close, really).

Defensive Player of the Year isn't a lifetime achievement award, nor does it have to be for Gobert to win this season. Even if much of what he does goes unseen, we're witnessing one of the greatest defenders in NBA history.

     

Unless noted otherwise, stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass and PBP Stats.

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