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The case against Rudy Gobert

A trade for Gobert would also require either a time machine or a promise from other teams to play a non floor spacer

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz - Game Six Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks find themselves in an interesting place heading into this offseason. They are coming off of a season which tied for the third most successful season in franchise history. They have one of the best assets in the NBA in Luka Doncic. They have fantastic complimentary “three and d” pieces in Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. Assuming they can resign Jalen Brunson, he completes the best point guard trio in the NBA along with Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Conspicuous by its absence in the list above is a true center. That is ok. The league no longer revolves around centers like it once did. Two way wings and perimeter creators are the currency of today’s league. That being said the most valuable shots in the game are still layups and dunks.

Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA. He does so through an incredible combination of length, positioning and timing. He is capable of completely walling off the rim. Unfortunately, this has proven to be more true during the regular season than the playoffs during the last few seasons. The Utah Jazz have been either a good or great defensive team over most of the last 5 regular seasons. They have gotten significantly worse during the playoffs each season.

Utah Jazz Defensive Rating

Season Jazz RS DRating Jazz Playoff Drating
Season Jazz RS DRating Jazz Playoff Drating
2021-22 110.0 114.8
2020-21 107.5 121.7
2019-20 109.3 116.8
2018-19 105.3 108.5
2017-18 103.0 106.1

This does not necessarily indicate a failure by Gobert. Many things go into a team defense and the Jazz have systematically dismantled the perimeter defense in front of him in order to improve the shooting and offense. But the allure of Gobert is that he is theoretically a defense unto himself. He is also part of this breakdown as teams in the playoffs work very hard to attack him specifically.

Rudy Gobert Rim Field Goal Percentage Allowed

Season Gobert Rim FG% Allowed RS Gobert Rim Fg% Allowed Playoffs
Season Gobert Rim FG% Allowed RS Gobert Rim Fg% Allowed Playoffs
2021-22 50.7% 59.1%
2020-21 49.3% 56.7%
2019-20 50.1% 58.6%
2018-19 52.4% 53.8%
2017-18 50.7% 48.6%

The decrease in defensive effectiveness at the rim in the playoffs over this time frame is extremely troubling. The last time Gobert’s elite rim protection transferred to the playoffs was 2017-18. Ben Simmons won rookie of the year that year and Lamarcus Aldridge was a top ten scorer in the NBA. Perhaps most importantly in that season, both of the Jazz’ playoff opponents played a traditional center more than 30 minutes per game. The Oklahoma City Thunder played Steven Adams 33.4 minutes per game in the first round and the Houston Rockets played Clint Capela 33.0 minutes per game.

Those centers combined to shoot zero three pointers which allowed Gobert to remain closer to the rim where he is effective. Both players were actually relatively effective offensively as they each averaged double digit scoring despite miniscule offensive roles. Their individual production did not matter nearly as much as the fact that they allowed Gobert to lurk near the rim. When Gobert is allowed to play near the rim against a team with at least one non floor spacer, he is as good as anyone has every been at taking away the rim. But teams simply don’t allow him that luxury anymore.

In 2018-2019, the Jazz played the Rockets once again and Gobert again had the luxury of playing against a non-spacing center. His rim protection remained solid, if not elite, and the Jazz defense had its last effective playoff run. Then the league changed out from under him and Gobert became a playoff liability.

In 2019-20, the Jazz played the Denver Nuggets and Gobert was forced to guard Nikola Jokic. Jokic shot 46 threes and hit them at a 47.8 percent clip in that series. The Jazz defense fell apart under the onslaught from Jokic and Jamal Murray. Gobert was simply unable to deal with the modern offensive abilities of Jokic.

Then the Jazz played the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the following season. Rather than playing floor stretching big men to combat Gobert, the Clippers simply didn’t play big men at all. They were able to do this because of Gobert’s offensive limitations which are the next part of this equation.

Gobert is an elite roll man who can finish over anyone and attack the offensive glass to get his teammates extra shots. Unfortunately he cannot create anything for himself no matter how large of a size advantage he has. The idea of Gobert covering for Doncic’s defensive mistakes while catching lobs from him on the other end is tantalizing. But deep into the playoffs teams simply don’t allow that many lobs so they cannot be the basis for a team’s offense. Without those lobs, Gobert essentially can’t play offense despite setting fantastic screens.

In the perfect setting, Gobert remains an amazing player. If the Mavericks acquired him for the right price, they would almost certainly be among the best regular season teams in the league. The problem is other teams now have the ability to take him out of that setting. The Mavericks would be bookended by two players who have both proven to be exploitable in the playoffs on the defensive end. That is not a recipe for playoff success and that is all the Mavericks should be chasing. The Phoenix Suns were the best team in basketball all season long, but the season they just had should not be considered a success for the Mavericks going forward.

The Mavericks would likely have to part with at least one of Dorian Finney-Smith or Reggie Bullock in a Gobert trade. The most important thing to take away from any review of Gobert is that in the modern NBA he is not capable of covering for terrible perimeter defense while also guarding a five out offense. Therefore, any trade that takes away from the Mavericks perimeter defense is a non starter.

Gobert is a very good basketball player who came along right as the league moved away from players with his skill set. He is under contract for roughly $42 million per season over the next four years if he exercises his player option. Because of that contract, he would be the last meaningful move the Mavericks could make for the foreseeable future. He would be the wrong one. The Mavericks are in an odd place with a ton of questions, but Rudy Gobert is not the answer.