I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Rudy Gobert lately, as one tends to do in the late-August wasteland of the NBA news cycle. That’s not to say Gobert is unworthy of being thought about.
He’s a monster walking the earth — a shot-devouring, defense-transforming nightmare creature, dreamed up by someone who watched Shawn Bradley play and wondered to himself, “what would that look like with a turbo button, court sense and passable human coordination?”
Gobert took a Utah Jazz defense that ranked dead last in the NBA in 2013-14 and made it into the Association’s stingiest outfit in the 29 games after last season’s All-Star break. It was simple, really: Trade the defensively invisible Enes Kanter, give Gobert the starting job at center and watch opponent scoring plunge.
Gobert will be the full-time starter next year. Considering his youth (he turned 23 in June), absurd statistical impact (he led the Jazz in Win Shares despite starting only a third of their games and became the second player in NBA history to post a block rate above seven percent and a rebound rate above 20 percent in the same season, per Basketball-Reference.com), it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of what might be ahead.
But if you really get into thinking about Gobert and his seemingly incalculable potential, you have to also consider his surroundings. And that means, specifically, the lineups he’ll be a part of with the Jazz this year.
Derrick Favors shares a few things in common with Gobert: He’s a good defender, he’s got size to spare and he’s going to start for the Jazz. And if you really want to pick some nits about a Utah team that has justifiably high hopes for the upcoming campaign, you have to flag this as a potential issue.
It’s no great secret that offensive spacing is critical to good offense in today’s NBA. Everybody wants that stretch 4 who can hold his own on defense while dragging opponents away from the basket on the other end. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green is the latest “we’ve got to get one of those” examples, but he’s not the first.
Based on last year’s performances, neither Gobert nor Favors have the offensive skills to function as spacers, which means the Jazz will have to bank on significant growth from their two bigs or, failing that, some very inventive offensive tactics to create space.
The good news is that the Jazz were still a net-positive team in the 857 minutes Gobert and Favors shared the floor last season, according to NBA.com. They were predictably awesome on defense, holding opponents to 96.2 points per 100 possessions, and just good enough on offense, scoring 100.9 points per 100 possessions.
With a net rating of plus-4.7 as a starting point, there’s reason to hope the Jazz can do more than just get away with heavy minutes of Gobert and Favors together.
And the Jazz can certainly play either Gobert or Favors as the lone big man as the game wears on. Just because they’ll start together doesn’t mean they’ll be joined at the hip in every lineup. Splitting their rest time is probably the smartest way to assure there will always be a stout interior presence on the floor, and it’ll have the added bonus of improving spacing.
When there’s call for a real defensive clampdown, the Jazz can go with both bigs together.
Favors showed improved accuracy on his mid-range shot last year, hitting 40.1 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet, but he’s not yet a threat from beyond the arc. Gobert is a quietly creative passer, but with Favors stationed in and around the lane, passing windows get tight.
Opponents are going to get smarter about exploiting Utah’s offensive vulnerabilities, and the unfortunate truth is that the rest of the roster doesn’t have a whole lot of shooting to keep teams honest when they pack things in on defense.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because another team that plays two conventional, non-spacing bigs faces it every year in the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies know all too well what it’s like to dominate on defense with size and grit, and then fail to score against strong schemes in the playoffs. We could see the Jazz fall victim to something similar unless Gobert and Favors find ways to dramatically increase their range.
Figuring out how to win playoff series isn’t something Utah has had to think about in awhile, but because Gobert and Favors give them such a huge advantage on the defensive interior, it’s something that has to be wrestled with now.
Because the Jazz are going to be in the playoff picture.
As problems go, this is one the Jazz should welcome.