After winning 53 games in the 2009-10 season, the Utah Jazz mostly wallowed in mediocrity, with the team finally reaching the depths in 2013-14 by finishing last in the Western Conference. The 2009-10 roster was quite stacked, with such luminaries as Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Andrei Kirilenko all playing significant roles.
Those players are all gone now (and Al Jefferson has come and gone), and over the past few years, the Jazz have been rebuilding. Lottery picks have been used on Gordon Hayward (No. 9 in 2010), Enes Kanter (No. 3 in 2011), Alec Burks (No. 12 in 2011) and Dante Exum (No. 5 in 2014), while Derrick Favors (No. 3 in 2010) was acquired from the New Jersey Nets in the Deron Williams blockbuster trade and Trey Burke (No. 9 in 2013) was acquired on draft night in exchange for the draft rights to Shabazz Muhammad (No. 14) and Gorgui Dieng (No. 21).
The Burke deal wasn’t the only trade Utah consummated on draft night in 2013, and the other trade may be looked upon as one of the more shrewd moves in recent memory. It’s a trade that could wind up being the key to any great success the Jazz have in the next few years. That trade, of course, was the deal that brought Rudy Gobert (No. 27) from the the Denver Nuggets to Utah.
The Jazz are only 24-35 this season, but there has been tangible improvement, especially of late. Since falling a season-high 16 games under .500 on Feb. 6, Utah has gone 7-2, and much of that success can be traced to a dominant defense anchored by Gobert. Those seven victories feature wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and most recently, the Memphis Grizzlies.
The win over the Grizzlies, which was in Memphis, included a career night from Gobert, who posted 15 points and a career-high 24 rebounds. Mind you, this came against Marc Gasol, a fringe MVP candidate this season. The growth Gobert has shown over the course of this season has been remarkable after a mostly unremarkable rookie campaign, and the 22-year-old appears to be a budding star.
Gobert has seen his minutes rise as the year has gone on, and he has taken over the starting center spot since the trade of Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It should be no surprise, then, that the Jazz’s defense has gotten better as the year has gone on. Kanter wasn’t much of a rim protector, and Gobert offers it in truckloads.
Here’s a look at Utah’s defensive rating month-by-month, per NBA.com:
|Gobert’s MPG||Jazz DRtg|
Utah’s 96.5 defensive rating over the last month-plus is the best in the NBA, per NBA.com, a stark contrast from the woeful defense at the beginning of the season. And since the trade of Kanter, the Jazz have given up a miniscule 87.7 points per 100 possessions in six games.
Considering the Gobert factor, it makes all the sense in the world that Utah’s defensive resurgence has been keyed by shutting down the paint. The Jazz have allowed opponents to shoot just 53.0 percent in the restricted area since Feb. 1, the best in the league, per NBA.com. Furthermore, Utah has allowed a 34.8 percent mark in the paint (non-RA) since Feb. 1, the fifth-best in the NBA.
Looking at the individual SportVU numbers, Gobert is allowing only 38.0 percent shooting at the rim this season, the best mark in the league for a player with any significant volume of shots defended at the rim. Krishna Narsu at Vantage Sports created his own rim protection stats using Vantage’s exclusive stats package called Rim Protection FG% Against and Rim Protection Rate, and Gobert unsurprisingly ranks very highly in both metrics. And while blocked shots aren’t always the best indicator of great rim protection, I might as well point out that the 22-year-old is third in the league with 2.29 blocks per game.
Simply put, Gobert is putting that nearly 7’9 wingspan to great use, and he has already become one of the NBA’s elite rim protectors. With the big Frenchman manning the middle, the Jazz have become a defensive juggernaut, and there’s even more room to grow as Dante Exum continues to improve on that end. Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney recently highlighted Exum’s rookie season, and Mahoney noted that Exum has shown signs of becoming an elite defender.
The Jazz still have some ways to go before becoming a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. While the defense is legit, the offense still has its fair share of struggles. Gordon Hayward is having a bounce-back season after his efficiency dipped last year, but Utah needs more offense out of its point guards and could use more three-point shooting. It doesn’t help that Alec Burks was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, but Burks’s presence alone wouldn’t make a big enough difference. More help is needed.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the prospects of this Jazz team moving forward. There are a bevy of talented young pieces, and a few more shrewd moves could have Utah contending for a playoff spot in the very near future.