Since Doc Rivers arrived in Los Angeles, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan has come to embody the new definition of a center in today’s NBA: a rim protector who anchors your defense on one end, and a pick-and-roll finisher and offensive rebounder on the other.
In that same mold, along comes Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz’s French phenom whose rapid ascent to near-crème de la crème level center play squares him up against Jordan in this edition of “Who You Got?”.
Which of these two players do you start a team with, if it’s just for one season?
The basic numbers in this case are quite similar, especially when you factor for Gobert playing nearly 700 fewer minutes than Jordan in 2014-15.
To differentiate these two, a deeper dig into the most important aspects of their games is necessary.
Defense and Rim Protection
Jordan’s defensive reputation has gotten a somewhat undeserved boost as a result of his coach constantly building him up and praising him in front of the media. It’s not without some merit, of course. No defensive possession ends until someone grabs a defensive rebound, and Jordan may be the best in the league in that department. He led the league in rebounds per game, defensive rebounds per game and defensive rebounding percentage.
On its surface, leading the league in those categories would suggest Jordan is superior on the boards, but more attention will be paid to that in a later section. For purposes here, it’s enough to know that Jordan’s rebounding helps the Clippers’ defense in the sense that it robs the opposition of second-chance opportunities.
But that might be the full extent of Jordan’s quantitatively positive impact on that end.
Believe it or not, L.A.’s defense was slightly better when Jordan was off the court (102.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) than when he was on (103.1 allowed).
Contrast that with Gobert, whose individual impact on the Jazz’s defense was seismic. When he was off the court, Utah surrendered 106 points per 100 possessions. When he was on, that number dropped to 98.8, a mark that would’ve given the Jazz the No. 2 defense in the league if sustained over the entire season. One of the primary differences in the defensive abilities of Jordan and Gobert, and a big reason why one has a much more positive impact on that end, is that Gobert is a legitimate rim protector. Among players who appeared in at least 40 games and faced three field goal attempts at the rim per game, Gobert’s opponent field goal percentage at the rim of 40.4 ranked first. Jordan was 46th in that category, surrendering 48.5 percent at the rim.
Jordan often found himself out of position as a result of his hunting for the highlight reel blocks that end up several rows deep into the stands. Gobert, meanwhile, generally maintained his defensive position, waiting till the last minute to commit to a block attempt. Because he was more disciplined in not reacting to pump fakes, Gobert gave himself more opportunities to collect blocks just because he stayed in more plays. The raw shot-blocking numbers are evidence of that.
And just in case anyone still needed a tiny point to put them over the edge in this first issue, we can throw in the fact that Gobert also has the better steal percentage (by one-tenth of one percent, but someone may need that tiny push).
Few players in the NBA finish off a pick-and-roll or alley-oop with the devastating efficiency of Jordan. Gobert should know as well as anyone, after he suffered this posterization last season:
Gobert is one of Jordan’s many victims at the rim. It may not matter who gets in the way. His close shots field goal percentage (defined as “field goal percentage on shots taken by a player on any touch that starts within 12 feet of the basket, excluding drives” by NBA.com) was 82.1, good for first in the NBA among players who attempted at least three such shots per game.
That means an average “close shot” for Jordan is worth roughly 1.6 points. For context, the average three-point attempt in the NBA last season was worth 1.05 points.
Now, the Clippers can’t get a close shot for Jordan on every possession, and his finishing is certainly enhanced by the passing of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but that’s just picking nits. The bulk of the credit belongs to Jordan, whose awareness allows him to find the clearest paths to the rim, and whose athleticism allows him to catch passes most players couldn’t get a fingertip on.
Gobert is no slouch in this department either. His close shot field goal percentage of 70.3 ranked eighth under the same three-shot qualification. And he’s shown hints of some nimbleness with occasional finger rolls or reverse layups in and around the paint.
Gobert’s already among the best finishers in the league, and he’s on his way up, but Jordan still takes this crown.
Jordan’s raw rebounding numbers not only give him the edge here, they’re the best in the league. Again, he was first in both rebounds per game and rebounding percentage, and he finished second in rebounds per 36 minutes behind Andre Drummond.
But this isn’t the end of the rebounding debate.
Jordan actually struggled (relatively speaking) in grabbing contested rebounds (defined as a rebound collected when within 3.5 feet of an opponent by NBA.com). His contested rebounding percentage of 44.6 ranked 32nd among players who appeared in at least 40 games and averaged at least five boards a game.
Gobert didn’t fare much better there, though, posting a contested rebounding percentage of 45.6 (23rd). Given the fact that Jordan had 20.3 rebounding opportunities per game and Gobert had 14.9, that one percent difference on the contested opportunities is miniscule.
Another factor here is the quality of rebounding among each player’s teammates. Utah’s Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward posted rebounding percentages of 15.4 and 8.2, respectively. Their counterparts on the Clippers, Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes, grabbed 12.1 and 7.5 percent of available boards, respectively. Plus, Gobert spent over half the season backing up Enes Kanter, who had a rebounding percentage of 16.7 as a member of the Jazz.
This argument can go the other way too, though. Griffin and Barnes’s percentages may have been adversely affected by the rebounding of Jordan.
Given how close, or ambiguous those other factors are, we can safely defer to the basic numbers in this debate, and find for Jordan.
Gobert may have lost the battle of finishing, but he may win the war on overall offense.
There’s more to that side of the floor for a center than dunking and rolling to the rim (though those two skills are very important for a modern 5). Passing out of those rolls or the post, passing in general and shooting are all important as well.
In terms of passing, the answer is quite clear. Among the 74 players who were 6’10” or taller last season, Jordan’s assist percentage of 3.2 ranked 71st. Gobert’s percentage of 8.2 was 39th (13th among 26 seven-footers).
In February, Grantland’s Zach Lowe called Gobert a “clever passer,” sharing examples of the kinds of passes mentioned above:
In addition to passing, Gobert is also a better shooter than Jordan. Since they attempted the vast majority of their shots in the range of zero-to-three feet (both took over 78 percent of their attempts from there), this ultimately comes down to free throw shooting.
From the line, Jordan was abysmal. Of the 125 players who qualified for the free throw percentage leaderboard, Jordan ranked 124th (only Drummond was worse).
Gobert, meanwhile, may never be the target of the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. A trip to the free throw line for him yielded an average of 1.2 points in 2014-15. Again, more efficient than a three. And perhaps more important, he’s displayed improvement already. His percentage jumped 13.1 percent from year 1 to 2, and at just 23 years old, there’s every reason to believe he can improve again this season.
Because he can pass and hit free throws, Gobert can be a more dynamic component of an offense than Jordan, who’s little more than a pick-and-roll finisher (though he may be the best in that department).
If a point was simply awarded for winning each of the above categories, this comes out as a tie. But we obviously can’t leave it there.
What it comes down to is the degree to which each won his category. On defense, it’s really not close. Gobert was a significantly better defender last season and figures to improve over the course of 2015-16.
And defense wins championships, right?
On that point, and with everything else essentially falling within the margin of error, Gobert is the winner in this version of “Who You Got?”.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.