Rudy Gobert‘s playoff performances live in infamy. Collapse after collapse left Gobert sitting in the wake of a Utah Jazz roster that could never reach the Western Conference Finals. As fans blamed playoff losses solely on Gobert, the public opinion on the three-time Defensive Player of the Year became increasingly negative.
Finally, it reached a boiling point after a disappointing exit to the Dallas Mavericks, who were without Luka Doncic until Game 4. A six-game stretch represented all the mounting frustration from Jazz fans, players, front office, and coaches. Once Dallas beat them 98-96 in Game 6, it was clear Utah was heading for a makeover. The franchise had faced enough disappointing losses.
Trading Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves closed the curtains on those Utah teams. Now the organization is looking to create a new timeline of Jazz basketball while the Wolves move to replace them atop the Western Conference standings.
Regular-season success is welcome in Minnesota, and the Wolves will likely breach 60 wins for the first time in franchise history. But teams don’t give up five first-round picks for regular-season success; they trade them hoping to build a contender. And if Minnesota’s front office believes in this roster’s potential for success, they clearly see something.
The main difference between Utah and Minnesota is roster complexion. Although the Jazz were a talented team that consistently contended, they built poorly around their star player.
Gobert spent much of his time in Utah surrounded by a core of Mike Conley, Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, and Bojan Bogdanović. Earlier in his career, he spent a lot of time surrounded by Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio, and Joe Ingles. Although Royce O’Neale, Derrick Favors, and select years of Ingles were all plus-defenders, Gobert has lacked a solid point-of-attack (POA) defender throughout his career.
Last year, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Patrick Beverley were Minnesota’s main POA defenders. Although Russell isn’t a world-class defender, Pat Bev has served as an influential POA throughout his career. Without Bev on the roster next year, expect Edwards and Jaden McDaniels to fill that role.
Edwards has the length, strength, and all the intangibles to be a solid POA defender, the best Gobert has played with in his career.
The Wolves should be surrounding Gobert with the best supporting cast of his career, surrounding him with McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, and Taurean Prince – all lanky wings. Gobert can freely control the paint with Edwards as the POA defender, Russell defending the other guard, McDaniels as the primary wing defender, and Karl Anthony-Towns as weak-side help.
Perimeter defense has been a buzzword used to criticize the Jazz for the last couple of years. Although buzzwords typically get exaggerated, Utah’s supporting cast objectively struggled defensively.
Teams usually expose Gobert in the playoffs using small-ball lineups. Utah’s matchup versus the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals is where the most common negative narratives about Gobert originated.
The “Gobert got played off the floor in the playoffs” narrative is the most common one. It’s also the most detrimental and most misleading narrative about Gobert.
Getting played off the floor is typically a literal term. A player played so poorly that his coach had to remove him from the game. Except, for some reason, the definition changed during the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals. Rudy Gobert got “played off the floor” but played 40+ minutes in the last 2 games. The truth is small ball lineups have given Gobert problems before. But he’s such a good defender that even though they give Gobert trouble, Quin Snyder didn’t pull him off the floor. He played more in Games 4-6 than in Games 1-3.
Overreactions to an embarrassing playoff loss widely formed the narratives. After all, the easiest thing to do is blame Gobert because he has the biggest name to slander. Rudy Gobert plays a very fundamental version of basketball, especially compared to his high-flying teammate Donovan Mitchell. The reality is that more fans take Mitchell’s side when things go south because they’re more familiar with him. He’s talked about more, posted more, and respected more because he plays a more explosive game of basketball. So when things went south, it was on Rudy. When really, the Jazz lost the Eastern Conference Finals last year because of the players they surrounded Gobert with.
Rudy Gobert and four turnstiles isn’t a recipe for success.
Utah’s inability to guard the point of attack became salient when rewatching film from 2017. Gobert is an elite rim protector, but the Jazz let everybody pick up a full head of steam towards the rim – leaving Gobert in a no-win situation.
Those two clips are just a small sample size of multiple occasions. With Russell’s defensive shortcomings last year, Edwards, McDaniels, Beverley, and Vanderbilt were often asked to step up to the point of attack. Although both players on the roster had stretches where they didn’t look up to the task, they handled themselves well for most of the season. That wasn’t the case in Utah.
Another problem with the Jazz’s defense was their inability to support Gobert after helping down low. Too often, Gobert would deny a defender who wasn’t his assignment, just for his man to be left wide open. Typically, teams want their defender who received the help to rotate to the open player left from Gobert. That got exposed when LA went small.
The Clips usually replaced their center with a shooter, forcing Gobert to the perimeter. That wasn’t always a problem. Gobert actually fends for himself well on the perimeter. But it becomes an issue when Gobert is left to clean up after his teammates.
After Paul George passes to the corner, Bojan does a good job closing out to the shooter. Then Mitchell follows suit and has a nice close-out on Marcus Morris, who was pleased to pass to a wide-open Reggie Jackson. Jackson knocked down the three, putting the Clippers up 7 in a crucial fourth quarter.
How did Reggie Jackson get wide open? When you go back through the play, you see Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale guarding one person, Paul George. Instead of sitting in the paint after being helped by Gobert, O’Neale should have rotated to the corner or out to the wide-open Jackson.
It doesn’t make sense for Gobert to leave the paint in this situation for two main reasons. He’s a better rim protector than O’Neal, and O’Neal is quicker, allowing him to get out to the perimeter quicker. If the Jazz rotate the way I’ve outlined here, this is a successful possession. However, the Jazz repeatedly failed to do so in the playoffs.
Gobert didn’t collapse in the playoffs; the Jazz did. Defense reigns supreme in the postseason. We see it every year. When Gobert needed his teammates to help, they didn’t, and the blame fell on him. Some of the narratives around the three-time DPOY could be considered defamation. For Gobert’s sake, those narratives should dissipate now that the Wolves have surrounded him with a young, more athletic, and better defensive team.