The Utah Jazz recently got a reminder of the massive importance a healthy Rudy Gobert has had on their squad when he missed five games — four of them being losses — while in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Similarly, when the shot-swatting center returned to the lineup on Sunday, it once again reinforced the point of just how critical the 7-foot-1 Gobert is to Utah’s chances of legitimately competing for an NBA championship.
Rudy returned in a big way on Sunday night by scoring 18 points and grabbing 19 rebounds as Utah ended a four-game skid by beating the Denver Nuggets 125-102. With Gobert again rolling to the rim, keeping possessions alive with his work on the boards, and defensively deterring drives into the paint, all was suddenly right again with the Jazz.
“With Rudy coming back, we wanted to play well,” Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell in Sunday’s postgame news conference as reported by The Associated Press. “We hadn’t played well as a group, and we finally figured it out a little bit.”
With Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint, things make sense for the Utah Jazz’s roster
To fully comprehend Gobert’s importance to the Jazz, take a look at the plus/minus ratios from Sunday’s game. In the 35 minutes that Gobert was on the floor against Denver, the Jazz were a plus-36 on the scoreboard. That means when Gobert was off the floor and resting for 13 minutes, Utah got outscored by 13 points.
It’s not that Hassan Whiteside and Eric Paschall are that poor of players; it’s just that Utah’s mix of players doesn’t nearly make as much sense without Gobert’s massive influence in the middle.
With Gobert on the floor, pick-and-roll plays with Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, and Mitchell become infinitely more challenging to defend. With Gobert rolling to the rim, defenses must honor the lob threat — something that gives significantly more 3-point shooting space to Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Jordan Clarkson. Mitchell, Conley, and Ingles. And with Gobert on the floor, teams can’t afford to blitz Mitchell with traps without having to expect to pay for it at the rim.
Defensively, Gobert’s importance is even more impactful. Of course, that’s the case with a player who has won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award three of the last four years and is a five-time All-Defense First-Team selection. With the “The Stifle Tower” in the middle, he covers up the defensive inadequacies of Bogdanovic, Clarkson, and O’Neale, and Utah can also get away with playing shooting-heavy, small-ball lineups.
Jazz got another rude reminder of what it’s like to be without star center Rudy Gobert
When Gobert recently went into the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the emotion that it evoked carried far beyond the Jazz’s locker room. After all, it was Gobert’s first positive test for COVID back on March 11, 2020 that did the unthinkable and caused the NBA to shutter its season. In some ways, his name will always be linked to one of the most significant shutdowns in league history.
Gobert’s time away also reinforced his importance the Jazz. In the five games that Utah had to play without their big man, they went a dispiriting 1-4. After outlasting an injury-ravaged Denver team on Jan. 5, the Jazz dropped the next four games and mostly were defenseless while surrendering 122, 125, 126, and 111 points.
The Jazz is one of the NBA’s most well-balanced teams for the season. Their offensive rating (116.5 points per 100 possessions) ranks first in the league, the defensive rating (108.6) is 12th, and their net rating (plus-7.9) is second overall. Without Gobert for those five games, the Jazz dropped to 17th in offensive rating (110.8), last in defensive rating (120.3), and 26th in net rating (minus-9.5).
Can the Utah Jazz ride Rudy Gobert to an NBA title or do they need to add more talent?
The stark contrast between Utah’s play with and without Rudy Gobert is hardly a new revelation. Last season, the numbers and effect were very similar, and the Jazz rode the play of their dominant big man to 52 regular-season wins, a playoff defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies, and a 2-0 edge on the Los Angeles Clippers.
However, the Jazz ultimately crumbled in that series and lost four in a row even though the Clippers missed Kawhi Leonard. Particularly dispiriting was the Game 5 loss at home when the series was tied at 2-all, and the Jazz had no answer for Paul George (37 points). Even more puzzling was the 131-119 loss in Game 6 when Utah’s vaunted defense had no answer for Terance Mann, who poured in a career-best 39 points.
The Jazz had to fight the temptation to blow up their roster at that point, and they ultimately returned the same core this season. But in the weeks remaining before the Feb. 10 NBA Trade Deadline, they must take a serious and honest look at their roster and determine if they have enough firepower to keep from suffering a similar fate in the playoffs this season.
Gobert, of course, is the untouchable piece on the roster and the key to making Utah function on both ends of the floor. However, if Utah could upgrade at power forward or find a point guard sturdier than the oft-injured Mike Conley, it might finally allow them to get back to The NBA Finals for the first time since the days of John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan.
Do nothing to add more toughness, talent, and temerity around Gobert, and the Jazz will run the risk of wasting another season of the center’s brilliance.
Statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.