At any point during the 2020-21 NBA season, it would have been understandable and reasonable for Rudy Gobert to take a night off, to get some extra rest, or to limit himself during the home stretch.
But, despite an unrelenting schedule and the wear and tear of a regular season compounded by the increased number of back-to-back sets, Gobert — arguably the most important player on this Jazz team — remained a dependable constant.
“The things that Rudy does are unique, and he’s a stabilizing force, particularly on the defensive end,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of his All-Star center. “To the extent that that remains consistent and similar ... it allows us to continue to play a certain way.”
En route to securing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a league-best 52-20 record, the Jazz went through the normal ups and downs of any NBA season. Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Georges Niang went through shooting slumps, multiple players dealt with minor injuries that sidelined them throughout the season, and then the Jazz’s other two All-Stars, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, missed a large chunk of games at the tail end of the regular-season calendar.
But Gobert missed just a single game this season and that’s important, not just in the sense that the Jazz play better and need Gobert to win games, but for exactly the reason that Snyder pointed to. Without Gobert, the Jazz would have to change a lot of what they do on the offensive end and even more of what they do on the defensive side.
The Jazz came into the 2020-21 season more intent than ever at beating teams with a refined perimeter game and they finished the season by breaking multiple franchise 3-point records, a handful of NBA 3-point records, and leading the league in 3-pointers made. That doesn’t happen without the offensive gravity that Gobert provides by being a threat at the rim.
On the defensive side, Gobert’s impact on the game is possibly the most important part of the Jazz’s identity.
“When you look at other players in the league, his impact is at the highest level,” Snyder said.
Without Gobert on the floor the Jazz wouldn’t be able to use their ball-pressure to funnel players into the paint and force them to contend with the two-time (likely to be three-time) Defensive Player of the Year.
Rudy Gobert 2020-21 Stats
|Defensive win shares||5.2||1st|
|Field goal percentage||67.50%||1st|
|True shooting percentage||68.20%||2nd|
|Screen assists per game||6.1||2nd|
So, if Derrick Favors had to start, with one of the Jazz’s deeper reserves coming in to play center, or the Jazz going with a small-ball five lineup, the Jazz’s defensive scheme completely changes. With Gobert remaining a constant for the Jazz, they have been able to build on what they do best throughout the season, rather than constantly adjust.
It’s even more important that Gobert was able to play 71 games of the 72-game season considering the deficit at point guard the Jazz dealt with at the end of the season with Mitchell and Conley unable to play.
“I think that position in particular (point guard) is a challenging one, and it’s a challenging one to absorb within the team,” Snyder said. “Similar to losing your quarterback in football, everything goes through the point guard, whether it be initiating a possession offensively, be it on a dead ball, or a free throw, out of a time out, that’s the guy that gets the ball where it needs to be.
“And also on the defensive end that’s where it’s unique because quarterbacks don’t play free safety — at least not these days. So that combination of things and the leadership, is impactful beyond the minutes.”
While the Jazz were trying to figure out how to make it through the end of the season without their two primary ball-handlers, Gobert was there, stoic as ever.
Though he certainly had to take on a larger leadership role and the burden on the court was increased without Mitchell and Conley, Gobert didn’t see his role any differently. He expects that he will be depended upon. That’s a part of his role for this Jazz team, even if there are other key players missing.
“I feel like I have this responsibility every night,” Gobert said. My role is the same no matter if those guys are not here. Obviously we’ve got a different type of basketball, but for me, I come in every single night trying to be the best that I can be for this team and anchor this team defensively and be a force offensively and get my teammates open.”
As for the grind of the season and the toll on his body, not only does Gobert insist that he doesn’t think about that, his numbers and performance this season have led to an even more impressive argument for a DPOY bid than he had the last two times he won the award.
Gobert leads the league in total plus-minus at plus-728, is ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating (100.6), first in defensive win shares (5.2), first in total blocks (190), and led the NBA in field goal percentage (67.5%) and dunks (231).
Additionally, Gobert also led the league in nearly every advanced defensive metric and has been the odds-on favorite to win DPOY for nearly the entire season.
“I know that I have to be out there for my team and I try to be there every single night,” Gobert said. “Even when I’m tired or I’m maybe beat up or if I’m a little hurt, if it’s nothing serious, I try to be out there. I’m really confident that being able to go through the stretches of games when we’re missing some guys makes us stronger as a team.”
If the team was made stronger this season, Gobert deserves at least some of the credit. And as the Jazz head into the postseason they’ll need to him to continue to be the constant that anchors the team.