August 12, 2022

The Dallas Mavericks find themselves in an interesting place heading into this offseason. They are coming off a season tie for the third most successful season in franchise history. They have one of the best assets in the NBA in Luka Doncic. They have fantastic complementary ‘three and d’ pieces in Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. Assuming they can quit Jalen Brunson, he completes the NBA’s best point guard trio with Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Notable for its absence from the above list is a true center. Its good. The league no longer revolves around centers like it once did. Two-way wings and perimeter creators are the league’s motto today. That being said, the most valuable shots in the game are still layups and dunks.

Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA. He does this through an incredible combination of length, positioning and timing. It is able to completely wall off the rim. Unfortunately, this has proven more true during the regular season than the playoffs have in recent seasons. The Utah Jazz have been a good or great defensive team for most of the last 5 regular seasons. They got significantly worse through the playoffs each season.

Utah Jazz Defensive Rating

SeasonClassification Jazz RS DRJazz playoff dating
SeasonClassification Jazz RS DRJazz playoff dating

This does not necessarily indicate a failure of Gobert. A lot goes into a team defense and the Jazz have systematically dismantled the defensive perimeter in front of them in order to improve shooting and offense. But the appeal of Gobert is that he is theoretically a defense to himself. He’s also part of that breakdown because playoff teams are working very hard to attack him specifically.

Rudy Gobert Rim Field Goal Percentage Allowed

SeasonGobert Rim FG% Authorized RSGobert Rim Fg % Playoffs Allowed
SeasonGobert Rim FG% Authorized RSGobert Rim Fg % Playoffs Allowed

The decline in defensive effectiveness on the brink of the playoffs during this span is extremely troubling. The last time Gobert’s elite rim guard moved to the playoffs was in 2017-18. Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year that year, and Lamarcus Aldridge was one of the NBA’s top ten scorers. Perhaps most significantly this season, the Jazz’s two playoff opponents have played a traditional center over 30 minutes per game. The Oklahoma City Thunder played Steven Adams 33.4 minutes per game in the first round and the Houston Rockets played Clint Capela 33.0 minutes per game.

Those crosses combined to shoot zero three-pointers, allowing Gobert to stay closer to the rim where he is effective. Both players have actually been relatively effective offensively, as they each averaged double-digit tallies despite playing tiny attacking roles. Their individual production didn’t matter as much as the fact that they allowed Gobert to hide near the edge. When Gobert is allowed to play close to the rim against a team with at least one spacer not on the ground, he’s as good as anyone at taking the rim off. But the teams just don’t allow him that luxury anymore.

In 2018-19, the Jazz again played against the Rockets and Gobert once again had the luxury of playing against an unspaced center. His rim protection remained solid, if not elite, and the Jazz defense had its last effective run in the playoffs. Then the league changed under him and Gobert became a playoff liability.

In 2019-20, the Jazz played the Denver Nuggets and Gobert was forced to keep Nikola Jokic. Jokic shot 46 threes and hit them at a 47.8% clip in this series. The Jazz defense crumbled under the onslaught of Jokic and Jamal Murray. Gobert was simply unable to cope with Jokic’s modern attacking abilities.

Then the Jazz faced the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round the following season. Rather than playing the ground stretching big men to fight Gobert, the Clippers just didn’t play big men at all. They were able to do that because of Gobert’s offensive limitations which are the next part of that equation.

Gobert is an elite man who can finish on anyone and attack the offensive glass to get extra shots from his teammates. Unfortunately, he can’t create anything for himself, regardless of his height advantage. The idea of ​​Gobert covering up for Doncic’s defensive mistakes while catching lobs from him on the other end is enticing. But deep in the playoffs, teams just don’t allow that many lobs, so they can’t be the base of a team’s offense. Without those lobs, Gobert essentially can’t play offensively despite setting up fantastic screens.

In the perfect setting, Gobert remains an incredible player. If the Mavericks acquired him for the right price, they would almost certainly be among the best regular-season teams in the league. The problem is that other teams now have the opportunity to take him out of this frame. The Mavericks would be booked by two players who both proved exploitable in the playoffs on the defensive end. That’s not the recipe for playoff success and that’s all the Mavericks should be chasing. The Phoenix Suns have been the best team in basketball all season, but the season they just had shouldn’t be considered a success for the Mavericks going forward.

The Mavericks should probably part with at least one of Dorian Finney-Smith or Reggie Bullock in a Gobert trade. The most important thing to take away from any criticism of Gobert is that in the modern NBA, he’s not able to cover terrible perimeter defense while keeping a five-man offense. Therefore, any trade that takes away the Mavericks perimeter defense is a non-starter.

Gobert is a very good basketball player who came just when the league was moving away from players with his skills. He’s under contract for about $42 million per season over the next four years if he exercises his player option. Because of this contract, he would be the last significant move the Mavericks could make for the foreseeable future. He would be the bad one. The Mavericks are in a weird place with a ton of questions, but Rudy Gobert isn’t the answer.