NBA Trade: Let’s Assess Rudy Gobert’s Playoff Defense

NBA Trade: Let's Assess Rudy Gobert's Playoff Defense
(Editor’s note: Please welcome Aditya Sitaram to Canis Hoopus!)

Rudy Gobert has an ironclad case to be the one of the greatest defensive players in regular season history.

It’s too bad that at the end of a season where you fork up a 2-0 lead, nobody cares that you were the No. 1 seed with the No. 1 ranked defense all season. Just ask the 2020-21 utah jazz how that works. Nobody can argue that Utah has seen a pretty drastic increase in their playoff level defense but does the blame fall on Rudy Gobert?

First, let’s take a look at some of the numbers:

Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz - Game Five

Rudy Gobert defends Reggie Jackson
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Western Conference Semifinals vs. Clippers: LAC 4-2

This is the infamous series that put Rudy Gobert’s playoff defense under a serious microscope. While many find it convenient to point the finger at the Stifle Tower, the problem really goes much deeper.

For the series, the Jazz had an undoubtedly bad 121.9 defensive rating with Gobert on the floor, but an atrocious 135.9 defensive rating with him off the floor. This tells me that the Los Angeles Clippers exposed a much more significant defensive flaw in the Jazz’ defensive system and Gobert’s presence wasn’t enough to cover it all up.

Of course, we would be missing a huge part of the picture if we didn’t shed light on the anomalous circumstances that also undid the Jazz during the final two games of that series. In Game 5, the Clippers shot 40% from 3 on 40 shots and followed that up by shooting 14/19 from 3 in just the 2nd half of Game 6. Even after accounting for the poor defense, those shooting numbers are outrageous. Any team is essentially impossible to beat when they take a high volume of three pointers and just simply don’t miss. But, there’s no doubt the Jazz perimeter defense still deserves a large sum of the blame.

Playoff offenses are different. The game becomes much more about individual matchups and repeatedly poking holes at the opposing teams’ weakest links. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the timeless saying ‘a team is only as strong as its weakest link’. Well, whoever coined the phrase must have derived that line of thinking from the NBA playoffs.

Individual matchups get exploited and there is simply no way for any one player, no matter how great, to cover up the gaps of all the players around him. In a nutshell, that’s pretty much what happened in the Clippers-Jazz series.

The Clippers had the perfect formula to negate Gobert’s effectiveness at the rim by playing a lineup of 5 solid shooters on offense, allowing them to attack Utah’s perimeter defense. They executed the strategy to perfection. Gobert was repeatedly forced to make the impossible decision of whether to provide help on the drive or stay home on his shooter. Of course, regardless of what decision Gobert made, the offense was bound to generate a great look either way. Let’s take a look at some examples of what I’m talking about.

The perfect example of this is at the 32 second mark of the clip above. Reggie Jackson easily evades his defender, creating the initial advantage and Gobert has no other option but to slide into the paint and prevent the easy layup. Jackson wisely decides not to challenge Gobert at the rim and passes the ball into the corner, forcing Ingles to rotate to the corner shooter and create the chain of passes to the open man.

Well Ideally that’s what should’ve happened.

Instead, nobody rotates to the corner and Terance Mann has time to check his Instagram feed before sinking the wide-open three. The rest of the two minute clip is read with more examples of Clippers’ guards getting to the paint at will as well as some dreadful transition D to put the cherry on top. The eye test clearly shows that the Clippers knew exactly how to exploit Utah’s perimeter defense while also negating Gobert’s ability to put out all the fires.

Fast-forward to this past season. The chart above lists the 20 lowest rated defenders — according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rating — for the 2021-22 season and both Mitchell and Bogdonavic make the list. Amazingly, despite fielding a starting lineup with two of the worst defenders in the entire league, the Jazz still finished with a top 10 defense.

Gobert’s defense most definitely will not burn the Wolves in the playoffs but it also will not single-handedly eviscerate playoff offenses like it does in the regular season. If the team’s perimeter defense crashes and burns come playoff time, that will say a lot more about the players surrounding the Frenchman than anything else.

Minnesota will have to avoid falling into the trap of over-relying on Rudy’s defensive dominance in the regular season and relying on his presence to save all their defensive mishaps in the playoffs because that just won’t happen. Guys like Russell, Edwards, Towns, and McDaniels’ importance on the defensive end will only increase as the Wolves are likely to play more high leverage games with Gobert in the fold.

The defense surrounding Gobert has more than enough talent to make this work.

Both Edwards and McDaniels showed the ability to guard superstars on the perimeter and the wing at a high level in stretches last year. Their ability to do this consistently will be crucial in playoff games where high level guard and wing play is the norm. With Edwards’ ranginess and ball hawk skills, McDaniels help-side rim protection, Towns’ ability to adequately defend guards on the perimeter and their ability to all hold their own individually, the Timberwolves theoretically have more flexibility than Finch could ever imagine.

Unlike Utah, the Wolves don’t have any glaring minus defenders surrounding Gobert (depending on how you grade Russell’s on-ball defense) and that alone should go a long way in determining how effective this Wolves defense will perform come playoff time.

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