After losing Gordon Hayward to free agency the Utah Jazz became an elaborate science experiment, worthy of a study published in a reputable journal. The main question to be answered by this experiment was: how far can an NBA team go with a historically good defense and historically bad offense? Even making the playoffs would be a heck of an accomplishment, and that seemed totally feasible thanks to one Rudy Gobert.
Gobert is the sun at the center of the Jazz solar system. He always was in the physical sense because he’s their center and, well, he’s gigantic. As is the sun. But this year he became their focal point in every way. All of a sudden on the 4th of July, he went from one half of a potent duo to The Guy. Entrusting the future of your team to an defensive master and offensive simpleton is risky, but it was Utah’s only choice.
Statistically, it had gone exactly as you’d expect. In the 12 games Gobert played, the Jazz averaged 96.9 points per game (not good) and held their opponents to 99.1 per game (very good). For reference, the only offenses worse belonged to 2-8 Chicago and 3-8 Sacramento. The only better defenses came from 12-2 Boston, the oddly 6-7 Thunder and 7-5 Memphis (8-5 San Antonio was tied with Utah). Utah was the only of those defensive stalwarts to have a negative point differential at -2.2, yet were outperforming the other offensively challenged teams by more than 5 points. They have mashed together two extremes into a lukewarm, bland finished product. Like the exact opposite of the pizza bagel.
Much like a package of pizza bagels, Utah’s success this season could always disappear quickly. Even if Gobert stayed healthy, the newly acquired Ricky Rubio is running point and shooting more than ever. Shocker: he’s not shooting well. Donovan Mitchell looks promising so far, but is shooting little better. Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood shoot well from deep, but are forced to do so much that their efficiency suffers. And guess what, without their anchor in the middle who sucks in defenders there will be even less room to shoot. Uh oh.
Gobert’s replacement will have a tough time. Utah has actually been better with Gobert off the court than on, but the starters have struggled so much that everyone’s numbers are wonky in this small sample. Derrick Favors playing without Gobert has put up an unsustainable 112 Offensive Rating in 111 minutes, nearly 20 points better than in the 237 minutes they’ve shared the floor. Playing starter-level minutes will reduce that number, making life tough for Utah even if his solid Defensive Rating holds. Epke Udoh will have to remind everyone that he’s still in the league. There aren’t really any other options. Small ball with Jonas Jerebko and Thabo Sefolosha? Okay no, I’m sorry. This will be tough.
And it was always going to be tough. Things were going to have to break Utah’s way just to make the playoffs. Ingles and Hood would have to replace a certain percentage of Hayward’s scoring. Mitchell would have to show out immediately. Rubio needed to not shoot this much. A slightly more offensively proficient Gobert would’ve gone far. All of that happening was unlikely, and still is now.
Plus, at least one of the middle tier Western Conference teams would have to stumble. There’s still a logjam in that 5-10 seed range, but a month or more without Gobert is a setback they’ll be hard-pressed to recover from. The Jazz’s December schedule is the NBA version of an American Ninja Warrior course, and a team that can’t score and is missing its best defender will be in trouble. No other team, barring injury, can be expected to drop as far as Utah will. Good luck playing catchup out West this season.
Now instead of the original parameters of this Utah experiment, they’ll likely be historically bad on both ends of the floor until Gobert’s return, if not longer. Will he be 100% when he returns, or at all this year? Could Utah hold him out and tank? Do they panic and make rash moves at the trade deadline? Interesting questions, but much less so than the first one. It’s a sad story, and one unlikely to provide conclusive data. Gobert and his team will just have to go back to the lab next year.