The NBA’s annual MVP race has several worthy candidates in the discussion. Rudy Gobert has been mostly on the outside of the discussion despite his impact on winning for the team with the best record in the league during the regular season. The center finished out of the top three as the NBA announced Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry as the finalists. Gobert has established himself as one of the preeminent defenders in NBA history. He’s won the Defensive Player of the Year award two times already and is a frontrunner to capture his third trophy this season.
Gobert has averaged at least two blocks the last seven seasons. Those blocks don’t even include the shots he alters, the offensive players who cower in fear when the seven-footer is defending a drive in the paint. His mere presence also allows Utah’s perimeter players to be aggressive on defense and stay home on shooters instead of helping on drives. Since Gobert became a full-time starter in 2015, Utah has finished outside of the top 10 in defensive efficiency in just one season.
Our concept of an MVP in the NBA almost always revolves around offense. The last time a player won MVP and averaged fewer than 20 points was Steve Nash in 2006. Nash led the NBA in assists that season with 10.5 and was arguably one of the least effective defensive players to ever win the award.
Curry. Embiid and Jokic are the hubs of their teams’ offenses. Curry led the league in scoring, Embiid was just behind at fourth and Jokic was sixth. All three have their share of highlight reels filled with crossovers and stepback threes. Embiid is the only one of the three capable of being an All-Defensive player.
Gobert’s highlight reel is blocks, and lots of them. He averaged 14.3 points for Utah this season. 231 of his 391 field goals (59 percent) are dunks, and 76.7 percent of his shots are assisted. Gobert is not creating offense off the dribble and not attacking out of the post. Despite those facts, Gobert does contribute in ways to help his team on offense. He is one of the top screeners in the NBA and has notoriously been either first or second in screen assists over the past five seasons.
Screen assists are one of the stats at the center of a huge dissonance between how Gobert is perceived nationally against the love that he gets in Utah. Locally, Gobert receives his plaudits from Jazz fans and media for his screen assists, elite on/off numbers and rim protection. There’s a clear understanding that the Jazz would not be in first place without Gobert.
If you watch any national television sports talk show or game broadcast, you would think the Jazz were a one-man show. All-Star Donovan Mitchell is often referred to as Utah’s best player even though Utah plays better with Gobert on the floor. Since Mitchell leads the Jazz in scoring, only his performance can be used in the national conversation to explain why Utah has played well. It’s reductive, but scoring is generally how the national discourse around the league flows. It’s easier to explain why a player is good or valuable through offense rather than defense.
Gobert has always been one of the most valuable players in the league in terms of his impact on winning, but Utah had never finished higher than fifth in the West over the past few seasons, making it hard to develop a case for the big man. With Utah in first place for most of this season, it was the ultimate test of how Gobert’s value would be contextualized on a national scale. Welp. Utah had the best record in the NBA and was dominant. The Jazz had the best net rating in the league (plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions), and it wasn’t particularly close.
Compared to those of his peers, Gobert’s counting stats look good, but relatively ordinary. Gobert’s numbers of 14.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks are closer to 2016-17 Hassan Whiteside than the elite numbers of his peers such as Jokic and Embiid.
The NBA has historically had a tough time rewarding elite defenders with limited or low usage style play on offense. Ben Wallace was recently named to the NBA’s 2021 Hall of Fame class, but it took three tries to get the former NBA champion and four-time Defensive Player of the Year to that status. The highest Wallace finished in MVP voting was 2003-04 when he was seventh.
Players who rely on defense primarily will always have a harder time showcasing their value. Statistics always paint a better picture for stars with the ball in their hands. For the rare star such as Gobert who impacts the game without touching the ball on offense sometimes, it will always be an uphill battle and quite possibly why he’s frequently pleading for more respect.