With few teams in the West looking like a legitimate challenger to the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, the Utah Jazz have emerged as a dark horse in the conference.

The key has been Rudy Gobert’s return from a back injury. Gobert defends the third most shots at the rim per game and is second in blocks per possession among players with at least 1,000 minutes played — behind only the injured 7-foot-3 unicorn Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks. Gobert is also considered the league’s best defender according to ESPN’s Real Plus Minus — a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 possessions, after taking into account teammates and opponents. Since his return in January, the Jazz are outscoring opponents by 10.4 net points per 100 possessions, second only to the Rockets (plus-10.5) in that span.

Utah’s first-round opponent is still undecided, but a weakness of the Jazz defense could be exposed by a team that decides to employ a small-ball lineup early and often.

AD
AD

While teams have employed smaller lineups occasionally throughout the NBA’s history, the term was popularized after the success of the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni. The point is to play faster players and surround the court with shooting, which opens up the court for offensive players and draws bigger defenders from the paint. If Gobert has to guard someone at the three-point line for most of his possessions on defense, his value as a rim protector is sapped. He’s not comfortable moving far away from the rim, and quicker players have more room to drive by him. Given his importance to the team, if he’s unable to apply his best skills onto the court, Utah will perform at a significantly lower level.

Thankfully, if Utah plays Oklahoma City in the first round, Gobert would be matched up with a traditional center: Steven Adams, who rarely shoots away from the rim. As one of their most effective players, the Thunder would not be playing to their strengths if they were to employ small ball here. However, if the Thunder needed to take a risk — let’s say they’re down 1-3 in the series and want to try something new — they could use Patrick Patterson or Jerami Grant at center. Since Oklahoma City has big forwards who can rebound well in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and the maelstrom that is Russell Westbrook, that might be workable. New Orleans, another possible foe, has Anthony Davis, who can function and play like a perimeter player, and they start Nikola Mirotic, a three-point bomber. That’s a potential issue, especially if they bench Emeka Okafor.

The Rockets then loom as a potential second-round opponent, and they swept Utah in the regular season series. Based on research from Kevin Pelton and FiveThirtyEight, the series odds can be swung by as much as 25 percent based on a 4-0 regular-season series sweep.

AD
AD

The Warriors present a similar problem with their infamous “death lineup” in which they use Draymond Green at center. That usually involves Kevin Durant at power forward, and a wing off the bench — typically Andre Iguodala — with the rest of the starters. Gobert would be placed in situations where he’d have to guard actions behind the three-point line. If he hesitates during a Stephen Curry-Green pick-and-roll, for instance, that’s all the daylight Curry needs to fire.

Fortunately, the Jazz are more than their big man in the middle. Their defense has ramped up since January not just because of his return from injury but from a trade. Utah refined its team by trading away one defensive liability, Rodney Hood, and the elder, slow-moving Joe Johnson, and got back versatile defensive tool Jae Crowder. In the majority of their lineups, they have no defensive liabilities — Joe Ingles may look like a math teacher who collects “minerals”, but he’s an underrated, versatile cog in their system, while Donovan Mitchell was actually drafted for his defense and is good for a rookie.

Additionally, there’s always the possibility of stashing Gobert on a weak outside threat. For example, New Orleans’ Rajon Rondo is one obvious target, where you “guard” him with a center who can play far off him. This is what Golden State did to Memphis with Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen. Against Golden State and Houston, those targets could be Iguodala and Mbah a Moute, respectively; the former has shot 28 percent on three-point attempts this season and the latter is 34 percent for his career. They can also punish those teams at the other end of the court, though it’s tougher with Gobert’s rudimentary post game. But they could still leverage his size using offensive rebounds and lobs inside.

AD
AD

The silver lining is that the Jazz blew out the Warriors with their full lineup. Size has long been an elemental part of the game, but the same is true of versatility. If Gobert can’t adapt to small-ball lineups, then the Jazz will see their postseason end prematurely — even if Gobert is to thank for their playoff berth in the first place.

Read more:

AD
AD
AD
AD