OAKLAND, Calif. — As a reporter began to ask Joe Ingles about the players the Utah Jazz lost last summer — without referring to those players by name — the always amiable Australian cut them off.
“You just meant Gordon?” Ingles said with a smile. “You can say his name.”
That would be Gordon Hayward, the all-star forward who departed Utah for the Boston Celtics in free agency.
Wednesday night in Salt Lake City was supposed to be all about Hayward. The Jazz was hosting the Celtics for the only time this season, which meant the only appearance for its former star. It also was expected to be one of the final games of what nearly everyone outside of Utah’s organization assumed would be a rebuilding season.
Hayward wasn’t in Salt Lake City for the Celtics’ 97-94 victory Wednesday as he continued to rehabilitate the gruesome ankle injury he suffered just a few minutes into Boston’s season opener in Cleveland, and the Jazz is not tanking toward a lottery pick.
Winners of 23 of its past 28 games entering Friday night, Utah is closing in on securing a playoff spot in the West and is a team no one is looking forward to seeing in the playoffs.
The biggest reason — literally — is the team’s towering 7-foot-1 center, Rudy Gobert, who not only is making a case to be the league’s best defensive player but has some arguing he’s among the 10 best players in the game.
“It’s like building a house,” Jazz Coach Quin Snyder said. “You have to have a foundation. And he’s that foundation for our group. When you have that foundation, it allows everybody else to suddenly grow and get better.”
No one would dispute that Gobert is the foundation of everything the Jazz is doing. But the case for placing him among the 10 best players in the game is complicated.
Unlike James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James — fixtures on any such list — Gobert doesn’t typically have a line in a box score that is going to lead “SportsCenter.” His season averages — 14.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks — don’t stand out to anyone. Sometimes they don’t even stand out to his coach.
“We show more offensive highlights than we do defensive highlights,” Snyder said. “Historically those have been the numbers that are easiest to calculate and the most available. Now we have things like defensive efficiency, both individually and collectively. We have things like screening assists. So when you’re evaluating Rudy, you have to dig a little deeper, I think, to understand his true impact.
“Rudy can dominate a game and go 4 for 6 from the field and have 11 rebounds and two blocked shots. That’s unusual. And it’s really hard to see that for me, for everyone. All of a sudden you look back and see Rudy played great because all these things happened because of him being out there.”
The problem, though, is measuring just how great an impact that has on the game’s outcome. It’s easy to look at a Harden or Curry and extrapolate how their play affects a team. But to make Gobert’s case, conventional numbers aren’t enough.
That doesn’t mean the numbers don’t exist. Gobert doesn’t get the same attention as the Jazz’s sensational rookie — and leading scorer — Donovan Mitchell, who has missed 26 games this season because of injury.
Still, Utah has the league’s second-best defense, allowing 102.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Since the Jazz began its current streak Jan. 24, Utah is holding teams to a league-low 96.2 points per 100 possessions — more than six points fewer than the second-ranked Philadelphia 76ers (102.6). That’s the same margin separating the 76ers and the 20th-ranked Sacramento Kings (109.1) during that span.
“He effects the game, obviously, in a lot of ways,” Ingles said of Gobert, who has the best individual defensive rating (97.9) of any player who has averaged at least 30 minutes per game. “Sometimes that stuff doesn’t show up. Just changing shots even. He might not get a block for it, but we know every time if we get beaten or we can pressure even more because we know he’s going to come across and either block it or change that shot.”
Combine that with newer statistics such as screen assists (a screen that directly leads to a basket by a teammate) and contested shots — both stats Gobert leads the NBA in on a per game basis, per NBA.com — and it has become possible to see how a player such as Gobert can impact the game in ways beyond the traditional box score.
It’s also why, even though Gobert is going to finish with only 56 games played (assuming he’s healthy the rest of the way), he’s the favorite to win the defensive player of the year award.
His odds only increased when Joel Embiid, his main competition, suffered an orbital fracture Wednesday night.
“It’s hard for people that don’t watch the games to evaluate players for something different than the stats, pure stats,” Gobert said. “Points, rebounds, assists … that’s why usually people look at the box score and see that, and say, ‘Oh, this guy played the best.’
“I don’t blame them. I’m just trying to help my team, and my team, my staff, they know what I bring to the table.”
Gobert is clearly bringing plenty to the table, even if it’s more likely that he falls somewhere close to — but not in — the list of the NBA’s top 10 players.
What matters to the Jazz, though, is not where Gobert falls in an arbitrary ranking. Instead, it is that the towering Frenchman has the Jazz on the verge of not only making the playoffs this spring but making trouble once there.
That wasn’t supposed to be the case when Hayward left. But the foundation left behind — and built on Gobert’s broad shoulders — proved strong enough to survive and thrive even without Hayward.
“When you lose your best scorer, people think you’re not going to be able to score anymore,” Gobert said. “But we’ve got all the guys that left, and guys that came in, and the shots go to someone else.
“Everyone always forgets about the Jazz because we’re a small market. But we just focus on us, and people are going to be surprised, hopefully, at the end of the season.”
Gobert’s play has ensured that.
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