21–22 NBA Previews: The Utah Jazz (#4)
The offense/defense calibration of a given basketball team is always a delicate matter. I suppose this is why it is so valuable when a player adds value on both sides of the ball. Most players are not like this; most players have elite skills here and there, and in the other parts of the game they make do as best they can. The Utah Jazz, since they happen to have the most valuable defensive force in the league in Rudy Gobert, make for an interesting case study in the problems of team building.
Gobert has for years now provided the Jazz with a base defense that absolutely works. In the context of the regular season, when teams often lack the necessary time to put together an individualized game plan, Gobert’s strengths—walling off the paint, contesting without fouling, giving perimeter defenders the freedom to be aggressive in front of him—mean that the Jazz are able to make teams uncomfortable consistently. The math is on their side.
Of course, the playoffs have been a different story. Teams are able to figure out the Jazz over multiple games, eventually pulling Gobert out of the zones in which he is most effective. And since the Jazz have calibrated their team by surrounding Gobert with offense-first players, they lack the versatility and improvisational freedom to play other styles.
The real problem, though, is Gobert’s offense. He has improved over the years to an admirable degree, but he is still a low-usage player who turns the ball over too much and doesn’t create shots for his teammates. He can’t be relied on to mash smaller defenders on switches. He can’t be relied on to create good shots on the weak side when he catches in the middle of the floor in high screen-and-roll action. Basically, no matter how much he improves, he’s a little bit in the way, at best.
Strange to say, Gobert’s improvement has in many ways spelled doom for the Jazz. He’s just good enough on offense, and so remarkably great on defense, that the Jazz have no choice but to build around him. It would seem that the combination of Gobert’s defense and Donovan Mitchell’s offense would be ideal, and most of the time it actually is. This team is going to run off a ton of wins again this season. Still, when push comes to shove, they’ll lack some balance. They’ll lack the improvisational freedom to change with circumstance. Gobert means you have to play Gobert-style.
And so it seems like, yet again, the Jazz are destined to be subject to the whims of matchups. If they catch the right ones—and, honestly, I’m not sure I know what those are quite yet—it is possible they could make it to The Finals. If they don’t—if they run into a team against whom Gobert is more liability than weapon—they’ll lose in the early rounds again, and after years of disappointment, it will be time for a reckoning, and the experiment of the Gobert Years will finally, I guess, come to an end.