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Why the NBA overlooked Rudy Gobert – and how much hardware it will take to make amends

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BOSTON – The 2013 NBA draft combine explains a lot about why teams doubted Rudy Gobert – and why that wound up a mistake.

Gobert had massive measurements – 7-foot-2 in shoes and a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan. His 9-foot-7 standing reach is tied for the third biggest in the DraftExpress database.

But the French big man posted underwhelming numbers in the athletic testing, including a max vertical of just 29 inches.

It’s one thing to be big. It’s quite another to be big and athletic, and Gobert appeared to be only the former.

So, he fell to the No. 27 pick in the draft, the Jazz trading up to get him.

And they couldn’t be happier now with that decision.

Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets

If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.

He’s just so dominant, in so small part due to his impressive athleticism.

So why didn’t it show at the combine?

Gobert participated while battling a pre-existing knee injury.

Despite the risk of faring poorly and seeing his draft stock fall – which ultimately happened – Gobert insisted on competing because he believed teams hadn’t seen enough of him playing in France.

“I had to prove to everybody else what I could do,” Gobert said

Gobert hasn’t stopped working to prove himself since.

Being 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach helps. But Gobert is clearly committed to being the best 7-foot-2 player with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach he can be.

He didn’t become a center until age 18, playing small forward growing up before a growth spurt. It didn’t take him long to realize what his size advantage could offer – an advantage many players have tried to rest on.

Instead, Gobert is progressing nicely toward maximizing the potential offered by his natural ability.

He doesn’t float toward the perimeter offensively. He works hard to position himself for as many high-percentage shots at the rim as possible.

He doesn’t just stand under the basket and swat shots. He’s learning the finer points of defensive positioning.

Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.

Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:

  • Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
  • Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
  • Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
  • Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
  • Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
  • Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960

Can Gobert join that group?

Defensive Player of the Year

This is the award Gobert said he covets most of the three.

But he’s not holding his breath.

“To be honest and to be realistic, I think they’re going to put somebody who’s more exposed to TV,” Gobert said.

That might be true, though the seemingly popular leader for Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green – is an unconventional candidate who thrives because of his defensive versatility. If voters want a convention rim-protecting big man, Gobert makes a strong case.

The Jazz allow 100.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays (equivalent of fifth in NBA) and 106.8 when he sits (28th).

He also leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he’s defending it (at least three shots defended at rim per game):

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Serge Ibaka is another player who fits the Defensive Player of the Year archetype, and his name has been tied to the award for years. That familiarity is a disadvantage to Gobert.

More fairly, some of Gobert’s defensive success can be credited to playing with Derrick Favors. Favors, a more advanced defender, guards extremely well on the perimeter for a big man, allowing Gobert free reign in the paint. However, in the same sense, Gobert boosts Favors. Just because they work well in tandem – allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions (equivalent of first in the league) when they share the court – doesn’t mean Gobert should be docked.

If these numbers aren’t your bag, just watch a Jazz game. Gobert’s defensive impact is easy to see.

This happens when he’s in the lane (hat tip: Mike Prada of SB Nation):

And this happens when he’s not:

 

 

Want proof Gobert is correct about the lack of attention he receives? There wasn’t more outrage at Jazz coach Quin Snyder not using Gobert to defend the rim in that situation.

Sixth Man of the Year

Gobert is entrenched as a starter now – and likely for years to come.

But he already came off the bench in enough games, 45, to clinch his eligibility for this award.

No player currently eligible has produced more win shares than Gobert:

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Most Improved Player

Many voters gripe about this award, complaining about a lack of clear criteria.

Do they honor a player who saw his role – and therefore numbers – increase or someone who actually got better?

Gobert checks both boxes.

The second-year center has progressed on both sides of the ball, but his growth offensively is especially impressive.

He has flashed a passing ability that was completely non-existent last season. He’s shooting 65.7 percent in the restricted area, up from 53.0 percent last season.

He runs the floor hard (ranking 18th of 400 eligible players in points per transition play finished) and finds space in the pick-and-roll (ranking 31st of 198 eligible players in points per roll play finished).

Joe Ingles has assisted Gobert more than anyone else, because Ingles has seemingly figured out he can throw the ball anywhere near Gobert’s general vicinity and Gobert will grab it. Even low passes have a way of finding their way into Gobert’s hands.

“He’s just kind of easy to play with, really,” Ingles said. “He’s so tall and stuff that when you play pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, it’s easy to find him. He gets to the right spot.”

All in all, no player has increased their win shares from last season more than Gobert (0.4 to 6.5)

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Gobert’s improvement can be defined not just by how much he’s already done, but by how much untapped potential remains.

As much as Gobert helps the Jazz’s defense, their offense falls by about the same amount when plays. A key issue: Neither he nor Favors shoots well from outside.

How do you make that pairing work offensively?

“You just asked one of the hardest questions in coaching,” Snyder said, “and It’s how to space bigs in pick-and-roll. It’s why the league, over a period of time, is going to stretch bigs. It just makes the floor open. It’s easier. What you lack maybe in shooting range, you have to make up for with movement, screening, passing, different types of skill to occupy defenders. It’s just not easy. It’s not easy.”

That’s a frank answer, and there’s no disguising the challenge Utah faces. Favors has three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, and Gobert has two before he can become a restricted free agent.

So, no, this is hardly a perfect situation.

But as long as Gobert remains so committed to proving himself, bet on him figuring out how to make it work.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.