Rudy Gobert is a championship center - just not at his salary (and the challenges of roster building in a salary capped NBA)

You can probably win a championship with Rudy Gobert. Maybe. This was my take before Minnesota, and yikes. He never improves his skill, he seems to not get along with teammates, and he’s matchup dependent. (Editor’s note: ahhh, yes. This year went much better.)

Having said that!

His defensive dominance has been well documented, as is his surprising roll gravity, which opens up a dunk for him or a 3 for his teammates. His ability to discourage layup attempts with his mere presence and short-circuit drives by hinting and recovering is elite. Giannis is probably the best at this, but Gobert is up there.

There’s multiple Reddit threads dedicated to his greatness, and multiple articles dedicated to his overrated-ness.

Two notes before we move on.

  1. The clip of Terrance Mann beating him off the dribble and dunking on him is often used to discredit him. Watch the clip again, and you’ll notice Gobert planted firmly under the rim to stop an easy layup or dunk from Paul George — after a blow by on some lazy Donovan Mitchell defense (in the 4th quarter of game 5!) and step-late help by Royce O’Neal — when the pass is made to Mann. Gobert recovers to the perimeter, recovers back inside, and is a split second too late on the rim contest. Again, the only player who could probably cover the full spectrum of what he did there and improve on his performance is Giannis. It’s not exactly fair to hold him accountable for a series of breakdowns and rotations that ultimately began with Mitchell giving PG a straight line to the basket.

  2. If you’re getting paid $200 million, you should absolutely be matchup-proof and able to compete on both ends of the floor at an extremely high level.

And therein lies the problem with Rudy Gobert. Is he a useful, winning player? Absolutely. Has he been treated like a star when in fact he’s more of a high-end role player? Probably.

Let’s break down what I mean by that.

Stars, in my mind, contribute on both ends in a variety of ways. Gobert protects the rim like few ever have. Check. He grabs rebounds — but has a low contested rebound rate (~39% this year, his highest year since 2016-2017), meaning that most of his rebounds are a function of right time and place rather than fighting off competition for boards.

I’ll still give him rebounding as a great skill, but for a player with no perimeter skills to speak of, who spends all his time around the rim, I find it head-scratching his contested rebound rate is lower than other centers such as Clint Capela (~49.9% this year).

Now, is this a case of great anticipation, as he covers more than 3 feet of distance for over half his rebounds? Maybe. Again, it might also be a function of occupying the space on the floor closest to the rim — which is where he should be, blocking off drives — which is also hard to knock him for.

His perimeter switch-ability isn’t great, certainly not on the level of someone like Bam Adebayo, Nic Claxton, Giannis, or younger Draymond.

So on defense, his greatest asset, he grades out as excellent in one respect, great in another, and good-to-serviceable in the third. And this is considering he’s not at his peak anymore. Even at his peak, all of this was true.

Offense time?

Offense time.

While his screen setting and rolling2 and offensive rebounding are well known, you also know what is?

His lack of an outside jump shot. I mean, just look at that. It doesn’t even look good. At no point did I believe that was going in, nor that it was ever going to achieve repeatable success. He’s two steps away from being two steps away from being a good shooter.

He rarely dribbles, for good reason. 

He can pass pretty well out of the roll, from what I remember. Finish pretty well too.

But not at elite levels. Not in a way that inspires confidence. And if he can’t shoot, he needs to be an elite finisher in order to be a star.

Scoring is often overvalued in my eyes. It’s not the be-all end-all. There’s plenty of other ways to contribute.

But to be a star, a true star, you need to be able to score. Consistently. Elite-ly, in at least one aspect of the game.

DeRozan, for all his flaws, has his midrange jumper and free throws down pat, not to mention a pretty decent finishing package.

Look at other star bigs. Giannis, Jokic, Embiid, KAT. Think Gobert is anywhere close to any of them in skill level? Hell, even Nic Claxton, though not a star, is way more versatile and independent on offense than Gobert has ever been.

The Utah Jazz would be reigning world champions if Gobert ever developed anything approaching what Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis have up their sleeves, in their bags, when it comes to post moves.

Heck, can we even get something approaching Jakob Poetl levels? A quick catch and turn into a hook, a turn baseline for a finish, a backdown dribble or two? That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Close your eyes and picture it — how many times would Gobert wind up under the rim, with someone Steph Curry or Klay Thompson sized on him, and not get the ball? And if he ever did get the ball, how many times did he convert?

Again, just a catch and turn, a one dribble into a hook, spin, fake, anything. That alone would have given Utah a deadly weapon to punish mismatches, and would have made playing Gobert off the floor by going small a losing proposition. Go big and he shuts down the paint. Go small and he scores every time down the floor.

What does that sound like to you? Someone who causes problems for the opposing team, on both ends, no matter the matchup?

A star.

And that’s just it. That’s what I’m getting at, in a roundabout way — Rudy Gobert is not, and has never been, a star.

Why? Because he has glaring weaknesses that come out when the games get the biggest. But he is so exceptionally strong at his strengths that he rolls through the regular season. Which is what an 82 game player does, which is what a flawed role player does — excel when opponents are adjusting specifically for them, flounder when game plans are presented to make them play to their weaknesses.

Gobert, for all his strengths, has had many flaws, which he never fixed. He’s always been an overpaid and overtouted role player.

Now, that’s not to say he couldn’t be an exceptional role player and win a title.

Pay him somewhere in the $10-15 million range, invest in star wing(s), get some great perimeter defense, and he can be your rim-protecting, lob-grabbing, rebound-inhaling big. The type that come a dime a dozen in today’s NBA, except he’d be the best version of that variant.

And if for some reason he gets matchup hunted off the floor (unlikely if you have solid/passable perimeter D, which the Jazz did not), then you feel less bad benching him and bringing him a (probably fairly well compensated) bench dude for a small ball lineup.

Also, I might add, in order to run Gobert off the floor you need 5 wings who can all switch pick and rolls, shoot, and playmake. The Clippers might have been all alone in that category in 2021. The Jazz were just unfortunate enough to run into them — and stupid enough to not adjust the following year, when Dallas followed the same formula, without Luka, to crush them.

Because in order for Gobert to be run off the floor, you need perimeter stoppers who can’t stop, forcing him into scramble scenarios that he is not quick enough to excel in.

Again, stars overcome. Role players are products of their environment. Rudy Gobert is a role player.

Utah’s mistake was in overpaying him, not encouraging him to develop a post game to at least punish switches (maybe they did and he just failed or ignored them, I’m not a part of that franchise, obviously), and not preparing to play without him and/or maximize him (aka, invest in perimeter defense and/or a small ball 5, preferably both, but definitely not NEITHER!).

Much like with Donovan Mitchell, Utah made a mistake in its evaluation process in terms of fit and skill when it came to Gobert. However, they were able to fantastically get out from under that mistake by way of an even more terrible evaluation by Minnesota.

The path forward with Gobert was always to either minimize his pay rate or trade him and extract maximum value. Utah, after failing the first step, aced the second. So, there’s not much to be too upset about. They built a dominant regular season team for a solid half-decade plus. And when it came to an end, they stripped it down to the studs and sold it off for spare parts of both quantity and quality. That’s not nothing!

The only frustration is in what could have been. Teams miss calls on players all the time. I’m not totally out on Gobert to the point where I’d call him an 82 game player at his best, much like a Westbrook or DeRozan, but he certainly was never a star, a face of the franchise type player — rather, he was a star in his role. In that regard, perhaps they never had a real shot at a title.

Or, perhaps they did. More on that later.

Now, let’s take a step back.

The fact that Rudy Gobert is even in this position at all is somewhat of a miracle, an underdog, long-shot story worth celebrating. 

How many French NBA players can you name off the top of your head? What about French 7-footers? (Editor’s Note: this was pre-Wembanyama). He’s at the intersection of a very exclusive Venn diagram.

And despite it all, he’s probably happy being overrated. Better that than underpaid — right Jay?

***

Now, let’s get into the second part of this argument. Roster building in a salary capped NBA.

As stated in the Donovan Mitchell argument with the example of this season’s Blazers, who are utilizing over 40% of their cap on Lillard and Simons, leaving them with 60% of the remaining resources to fill out the rest of their starting five, rotation, and depth.

Unless your top two are indeed THE top two, you should second-guess yourself in this situation.

First, a caveat. I’m aware cap exceptions exist. Bird rights, restricted free agents, mid-level exception, room exception, veteran minimums, etc. All ways of giving players more than the true minimum contract even when you do not have that level of cap space available.

I see luxury tax like the NBA’s version of bank loans. They discourage you from falling too deep into the tax or falling too far behind on your mortgage payment, from both a punitive financial and structural perspective, but secretly they love it. Because the more you spend, the more you owe. The more you defer, the more you owe.

So they provide you with tools to circumvent some of their own laws and rules and structures they set up in the first place, so you can be exempt from some of the punitive fiscal measures and keep your head above water for the time being, except all it’s really doing is digging you a deeper hole.

Too dark?

Let’s get back on topic.

From the 2016-17 season to the 2021-22 season, Utah finished 1st in their division 3 times and won 50 games the same amount, which is, 3 times — though not on all the same years. The lowest their winning percentage dipped was .585. At no point during this 6 year run did they ever win at a pace not near 50 games.

Their top player in win shares all 6 years? Rudy Gobert.

In fact, he was even their ‘top player’ in 2014-15, when they won 38 games and still employed Gordon Hayward.

With the exception of one year in which they were 0.2 points below league average on offense, the Jazz sported an above average offense and defense. Teams that win championships, you might have heard, tend to be in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating.

Which is because, again, weaknesses in the postseason tend to matter more than strengths.

This all sounds great, right? The statistical profile of a bonafide contender, year in and year out, led by a superstar in Rudy Gobert?

Except sometimes numbers lie. In this case, the Jazz made it past the 1st round only 3 times, half of that winning stretch, and in all times fell in the conference semis. And in all cases, Rudy Gobert was helpful, but not a franchise-altering, team-on-back type.

How much of this falls on Quinn Snyder, for not preparing the Jazz to play multiple ways during the postseason by experimenting during the regular season, and instead battering-ramming their way to a top seed — much like the Milwaukee Bucks & Coach Bud did for years before wising up to the fact that it’s not always your strongest punch that matters, but what else you can do when that is taken away?

And how much falls on the front office, for the rosters they put together? Let’s take a look.

That first year, Rudy was making $2 mil. He was found gold. But Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson were both making $11 million, combining to make more than Gordon Hayward. This team had the lowest salary in the league, no Donovan Mitchell, and it was a miracle they were even competitive.

Favours averaged 24 minutes a night. He was injured all year, and didn’t play much in the playoffs. This is your second highest paid player.

Johnson started 14 games, played 24, and had some big playoff moments. But a bench player shouldn’t be your third highest paid player, because that’s either a clear redundancy and/or a bad contract.

I can’t knock any of the other contracts too much, but this still whiffs of missing their window to go big game hunting. You have a solid starter on a rookie contract, that’s like a QB on their rookie contract. You spend big on other positions, because you won’t be able to once their extension kicks in.

In 17-18, they were still paying Alec Burks around 10 mil a year, Favours 12, and Ingles had risen to 13 from 2. But none rose like Gobert, from 2 to 21. Between the two, that’s a salary increase of $28 million alone. Get what I’m saying about maximizing spending windows now?

Hayward had just walked for nothing, an extremely unfortunate scenario. The Jazz weren’t expected to be competitive. But thanks to Gobert, a new draftee named Donovan Mitchell, and Ricky Rubio acquired through free agency, they had a stellar season, knocked off Paul George and Russell Westbrook in 6, then fell to Houston in 5.

Their spending to this point has been neither wise nor large. They went from ranking 30th to 19th though, despite losing Hayward, and after a second-round appearance you’d think they’d move higher, right?

Wrong. They took a step back to 23rd.

Gobert now made $23.5 mil, and Favors $17. They were the two highest paid players. For those keeping track at home, the Jazz have now committed 31.4% and 35.8% of the salary cap in back to back years on the center position. That their backup center made $17 million and he stopped being useful two years ago now makes my skin crawl.

Remember my whole, your two highest paid players better be your best ones (or at least among them, providing for similar salaries or rookie contracts)? That goes double for players of the same position! What were they doing?!

They also committed over $10 million to Dante Exum to be their injured, backup point guard. This team was throwing money away. Between Exum and Favors, that’s $27 million, around a max salary slot, higher paid than Gobert, that they could have pushed in trade chips for.

At least the Jazz started to invest in wings this year. Korver, Crowder, and Sefolosha all made between 8 and 5 million.

And Ekpe Udoh? Third string big? Was higher paid than Donovan Mitchell and the third highest paid player on the team?

Moving on.

After going out in the first round, the Jazz decided changes needed to be made. They shipped out Rubio and Exum, cut ties with Favors, and climbed to 17th overall in spending.

Now, their highest paid player was Mike Conley at $32.5 million, who was, at best, their third best player.

In fact, between him, Clarkson, and Mitchell, they had 41.7% of their salary cap spent. For three small guards, one of whom came off the bench! If you include Gobert and Ed Davis, who inexplicably got $5 million, that number jumps to 67.1%.

For those at home, that’s three starters and five rotation players, leaving 30% of the cap to work with. Not the end of the world if you can find three more rotation regulars, which they did in Ingles, Bogdanovic, and O’Neale.

The problem was, they had no big wings, no way of changing up their play style, and were paying too much money to the wrong people. This was the bubble year in which they went 7 with Denver.

No one could stop Mitchell, but Utah couldn’t stop Murray either, because they had invested in no perimeter defense.

The next year, Donovan Mitchell was still making chump change (relatively) at $5 million. Royce O’Neale had gotten a pay bump, but there was still salary space to play with.

So what did the Jazz do? Did they go out and get the perimeter stopper they so clearly needed? Did they get a changeup big, because no backup can do what Rudy does at that level, so you might as well not try?

No!

They went out and got DERRICK FAVORS BACK FOR $10 MILLION!

I’m starting to understand why this team never won a championship.

Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles are 4th and 5th on this team in payroll, coming off the bench as super subs. Mike Conley makes $35 million. Rudy Gobert makes $27 million.

They now rank 6th in payroll, the owners willing to spend. They lose in the second round to a LAC team that loses Kawhi halfway through, because Utah gets hit with a punch and has no counter, because not only did it pay its one-way center a max contract, it doubled down and made his pale imitation backup the 6th highest paid player on the team. Shockingly, both, but especially Favors, become unplayable due to the stylistic shift, Utah does not have the wings to keep up, and they crumble.

Last ride together. Donovan Mitchell got his max. Rudy Gobert got a new max. Conley somehow got a new contract that pays him $21 million. The chance to spend your way to a championship is gone. Now, your two highest paid players and your two best players. They combine to make only 42.4% of the cap, and they play different positions. It’s a start — but they still have to be good enough.

They are not.

And the trio of Bogdanovic, Conley, and Clarkson combine to make another 34.8% of the cap, and none of the three are good enough in the roles asked of them to win a title either.

You see how poor front office decisions can hamstring coaches and players now, I hope. Rudy Gobert , even somewhere in the mid to high twenties, might have been good enough in his prime to win a championship.

But he had to be surrounded by the right pieces. Mitchell on a rookie deal was found gold, Dwayne Wade in 06’, the type of asset any competent front office parlays into titles, at the very least serious chances as titles.

Utah never learned, never adjusted from up top to on the court, and by the time their two best players were their two highest paid ones, no one was good enough (or happy enough with each other) to win.

***

You can’t just spend, is another lesson here. Utah eventually started to spend, but they made several critical errors on who they spent on and why.

Your best players backups should be among the lowest paid on the team. Because they will rarely play, especially if they cannot play alongside them.

Any player who has functional overlap with your star(s) should be seriously considered for a small role. If you’re looking at playing someone of the same body type and/or skill set alongside your star, ala McCollum and Lillard, Mitchell and Conley, Gobert and KAT, even Boogie and AD, you better be damn sure that’s the winning combination.

Because once you make a bet like that, the rest of the roster has to adjust around it, and it becomes impossible to win if that one single bet was wrong.

To win a championship, you have to hit big on your home run swings and your doubles. And your singles.

Milwaukee won a title because Giannis is one of the best players in the world. They also won because Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton were exceptional. They also won because Brook Lopez re-invented himself and became a key cog. They also won because they got just enough out of their bench, and their 5th spot starter, whether it was Donte DiVincenzo or PJ Tucker. They also won because Bobby Portis, a reclamation project, played himself into a key role, and Pat Connaughton decided not to go play baseball and instead became a great role-play, albeit temporarily.

Everything, or, almost everything — some guys didn’t hit. Bench guys like essentially any of their small guards, prospects like DJ Wilson, and injury losses like Donte — has to hit right for you to win a championship. It’s performance and adjustments and roster building and luck.

Any of those four look familiar? Utah had none, not to the degree that was needed.

And that’s why they never won a title, and more than that, never had a chance at one, at least not in the way they were constructed.