Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (27) and Royce O’Neale (23) defend against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, during the first half of Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)
SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert sounded exasperated.
“What do you think you can add offensively or improve offensively to punish some of those small ball lineups?” a reporter asked during the team’s final media availability of the year.
Was it a fair question? Sure. The Utah Jazz just lost (again) to a team that went all-in on going small to limit Gobert’s impact. Gobert has been to the playoffs five times now — he’s been eliminated four times by small-ball lineups. But fair or not, that didn’t mean Gobert wasn’t frustrated by the query.
“I don’t know — what do you think?” Gobert answered.
It wasn’t necessarily contentious, but Gobert did sound tired of the narrative.
Yes, if Gobert had the offensive skillset of a Nikola Jokic, teams probably wouldn’t go to those lineups, but, to him, if the Jazz didn’t need him to help in the paint on nearly every drive, they would do a much better job defending them, too.
Gobert isn’t an unathletic plodding giant. But he also can’t be in two places at once.
“My job is to make sure that guys don’t get shots in the paint first and then obviously, there’s some situations when teams try to draw me in to kick out to the 3s,” Gobert said. “But the problem is if I don’t come and help, it’s layups.”
So the Jazz end the season with the same questions they had following their losses in 2017, 2018 and 2019: Can they figure out how to keep up with small ball lineups?
“There’s no question that when the Clippers went small and more skilled that are containment needed to be at a higher level,” Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey said. “It created a trigger inside of which we gave up a lot of corner threes and that’s not something that we typically do.”
Gobert is one of the best players in the league. He’s a two-time All-Star, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and has been on numerous All-NBA teams. But against the small lineups, he just doesn’t have the same impact.
He can’t make up for his teammates’ failures on defense without giving up open looks in the corner (that’s how Terance Mann scores 39 points), and his screens aren’t as effective when a team switches everything. No, he wasn’t played off the floor against the Clippers, far from it, but it’s fair to say he doesn’t provide a supermax value either against those lineups.
That doesn’t mean the Jazz have hit their ceiling with this group or that major changes need to happen, but it does mean, the Jazz likely can’t be as reliant on Gobert to save their bacon on the defensive end.
“You’re obviously looking at how we ended,” Lindsey said. “I don’t think you over index and make every decision based upon the Clippers going small and having some wing athleticism, if you will. But it’s certainly a window into playoff basketball — things get reduced, rotations get reduced.”
A window that shows just what the Jazz need: More help on the perimeter. Even Royce O’Neale, Utah’s designated wing stopper, admitted as much.
“One of our downfalls at times is defense,” O’Neale said. “But that’s a team effort. I think having another guy to help us all out besides myself, Joe (Ingles), Mike (Conley), (Donovan Mitchell), Rudy — probably another main guy.”
The Jazz finished top five in defensive efficiency in the regular season, but didn’t have the personnel to matchup with the Clippers. Some of that was injuries, of course. Conley, who was good defensively this season, missed all but Game 6 of the second round series (and he said he was maybe 60% in that game); Mitchell, meanwhile, played with a sprained right ankle throughout the entire playoff run.
If Conley and Mitchell were fully healthy, the Jazz would have been better equipped to contain the Clippers’ drives, but it’s hard to see that being the great solution to the problem.
When the Jazz couldn’t hit an open shot in 2019 in a first-round loss to the Rockets, they retooled and went and grabbed shooter after shooter. Will they now change course and try to stock up on wing defenders?
“I think it’s too early to just make a flat, ‘Hey, we need to do this,’ ” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said. ” A couple years ago when we knew about the shooting part we also saw the league moving this way and it was very, very clear. Now it’s going to be a little bit more nuanced because we’re closer.”
For their part, the team wants another crack at it. Ingles said he doesn’t think the Jazz “need to blow the whole roster up,” and Bojan Bogdanovic wants to see what this group can do in the playoffs when fully healthy.
“Mike and Donovan were the two best players on our team, probably,” Bogdanovic said. “… It’s tough to talk right now what we need for next season or who we need to sign. I hope we’re going to keep our core team and try and get another shot next year.”
But another shot without changes could just lead to another small-ball lineup knocking them out.
“Is that a trend? Is it something that we can mitigate, whether it be with tactic strategy technique or, you know, ultimately change in personnel?” Lindsey said. “Those are the questions that we’ll be asking ourselves as we move to the draft combine.”
And questions Jazz fans will be eagerly awaiting answers to.
“Rudy Gobert is one of the best players in the league,” Lindsey said. “We’re glad to have him on our side.”
He’d be glad to have some more help.