Gobert's DPOY push is turning Utah into the NBA's most feared defense

Rudy Gobert had just reached above the square on the backboard to swat away a potential game-tying floater in the final minute of the Utah Jazz's 21st win in 23 games -- a season-salvaging stretch sparked by the center's return from a knee injury -- when a reporter mentioned to Quin Snyder that the Jazz coach considered Gobert to be the NBA's most dominant defender.

"I think it's an empirical fact, frankly," Snyder replied, interrupting before a question could be asked.

Consider that an admittedly biased, unofficial vote for Defensive Player of the Year, an honor the Jazz are lobbying for Gobert to win, despite his missing 26 games.

There is recent precedent for a player to win the award despite missing a significant portion of the season. San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard won his first Defensive Player of the Year after sitting out 18 games in 2014-15. The fact that Gobert spent nearly a third of the season wearing garish suits on the Jazz bench is the only real knock on his candidacy.

The case for Gobert is quite simple: No defender has been more dominant or made a bigger difference for his team this season.

"I've been the most impactful player this year," Gobert told ESPN, reiterating his recent comments to local reporters that there is "no question" that he deserves the award after finishing as runner-up to Golden State's Draymond Green last season.

"It's a team game. The Defensive Player of the Year is the guy that makes his team better. Not only gets stats, it's the guy that also has an impact on his teammates and leadership.

"There's a lot of things you don't see on the stats."

But there are plenty of stats, well beyond Gobert's 2.4 blocks per game, that back up the big man's case.

Start with just how much better the Jazz are with the 7-foot-1 Frenchman, aka "The Stifle Tower," as the rim-protecting anchor. Utah is decent defensively without Gobert, giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 12th in the NBA. The Jazz are in a class of their own with Gobert on the court, allowing only 97.9 points per 100 possessions (the Boston Celtics, who face the Jazz on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, lead the NBA in defensive rating at 101.2).

"Gobert is a defense unto himself," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said before a loss in Utah last month.

That on-court/off-court point differential distances Gobert from the other leading Defensive Player of the Year candidates, a list that doesn't include usual suspects Leonard, who has played only nine games, and Green, who has not been as impactful as in previous seasons.

Gobert's primary competitors this season are likely Philadelphia 76ers' center Joel Embiid (99.7 defensive rating with him, 6.5 points worse without), New Orleans' Anthony Davis (104.3 with him, 5.9 worse without) and Boston's Al Horford (100.9 with him, less than a point worse without).

The Jazz have an 11-15 record when Gobert is out and are 31-17 when they have "the Utah Jazz version of Bill Russell," as general manager Dennis Lindsey referred to his big man a year ago, roaming the paint.

"His presence on the floor gives us a chance," Snyder told ESPN. "He's our most important player as far as how he anchors our team. He's the foundation."

It isn't a stretch to say that Gobert's defense, with all due respect to the surprising scoring brilliance of Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell, is the primary reason Utah has scrapped from nine games under .500 to firmly in playoff position. The 42-32 Jazz sit in seventh place in the Western Conference standings but are closer to claiming home-court advantage in the first round than falling out of the playoff picture all together.

The Jazz, left for dead by many after going 4-11 while Gobert missed a month to recover from a sprained PCL and bone bruise in his left knee, rescued their season with one of the most impressive extended stretches of defensive dominance in recent memory. With Gobert as the catalyst, the Jazz are 23-4 since Jan. 24, allowing only 96.2 points per 100 possessions. That's 6.1 points stingier than the Rockets, who rank second during that span, which is the same difference as between Houston and the 19th-ranked Dallas Mavericks.

"That's what I do. That's always my mindset," said Gobert, who has averaged 15.6 points and 11.7 rebounds during the Jazz's sizzling run.

"Obviously, I take pride to be the best defensive player in this league, but I play to win. Right now, my focus is to get to the playoffs and, once we get to the playoffs, to win. I need to be the Defensive Player of the Year for my team."

The presence of Gobert, who has the gifts of a 7-foot-9 wingspan paired with innate shot-blocking instincts, allows the Jazz to dare opponents to drive. He challenges a league-leading 15.0 shots per game, according to NBA.com stats. Opponents shoot only 48.0 percent in the paint against Gobert, per Second Spectrum data, the second-lowest among centers behind Embiid's 45.8 percent.

Gobert unofficially leads the league in second thoughts created, as it's routine for foes to opt for a kick-out pass instead of trying to finish over him.

"He allows you to guard the 3-point line because you just have confidence in him that he can have support," Snyder said. "That's the big thing. He can protect the rim the way he does, not just blocking shots but as a deterrent."

The Jazz certainly don't consider it a coincidence that they've held foes to 33.1 percent from beyond the arc since Jan. 24, the second-lowest in the league during that span. It's perhaps more telling that Utah has allowed only 25.2 3-point attempts per game during that run, the third-fewest in the league.

In essence, Gobert allows the Jazz to make the most efficient shots in basketball (layups and 3-pointers) hard to come by and convert. He also gives Snyder the flexibility to tinker with the kind of smaller lineup capable of switching everything that is a must for a team to have any hope of slowing down the West's two offensive juggernauts, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.

Alongside Gobert, Utah has had tremendous success plugging in trade-deadline acquisition Jae Crowder at power forward. A lineup featuring Crowder in Derrick Favors' place with the rest of the Jazz starters has become Snyder's finishing five for good reason: The group has outscored opponents by 104 points in 164 minutes and has allowed only 85.7 points per 100 possessions.

"When you know you've got a shot-blocker to protect the rim, it gives you the opportunity to do a lot of different things on the perimeter," Crowder said. "That's what we do. As a defensive unit, we switch it up on the perimeter because we know we have the big fella behind us."

That's why the Jazz firmly believe that Gobert, despite two significant injuries, has established himself as the best option on the Defensive Player of the Year ballot.