Ever since Rudy Gobert was permanently inserted into their starting lineup midway through the 2014-15 season, the Utah Jazz have routinely had one of the NBA’s top defenses. Making the best shots in the league less profitable for opponents is one of the most surefire ways to build a top defense, and Gobert is better at that than almost anyone. During his six seasons as the starter, Gobert has ranked third, second, fifth, seventh, second and first in field-goal percentage allowed on shots where he was within 5 feet of both the basket and the shooter, among players who challenged at least five such shots per game.1
Like any elite rim protector, Gobert’s shot-blocking and shot-altering prowess also has a demonstrated effect on opponents’ ability to get near the rim in the first place, as well as their willingness to shoot the ball if they actually get there. In each of those aforementioned six seasons — a period in which the Jazz’s defensive efficiency average ranks among the top five in the league — paint attempts have accounted for a smaller share of Jazz opponents’ shots with Gobert on the floor than off, according to Second Spectrum. The same is true of shots in the restricted area.
|In the paint||In restricted area|
Unfortunately for Utah, the team it’s facing in the second round of the NBA playoffs is one of the rare few that doesn’t prioritize access to the paint to create efficient offense — and in turn, poses a unique challenge for one of the league’s best defenders.
The Los Angeles Clippers took only 40.21 percent of their shots this season from the paint, per Second Spectrum. That was the third-lowest share in the NBA this year and 14th-lowest among the 240 team-seasons in the player-tracking era (since 2013-14). (Against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, the Clippers took just 40 percent of their shots from the paint.) L.A. was also the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA this season (and fourth-best all-time), knocking down 41.1 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.
That offensive profile sets the Clippers up well to attack Utah’s preferred defensive coverages. Gobert is so valuable as a paint patrolman that the Jazz do their best to keep him as close to the basket as possible, as often as possible. They do this by playing a conservative style of defense that calls for Gobert (and backup Derrick Favors) to hang back near the paint on almost all screening action — especially pick and rolls.
This “soft” or “drop” style of coverage has been the dominant tactic against high ball screens for Gobert’s entire Utah tenure, and its spiritual cousin “ice,” which teams utilize against side pick-and-roll action, has been a close second. In recent seasons, the Jazz have employed one of those two coverages against nearly 80 percent of opponent pick and rolls.2 Gobert’s facility with these coverages is the backbone of Utah’s defense, and it’s the primary reason he’s a heavy favorite to win his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy in the last four years.
|Drop coverage||Drop + Ice|
But L.A.’s two primary offensive options — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — are each devastating scorers against the drop. There are 150 players who have run at least 1,000 pick and rolls against opponents playing drop coverage during the Second Spectrum era, and Leonard and George rank second and 19th, respectively, in points per possession generated for their team on those plays. This season, they ranked first (Leonard) and fourth (George) among the 89 players who faced drop coverage at least 250 times.
Leonard is at his best when hitting dropped-back opponents with his midrange pull-up. He’s outperformed expectations on midrange shots by 8.5 percentage points over the past five seasons, per Second Spectrum, the third-best mark among 13 players who have taken 1,500 or more such shots.3 Only Khris Middleton and CJ McCollum have done better, relative to expectations. But Leonard is more than just a pull-up artist. He’ll use the space afforded to him as a runway into the paint, drawing help and either dishing to a teammate for a score or kickstarting a ball-movement sequence to get the defense scrambling.
George, meanwhile, is an expert at “snaking” the pick and roll — a strategy where the ball-handler takes a screen moving in one direction, then quickly dribbles back toward the middle of the floor, allowing him to create space from both his own defender and the big man playing drop coverage. But defenses also know George likes to snake it, and he’ll just as often exploit that knowledge, using in-and-out dribbles and step-backs to either create even more room or draw the defender up toward him and open up a lane for a pass.
How Gobert and, to a lesser but still important extent, Utah’s perimeter defenders navigate the complex challenges Leonard and George create when matched up against the Jazz’s preferred style of pick-and-roll coverage seems likely to be a determining factor in whether the Clippers are able to score efficiently in this series. But another element that could prove significant is whether the Clippers go back to their regular-season starting lineup with Ivica Zubac at center or stick with the small-ball group featuring Leonard, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. on the front line that they switched to during their first-round series win over the Mavericks.
Going small worked against Dallas; the Clippers could space the floor and stretch the mobility limits of Kristaps Porziņģis and Boban Marjanović on one end while not necessarily being dominated by post-ups or offensive rebounds on the other. Or, if they did get beat on the glass (as they did in Game 7), they could score enough to make up for it.
That’s a riskier bet against Utah. Gobert might not be able to brutalize Morris or Batum in the post — that’s just not his game. But he’s very capable of hammering an opponent on the offensive boards. He had a playoffs-leading 15.6 percent offensive rebounding rate against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, for example — the second time in three seasons he’s snared the rebound on at least 15 percent of Jazz misses in a series.
But perhaps taking their chances with Gobert on the glass is preferable to allowing Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and/or Jordan Clarkson repeatedly attack Zubac by drawing him into switches and then isolating in open space. Luka Dončić torched the Clippers’ defense that way early in the first round, which is what motivated them to switch to small ball in the first place. The issue could be somewhat mitigated by the return of Serge Ibaka — who is far fleeter of foot than Zubac and allows the Clippers to split the difference by essentially playing small and big at the same time — but he recently reaggravated the back injury that kept him out for nearly two months of the regular season, an injury he admitted was not fully healed.
Ibaka’s is not the only rotational absence that could affect L.A.’s plans against Utah. Patrick Beverley looked downright unplayable in the first round against Dallas, and if Clippers coach Ty Lue keeps him on the sideline, his team will need to find a new primary defender against Mitchell. George should be up to the task, but taking it on is a lot to ask of him when he’s carrying a significant offensive burden. It’s a factor that could make second-year guard Terance Mann (who emerged as Lue’s most trusted bench player in the Dallas series) an important swing player for the Clippers in Round 2.
Each team has all kinds of moves and counter-moves it can make, but each of them branches out from how the Clippers plan to attack Utah’s defense, and how the Jazz plan to thwart that attack.
Gobert is the league’s premier defensive force, and he is so specifically because he is the best at the most common defensive coverage in the league. Against most opponents, that itself might be enough. This particular opponent is different, though, and will test his recent improvements at venturing outside the paint, and better balancing taking away the rim and taking away everything else. If he passes that test, the Jazz will likely move on to the Western Conference Finals. If he doesn’t, they’ll likely head home — and perhaps have to think about making some tweaks to what has long been one of the league’s best defensive schemes.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.