During this COVID-19 hiatus, many teams are trying to figure out how to keep their players in shape, but the Jazz are dealing with an entirely different problem: repairing relationships with Rudy Gobert.
Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player to contract COVID-19, and teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive the following day. In the days before his diagnosis, Gobert was mocking the COVID-19 panic by touching others’ belongings at a press conference and in the locker room, which frustrated many of his teammates, especially Mitchell.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided further insight on the Jazz’s locker room situation.
“The Jazz are fortunate that they don’t have to get back together and start playing games again right now,” Wojnarowski said on SportsCenter March 12. “There is a lot of work to do to repair relationships. … There’s a lot of frustration with Gobert.”
Currently, the Jazz are the fourth seed in the West with a 41-23 record. They started the year very strong with a 32-13 record by January 25, but afterward, they have dealt with some inconsistency, going on a five and four-game losing streak, respectively.
The Jazz have a very bright future ahead of them, with only an average of 3.2 years of NBA experience. They should try to resolve this issue as quickly as possible and keep the same squad together. If they have to trade one of their all-stars, let’s look at some of the Jazz’s current problems.
After the All-Star break, the Jazz had gone through some struggles. Their defensive rating was 115.2–ranked 23rd in the league during this stretch–and opponents shot a higher field goal (46.9) and three-point percentage (39.2) than before the break.
Individually, Rudy Gobert averaged 12.4 PPG and 9.2 RPG, while Bojan Bogdanovic averaged 16.3 PPG and 33.9 percent from the field. It seems like the Jazz were already dealing with other problems, and the COVID-19 incident likely made the situation worse.
The Jazz’s defense this season has not been as well as previous seasons, even though they have the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. This year, the Jazz are ranked 11th in defensive rating (108.8), while in the 2018-19 season, they were second (105.3), and in 2017-18 they were first (103.0).
They are only averaging 4.0 blocked shots per game–the second-worst in the league–while they blocked 5.9 shots per game last season, the third-best in the league. Also, the Jazz are ranked last in steals in the league, with an average of 5.9 steals per game. Last season, they were 12th in the league with 8.1 steals.
What likely has caused this defensive downfall was losing Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio in the offseason. Last season, Favors had a defensive rating of 101.6 and averaged 1.4 BPG, and Rubio had a defensive rating of 104.1 with 1.3 SPG.
As a replacement for Favors and Rubio, the Jazz acquired Bogdanovic and Mike Conley. While Bogdanovic helped the team improve their offensive rating to 8th in the league, he has a defensive rating of 108.0 and 0.1 blocks a game. Conley has not proven himself as a much better upgrade for this team, with his player efficiency rating (PER) dropping since last season from 21.46 to 13.78, and a defensive rating of 107.6
The Jazz have relied on Royce O’Neale to fill in Favors’ defensive void at the power forward position. He showed promising potential on defense in his first two years in the league, but this season, he has a defended field goal percentage of 47.2 and a PER of 9.33. He tends to guard the best forward on the other team, but he is undersized compared to the lengthy forwards that he has to defend, such as Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum, and Brandon Ingram.
Now, about Gobert, the entire defensive force of this team. Rudy Gobert is an elite interior defender, but he is a decent perimeter defender as well. In the 133 minutes that he has defended guards, he held them to 34.9 percent shooting from 3-point percentage.
This is not necessarily a jab at Gobert himself, but since the Jazz are second to last in blocks in the league and their power forward is 6’4”, they rely on him way too much to guard the paint. If the player he is defending is standing on the perimeter, he will have to leave him open. In consequence, center shot 40.5 percent from the arc when guarded by him this season, with the league average for centers being 33.4 percent.
The Jazz certainly have quite a few defensive problems, but they have some things working for them as well. While their bench scored 31.9 PPG–ranked 25th in the league–they traded for Jordan Clarkson in the middle of the season, who is averaging 15.6 PPG on 48.2 field goal percentage in his 34 games off the bench. Also, Joe Ingles has adapted well into his new role off the bench this season, with 9.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, and 5.2 APG.
As of late, the Jazz were utilizing a bench lineup consisting of Conley (the only starter), Clarkson, Ingles, Georges Niang, and Tony Bradley, which holds a plus/minus of +4.5, the highest out of all lineups that they have used for more than five games. In an average of 7.8 mins per game, they scored 19.8 points per game with a 51.7 field goal percentage.
If a serious problem were to occur between Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz would have a tough decision to choose between one of them. Mitchell has superstar potential and had some awe-inspiring performances in only his third season. However, it is nearly impossible to find a rim protector as elite as Gobert in today’s NBA.
Justin Zanik–the general manager of the Jazz–and the front office are in a tough position to pull off any trades in general. They are 18 million dollars above salary cap max space, and Mitchell is still on his rookie contract. All of their main core except for Clarkson is under contract until 2021, which would not allow them to sign any players under a big contract.
The organization should keep in mind that Gobert’s contract expires in 2021. They should try to fix the situation as quickly as possible, or they might lose him without anything in return.
The Jazz should put all possible focus into restoring all relationships within the team because they could lose all the progress that they have built to win their first championship.