Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Defensive dexterity drives Rudy Gobert into the mix

Two-time Kia Defensive Player of Year has Jazz rolling behind his paint protection

The coaching cliche has been around for ages: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

For the Utah Jazz, one of the hottest teams in the league, those words ring true. If coach Quin Snyder’s team has any chance of challenging in the top-heavy Western Conference this season, they’ll have to do it with defense. That side of things in Utah is anchored by the reigning two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.

Gobert’s impact on a game can be lost on eyes fixed on offensive accomplishments and amazing feats therein. But there’s no overshadowing how his presence is a game-changer for a Jazz team that makes its bones on the back of the best rim protector on the planet.

“He’s really turned into the master of a lost art,” an Eastern Conference general manager said of Gobert. “The way we play in our league now, the way the game is skewed to offensive players, it’s hard for regular eyes to gain a full appreciation of just how big a difference he makes for them.

“It’s really a beautiful thing to see a big man control the action the way he can around the rim. We’re so focused on the 3-point line and the game from distance, but go back and watch the action around the basket and he’s on a level all his own these days.”

Gobert can singlehandedly blow up the opposition’s offensive possessions without blocking any shots. His presence alone creates the appropriate fear needed for the Jazz to feed off his game. And if you need advanced metrics to verify Gobert’s impact both defensively and overall, this recent breakdown from Brian Martin is all you need.

He’s really turned into the master of a lost art … It’s really a beautiful thing to see a big man control the action the way he can around the rim.”

Anonymous Eastern Conference general manager, on Rudy Gobert

Gobert’s continued improvement on the offensive end has helped him shove his way into the Kia MVP conversation this week, too.

He’s tied for second in rebounds per game with Houston’s Clint Capela (14.5 rpg), trailing only Detroit’s Andre Drummond (15.7 rpg). Gobert is also averaging 15.0 ppg on a career-best 67.4% shooting overall and 1.9 blocks per game. That last number might be even higher, but like a shutdown cornerback in football, Gobert is rarely tested by players who know his reputation of erasing buckets.

It all adds up to a critical component for Snyder, who has built the Jazz into a legitimate contender in a way that few other teams have during this pace-and-space era.

Defense comes first in Utah, with Gobert quite literally front and center.

* * *

The Top 5 this week in the 2019-20 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

* * *

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.0 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks

The Bucks are 37-6 as the best start in franchise history keeps on rolling with Antetokounmpo driving them night after night. He was his typically brilliant self in Thursday’s win against Boston, notching his ninth game of the season with 30 or more points and 15 or more rebounds. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns ranks second in the league this season with three such games.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 25.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 10.9 assists, 1.3 steals

The Lakers’ 9-game winning streak couldn’t survive Markelle Fultz and the improving Orlando Magic Wednesday. LeBron did his work (19 points and a career-high tying 19 assists), but he missed a 3-pointer with three seconds left that would have changed the outcome. LeBron’s mettle is being tested with Anthony Davis out recovering and rehabbing that bruised tailbone. He seems more than up to the task, based on what we’ve seen so far this season.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.1 steals

Doncic delivered his 12th triple-double of this season (and third one in January) in Wednesday’s win against Sacramento. He makes it look so easy sometimes, but don’t let that fool you. What Doncic is doing to the competition has raised the stakes for the Mavericks, winners of three straight as a Friday matchup with Portland looms (9:30 ET, ESPN).

4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 20.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.9 steals

The Heat this season are at their best in Miami, where they improved to a league-best 18-1 after Wednesday’s win against the Spurs. Butler’s tenaciousness had a lot to do with that win in particular. He’s the tone-setter for a team that has proved to be one of the league’s toughest to deal with anywhere. With Butler serving as the conduit, up-and-comers like Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and others have thrived as Miami’s season grinds on.

5. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 37.2 points, 7.5 assists, 6.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals

Harden and the Rockets are reeling right now, losers of three of their last four games. Harden was held to 13 points in a Wednesday loss to Portland, his lowest scoring total since Jan. 18, 2018. That loss to the Blazers prompted a “lengthy locker room meeting” as a concerned coach Mike D’Antoni said his team’s “collective spirit” is off. A Saturday visit from the Los Angeles Lakers (8:30 ET, ABC) is either the best or worst thing for Harden and the Rockets.

* * *

Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet and I’ll get back to you!

* * *

The Next Five:

6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

7. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

10. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more: DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Paul George, LA Clippers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Jazz; Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

* * *

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.