Two of the top Western Conference teams are the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, who are spearheaded by elite centers Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert.
The two squads meet Saturday in a contest that, at first, might seem to pit the Nuggets’ efficient offense against the Jazz’s stingy defense.
After all, the 23-year-old Jokic is gaining hype as the NBA’s greatest playmaking center ever (career 26.4 assist percentage dwarfs all other postmen), while the 26-year-old Gobert already twice has been named first-team All-Defense in past seasons.
However, upon closer inspection, both individuals and teams are displaying well-rounded games, with both looking as strong candidates to play in their first All-Star Games in 2019, while their teams both rank favorably in 2018-19 offensive (Nuggets, 13thin NBA; Jazz, 11th) and defensive efficiency charts (Nuggets, fourth; Jazz, eighth).
(Stats through October 30, 2018)
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating.
Don’t let Gobert’s defensive prowess overwhelm you. He has a fine set of offensive skills, best illustrated in his career 21 Player Efficiency Rating over six seasons with the Jazz. But it is his career-best 27 PER this season that is dropping jaws. Also, Gobert’s career .642 true shooting percentage is uber-efficient, with the 7-1, 245-pound Frenchman taking 97 percent of his attempts within 10 feet of the rim. No big man finishes better near the basket, with Gobert making 82 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim after traditionally making 70 percent of those shots throughout his career. Most instrumental in his awesome-to-historic improvement is head coach Quin Snyder’s emphasis on “high passes” from his guards and wings to both giants Gobert and Derrick Favors. As a result, 10 percent of Utah’s baskets are coming off dunks, with Gobert on pace to break the NBA dunk record with 382 jams.
That said, Gobert does not have half the offensive game as his Denver 7-0, 250-pound counterpart. Jokic is the game’s lone point center who literally runs the Nuggets offense, whether he is directing his own rebound-and-run fast breaks or whether he is playing point guard from top of the perimeter—setting screens, sending backdoor passes or dropping three-pointers himself with equal aplomb. Not even the great Bill Walton or Alvan Adams can match Jokic’s passing prowess. When you combine a 44-percent three-point shot (he was 40-percent last season) with a 58-percent two-point rate, you really do see the NBA’s ultimate offensive center at work here in Denver. No wonder Jokic’s PER is a career-best 31.6 and an improvement on last season’s 24.4 PER (Gobert went from 20.7 PER in 2017-18 to 26.9 in 2018-19). It is indeed safe to say the only NBA center whose offensive game should be mentioned in the same breath with Jokic is Anthony Davis’ game.
As alluded to before, no center in NBA history matches Jokic’s passing skills, but what should be noted here is the Serbian’s gift of ball control as well. His 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is something unmatched by other great active passing centers, such as Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins or Joel Embiid. It is little surprise that the guards in Denver spend more time as marksmen than they do as facilitators, thanks to their center’s passing deftness. In comparison, Gobert is a black hole when it comes to his floor game. Once he gets the ball, there is little chance anybody else is getting an open shot off a pass, other than the one exception assist he averages per game. That said, Gobert is an excellent offensive lineman, leading all NBA players with 6.2 screen assists per game.
Jokic has made big strides on his defensive shortcomings through his four NBA seasons, and now actually anchors a top 5 defensive unit, despite only mustering one block in 30 minutes per game. His recent emergence as a top 10 defensive rebounder (eighth in 2017-18; 10thin 2018-19) has been a godsend to head coach Mike Malone’s defensive efforts and preachings.
In spite of his defensive strides, Jokic is in no way comparable to Gobert, the NBA’s undisputed best defensive center since Tim Duncan retired. In those past three seasons alone, Gobert has blocked 362 shots in 144 games. The only NBA player with more swats is Anthony Davis (376 blocks in 155 games), who has 16 more swats than Gobert (the Jazz man missed 26 games last season due to injury). The next closest rim rejecter is Pacers center Myles Turner at 305 blocks. Furthermore, in that same three-year span, no team has a better defensive efficiency than the Jazz, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
As you see in the video above, Gobert is great at helping off his man to protect the rim, but he’s not just a freelancer fishing for blocks. What separates him is his ability to stay at home on his man and then quickly slide over and anticipate the penetration. Of course, his long reach and above-average mobility for his size helps, too.
Jokic is learning how to lead on the fly, and by signing a five-year, $148 million extension in July, he insured he will be the Nuggets’ young leader for years to come. He is also the quarterback to the Nuggets’ offense and the rare big man who is setting up the table for the team’s shooters and cutters. That said, Jokic has never seen the NBA postseason like Gobert (20 playoff games) or experienced top-level international play like Gobert has representing France at both the World Cup (2014 bronze) and EuroCup (2015 gold).
You cannot find two centers more driven nowadays than the selfless Jokic and the determined Gobert. Jokic is doing whatever it takes fitness-wise to make himself a more enduring center or scoring-wise to make him a more dominating postman. Jokic always had the selfless gene, but now he realizes that by focusing more on his own game, his penchant as a scoring threat opens up the offense even further.
Conversely, Gobert built up his lower-body strength to become an even greater force offensively as a finisher and now he is becoming the closest slam-dunker to Shaq that we have seen since the real Shaquille O’Neal wreaked havoc on rims, backboards and opposing centers.
They each provide many subtleties that make them stand on. Jokic has the court vision, the awareness to fit dimes in small windows and ability to lead shooters to the basket with passes, all the traits of a quality point guard. Gobert has the sixth sense of anticipation on defense, able to time a player’s shot to alter shots. Long-limbed 7-footers in the League abound, but a lot of times their swats are just too early (a whiff) or late (goaltending). Gobert has a preternatural ability to get to the shot at the right time and just as import, without fouling.
These are two centers that have yet to play in an All-Star Game who both want to go down in NBA history as all-time greats at their position. Jokic is to the Nuggets’ offense what Gobert is to the Jazz defense. If either Jokic or Gobert can lead their young, upstart clubs to a West Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors, then they can begin writing Chapter 1 of that book this summer. We think Jokic and the Nuggets will be the first team to complete such a feat. Will it take place in 2019, 2020 or 2021? Who knows?