BDL 25: The rise of Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz

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Rudy Gobert takes a break from protecting the rim to punish it. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Rudy Gobert takes a break from protecting the rim to punish it. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.

If you'd watched them for more than a few minutes here and there early in the 2014-15 season, you could kind of see it coming. They still weren't great, but the Utah Jazz just seemed to look a little bit better, a little bit livelier and an awful lot stouter on the defensive end when giant French sophomore Rudy Gobert was on the floor, and when fourth-year Turkish scorer Enes Kanter was off it.

Combine that with Kanter's pre-All-Star break airing of grievances/trade demand and conditions seemed ripe for a change in the middle, with 2011's No. 3 pick giving way to 2013's No. 27 choice and Utah moving on from the notion that the Kanter-Derrick Favors combination was their frontcourt of the future. That possibility helped led me to identify the Jazz as the out-of-contention team/storyline I'd be paying closest attention to as the season wound down.

I'm glad I was paying attention.

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Afforded starter's minutes after Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 7-foot-1 Gobert took the NBA by storm. The 22-year-old averaged 11.1 points and 13.4 rebounds in 34.4 minutes per game after the All-Star break, adding 2.6 blocked shots, just under two assists and one steal per contest, and his presence in the paint transformed Utah's defense into the league's most fearsome unit.

The Jazz allowed a microscopic 94.8 points per 100 possessions over their final 29 games, a defensive efficiency mark that weighed in at a full 4.6 points-per-100 better than the league's second-best defense after the break. The No. 2 Milwaukee Bucks were closer to the No. 18 Philadelphia 76ers than they were to top-ranked Utah in the second half.

With Gobert and Favors up front, Utah ranked first in the NBA in post-All-Star points allowed in the paint, second-chance points allowed, and opponents' field goals made and attempted; second in total rebounding percentage and opponents' field-goal percentage; fourth in second-chance points scored; and fifth in opponents' 3-point percentage. It all added up to a 19-10 close to the season, the sixth-best mark in the league, behind only the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, the runner-up Cleveland Cavaliers, the Western Conference finalist Houston Rockets, and the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, two heavyweights who gave us arguably the greatest first-round series of all time.

The Jazz authored that top-tier finish despite continuing to boast a subpar offensive attack, seeing top gun Gordon Hayward struggle with his shot for the better part of two months, getting precious little scoring or playmaking production from the point-guard pairing of Trey Burke and Dante Exum, and getting nothing from exciting slasher Alec Burks, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury just before Christmas. All of which is to say: the Jazz didn't finish things up perfectly, but they were still pretty damn impressive down the stretch.

They built upon their steady defensive improvement in just about every month of the regular season to become an incredibly tough team to beat, even given their shortcomings. They built an identity, at long last progressing from an assemblage of assets into an actual basketball team.

Many people deserve credit for that. GM Lindsey assembled those assets and made the call to move Kanter. Head coach Quin Snyder got the Jazz playing harder, smarter, better and together in his first year on the bench.

Hayward responded to all the snickering about his max contract by turning in the most effective and productive season of his career, ranking as one of just eight players to average at least 19 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. The other seven included the top four finishers in MVP voting (Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook), two All-NBA Second Teamers (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) and a guy who just got paid more than $120 million (Damian Lillard).

Favors continued his quiet development into one of the best two-way power forwards in the league. Aussie import Joe Ingles kept the ball moving and stirred the drink. Rookies Exum and Rodney Hood showed flashes.

All those performances were allowed to unfold as they did thanks in large part to the insertion of Gobert.

His ability to alter or erase shots — he held opponents to the lowest shooting percentage at the rim among rotation bigs — emboldened the Jazz's wings to press up on their marks. The danger of his alley-oop finishes in the pick-and-roll opened up playmaking space for Hayward, Exum, Burke, Hood and the rest of Utah's ball-handlers. His sheer size and ever-present activity forced opponents to account for him constantly on both ends of the floor, which made life just that much easier for Hayward, Favors and the rest of the Jazz, allowing them all to fall into place.

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Gobert made his reputation in that second half, finishing third in Most Improved Player voting and fifth in Defensive Player of the Year balloting. He marked himself as an ascendant star whose ability to change games could lift Utah back into the postseason after three straight lottery trips.

Making that leap got tougher when the 6-foot-6 Exum, 2014's No. 5 pick, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for his native Australia in an exhibition game against Slovenia back in August. The rising sophomore's absence means Snyder will be forced to rely more on the likes of Burke, recently signed Brazilian point guard Raul Neto, whose rights the Jazz acquired after the Atlanta Hawks selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft, and perhaps late-season call-up Bryce Cotton to serve as secondary offensive initiators alongside Hayward.

The defense that clicked so brilliantly in the second half could take a step back with Burke, Neto and/or Cotton sopping up Exum's minutes. If the lagging offense doesn't take a significant step forward, that could make it tough for Utah to scratch out enough wins to get itself into the conversation for a lower-reaches-of-the-conference playoff berth.

But then, even if Exum's not around, Gobert still is. And if his summer work for the French national team in Eurobasket 2015 is any indication, it doesn't seem like he's lost his appetite for destruction at the tin:

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There's a statistical case to be made that, with Gobert on the back line, Burke might not be as big a defensive downgrade from Exum as you might think, and that the upgrade in spot-up shooting might make Utah's starting lineup a bit more potent than it was with the young Australian parked in the corner down the stretch. If either or both of those wind up being true, continued near-All-Star-level work from Hayward and Favors combined with Gobert's denial of service, some additional off-the-bounce playmaking and shooting on the wing from Burks and Hood, and contributions from versatile 2015 first-rounder Trey Lyles and newly signed German big man Tibor Pleiss could give Utah enough depth and spark to weather the loss of Exum and fend off the other competitors for the final couple of playoff spots out West.

That might not seem to mean much. In a conference as brutal as the West, grabbing the seventh or eighth seed mostly just means walking into an absolute buzzsaw of a title contender, drawing dead in the face of a higher class of opposition, as the Jazz did when they scored the West's final playoff spot in 2012 and were promptly swept out of the postseason by the San Antonio Spurs in a tidy four-game thrashing.

But for a Jazz organization that's seemed rudderless for the better part of a half-decade, it could mean that there's finally a defined direction, finally a path forward and finally a chance of reaching the rarefied air to which the club's sought to return since Stockton-to-Malone took its final bow, thanks to the neverending arms of their rising-star center.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Kevin Durant is back to score at will and dominate headlines

What the heck will the Dallas Mavericks even look like?

Paul George tries to reclaim stardom and Indiana's contender status

Will DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings even make it to January?

Can the Golden State Warriors be that perfect again?

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers going to price themselves into oblivion?

The Grizzlies know exactly who they are, and that might be enough

Kevin Garnett's last run

Are the Knicks building something or just biding time before a blow-up?

Paul Pierce, journeyman

Russell Westbrook searches for an encore to an overwhelming season

Can the Atlanta Hawks do *that* again?

Kobe Bryant takes on what could be the last of his many battles

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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