During this year’s NBA All-Star game, TNT held the broadcast, as it usually does. But over on their co-network TBS, there was a different option available. Here, the famed post-game crew of Ernie Johnson, Shaq, Chuck, and Kenny Smith was joined by a roving Draymond Green, who waltzed the margins of the court while talking to his co-worker contestants in the game, and speaking his mind. The result was both thrilling and disorienting, blending informality and intoxicating style to make for a half-vacation, half-showcase spectacle just as the All-Star game itself does.
It was also revealing to hear Green speak to an older generation of NBA superstars about the status quo of the league at such length, and in such an unusual television context. One of the many takeaways from their hours-long informal riff session was just how little Draymond—and, we can deduce from elsewhere, the rest of the sport’s stars—respects Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. “We aint nothing alike,” Green said of Gobert, who has won the Defensive Player of The Year trophy three times in his career. If you heard his tone on the broadcast, you would understand Draymond to be not taking the issue lightly.
His comments were severe enough, and connected to a history of Gobert disrespect broad enough, that it should make us realize how unique the towering Frenchman’s reputation is. Rarely, if ever, has a player ever been as good as Gobert and so disliked at the same time. It is not often that Gobert is dunked on literally, but every day he is repeatedly “dunked on,” colloquially; insulted, ridiculed, doubted to a degree that is hard to differentiate from abject shame. How exactly has it gotten to this point? Although the anti-Gobert sensation predates this moment extensively, we might start by looking at a veiled shot that Kevin Durant took at Gobert’s stature in September of 2020.
Durant, speaking about Gobert in code, suggested that what Jrue Holiday does on defense, for one example, is more valuable and impressive than Gobert’s presence at the rim. Evoking a typical players-versus-media framework, Durant elaborated by saying that there is a huge gap between what analysts appreciate and what matters on the court, to the men actually playing the game. His remarks reflected the tensions of a bigger discourse, frequently had, about the merit of rim protection compared to that of front-line defense of ball handlers, and of runaround off-ball scorers who can hurt you from deep the moment that they catch the ball.
Simply put: many players value the point-of-attack defense more, and work harder on it in the gym. But every media and front-office quant who’s plugged into large-scale win/loss metrics comes inevitably to the conclusion that no defender can ever be as essential as one who excels by strengthening the final firewall. This is ultimately because the best scorers in the world are always going to be able to penetrate up to this point, no matter how hearty you may think things are at the beginning of offensive actions on the perimeter, or even in the mid-range. NBA players inexorably find their way to the rim, and no defensive player is more important than the guy who can do something there. This is why the media handily awarded Gobert won his third DPOY award last season, despite a notably excellent campaign from Ben Simmons as a perimeter and open-court defender.
Gobert is, pretty much indisputably, the very best in his role, which is the most valuable defensive role. Some may favor Joel Embiid, or even Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bam Adebayo as rim-stoppers, and there are ample highlight reels for each that arguably demonstrate an athleticism and feel in the region that Gobert cannot quite match. But no one puts out more back-end fires, or does it more regularly or effectively than Gobert. It isn’t even close. His doing this has a tremendously positive impact on his team’s fortunes, and nearly everyone talking sideways about him has experienced enough irritation in trying to score on him to know better.
So what is it? It cannot be merely a matter of differences in on-court strategy and style that explains the level of rancor players have for Gobert. It seems more personal. Perhaps it is that, as an immigrant, Gobert disregards the (largely American) fraternal order of the NBA. The insular, aloof Nikola Jokic does this, too, and is sometimes underappreciated as a result, but you never hear outright disrespect for him. The same goes for Giannis, who also gives little deference to the social hierarchy of the sport. That detachment contributes to occasional passive doubts about Giannis, including a faint, doomed movement for his teammate Khris Middleton to win the 2021 NBA Finals MVP, instead. But, again, what Draymond said, or Durant before him? People aren’t talking about Giannis like that.
Both Jokic and Giannis are, to be sure, impressive at a level that Gobert isn’t, and it’s a level that he won’t get to either. But if either of them were tier-two superstars like Gobert instead of the perennial MVP contenders that they are, you don’t get the sense that fellow players and fans of the league would be as eager to rag on them, just because they are foreigners who don’t hang out with, or sufficiently dap up, the cool kid club. Both Giannis and Jokic have had big playoff collapses—as all stars have—but when the Jazz defense fell apart against the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 playoffs, it inspired a barrage of Gobert insults unlike anything Giannis or Jokic have known.
This is despite the fact that what happened to Gobert’s Jazz against the Clippers was a testament to Utah’s overreliance on Gobert, rather than a display of his limits. As Gobert was lured out beyond his dominant spot near the rim and Los Angeles got their lay-up line going, while also kicking out for incredibly open three-pointers, Gobert’s plentiful haters said he was being “played off the floor,” and couldn’t contend on the perimeter. But earlier in the exact same series, Gobert had delivered a game-winning block of an attempted three-point shot. He is more than capable of walling men off beyond his truest comfort zone. What went down was that the defensive dereliction of everyone else on his team was suddenly exposed, and the one man who had been holding them down all along was now faced with stains that no single person can wash away on their own.
People who play in the NBA know all this, and more. They aren’t dumb about basketball in the way that Twitter jokesters may be, even if they occasionally pretend to be. So what is it? Why does everyone hate Rudy? Perhaps it involves his conspicuous role in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when his positive status led to the first canceled NBA game of 2020, and the suspension of league action. This probably isn’t it, either, because NBA players don’t care about epidemiology as much as a lot of their fans do, and no one is dumb enough to believe that Gobert’s actions in that instance were particularly relevant given the scale of a virus which has fundamentally altered global human behavior for two years. Like the Clippers’ deconstruction of Utah’s dubious defense, that episode was just another thing to apply a pre-existing dislike of Gobert to.
Maybe it’s that he’s not just foreign, but French? Is that what it is? Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw, though, are not talked about this way—Tony Parker has his own issues. It really still seems more personal than it does national. Could it be that he’s a one-way player, discussed at a level that only a more versatile star deserves? Maybe this is why he is hated? That would fit into a school of resentment best manifested by Michael Jordan’s defiant targeting of Dikembe Mutombo, when Mutombo’s stature was similar to what Gobert’s is today. But Mutombo, despite also being the main character in a Big Man You Can’t Score On myth that top scorers dislike on a primal level, was never hated like Gobert is. He may have inspired some frustration and funny grudges, but never years of open hostility.
Maybe it’s a mix of all of the bad things mentioned, which add up. But it’s odd that all these details stick to Gobert for so long, and that his obvious, demonstrated excellence cannot overcome any of them when it comes to how his peers feel about him. It would seem that there is something more pure at play, something that logic is unable to account for: the man is just not agreeable. His vibe, we might conclude, is not good. Unlike the musical genre upon his jersey, he has no groove, always rankling the people around him and never comforting them.
It appears entirely possible that Gobert has even accepted this about himself, leaning into it the way a wrestling heel would. There is a lot of attention to be garnered from the pedestal of the disliked insurgent, forever scheming to ruin everyone else’s party. In order to really do that, though, Gobert would probably have to achieve something he likely won’t, and win a championship. Though his inability to get there is not because of his own flaws, but rather those of the Jazz, and though his lack of an O’Brien trophy is also just one portion of the sub-championship picture that includes the majority of professional athletes, Gobert’s relative, dismissable failure will never be discussed in this way. It is clear that his destiny is, instead—for reasons more elemental than explainable—to remain a clown in the circus that people make of the NBA.