Building and maintaining a competitive NBA roster from year to year is a complex task. More often than most GM’s around the league would prefer, crises arise in some area of this process. These situations can come up for a multitude of reasons, from guys under (or over) performing to several impact players coming up for contract extensions in the same year or group of years. 1 And more often than not, the theme of player development is somewhere in the equation, rearing its ugly and hard-to-predict head.
The Jazz now find themselves in exactly this type of quandary, and it becomes more serious with each passing game. Despite several rapidly improving areas and a general sense that this team is much better than its dismal record might indicate, Utah’s frontcourt foundation of the future, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, continues to be unable to share the floor together without disastrous results.
The problem starts and, unfortunately, mostly ends, with Kanter. While Favors has looked every bit like the $12 million a year player he will become next season, the young Turk has trended the opposite direction in his first year against starter-caliber competition, despite a recent run of semi-reasonable play. To the naked eye, he began the year well enough, starting Utah’s first 14 games alongside Favors and posting a respectable 14.1 points and 7.3 boards per game while shooting almost exactly 50%. But despite reasonable enough numbers, the trends began emerging nearly right away – through those 14 games where both started together, lineups featuring both big men gave up nearly 115 points-per-100 possessions and scored at just short of 94 points-per-100, a sickening discrepancy of over 20 points.2
Coach Ty Corbin saw the carnage and reacted, a move that saw the Jazz climb out of a miserable hole and may have saved his job. He replaced Kanter in the starting lineup with Marvin Williams and has stuck with this general formatting for the most part, with the few exceptions (including last night in a miserable effort against the T-Wolves) mostly relating to injuries to Favors. And while, after a brief adjustment period, Kanter has performed at least decently against mostly bench units, there are still some alarming trends that raise serious questions about the future of the pairing.
First and foremost, of course, is the general idea that two top-five lottery picks from back to back years might simply not be a very good fit together on the court. Since Kanter’s first “bounce-back” game after being permanently removed from the starting lineup3, Corbin has slowly4 started to try the pairing together for small sections at a time. There is one sliver of light when you look at this more recent sample, at least on offense: after scoring at a rate well below Milwaukee’s league-worst output up to that point, Favors and Kanter have annihilated the league offensively these last 14 games together, scoring a ridiculous 123.0 points-per-100. Small sample size, no doubt, but still a positive…until you consider the defense over these same two periods. A tandem that was already well below Utah’s own league-worst mark defensively, this more recent patch has seen them plummet to regions where you wonder if they might be better off just staying on the other end – Utah allows over 120 points-per-100 in this time period with both on the floor.5
SportVU’s rim protection numbers shed some more light on the miserable defensive performance these two have put together. Favors is still allowing an unacceptable figure at the rim given his skill set (50.4%), something I’ve touched on more than once this year, and Kanter is even worse at 51.9%.6 It’s always going to be a struggle for Kanter in this area given his lack of bounce and foot speed, but a tough early-season fouling trend doomed his confidence almost from the start. Watch him here against Andrew Bogut, not exactly a world-beater off the dribble:
Scared into submission by a ton of contact fouls in situations like these at the start of the year, more and more of Kanter’s defended shots at the rim are fly-bys like this rather than solid, fundamental defense. He’s been wearing ice skates all year and continues to do so, and he’s so morbidly afraid of taking the foul that he offers token resistance for an easy layup. He has another unfortunate tendency, as well:
Getting the ball swiped isn’t what I mean, although it’s obviously not ideal. But his real mistake is just after, as he halfheartedly runs out to challenge the resulting Jamaal Crawford three to no avail. These kinds of plays are common for Kanter, and though his intentions and hustle are in the right place, he needs to get a bit more brainy in these spots – his challenge here does absolutely nothing to disturb Crawford’s shot, but also takes Kanter, a vital piece on the boards, completely out of rebounding position.7 Attacking shooters is fine when there’s a chance at disturbing a shot, but effort for effort’s sake can often be a sub-optimal play, and Kanter does far too much of this sort of thing.
But the rim might not even be the worst area for the pairing defensively. For the entire year, opponents are shooting a ridiculous 52.6% between 10-15 feet with the Favors-Kanter duo sharing the court – of 87 players attempting at least one shot from a very similar distance on NBA.com8, there are only seven players who shoot better than that 52.6% mark. The combo is just too slow and inexperienced, and even a recent switch I documented from a primarily high-hedge pick-and-roll defense to a drop-back strategy hasn’t helped.
All this has to be worrying for the Jazz, who have already locked up Favors long term and will need to do the same with Kanter before tip-off next season to avoid letting him enter restricted free-agency in summer 2015. The harsh reality is that Utah will have to consider trading the Turk if he can’t find his way next to Favors and produce. His offensive skill set is valuable for a big in today’s league, and the Jazz could frame certain metrics that would seem to indicate that maybe the Favors-Kanter pairing is just a bad fit on defense, rather than Kanter himself just being bad. Throw in the fact that a team trading for him essentially has first right of refusal for the next five or six years of his services, and he could actually be quite a valuable piece to the right team. Of course, even considering this path will make Dennis Lindsey queasy; these are exactly the sorts of quandaries GM’s hate. Trading a top-five pick before his rookie deal expires isn’t unheard of, but it’s almost universally considered a big negative for any team doing so. Unfortunately, there’s enough concern that Utah now has to face this very real possibility.9
These are the sorts of icky swamps any NBA GM will face from time to time, and how little mess they leave behind can often determine the fortunes of a franchise. The Jazz have some tough decisions to make in the upcoming year, and it starts with their frontcourt. Here’s hoping they choose wisely.