Can Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter Work Together?

January 22nd, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett


Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. I could absolutely see the Jazz letting Kanter go to restricted free agency and letting the market set his value. He may be a top 3 pick, but… that draft…

  2. Brent says:

    I think their bad defensive performance lies more in their coaching and system. Kanter came into the league with a defensive rating of 105 now it’s 110. Last year everybody said Al Jefferson was a horrible defender. Now his defensive rating is 99 and he plays on the 3rd best defensive team.
    For a team that has lots of young athletes, rim protectors and length, you’d think they would be better than 29th in defense.

  3. Ben Dowsett says:

    Clint, I could see that but I’d prefer to see them get value for him, which I really believe they could if they traded him well before he hits RFA. That will also depend on who they draft this year and their expected salary against the cap for 2015.

    Brent, while you’re correct that Utah’s defense hasn’t always been consistent in it’s style under Corbin (something I’ve written about in the last month), I think it’s a bit of a reach to consider that more of a cause of the Favors-Kanter failings on defense than their own limitations, particularly Kanter’s. I’m not sure where you get that Jefferson stat from, the Bobcats overall are at 103.4 (very good, no doubt), but with Jefferson on the floor they’re allowing 105.7, just about league average. Charlotte also has stronger perimeter defenders than Utah, MKG in particular, and that sort of static is what I referenced in one of my side-notes here.

    In particular, the eye test is almost worse than the numbers. The duo is simply too slow and inexperienced to keep up, and Kanter specifically has not only failed to improve, it looks as though he’s regressed. The coaching hasn’t exactly been Thibodeau-like, but the limitations of both guys (plus the rest of the roster; outside of Burks, and I guess Jeremy Evans when he’s alive, I don’t really see a whole lot of length or rim protection) I think are far more to blame.

    • Brent says:

      Al Jefferson’s 99 defensive rating for this year comes from basketball reference. Here’s the link:

      Charlotte’s team defensive efficiency rating is 100.8 Good enough for only 7th (they were 3rd last week). Utah is ranked 30th out of 30 teams. Here’s the link:

      Kanter has regressed. He’s worse now than when he was a rookie.

    • Brent says:

      Furthermore, Charlotte was 30th out of 30 in team defensive rating last year giving up 111.5 points per 100 possessions.
      As for the MKG being a lock down defender and making Al Jefferson look good, that simply isn’t true. He was on the team last year and this year he has only played in 24 out of 44 games.
      The reason for the Jazz’s and Kanter’s defensive failings lie with the coaching staff.

      • Ben Dowsett says:

        My apologies for the incorrect numbers in my comment, I’m really not sure what source bballreference is using but their numbers come nowhere close to matching up with’s, and I simply quickly checked bballreference when I posted that comment. You are correct that Charlotte’s team Drtg is 100.8 at the moment.

        That said, take a look at the on/off court details from for Charlotte. While Jefferson is actually on the court, they allow 102.3 per-100 (these numbers also differ from nbawowy, which relates to different classifications of possessions). Still above-average, but it’s one of the worst marks of any of their rotation players. When he leaves the court, they’re over three points better per-100 defensively. That 99 number from bballreference is likely some sort of different calculation, they list it as an “estimate”. So while you’re correct that he hasn’t been nearly as bad as his days in Utah, Jefferson is still aided by a pretty reasonable amount of noise on these type of stats. Certainly most would probably consider Steve Clifford an upgrade as a defensive coach over Corbin (the numbers absolutely would), but I don’t think this sort of evidence points to Corbin as the sole, or major, culprit for the Jazz. They’ve been no better in limited time together (Favors-Kanter, that is) since they made the switch to their P&R D, in fact they’ve been worse. Coaching is important, but it can’t make the plays on the court.

        • Brent says:

          Ok, numbers or not, you don’t add Al Jefferson to your team, play him 34 minuets per game and improve from the 30th best defensive team to the 3rd (7th this week) best defensive team. Corbin gives Kanter and Favors an unclear defensive plan and then pulls Kanter out when they make a mistake. What Hornacek and Clifford have done is kept preaching their system and letting guys work through their mistakes. They’ve given their team clear defensive rules that don’t vary from game to game. This has allowed the players to build trust and confidence in each other and the system.
          For a team that subtracted 3 bad defenders (Al Jefferson, Mo Williams and Randy Foye) and replaced them with younger more athletic players, the Jazz should be better than 30th in defensive efficiency. That’s on Corbin.

          • Ben Dowsett says:

            I think we disagree less than it might seem. I’ve been critical of Corbin as a defensive coach on more than on occasion, including nonstop last season. It’s true that, until recently at least, his defensive schemes have been very incoherent and inconsistent. Though I don’t know that I ever published anything saying so, I was also disappointed the Jazz didn’t keep Hornacek in the fold and even consider making him Corbin’s replacement if that’s what it took to keep him around.
            That said, there are a couple blanket statements in there you want to watch out for. There is no question that, as a defender, Jefferson is being used more effectively this season and it is absolutely improving his game on that end. But you have to consider the different circumstances. The Jazz never had perimeter defenders anywhere close to this Charlotte team, even if you exclude MKG who has played in over half their games. Kemba is a massively underrated defender, the Bobcats are 3.5 points worse per-100 when he sits. Same with Ramon Sessions, they’re over 4 points-per-100 worse defensively when he’s on the bench. Plus, Jefferson has played 846 of his 1180 minutes alongside Josh McRoberts, who again might not be a household name, but who also sees Charlotte’s defense get noticeably worse when he hits the bench. Teams hide players on defense all the time – take a look at Steph Curry in GS. It’s not as common for bigs, but you bet it happens, there’s a reason Jefferson has worse defensive on/off court numbers than any other big man on the Bobcats. There’s a reason Charlotte’s defensive numbers are better when Jefferson sits (99.1) than any other player on the team outside Gerald Henderson’s corpse. I hope I’ve made this point clear: you can’t simply praise Jefferson, bash Corbin, and use two entirely different teams as your barometer.
            Also, a very general statement about removing bad defenders and just directly replacing them with more athletic players doesn’t really hold any water under scrutiny. Enes Kanter is not athletic, Trey Burke is not especially athletic (for the NBA, on defense), and the best perimeter defender Utah has is now being asked to carry the #1 scoring burden every night he’s healthy, which has led to some very noticeable motor questions and has had a very obvious impact on his defense. The Jazz are also playing Marvin Williams against starting power forwards every night in a calculated move that everyone knows will damage the defense, but was done to lift a completely lifeless offense out of the muck. Derrick Favors is quite athletic, for sure, but his rim protection numbers have been subpar based on expectations, in every type of scheme. Outside him, I’m not sure what you mean about replacing bad defenders with more athleticism. Again, I think Corbin deserves his share of the criticism during his tenure, especially last season, but putting all of Utah’s defensive woes on him this year and ignoring a pretty dire situation for him in terms of personnel is really selling him short.

  4. Justin says:

    Just to clarify. Ty taking Enes out of the line up happened at the exact same time that Trey came into the line-up. So really, it was a Enes/Lucas for Marv/Trey swap, not simply a Marv for Enes move that created the better results. You’d think that a coach would want to see his two bigs play along side an actual PG before passing judgment. (Similarly to how Alec got benched when he was playing out of position & with C rate players, instead of playing real minutes at SG with real players. Now that he’s playing real minutes, his game is great!) Give the Kanter/Favors combo a dozen games or so with an actual PG, then start to make decisions on their ability to play together. This year was supposed to be about growth if the young “Core”. It’s time to actually put them on the floor together and see what happens instead of making assumptions based off how Enes played with JLIII.

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