Can the Jazz Disrupt a Dynasty by Staying Big?

August 8th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Donovan Mitchell (left) and Rudy Gobert (right) are the present and future of the Utah Jazz. While Derrick Favors has a central place in this photo, there is a real question whether he will even be in the franchise picture beyond this year. (Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports)

Not everything Mark Cuban says is worth hearing. I know, shocker.

But one of the greatest insights I’ve ever heard on building a contender came from the Mavericks’ owner. Paraphrasing, he said trying to topple a champion by adopting that champion’s blueprint is idiotic.

For example, it would be difficult for a modern team to out-Warrior the Warriors. Houston gave it a valiant shot last year, putting together the offensive talent to outgun Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson while simultaneously fielding switchable defenders in the vein of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Durant, and Thompson. They came close, aided by a Warriors’s mini-slump, but still fell short.

An alternate strategy is what Sam Hinkie, the designer of the Philadelphia 76ers’ controversial Process, might call “creative disruption.” Rather than embrace established conventions — such as playing small with plenty of shooting to maximize space — a team can theoretically innovate a new competitive paradigm.

In effect, a team could try to overcome the Warriors by changing the rules of the game, or at least the ways in which games are won.

This is the reasoning general manager Rob Pelinka gave for the Lakers’s unconventional free agency decisions since landing LeBron James. “I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap,” Pelinka point-blank stated. Instead of going all-offense all the time, like James’ recent Cavaliers teams, the Lakers are betting a defense-first approach in an age of offense might enable them to conquer the unconquerable. (Lauding an elderly Rajon Rondo as a key defensive cog has me skeptical.)

But that doesn’t mean disruption can’t work.

And no team in the league presents a more disruptive paradigm than the Jazz with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on the floor together. The question becomes can they leverage the unique advantages of their size while overcoming correlated challenges enough to change the winning paradigm of the Warriors’s era.

Advantages of Going Big

Another Way to Punish Switching Defenses

The NBA is a pick-and-roll league. To counter this, modern NBA defenses are all about switching. Elite teams frequently run out four or even five players comfortable, or at least capable of, defending out to the three-point line. The best of these defenders, like Kawhi Leonard, Trevor Ariza, and Jimmy Butler, are fast enough to stay in front of most point guards as well as strong enough to hold position in the post against bigger players.

By far the most popular way to attack these switching defenses is to orchestrate a switch that will isolate a minus defender on a shot creator who can attack off the dribble. Think Stephen Curry mercilessly picking on Kevin Love year after year in the finals.

When playing two bigs in today’ league, the Jazz guarantee that any switching defense risk mismatches of an entirely different nature: a huge size advantage for a Jazz big.

For example, Derrick Favors (6’10” and 265 lbs) being guarded by the Lakers’ Tyler Ennis (6’3″ and 194 lbs)1.

Utah’s starting bigs combined to shoot 72 percent in the restricted area last season. That’s 1.44 points per field goal attempt, nearly identical to the efficiency of a Joe Ingles corner three (1.48)! The more shots Favors and Gobert get in this area against smaller defenders, the better Utah’s offense will be.

Offensive Rebounds

Remember this?

Despite that play gobsmacking Jazz fans in the playoffs, offensive rebounding has lost much of its allure for coaches who seek to maximize fast break defense, Utah’s Quin Snyder among them. But against stretch bigs more suited to bombing from deep than banging down low, both of Favors and Gobert can wreck a team’s defense by creating extra possessions while teammates sprint back to wall off any break.

If smaller (or lighter) players try to box Utah’s bigs out, they’re often simply overwhelmed.

Remember, it was 13 combined offensive rebounds for Utah’s mammoth front court2 that set a winning tone in Game 2 of the Jazz’s First Round upset over the Thunder. Combined with Utah’s intimidating defense and methodical pace, those extra possessions can be deeply demoralizing.

A side benefit of playing multiple offensive rebounder is that it limits runouts. Defensive teams are frequently forced to gang rebound when overpowered on the glass, sending perimeter players in to help secure the ball. This approach hobbles their fast break attack, keeping the game in the half court — which is exactly what Utah wants.

Doubling Down on Defense

Any defense with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year will be good. Surround Gobert with quality defenders like Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Thabo Sefalosha, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale, and Dante Exum and that defense becomes great, as illustrated by the Jazz’s second-ranked 101.6 defensive rating last season.

Add Derrick Favors to the mix and suddenly the defense is not only great but unique.

Years ago, Favors set a record for lateral thrust at the P3 Peak Performance Project training facility. Injuries all but erased that physical specimen until last season, when the 6’10” forward/center was tasked with guarding smaller players far out on the court — to encouraging results thanks to his once-lauded lateral movement.

Watch Favors successfully turn his hips and slide with the Miami Heat’s 6’4″ Tyler Johnson.

While Kyle Anderson is far from a burner, he does have a physique and game fairly emblematic of modern play-making fours. Watch how Favors stays with Anderson for multiple dribbles and over quite possibly the worst screen in NBA history by LaMarcus Aldridge.

While no one will mistake Favors as a lock down perimeter defender, he isn’t a liability there, at least not against general NBA competition. Opponents shot only 37 percent beyond 15 feet last season when Favors was guarding, more than a percentage point lower than the league average from that distance, and beyond the arc they only shot 0.2 percentage points better than league average. That significantly beats these metrics for Jonus Jerebko or Crowder, and compares reasonably to Sefolosha’s.

Yet it’s Favors’ rim protection and rebounding that, in combination with Gobert’s, makes the Jazz a modern NBA unicorn.

Of the 35 NBA players defended five or more shots per game within six feet of the hoop last season, only six held opponents to 10 percentage points or more beneath the league average on those shots. Utah’s Gobert and Favors were two of the six3.

With both in the game at once, teams often simply can’t score. Consider that with that tandem on the floor last season, the Jazz posted metrics4 good enough to lead the league in all the following defensive categories:

  • Defensive rating
  • Points in the paint
  • Second chance points
  • Defensive rebounding
  • Free throws allowed

Moreover, with that duo in play Utah gave up the third fewest three point attempts of any team in the NBA. Smother teams near the hoop and restrict their opportunities from long range, and the only recourse is lots of inefficient mid-range attempts and long twos. NBA offenses starve on that diet.

When a smaller lineup is advantageous, Favors morphs into the best backup center in the league. He anchored the third-stingiest bench last season (101.7 defensive rating), providing continuity to Utah’s defense-first approach. It helps when your backup rim protector can meet the Greek Freak at the rim and win that contest.

Favors’s ability to guard the perimeter when playing with Gobert, and be a backup rim protector better than most team’s starters, provides perhaps Utah’s single most defining characteristic.

Challenges of Going Big

Three-Point Shooting and Resulting Spacing

This has been debated ad nauseam and the answer will obviously affect how viable two-big lineups are. Both the Jazz and Favors have been open about discussions on how to best integrate the three-point shot into his game without simply standing Favors in the corner, employing cuts and second-action screens and the like to vary his opportunities while also spreading out a defense, or at least forcing it to move. Enough focus has been paid to this that little more needs be said.

All I’ll add is this: At the same age (26) as Favors last season, Paul Millsap set a career mark for threes attempted with the Jazz at 31. He made seven (23 percent).

Last season including the playoffs, Favors jumped from a season high of 10 threes attempted to 68, of which he made 16 (24 percent).

Is it realistic that Favors might improve his jump shot enough to be a viable threat from three-point range? Sure. Millsap has averaged 34 percent from deep in his career since that early season high with the Jazz. Heck, Tyreke Evans has quietly become a 39-percent sniper the past three seasons!

I’d be shocked if Favors doesn’t increase his accuracy from three given how clear a priority it is for him personally and for the Jazz. How much it will improve, and how quickly, is a legitimate question.

Taking Advantage of Size Mismatches in the Post

There’s a reason practically every team in the NBA designs offenses to get a minus defender switched onto a ball handler who can score: it’s low risk, high reward, and easy to execute.

Often, the designed offensive player has the ball from the onset as a pick and roll ball-handler. Even when screens are set off-ball to create these mismatches, it’s fairly easy to get the ball to the primary option without a turnover as the pass rarely traverses the interior of a defense (and its several sets of long arms) or requires precise timing.

Capitalizing on a scoring opportunity under the rim, even with a size mismatch, is both higher risk and harder to execute. This is one reason why in the switch-happy NBA the market bottom has dropped out for skilled post scorers like Jahlil Okafor or Al Jefferson5.

Scoring on advantageous position beneath the hoop requires awareness by both teammates around the perimeter and the post player, as well as quick reactions, precise timing, and accurate passing.

On this play, the Jazz have a clear opportunity to get the ball to Favors for a layup or dunk with Pau Gasol already sealed away from the hoop. But watch how quickly that window disappears.

The chance for an easy two was there. But look at everything that would be required to make that happen.

  1. When the ball reverses sides of the floor, Favors correctly bodies Gasol away from the rim. However, instead of holding that position, he slides to the weak side of the floor and cedes that position.
  2. O’Neale’s gaze is toward the top of the key when he receives the ball. Whether scanning the defense or just feigning to set up his drive, it wastes the moment. He would have to catch the ball having already targeted Favors for a pass to the post.
  3. Gasol has a wingspan of around 7’5″. Even if Favors had sealed him properly (he didn’t), and O’Neale had seen this and whipped off a pass as soon as the ball hit his hands (he didn’t do either), it would have to be accurate enough to avoid Gasol reaching for a deflection.
  4. Even if all that went right, see Tony Parker lurking on the weak side? Several steps would create a double team. That’s perhaps a second in game play, less for a well prepped and diligent help defender (probably not Parker.)

Say Parker’s double team comes early, taking away the opportunity. The Jazz aren’t out of options. Raul Neto could slide up to the wing for a skip pass or, my preferred option, set a flare screen for Alec Burks. A quick cut below the free throw line could force an already warped defense to react again. A quick fake pass could draw in defenders even more, perhaps giving Rodney Hood an open three.

Suffice to say, there are plenty of productive options, all of which require multiple players to make rapid decisions, execute with precision, and act in sync.

It’s way simpler to get James Harden a favorable switch, space everyone out, and let him go to work, such as after this Sefolosha/Favors switch.

Taking advantage of post opportunities, even gross mismatches, requires an offense like a fine-tuned mechanical watch. Its more similar to Golden State’s whirring system of player and ball motion accented by frequent screens on and off the ball than Houston’s iso-heavy simplicity. There’s a reason the Warriors were fourth worst in the NBA in turnover percentage. As great as they are, getting that complexity to click over and over is hard!

Utah’s offense is already intricate and prioritizes elements essential to take better advantage of mismatches in the post, especially decisiveness and a mentality to hunt any advantage. 

But a host of other elements will need to improve: scheming for mismatch opportunities at the hoop; establishing and holding post position; training perimeter players to check the post as a first passing option when scanning a defense; high pass/high finish combinations to beat double teams and fronting defenses; and habitual counters to contracting defenses.

Utah started light implementation of these things at the end of last season, such as in this play, but to really be truly disruptive they’ll have to apply this with much greater focus and frequency.

That’s what it will take to use the two-big formula to win in a small-ball league. Simply dumping the ball to a big with his back to a defender won’t work; that would amount to denial of the current state of the game, not disruption of it. The Jazz have to show they have the tools to turn Golden State’s own precision against itself, only inside-out and supersized.

In today’s NBA, nothing could be more disruptive.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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One Comment

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Great article during the NBA basketball dog days of summer.

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