By now, operating at less than full strength is just business as usual for the Utah Jazz. Sixty-six games into their season, they’ve still had just four games where nobody was out for health or rest, or had their minutes limited or cut short by injury. So people hardly flinched at the latest news: a bone contusion in Derrick Favors’ left knee will keep the power forward out for some length of time. The Jazz’s injury update says that Favors will be reevaluated later this week.
But bone bruises are no small deal. Players who have been afflicted by them this year — including Favors — have missed decent chunks of time while recovering.
Jeff Stotts, who runs the incredibly helpful injury info site InStreetClothes.com, gives a lot of great context around the injury on his blog. Combine that info with a quick online search about bone bruise recovery times and it starts to become obvious: these aren’t injuries that go away in a few days.
On Favors’ first go-around with a bone bruise this season, he missed 13 straight games — plus individual games here and there and another bunch with limited minutes. Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons missed a month with his own left knee bone bruise: 17 games from November 19 through December 18. Chicago’s Michael Carter-Williams missed 17 games in November and early December.
Maybe Favors’ case is different — injuries are very distinct from one case to another, one athlete to another. Maybe this is a case of the previous contusion flaring up and a few days of rest will get him to a point where he can resume playing through it. But the recent history around NBA players and bone bruises seems to indicate that Favors would be fortunate if he really made it back in a matter of days.
It might not be a terrible thing if it means a fresher playoff version of the big man. In the long run, getting Favors right for the postseason would pay bigger dividends for the Jazz than having him struggle through the next 15 games at 70, 75, 80 percent. They’ll need a more hale version of their two-way big man to make things interesting against the most likely first-round opponent, Blake Griffin’s Clippers. Powering Favors down now could be a worthwhile investment if he’s closer to his springy, switching, scoring self in late April.
But there will be a real cost over the Jazz’s last 15 games if Favors misses a chunk of them, largely because Utah’s not exactly teeming with other power forward options. Lineups that shift Joe Johnson there have been successful on the whole, but they don’t work in every situation. As much as coach Quin Snyder has insisted that Johnson can guard all kinds of NBA four men, he requires help to keep certain guys from having their way. The Jazz just saw against L.A. how bringing that help can compromise the defense.
The other options are headlined by Boris Diaw, who started Monday. His on-court numbers are weirdly good when he plays with other starters, which is only surprising because, by most raw quantitative measures, it has not been the Frenchman’s best year. His three-point shooting and overall shot efficiency are both the lowest since his second NBA season, and there are nights where his defense is akin to that of the traffic cones coaches lay out for drills. And yet somehow, of Utah’s seven most-used units that have a positive net rating, Diaw is in five of them.
Those five lineups all have something else in common, though: Rudy Gobert. Diaw can’t really be a defensive anchor by himself, and Saturday’s loss in Oklahoma City was a good reminder of why Diaw can’t really be paired in a defensive combo with Trey Lyles, who has fallen out of the rotation.
Lyles is an alleged offensive specialist whose shot efficiency (.470 TS%) is so low that he’s borderline unplayable. And the playoff stretch run is likely the wrong time to let project big Joel Bolomboy test the differences between D-League speed and NBA speed, D-League strength and NBA strength. He could get some emergency minutes here and there, but certainly isn’t the answer to how Snyder distributes Favors’ minutes.
Which leads to the next logical question: is there another answer? The Jazz don’t have an open roster spot, but could create one if there was someone they thought could help. Shelvin Mack hasn’t played in a month1 and is the fourth point guard for a team that also likes running without a traditional point at times.
But the Jazz won’t waive him just to bring up a D-League prospect. And there aren’t exactly a ton of names of veteran free agents hanging around in mid March.
Should the Jazz decide to go after someone to supplement the big man rotation while Favors’ contusion heals, they are in a unique situation to essentially do it for free. On the last day of the regular season, they will be cutting their players a check for the $4.2 million salary shortfall anyway. So any money they spend between now and then doesn’t cost the franchise any incremental money. And since they’re under the cap, there’s no reason they couldn’t offer a player a bigger chunk than other teams. Most teams will probably offer veterans a prorated minimum contract, which would cost them about 30/170ths2 of the league minimum, or about $173,000. The Jazz, on the other hand, could tell the same player, “Hey, we’ve got a cool half million over here for you,” and it wouldn’t actually cost them a nickel. It would just slightly reduce the end-of-year bonus their players would get from the salary shortfall.
So who is available that’s worth such an offer? That’s where it gets tricky.
Luis Scola’s name has come up, but it’s not like he solves any of the problems that Diaw doesn’t. Like Boris, the Argentine is not going to guard in space, guard on switches, protect the paint or score in bunches, and he doesn’t offer the vision and playmaking Diaw can display. Omri Casspi should be cleared to play soon and is a good player, but he’s more of a natural three with some small-ball 4 abilities. The Jazz already have a bunch of those guys, and I don’t see Casspi wresting minutes from Johnson and Joe Ingles, let alone All-Star Gordon Hayward.
Which is why that isn’t likely how the Jazz will weather Favors’ absence, however long or short. Their fix to survive this is likely already on the roster — a combination of the Joes playing up when they can, Diaw playing alongside Gobert, and Lyles and Bolomboy drawing emergency duty.
Whether or not they can hang on in the standings with that mob depends on how long Fav is out. And that’s what we still don’t know.
Just don’t hold your breath, if recent bone bruises are any indication.