The trade of Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder for, in essence, a protected 1st round pick and 280 pounds of cap space is proving difficult for many Jazz fans to swallow. That’s because they aren’t eating what the Jazz have served up on a silver platter. Jazz fans everywhere should be feasting.
The Kanter trade isn’t about Enes Kanter. It’s about Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and the Jazz going all in on a frountcourt pairing that has become better than anticipated, faster than anticipated. So much so that the Jazz must be wondering if they have been sitting on what will become the best combo of bigs in the league five years from now.
Skeptical? A host of important numbers suggest they are a top five frontcourt already.
The following chart shows how Favors and Gobert compare to the league’s starting frontcourts in terms of production this season. It’s true they generated these numbers largely from playing in separate lineups, adding uncertainty to just how their dynamic individual games will combine to form a consistent, high-minute pairing. The duo have only shared court time for 335 minutes this season, which is far from a huge sample. But the combined production in those minutes has been astonishing.
The Favors and Gobert frontcourt is an against-the-grain strategy in the modern NBA,1 a commitment to dominant defense through rim protection and offensive efficiency and diversity rather than specialized shooting. Doubling down on the “big” in NBA big man.
A quick and dirty composite of NBA frontcourt duos2 shows that, judged by the standards of their own style, Favors and Gobert haven’t only produced beyond anticipation this season – they have very nearly pillaged the NBA.
Take a look.
According to this diverse collection of metrics, the combined production of Favors and Gobert makes them the 4TH BEST FRONTCOURT IN THE LEAGUE on a per possession basis. Yes, ranked just above the Memphis Grizzlies all-world duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the Spurs veteran tandem of first ballot Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Further down the rankings come the pairings of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith in Houston, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in Detroit, Kevin Love and Timofy Mozgov with Cleveland, Paul Gasol and Joakim Noah in Chicago, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez in Portland, and Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler in Dallas. In terms of simple production on the floor per possession, Favors and Gobert have played better than them all.
Not potentially, not in hopes of Jazz fans and fingers crossed in the future. Right now.
Only three starting frontcourts have outperformed Favors and Gobert possession by possession this season. Chris Bosh and Hassan Don’t-Call-Me-Linsanity Whiteside.3 Physical freak DeAndre Jordan and MVP-caliber whiner Blake Griffin.4 And defensive tower Omer Asik and future Best Player on Planet Earth Anthony Davis.
That’s it. Every other starting frontcourt falls short of the per possession production of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.
The whole world, including Enes Kanter, knew it was only a matter of time before the Jazz tried to weld that production into a true on-court tandem. But looking at the numbers, it’s plausible that Kanter’s public demand to be traded played less of a role in the team shipping him off than has been publicly reported. Maybe the Jazz simply could no longer wait to commit to a pair of bigs who profile as title contending titans.
That is not excessive optimism; it’s plain description.
It all begins on defense, as it always will with the Favors/Gobert pairing – and the defense is frightening. Gobert’s ridiculous 37.8% shooting allowed at the rim rightly gets lauded, but quietly Favors has allowed only 46.4% at the rim himself. That’s stingier rim stoppage than Nerlens Noel, Tim Duncan, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, both Gasol brothers, and Anthony Davis. And that’s your clear #2 rim protector.
Combined, they rank 1st in the league in both opponent field goal percentage at the rim and block percentage. That’s the best rim protection in the NBA. Period.
Only the frontcourt for the basketball buzzsaw that is the Golden State Warriors compares to the Jazz duo in terms of defensive impact around the hoop. Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green have taken role acceptance and gritty defense to an art form this season. Even so, consider that the Warriors are allowing a league-best 42.1% from the field compared to the Jazz’s 45.8%. That’s more defensive rebound opportunities. While Favors and Gobert have produced as an average defensive rebounding combination by the standards of starting bigs, just a single rebound more per 100 possessions vaults them into top 10 territory. Now consider the formula of more Rudy Gobert defense with no Enes Kanter on the boards.
The Jazz duo will climb the defensive rebounding ranks quickly to close the season. With that component in place, one literally could not design a better defensive pairing to protect the paint.
On the offensive end, things are less certain but just as exciting due to the possibilities. Favors and Gobert already have elite offensive skills to build from: extreme shooting efficiency (2nd), drawing frequent free throws (8th), and offensive rebounds (3rd). This combination provides a floor of solid contribution on the offensive end, as the duo is capable of manufacturing points and adding reliability to a Jazz offense that sometimes suffers painful droughts.
But there is potential for so much more.
How efficient can the frontcourt remain now that Enes Kanter’s 25.2% USG5 is sharing the court with Russell Westbrook? That offensive usage will have to go somewhere. Gordon Hayward can’t reasonably be expected to assume all of it, or even most of it, given the disproportionate burden he already carries within the offense. Joe Ingles simply isn’t capable of doing so, to say nothing of Dante I’m-Just-Trying-Not-To-Drown Exum. That leaves the bigs.
Perhaps the biggest question of the remainder of the Jazz season is how the offensive efficiency of the frontcourt will endure greater responsibility. Personally, I believe Gobert will quickly prove he is capable of holding his own. I expect Favors do to more than that and thrive. There will be growing pains, certainly, in some ways suggesting Gordon Hayward’s struggles with his greatly increased role last season. But I expect Favors to acclimate quickly, increasingly showing a more polished and diverse offensive game than most credit him for.
Most exciting of all, to my mind, is the glaring lack of a weakness in these numbers. The young Jazz duo is one of only four frontcourts in the league without a blush of crimson marring their row on the chart. The areas where Favors and Gobert clearly have the most room to grow, point and assist generation, are largely a function of responsibility and opportunity within an offense. With Kanter now out of the rotation, it is their opportunity to demonstrate that there is even more than they’ve shown thus far. My guess it will express, at least partially, in an increase of high/low post action and better early passing into the post.
Oh, and there’s only one younger frontcourt in the league, and that 76er combo includes one Henry Sims.
Yes, Enes Kanter’s defensive limitations6 and non-existent passing played a role in the Jazz trading him, as likely did his discontent with his situation in Utah, both publicly and privately. Considerations included Kanter’s restricted free agency or possible qualifying offer, team chemistry, and available returns on the Jazz’s investment of a #3 pick. But all of that was secondary to the simple, central truth.
The Jazz have the frontcourt around which to build a championship contender, and they needed to cement that foundation, make it the very bones of the organization. Now, they have done just that, issuing a clear declaration that their future will be built on the shoulders of twin giants.