One of the largest challenges in managing an NBA franchise outside a major market will always be the inherently unbalanced nature of free agency within the league. The big boys just have the deck stacked in their favor in too many ways – TV/endorsement deals, the lure of the big city, or even a player’s desire to play for the teams they loved growing up. Even with the globalization of media that’s taken place over the last decade or so, luring elite free agents on the open market has proven nearly impossible for small-to-medium market teams.
To attempt to offset this, the lesser markets have to maximize the areas over which they have control: drafting, developing, and retaining as many valuable assets as possible. It’s a tricky game, one the Jazz are fully engaged in this offseason and likely for the next several. The four-year, $49 million extension of Derrick Favors made the picture more clear, but was it the right way of doing so?
Let me first be clear: I like Favors a lot, and believe he certainly has the potential to live up to his extension. But every dollar counts when there’s such paramount importance placed on getting these sorts of things right, and the stickler in me just thinks the Jazz could have done a little better.
Defensively, there’s no questioning the potential Favors brings with his athleticism and length. He’s already above average in many areas, notably his pick-and-roll footwork, his rebounding, and his rim protection. He’s still prone to many of the errors younger players make on defense – a tendency to leave his feet too soon, foul too often, and jump himself out of rebounding position trying to contest shots – and it will be telling to see how he improves in these areas. The first play from the clip below demonstrates both sides of his defensive coin:
Favors is a step late on his rotation over to Pekovic, something that’s happened a little too frequently. In this case it didn’t matter – his monster athleticism got him a free pass as he was able to elevate a half step early and swat the layup attempt cleanly. It’s encouraging to see him leverage his athletic prowess, but as he begins to see more time against equally gifted athletes (many of his minutes so far in his career have come against bench units) he will need to remove those sort of lapses from his game. While second-level defensive stuff like this is easier to pick up than some of the more technical offensive actions, there are still countless examples of ultra-athletic bigs who simply never fully figured out NBA defense. And though Favors seems to possess at least an average basketball IQ, it’s very difficult to project if or when he might become a true top-15 defender league-wide – but given his struggles on offense, he might have to reach this point very soon to fully justify his extension.
On offense, his post-up game is virtually non-existent. Apart from rare instances of using pure muscle on a smaller defender in a mismatch, Favors has no consistent way of generating good looks one-on-one. His footwork and dribbling are miles behind his raw athleticism at this point, and many of the moves he tries result in wild attempts with a low success rate. He has no jumper to speak of – per Hoopdata, of 67 qualified power forwards last season (minimum 15 minutes per game), he was 55th in field-goal percentage from 3-9 feet (28.0%), 42nd from 10-15 feet (36.6%), and 61st from 16-23 feet (a miserable 26.0%). With this sort of knowledge, teams will happily give him these shots while loading up to prevent him getting to the basket.
Favors helps his case with strong work on the offensive glass, and he has all the physical tools to become an above-average pick-and-roll finisher. But mastering the footwork and little intricacies, especially doing so on the fly against elite-level competition for the first time in his NBA career, will be no easy task. And if he’s unable to improve his ability to generate his own shot in a pinch, even hitting 90% of his pick-and-roll potential won’t justify such a large contract unless he becomes a truly elite defender.
The atmosphere of the free agent market no doubt played a large role in the Jazz’s decision, most notably the recent max extension signed by Boogie Cousins in Sacramento. And while Utah did well to avoid being roped into simply matching Cousins’ number for a player who could be very similar if he reaches his ceiling, it’s still curious to note bigs with whom Favors is now on an even footing or even earning slightly more than. Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are all in the same ballpark, and while the latter two are chasing titles late in their careers, Noah is a defensive commodity on the same level as Favors (only far more proven against NBA starters) with a much more polished offensive game.
Perhaps the best comparison point, though, is Larry Sanders, the Bucks defensive ace who just signed a four-year, $44 million extension this offseason. The two were extremely similar offensively, with Sanders even less impactful than Favors in the post and on isolation plays but significantly more effective as the roll man in pick-and-rolls (1.01 points per possession for Sanders, .85 PPP for Favors, per Synergy Sports). But while their ceilings defensively are similar, Sanders has already realized far more of his potential in this area.
Despite playing more minutes against starters, Sanders was far better last season against isolation (.62 PPP allowed versus .82 PPP for Favors, a massive discrepancy) and post-ups (.70 PPP versus .92 PPP for Favors), while the two were nearly identical in Favors’ strongest area, pick-and-roll defense. Moreover, while the Jazz were notably better defensively with Favors on the court, allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 105.5 without him, the Bucks were an entirely different team with Sanders out there: his massive 6.8 on/off court point discrepancy per 100 possessions is equivalent to the difference between the third-ranked defense in the NBA and the 23rd-ranked defense (all PPP stats from Synergy). The eye test backs all this up; Sanders is the better rotator, the quicker guy on isolation defense, and is less prone to mistakes with balance and timing.
In the end, the Jazz took the safer route and locked up their guy while they still had full control over the situation. They can’t be criticized for this alone, but given all the unknown elements of Favors’ development and comparable salaries for more proven commodities elsewhere around the league, it would have been nice to see them work for a bit of a better bargain. Playing hardball with the risk of allowing an asset to enter restricted free agency is always scary, but the Jazz have gobs of cap room for the foreseeable future. Even if Favors were to exceed projections this year, the relative risk of being forced to match a max extension for him was worth taking a shot at getting him for $9 or $10 million a season and having a bargain contract if he made a leap anytime during the extension. They’d then have had extra room to not only lock up the rest of their young core in the next few seasons (Hayward, Burks, etc.), but to hold cap space open for their two incoming first round picks in an absolutely stacked 2014 Draft.
NBA free agency is an ever-changing game, and the Jazz have always done a respectable job of contending despite their inherent disadvantages. Even if this was an overpay, they still have a bright future ahead with one of the best stockpiles of young assets in the league.