Coming into his first season as the top big man on Utah’s depth chart, folks familiar with Derrick Favors’ game had a pretty reasonable handle on what to expect from him for the year. Still raw offensively, especially in terms of his own shot creation, it was assumed Favors would continue as a strong pick-and-roll option due to his dunking ability and athleticism while getting plenty of time to develop his post game and other areas offensively. Meanwhile, this opportunity for big minutes against starter-caliber competition foreshadowed, to many, Favors’ ascent to the elite ranks of defensive big men.
As far as reality compared with expectations, these general assumptions have ended up somewhat backwards for the year. While he’s no Al Jefferson down there, Favors has shown a much larger improvement than expected on the offensive side, flashing a more polished post game which includes a face-up jumper that no longer has defenses high-fiving every time he launches it. He’s also been an even greater menace than expected out of the pick-and-roll, scoring at a top-20 points-per-possession rate for qualified players league-wide, per Synergy Sports.
This is great, and the Jazz should be thrilled with the improvements he’s been able to make so quickly (and against starters compared to bench units last year), in particular the chemistry he’s quickly developed with rookie point guard Trey Burke. But of concern to Utah is the other end of the floor: Favors has failed to show the kind of leap many had forecast for him this year, “anchoring” a defense that continues to rank dead last in the league per-100-possessions according to NBA.com.
The numbers are, to put it mildly, a tad disappointing. While it’d be nice to be able to pawn most of the blame for their shoddy D off onto bench units and Enes Kanter, that’s just not the case. With Favors on the court, the Jazz have actually been even worse than their already league-worst mark of 107.8, allowing 109.1 points-per-100. When he leaves, though, the number drops to 106.2 – not elite by any stretch, but a telling improvement that raises real questions about Favors’ defensive showing.
Of course, as I’ve noted in this space before, these on and off court numbers can contain a fair degree of noise that one must account for. There are several pieces of qualifying context that come into play with Favors’ seemingly ugly numbers in this area, although it’s hard to say how much they explain the fact that Utah is markedly better defensively without their supposed defensive centerpiece. First and most importantly are the lineups he plays in; Utah’s starting lineup, by far its highest minute logger,[ref]The Burke-Hayward-Jefferson-Williams-Favors unit has played over triple the minutes of any other lineup for Utah this season.[/ref] is noticeably absent another rim protector outside Favors. Coach Ty Corbin’s choice to play a small-ball unit such heavy minutes has certainly done Favors no favors (see what I did there?).
Deciphering how much of his disappointing defensive performance this accounts for is difficult. Figures from nbawowy show us that, without Favors, defensive results for the rest of the starting lineup are mixed – Burke and Williams both suffer noticeably without Favors out there, but Hayward and Jefferson both have roughly the same defensive metrics whether Favors plays with them or sits. On the other hand, one mitigating factor firmly in Favors’ benefit is the performance of this same lineup defensively when Kanter takes his place – it’s nine points worse per-100, a massive gulf even when factoring in Kanter’s yearlong confusion.
But the individual players involved in Favors’ various combinations aren’t the only factor affecting him within these lineups. In fact, it’s a different issue altogether to which we can attach far more tangible relevance: the position he’s playing.
Folks on their analytical high horse might sneer at such a proposition, and would certainly be quick to point out that “there are hardly even positions in the NBA anymore.” Well, to be clear, this is false. It’s true that the league continues to trend toward being a matchup-oriented one rather than position-oriented, but even the move from the traditional “power forward” slot to the traditional “center” slot, like the one Favors has largely made this season, can carry a big change in role.
For instance, the type of player he’s typically guarding is often different. Favors is no small man, listed at 6’10” and 246 pounds – against other power forwards, he’ll be right around the average size, if not slightly heftier (a fact which, combined with his above-average athleticism, gives him a real leg up). And while there are certainly some in the league around that size, the typical NBA center is often bigger and longer – and this couple inches of height and reach, and in some cases a real weight advantage, can mean more than some might think.
The results show up most in Favors’ post defense, an area where he’s struggled all year. According to Synergy, Favors has allowed .9 points-per-possession for finished post plays, the 147th-best mark of qualified players. What’s interesting about this, though, is that he’s actually not bad in any on-ball element of post defense – he’s strong, doesn’t bite too easily on fakes or take too many fouls, and doesn’t pull the “Kevin Love.”[ref]The “Kevin Love” is my affectionate name for a big man defending a post shooter who almost never fully challenges said shooter’s shots unless they’re directly at the rim, preferring to turn a half-step earlier and get into rebounding position. It’s a bad, stat-padding habit that Love will start getting grilled for as soon as he plays for an accountable team in the playoffs.[/ref] Rather, Favors’ biggest issue in the post is the positioning he allows opponents to get on him:
This is Nikola Pekovic, everyone’s favorite Jazz-killer, brutalizing Favors into far too good a position in the post. Look at Pek’s feet as he catches the entry pass:
Competent NBA centers cannot be allowed this sort of footing. Even Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard would get owned repeatedly if they let their marks get such good looks; it’s simply too great a disadvantage for a defensive player regardless of his skill level and athletic ability.
And even when Favors does force his man to catch the ball further away from the hoop,[ref]Something that, to his credit, he’s improved in recent weeks.[/ref] he’s having trouble against the extra length he’s seeing from centers more regularly. Watch Pau Gasol go to work on him:
While he could have done a better job keeping Gasol from inching closer to the basket with each dribble, this play really comes down to length. Against another 6’10” power forward, one without Gasol’s ostrich-like length, Favors might have even blocked this attempt. Look at how much higher Gasol can get even with Favors fully stretched out:
The difference between 6’10” and 7’0” seems small on a player bio page, but this is a great example of just how much that extra length can mean. Teams have keyed on Favors’ issues in the post guarding centers, and are going to lengths to attack him there specifically. Per Synergy, opposing players have finished 41% of their total offensive plays against Favors from the post, easily the most of any play type. In recent weeks, the likes of Chris Kaman, Jason Thompson and Kendrick Perkins have all had individual plays called for them in the post against Favors. His struggles here likely also play a large role in his still-pedestrian rim defending numbers from SportVU, which peg him as merely middle-of-the-pack among guys defending at least five such shots per game.[ref]At nearly the three-quarter pole of the season, there is enough data here that nearly every elite defensive big is at or near the top of this list, making Favors’ ho-hum performance all the more damning for those who felt he soon might warrant inclusion among them.[/ref]
In the end, it seems fair to call Favors’ defensive performance for the year a bit of a disappointment, though maybe not the train wreck certain metrics would make it out to be. It’s foolish to assume that his on and off court numbers would be this bad on a better defensive team overall, and especially if he didn’t have to play so much time against longer centers.[ref]For instance, in 68 tantalizing minutes together (defensively at least; the offense in these 68 is an unmitigated disaster), Favors and Rudy Gobert have allowed only 100.6 points-per-100, exactly equivalent to the Spurs’ fifth-ranked defense on the year.[/ref] On the other hand, his play against post-ups and his overall rim defense will have to make real strides, even in a vacuum, for him to ever attain the top-10 defensive ceiling most envisioned for him coming into the season.
It’s a long year of development for the Jazz, and hiccups like this had to be expected. Favors remains likely the highest-ceiling player of Utah’s core, and his results this season, as least to me, haven’t changed that much on either end. With proper coaching and more time to learn the nuances of complex NBA offense, expect Favors to have a resurgence to the defensive form we had seen from him in previous years.