Is Derrick Favors Too Short To Play Center?

March 7th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

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,1 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.”2  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,3 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.4

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.5  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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and general sports fanatic based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Nylon Calculus (Hardwood Paroxysm/Fansided Network), and can be heard on the airwaves for the SCH podcast and appearances with ESPN AM 700. With a strong background in both statistics and on-court fundemantals, he writes primarily as an in-depth strategic analyst. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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16 Comments

  1. cw says:

    I sort of thought it was understood all along that both Favors and Kanter were power forwards. Which is why they drafted Gobert. I think this duplication of position is also why they have a hard time playing together and the reason bball media types expect one of them to be traded down the road. I think you are right that Favors has more *sure* upside. But if Kanter could just get up to around average on defense while continuing his offensive growth–something entirely possible since he’s only 21–then he could end up more valuable. It will probably be a race to see who can develop further, faster, Kanter on defense and Favors on offense. While Kanter would be an attractive piece in a trade if the Jazz try to move up in this years draft, I don’t expect either of them to be traded until the Jazz have a better idea of their ceilings. I’d say sometime after next season.

    • Big Billy says:

      I want Favors and Kanter to be our starting frontcourt. I wouldn’t blame the poor defense on Favors, I’d blame it on the coaching staff and Enes Kanter. I think Favors can play power forward better than center, and Enes Kanter can play Center better than power forward. I think that Kanter can develop into a 20-10 guy, and Favors can develop into a guy that gets 12 points and 12 rebounds and 2-3 blocks a game. That frontcourt could be the best in the NBA.

  2. Ben Dowsett says:

    This may very well be the case, though I’d question whether Gobert has the potential to really be the starting center for a contender. Also, Kanter’s contract situation may muck things up quite a bit if he’s indeed a potential trade piece for the Jazz – depending what he does or doesn’t get paid in his restricted free agency, that could reduce or increase his trade value greatly.

    • cw says:

      I agree it’s kind of a long shot with Gobert, but I don’t think the Jazz would have would have drafted him if they thought they were set at center.

      About Kanter, I can’t believe his agent is going to ask for more than Favors, especially since Kanter is currently a one way player. And fro what I have read, most people seem to think Favors deal a fair one. So say he gets 10/4. He should be super tradable as long as he continues to develop, which history says he will.

  3. Clint Johnson says:

    Nice piece, Ben. I have a question: With the dearth of dominant offensive centers in the league, and the spreading belief that a straight post up is one of the least efficient scoring scenarios in the modern game, does that change how concerned we should be about this liability? Couldn’t you argue that inducing a team to post up their center on Favors may be a win in and of itself as it precludes the team getting a more efficient scoring opportunity?

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      It certainly can mitigate the size disadvantage, but certain factors (not all of which I was able to list for word count purposes) mitigate in the other direction as well. For instance, the post isn’t the only area where this size and reach disadvantage will be a big negative – areas like the boards and pick-and-rolls are certainly affected by it as well. Also, the .9 PPP that Favors is allowing on finished post-ups may not be quite as high as averages for other sets, but it’s easily a high enough threshold to call particular plays for competent post centers regularly – not only for their finishing efficiency, but eventually because of the resulting rotations it will open up if Favors continues to struggle this much against it and forces the Jazz to start sending help more often.

      In the end, while I think there are a growing number of players who fit into more than one positional designation, I’m just not sure Favors is one of them. I think his particular skill set and physical build lends itself almost exclusively to an NBA four, at least in terms of a position he can play at an above-average rate defensively.

    • cw says:

      Is there really a belief that straight post up is the least efficient scoring scenario. Or is it that there is a dearth of dominant offensive centers? I think a duncan post up is probably still an efficient option and I think Olajawan, Kareem, or Shaq must have been pretty efficient, and would be even more efficient in today’s NBA with emphasis on the 3 point shot. It seems to me that you throw the ball into any of them and you have to double which sets the dominos tumbling. Plus, guys like that get to the foul line a lot. But I don’t know the numbers on their post-up so I could be overvaluing them. I still wouldn’t say no to having Kareem on my team, even if it meant enduring all those angry glares.

      So maybe what it is, if you don’t have a dominant guy it’s not an efficient option. But if you do have a dominant guy, then it’s very good to excellent way to score points.

      This is something I am very interested in. Do have efficiency numbers going back in time?

      • Ben Dowsett says:

        CW, a good line of questioning that may clear things up for some folks: post-ups are not the LEAST efficient scoring scenario, but in terms of a points-per-possession efficiency rating they typically are significantly less effective than sets like pick-and-rolls or spot-up jumpers.

        Here’s the thing, though – classification of play types is still very much in it’s infancy. I have access to Synergy data through TrueHoop, for instance, but Synergy only tracks plays FINISHED in a particular play type rather than plays initiated or containing these play types. In reality, many NBA possessions include several play types in succession, or even somewhat at the same time. For instance, if LeBron James posts up, draws a double, kicks to Chalmers who then rotates to Ray Allen for a triple, the play is credited on Synergy as a spot-up jumper and nothing else – you can see how this muddles things somewhat. Also, the version of Synergy I have access to (teams and certain high-profile sites have extended access, but I’m not 100% sure how much more in-depth it is) can’t factor in assists out of the post or any play type toward overall poins-per-possession numbers, which as you can imagine alters the data greatly and tends to favor only the best scorers for each play type.

        In the end, the post can be an extremely valuable tool, especially with an elite post player like any of those you mentioned – even though raw scoring numbers from there are a bit lower, the openings it can force from a defense are still quite valuable. It’s probably no longer a necessity like the old days, but even as a very analytics-oriented writer, I’d happily take an elite post man to help with offensive variation and spacing.

        • cw says:

          Thanks for your reply. I wonder if there is some way to get at effects of good post play indirectly. It’s kind of hard becasue there are not that many good post scorers any more, and even fewer on teams that are prepared to take advantage of double teams with good schemes and shooters (I’m thinking Sacramento/Cousins in particular here). But maybe Brook Lopez or Pau Gasol last year would work. I don’t know if Duncan does much post stuff anymore. But anyway, maybe if shooting percentage went up when Lopez or Pau were on the floor that might tell you something. I guess it would be shooting percentage of everyone but the post guys. Or I guess you could just look at points per possesion for the whole team with Lopez or Pau on and off the floor. That might tell us something.

          Al jefferson is an interesting case because he is great in the post but his PPP is lower because he never gets fouled. And I think he definitely hurts team effciency becasue he takes so long once he get the ball.

  4. hilldow says:

    Do you think that if Favors really hits the weights in the off season (a la The Mailman)to where guys like Pekovic can’t muscle him around so much that we could still keep him at the 5? I think it’s really important for us to know if he can grow into The Shredder as it will ultimately effect how we go about continuing to rebuild this team.

    It may just be pride for me, because I was pretty vocal after that playoff series against San Antonio a couple seasons ago and Favors played out of his mind that whole series defensively and we had him playing the 5, I saw big flashes of defensive brilliance (I think a lot of us did) during that series.

    Now, obviously we have all the numbers from this year that aren’t very good. You highlighted those factors quite well in your text. So do we move on from Kanter and move on with Gobert at the 5 and Favors at the 4. I am a fan of Big Turkey but this year has been mostly bad frankly. It will be interesting to see what we do with that and if we move forward after this year with new coaching or not.

  5. Spencer says:

    Great article. At the beginning of the year I thought that Jazz had as much defensive potential as any team in the league. The truth is that Favors and Duncan and Howard are all the same size. The reason San Antonio is better at defense is simply that their players do their jobs better, not that they have more talent there. This is a combination of experience and coaching, but as is obvious, mostly coaching. Leonard and Green are defensive cogs that are at least as young as our wings. Tony Parker and Trey have similar natural ability. The Jazz simply don’t have the collective defensive IQ to not only create a plan that takes away something, bot that also encourages a certain low-percentage shot. San Antonio is a master at this. A lot of a great defense is getting the players you want to shoot in the places you want. Just ask everyone who just keeps getting Hayward to launch long twos at nauseum.

    With that said, my opinion is that Favors is not a concern on defense to me, my concern is teaching and enforcing the simple principle of not allowing deep post touches then creating the right game plan and executing it for each team. The coaching staff is overmatched in these areas right now.

    I do love that we have Gobert and I believe that his offense will progress to the Tyson Chandler stage at which point I can see a similar value as a possibility. It will take 4 years though, I would bet.

    • cw says:

      Pretty sure duncan is about two inches taller than favors. And Tony Parker is way faster and bigger than trey. And while coaching definitely affects defense and the Jazz can find a better defensive coach than Ty, the players size, athleticism, and instinct play a big role too. I think a team with average defensive abilities can be coached up to a somewhat above average level, but to be elite defense you need at least two elite defenders guys who will be elite on any team–one at the rim and one on the perimeter. Think Memphis, or Indiana. Duncan is one of the all-time best big defenders and look at danny green has pretty good defensive numbers.

      The Jazz could be better, but it’s not just coaching.

      • Spencer says:

        You are right, Favors is about two inches shorter than Duncan. Just looked it up. He has exactly the same measurements as Dwight Howard. My point is that Favors, Gobert, Williams, Hayward and Burks all have the POTENTIAL to be good at defense and as a group about as much potential as any team. Maybe not Indiana, but that is the only team that is head and shoulders ahead as far as personel.

        For your two elite defenders theory, Favors and Burks have the potential. So does Williams, and he is very good. Currently they are one of the worst defensive teams in the league. I think top half should be easy and top ten not out of reach with the personel.

        I did not say it was just coaching, I said the coaching staff is over-matched when coaching against excellent defensive coaches, and that is fairly obvious.

  6. casey says:

    I’ve been banging this drum for a while. The problem I see with Favors is I’m not sure he’s a good enough shooter to stretch the floor at the 4. But maybe that’s what we’ll have to sacrifice in order to improve our defense…

  7. Sel says:

    Trade for omer asik. Great defender. Keep kanter and favors if possible. Defence is not up to individuals , it’s based on the team understanding there job, frankly they have no clue as a unit but the more they play together the better they will get if Corbin is a good enough coach. Don’t tank! It corrupts the culture and fabric of a franchise. Build, develop and identify talent to work into a good coaching and playing style/system
    Go jazz

  8. Pingback: A Partial Review of Ty Corbin’s Coaching Salt City Hoops

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