With so much of the franchise’s direction set to be determined in the upcoming months through the draft, free agency and the search for the team’s next head coach, nearly every element of Utah’s future remains up the air. There are select pieces in place, but all players fall under GM Dennis Lindsey’s “There’s nothing sacred” umbrella if a franchise talent is available.
The closest thing to a sacred asset would be Derrick Favors, who Utah extended last offseason for just over $12 million per year on a deal set to kick in next season. At the time, I wondered whether the signing might be a hair too much to commit for a player who had so little experience against starter-level competition at his position. Elements of that piece were likely a bit nitpicky, considering the small tax a franchise like Utah typically has to pay to hold onto their top players and the value in today’s NBA of an athletic rim protector, but now the picture starts to come further into focus. With Favors set to begin his new contract, it’s time to revisit perhaps one of the few “known” commodities for Utah going forward.
Comparing his performance from this past season to my initial assessment will require some context, because his recently finished year represented something of an anomaly for Favors style-wise. Prior to the 13-14 season, he had spent virtually no time whatsoever as the sole big man on the floor – this certainly changed last year, with Utah’s most commonly used lineup1 featuring Favors as the center surrounded by four smaller guys, and Marvin Williams playing the nominal power forward role.
This makes an apples-to-apples comparison to previous seasons fairly tough, particularly on the defensive end. I noted in my preseason piece linked above that Favors was still in the learning stage as a defender, with work to do on typical errors for young bigs such as fouling too often and body control. But like most, I certainly did not predict at the time that Utah would have such a weak defensive culture overall, especially given the narrative coming in of the defense/rebounding combo Favors and Kanter could potentially provide. So in a vacuum, there’s no question Favors continues to struggle in some of these areas – each Jazz game was just littered with defensive mistakes across the board, and Favors had his share. But there was plenty of talk during the year on former coach Ty Corbin’s system2, and separating the blame here in any sort of quantifiable manner is basically impossible without specific knowledge of the exact rating system Utah was using.
But regardless of the reasons behind it, there still remain several large question marks for Favors defensively. His rim protection left something to be desired considering expectations, with SportVU data from NBA.com painting him as slightly below-average of 76 rotation players defending at least five rim attempts per game. Again, some of this can be attributed to team context, but we can paint it another way: Favors’ percentage allowed at the rim (50.7%) is just under a full point better than Utah’s full team mark for the season (51.6%, a surprising 11th-best in the league). Compare this gap to some of the elite rim protectors – guys like Hibbert, Ibaka and Robin Lopez all show four percent gaps or even higher (Lopez’s 42.5% allowed is nearly seven full points better than the Blazers as a team). Even second-tier players in this area are markedly more vital to their team’s rim protection than Favors, such as Timofey Mozgov (3.6% gap), Amir Johnson (4.9%), or Tim Duncan (3.1%). Again, these sort of numbers contain elements of noise – for instance, Favors is likely hurt a little here by the presence of swatter extraordinaire Rudy Gobert opposite him on the bench, and certain other little factors in this same vein. But they aren’t encouraging, especially for a guy expected to hang his hat on rim protection among other things.
This speaks to an issue I’ve both written about earlier this year and spoken about recently on last week’s SCH podcast: I continue to be of the firm belief that Favors is not capable of playing center in the NBA. As I examined at length in my March piece, much of this is due simply to his size disadvantage against real centers, and their subsequent ability to bully him in the post. His numbers defending finished sets from the block were atrocious this year, per Synergy Sports: he allowed an icky 48.2% on shots out of such sets. His physical skill set would seem to indicate the potential to overcome this with work on his balance and timing, but the ticking clock only grows louder as Favors enters his fifth year in the league. It will become a major concern for Utah going forward if he is unable to make serious strides this year and neither Gobert nor Enes Kanter is able to emerge as a viable NBA center defensively.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to note the areas in which Favors showed a real improvement over the course of last season. His jump-shooting remains subpar in an overall sense, but he made real strides here over the year. Per NBA.com, he improved over six percent on 2012-13 for all attempts classified as “Jump Shots”, a big and meaningful leap. His 30.4% figure on all jumpers is still bad, but a jump like this likely moves him from “totally ignore” to “at least consider putting a hand up” status for a prospective defender – every little bit matters for both individual and team spacing, and continued improvement in subsequent years will up his profile even more. He also raised his efficiency within 10 feet of the hoop, and in the end saw a four-point boost to his effective field-goal percentage over the previous season.
An even larger improvement was his play in pick-and-roll sets, where he fully realized his potential this season in a new pairing with Burke. Favors improved his efficiency in finished P&R sets by over 40 points-per-100 possessions despite doubling his number of attempts from the previous season, per Synergy, becoming one of the league’s elite high-volume roll men. Even without the threat of a pick-and-pop jumper just yet, teams are struggling badly to contain him with speed toward the basket:
Favors clearly put in time last offseason on his footwork and timing in pick-and-roll sets, and it showed throughout the year. He and Burke quickly developed a chemistry, and sets with Alec Burks were equally dangerous given Burks’ penetration abilities. Favors’ increased proficiency at and around the rim was helpful as well, and his touch improved both up close and on little “in-between” shots from just inside the paint, as well as through contact. If he can add even one more layer to his game here – be it the aforementioned pick-and-pop J, better passing awareness off opponent rotations, or even improved pick-setting – he will be among the league’s scariest roll men for years to come, an increasingly valuable trait in today’s league.
In the end, accurately assessing whether the big Georgia Tech product will live up to his second NBA contract may depend heavily on where blame truly resided for his defensive issues last season. If negative sentiments regarding Corbin’s defensive culture and scheme were, in fact, overblown and Favors simply hit a wall as a defender last season, the Jazz could find themselves stuck with a bit of an albatross. But by the other side of the coin, if being freed from the shackles of a coach who appeared clueless on how to use him returns him to the curve most had initially laid out for him, four years at $49 million could easily end up being a steal.
This is a very generalized set of statements, of course, and reality is likely somewhere in between. But despite some unexpected roadblocks, I remain confident in Favors, particularly if the Jazz find him a real partner at center – whether it be Kanter, Gobert, or a newly drafted piece3. He has all the tools to be an excellent NBA defender, and if he continues his methodical improvement in certain areas offensively he will have a long, productive NBA career.