While one Utah Jazz big man is turning heads and garnering column inches, another is stealthily having his best season ever and becoming a two-way force.
Rudy Gobert deserves every bit of the bushels of ink that have been devoted to him during this breakout season, but don’t sleep on what Derrick Favors has been doing. Favors is having a career year in a number of categories, and since the All-Star break has averaged 18.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 55% shooting.
Favors arrived in Utah via trade in February 2011, and by April of the same year, we saw him directing defensive traffic and leading his peers in Utah’s defensive grading system. As a rookie.
The defensive prowess didn’t always show up in the numbers, though, partially because he was tasked with guarding bigger dudes and partially because he played next to defensive liabilities like Enes Kanter and Al Jefferson. Since Kanter was traded last month, though, the effort and the results finally tell the same story. The Jazz have held opponents to .87 points per possession post-trade with Favors on the floor, a ridiculous number, and his rim protection has crept down to an elite1 44% after being near 50% for much of the season.
On the other end, Favors is starting to look like a go-to offensive player thanks to subtly different ways in which coach Quin Snyder is utilizing him. Let’s look at three ways Favors is being deployed a bit differently and what the outcomes are.
Favors in the slot
After the deadline deal, you heard Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey talk about how part of what accelerated Utah’s rebuilding plans was Favors’ development relative to what he called power forward skills. It’s obvious what Lindsey meant with that comment: they like having Derrick work around the elbows.
The Jazz have been running one-post stuff pretty much all season, which means that one of your bigs has to spend a bunch of time operating away from the low blocks. Kanter’s pick-and-pop ability made him a prime candidate for that role, which is why Favors’ NBAsavant season-long offensive heat map shows him occupying the paint and low post an awful lot2:
Since the trade, we’re seeing Favors out front a lot more. Kanter’s departure and Gobert’s relative limitations on offense make him a prime candidate, and that’s not a bad thing. Since Favors’ rookie year, I’ve been shouting that the best way to utilize him is to get him the ball with momentum going toward the basket: a stronger (if also less explosive) version of Suns-era Amare Stoudemire. By using him in the slot — including often times as the screener in elbow pick & rolls — the Jazz can get Favors a head of steam on his catches. He has really good awareness of who’s guarding him and whether he should power his way to the hole or employ a growing arsenal of finesse moves to snake around slower defenders. As a result, a lot of those plays result in buckets or free throws for Favors.
Among the 28 guys in the league with at least 140 possessions as the roll man, Favors has the third highest likelihood to score, behind only Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol3. He’s also the fifth most likely in that group to draw a foul on the roll, but his spotty FT performance makes him just ninth overall (among that group) in roll-man PPP. Assuming he cleans up his foul shooting at some point, he has the potential to be an absolutely dangerous pick-and-roll scorer.
But it’s not all put-your-head-down-and-run, either. Just as often, Favors stops short for a quick pull-up jumper. That his percentage on such shots has dropped a bit since the break is probably a good reminder that you’d really prefer he attack the rim whenever possible, but it’s important to be able to pose the threat of a stop-and-pop.
And while he’s no Chris Webber, he’s also very court aware and makes good reads that open up passing lanes, either to the second big or, when the lane is clogged, to a corner shooter. That’s something he has done well all season long (his assist ratio4 is flat pre and post trade), but he’s having more opportunities now as the slot big man (his assist percentage5 is up).
Even if you want a one-post system, there are other places to put your second big than just the elbow. Lately, the Jazz have been sending Favors on some subtle and smart routes along the baseline.
That’s a smart tactic, particularly on plays designed for a driver, because it does one of two things: it either brings a big defender away from the middle of the floor; or he’s going to inch away from Favors and give the driver an option to hit Favors open underneath.
This action isn’t entirely new to the Jazz, but they’re using it a lot more in the now 10 games since the break. Favors likes to hide out very deep on these plays, often catching even with or behind the plane of the board, but then plays the angle game well as he leans in, often to get contact.
Gobert, for all he does well, is not a post player at this point. And Trevor Booker is more of a slashing forward than a back-to-the-basket player, too. That means that Favors has also added an extra helping of post plays to his offensive plate in the post-Kanter world.
As I’ve said all along, that’s not really where you want Favors. He has a back-to-the-basket game, but it’s not catered to his real strengths as a player. Of the 24 guys with at least 200 post possessions used to shoot, draw a foul or turn the ball over, Favors’ PPP is the 6th lowest. And that’s not necessarily a number that will correct itself as smaller guys pick Favors up, because it’s easy enough for opponents to cross-match defensive assignments since Gobert is only a threat in the immediate basket area.
Still, Favors has had some big moments as Utah’s lone post big man of late, including some clutch baskets out of the low block.
Post plays are still only 23% of Derrick’s arsenal for the season, and that’s probably good. Any more than that not only emphasizes a part of his game where he’s below the mean, but it also takes Utah out of the “flow” on offense. Ultimately, the Jazz probably hope to have enough shooting on the floor that they don’t need a quarter of Derrick’s possessions to generate that way.
Next steps: FTs & running the floor
The scary thing is, Favors can get even better in a hurry. Two relatively attainable improvements could make a huge difference for him.
First, he could be a monster via the fast break if he just ran more. Obviously the Jazz want him to maintain his excellent work on the defensive glass, where he gets more than a quarter of available boards while he’s on the floor. But if he can find a way to turn the burners on after that, there’s some low-hanging fruit there for him. Like his team as a whole, the percentage of his points that come in transition has dropped for Favors post-trade, to only 3.7%. What’s sad about that is how good Favors is when he gets up the floor. At 1.46 points per transition possession, Favors is the team’s best fast break possession-user, and 7th in the league among anybody with at least 40 such plays.
And finally, all of these per-possession numbers would get a LOT better if Favors didn’t miss a third of his freebies. Even if he changes nothing else about his game, a move into the low 70s would make Favors an absolutely elite P&R finisher, and would lessen the sting of his low post PPP.