Favorable Returns? Jazz Can Benefit from a Big Man Resurgence

July 20th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

A rejuvenated Favors could be huge for Utah (via utahjazz.com)

There are a lot of reasons to still believe in a version of the Utah Jazz without 2017 All-Star Gordon Hayward, and some of them have been chronicled nationally since the Jazz’s top scorer left via free agency. They still have an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, they landed one of the most creative passers in basketball in Ricky Rubio and are grooming an emerging scorer in Rodney Hood. They have young players who are getting better, and filled out the roster with smart signings.

But fewer people are talking about another reason to be bullish on the 2017-18 Jazz: the guy who just a couple of seasons ago was essentially their co-best player.

In the summer of 2013, franchise brass essentially turned the team over to Hayward and fellow 2010 lottery selection Derrick Favors. The pair’s first season as main guys brought some growing pains, as Hayward struggled with his shot on his way to a 16.2-point average, and Favors put in a solid-but-unspectacular 13-and-9 season. But both looked more comfortable in their second and third seasons as featured pieces, and the Jazz started their climb back to relevance behind those two. Eventually Gobert would crash the core and become a star in his own right, but in the early stages of the club’s rebound, the Jazz were Gordon and Derrick’s team.

In the ’14-15 and ’15-16 seasons, Favors actually finished ahead of Hayward in some macro value stats like per-minute Win Shares and John Hollinger’s PER. His BPM, RPM and Wins Above Replacement were all in the ballpark1. Favors was, at that stage, every bit as important as his small forward teammate.

From there, the paths of the two stars began to diverge. While Hayward leveled up another couple of times to reach star status, while the big man’s progress was slowed by back and knee problems that started in the latter half of the ’15-16 season and then never let up during the most recent Jazz season. The result is that Favors has become an afterthought to many. But should he be?

Just last off-season, multiple sites ranked Favors as an elite NBA player — SI ranked him as the 28th best in the league, and BBallBreakdown.com placed him 32nd2. A season of painful knee bruises limited his production, but should we permanently downgrade him from top 30(ish) status, or will the Georgia Tech product eventually regain the explosiveness and agility that made him stand out in his first six seasons?

“We’ll find that out, ” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey told the team’s flagship radio station. “To what degree will he capture 100 percent of the power where he was at the very top of the bell curve as compared to NBA bigs? Or will he be 90 percent of himself?”

At this point, even 90% would be a welcome sight, and it doesn’t seem that unrealistic. Favors just barely turned 26, and far as we know there is no ligament damage. Bodies heal, 26-year-old bodies especially. There are certainly people around the club who are quietly worried about his ability to stay healthy, but there’s no reason to think he’s permanently damaged. And Lindsey says the Jazz are working with him to literally lighten the load.

“He’s always been fit. We’ve challenged him to get even leaner so he can reduce the stress on the joints. And he’s in the process of that,” the Jazz exec told assembled media on July 5.

“At 6’10”, 260, 7’4″ wingspan, 9’3″ standing reach, he also said of his power forward, “that all hasn’t gone anywhere. So if he’s 24 inches above the rim instead of 27, I’m good with that.”

Lindsey has said that Favors was at his healthiest literally as the season ended, and there’s optimism that his clean bill of health entering the offseason will allow him to focus on court work and conditioning. The Atlanta native spent all of last summer in rest-and-rehabilitation mode, so Lindsey and the coaching staff are excited to see what a few months in the gym can do to restore Favors’ confidence and impact.

That’s certainly something the Jazz could use to fill a scoring void left by #20. The Jazz have pointed to Hood as the likely candidate to inherit Hayward’s possessions and his role as a primary scorer, but for a lot of reasons, Favors might be better positioned to take the mantle if he’s healthy. For starters, he has done things as a scorer that Hood hasn’t. He has had multiple seasons as an above-average true shooter, something Hood has never done3. He’s been at per-100 levels of scoring (27.6) that Hood hasn’t touched, and he can score in more ways than Hood, who’s excellent off the catch but whose pull-up percentages fluctuate4.

Even as Favors’ injury year sapped some efficient from his around-the-basket game5, he continue his upward trajectory as a midrange threat. His attempts dropped a little as Utah reallocated a bunch of pick-and-roll possessions to Gobert, but Derrick has his best year so far shooting from outside 10 feet.

Data from B-Ref

If you combine that burgeoning short-roll game with the way Favors used to finish in his more spry, springy days, that’s a pretty difficult player to plan for. And it’s worth noting that he has never played alongside a point guard quite like Rubio in terms of prioritizing the pass and creatively finding ways to facilitate. Look at what Rubio did for Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. I mean, no offense to the injured Montenegran, but if you can get ground-bound Pek to 17.4 points per game as a facilitator, you can definitely work with Favors. And that same season, Love averaged a career-high 26.1 points and made the All-NBA second team. People should be anxious to see what a Rubio-Favors combo could do if the latter has his legs back.

And that’s just on offense. Defensively, a more mobile version of Fav is one of the most unique defenders in the league. When Jazz coach Quin Snyder talked about Utah’s defensive shift in the 2014-15 campaign, he talked about it largely as a function of three players: the defensive stalwart Gobert, Dante Exum as a hound at the point of attack, and Favors, with his rare combination of paint protection and ability to switch out in space.

“Switches, when he’s guarding the ball—that came pretty quickly to him,” Snyder told SI’s Rob Mahoney a couple of seasons ago. “Just being down in a stance, his lateral movement, his length. And then the next phase is guarding a more conventional perimeter player, like a matchup with a three where he’s chasing guys off screens and doing some of those things when he gets cross-matched.”

The Jazz were hesitant to put him in those situations for much of last season, because he just wasn’t moving as well as he used to. Almost all of his minutes came at the center position, and Utah had him guard more conservatively, hanging back on ball screens to deny the ball handler the paint.

But in the playoffs, they got more daring with Favors on the floor. They had him selectively show hard on guards, including All-Star Chris Paul. Sometimes, he took the switch completely, and did an admirable job at getting to shooters and challenging shots with his length.

That was game 7, a game Utah in no way wins without Favors playing the way he did on both ends. Throughout the course of the series, Snyder used the forward in a bunch of different coverage situations. Here he is walling off routes in the contain position and then getting back to his man.

The ability guard in a bunch of different ways is a vital skill for NBA 4s — and even 5s — to have these days. It’s made even more valuable considering the fact that Fav can get out in space when the scheme requires and yet still protect the paint with near Gobert-like results.

There are, of course, caveats to all of this — even aside from the health question. One is fit, as there’s still the open question of just how comfortable Snyder is using the Favors-Gobert tandem together. Last season he went away from that combo more than ever, and the pair logged just 1.6 seconds together in the playoffs, when they subbed Derrick in to secure a rebound at the end of a quarter. It’s easy to assume that the coach’s hesitation had to do with Favors’ physical abilities, and that if he returns to form as a capable scorer and versatile defender, there’s still plenty of evidence that the pair work well together. But it’s certainly a question.

The other caveat is really a corollary of that one: nobody seems 100% confident that Favors will be on the roster next spring. The Jazz’s asset situation has shifted to the point where their 26-year-old big man on an expiring, reasonable deal might be one of their more attractive chips. If an opportunity comes up this season to get aggressive about the roster, it’s fairly likely that Favors’ name will come up as part of that discussion.

Moving Favors (ostensibly with other pieces) might be Utah’s best shot at a serious midseason roster upgrade, although keeping him in the Beehive could be important as the Jazz look to change the narrative around the attractiveness of the market to NBA players. Favors was really one of the first players in this generation of the Jazz to completely commit to the Jazz and to Salt Lake City. There could be a perception cost to letting a relationship sour that could otherwise serve as a proof point to show NBA players that their peers love it in Utah.

No matter how it plays out, a healthy Favors is in a gym right now preparing for next season. It remains to be seen whether the player that emerges from that gym in October is a perpetually dinged up shell of of the former Fav, or a two-way impact player who not that long ago was counted among the NBA’s best 30 or so guys.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

3 Comments

  1. John jenkins says:

    Have loved Derricks play since day one. His effort and play when injured was just impressive. What a heart.

  2. Brent says:

    It is interesting to note that Favors was NOT at the ill fated July 3rd meeting at Haywards house. They brought Ingles, Rudy and Rubio but not Favors. Derrick Favors should have been one of Haywards closest teammates. They were from the same 2010 Draft class and had been through the rebuild together. During that meeting Dennis Lindsey discussed ways they were going to make the team better. Perhaps that involved trading Derrick Favors. There have also been multiple reports about the Jazz “Getting a lot of interest about Derrick Favors”. He posted cryptic messages on his Twitter account at the last 2 trade deadlines that made you wonder if he was getting traded.
    Personally, I would like to see him get 100% healthy and slim down. Let him play out the last year of his very team friendly $12M contract. Let’s see what he can do with a pass first, pick and roll point guard in Rubio. He is a devastating finisher when healthy. Advanced statistics and metrics show that he was our best player for ’15-16.

  3. Cris says:

    You cant rebound from being in the league 10 years and you still have zero post game, cant shoot, cant dribble, and cant pass. He is a bum of teh highest regard a guy who relies on other guys to miss to get rebounds and put back 2 footers. Worthless in todays NBA and should be paid the minimum. Ask yourself this how have you been in the NBA for 10years and still cant hit a long jumper or 3 pointers. What does he work on all off season and in practice?

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