As the Jazz struggle to resolve a host of issues1, it’s tempting for Jazz fans to feel the sky is falling. And it may be, at least in terms of the heights of potential for this roster. But not because of the adversity raining down in streams.
George Hill will return. Gordon Hayward won’t shoot 26-percent – as he did in his horrendous Memphis, Chicago, Houston stretch – for the rest of the season. Bennie Adams won’t ref every Jazz game so Rudy Gobert may be able to stay on the court. Who knows, perhaps even the Colorado unicorn named Alec Burks may contribute again as he’s with the team and running before games.
If there is an existential crisis the Jazz now face, it comes in the form of yet another injury to Derrick Favors complicating the franchise’s decision of whether or not to extend his contract before the February 28 deadline. It’s Favors’ potential for a healthy career going forward – or lack of such – that will determine the Jazz’s fate.
Utah has exactly one sustainable, elite advantage over every team in the NBA: the Favors and Gobert pairing. In tandem, no team can match up against them. They are too big, too long, too rangy and versatile on the defensive end. This is apparent in the pair’s two-man lineup stats:
This season: 96.3 DefRtg, +14.8 NetRtg, 56.1 Reb%, 41 OppFG%2
2015-16: 102.2 DefRtg, +4.2 NetRtg, 53.9 Reb%, 45.7 OppFG%
2014-15: 96.2 DefRtg, +4.7 NetRtg, 54.3 Reb%, 42.1 OppFG%
Last season saw BOTH Favors and Gobert struggle with injury for a majority of the season, and so it’s reasonable to assume that year’s numbers demark something of a floor for the duo, what the Jazz get when both play in a hampered state. If both were healthy one can only assume they would be better, likely much better.
A reasonable3 estimate of their impact when healthy would be halfway between that injury-riddled 2015-16 season and 2014-15 or this year: something in the vicinity of 99 DefRtg, 55 Reb%, 43 OppFG%.
How good are those numbers? In each of the last three seasons, such metrics if attained by a team throughout 48 minutes of play a night would earn the following league-wide ranks:
This year: 4th DefRtg, 1st reb%, 4th OppFG%
2015-16: 3rd DefRtg, 1st Reb%, 1st OppFG%
2014-15: 2nd DefRtg, 1st Reb%, 2nd OppFG%
When Favors and Gobert prowl the court together, the Jazz have an elite – and complete – defense. Gobert is the most impactful rim protector in the league; when teams draw him away from the hoop, Favors serves as the best secondary rim protector in the NBA. Together they gobble the glass, shifting possessions in Utah’s favor4. Both can switch onto guards if needed, and Favors has shown competence doing so regularly for long stretches last season.
Put simply, they do things defensively other teams can’t replicate and so can’t prepare for.
Yet what happens when Favors is removed from that equation? So far this year, Gobert allows nine points more per 100 possessions with Trey Lyles on the floor than when paired with even a severely hobbled Favors. That’s the difference between a league-wide defensive ranking of 2nd and 19th.
Favor’s absence has offense consequences, certainly. He is one of a very few players in the league who can serve as an elite roll option off of picks, provide a solid post option when needed, and hit a mid-range jump shot well enough to space the floor. But it’s his ability to do this while being a defensive difference-maker when paired with Gobert that makes him irreplaceable.
Utah already committed to a future with Gobert to the estimated tune of $102 million dollars over four years. Extending Favors as well would commit to their lone unique advantage of dominant defensive size in a league going ever smaller and shooting from longer distances.
In today’s NBA market, $50 million per season5 for the combined effect of Favors and Gobert is more than justifiable. Unfortunately, no amount of money can guarantee Favor’s health, which turns an obvious choice into a franchise-determining quandary.
The disappointing loss at Denver was Favors’ fourth game missed this season6. In games he has played, his performance has ranged from ginger and hesitant to athletically crippled. Last season, he missed 20 games and was fully healthy for perhaps only a like amount. That’s 20-odd games at full strength in going on two years thanks to a painful litany: mysterious back spasms, shooting hip pain, IT-band Syndrome, and now a bone contusion to the knee.
All this leads to a troubling conclusion, and understand this comes from perhaps the biggest believer in Derrick Favors’ ability you will find: If Favors cannot stay healthy, the Jazz cannot commit the money required to extend him. Period.
Utah boasts a cruel bounty: loads of very good players, none in and of themselves franchise cornerstones, in a salary-capped league. Gobert just got paid. Hayward, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, and Trey Lyles all will be in the near future. George Hill’s immediate impact on the team, both when he was healthy and since being injured, has made him a franchise priority7.
There will be more hands expecting to receive recompense, and appropriately so, than the franchise coffers can fill. Upping the $100 million given Gobert to as much as $200 million to lock up Favors as well could open a window to true contender status – or if Favors remains physically compromised, it could eliminate any real possibility this roster has of rising above mediocrity in the form of perpetual seventh or eighth seeds in the West.
The decision would only be easy if Favors misses months rather than the expected several weeks or is ineffective when he returns, which is unlikely given his quality play the past few seasons even when not at 100% physically. Odds are very good that when the deadline for extending Favors comes, Utah will have little greater clarity than they do now as they make a choice that will certainly do much to dictate their future.
Extending Favors rather than letting him hit unrestricted free agency would cement Utah’s defensive identity and culture. Yet the more prudent route may be to avoid the commitment of an extension and push any decision on Favors’ future further down the road. This would preserve the option of devoting money to players with more reliable health, such as surrounding Gordon Hayward8 and Rudy Gobert with a recently extended George Hill and one or two of Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and Dante Exum. That would be a good team. A perennial playoff team. Maybe if things broke just right on the development front, even a top-four team in the West a year or two.
But it also creates the very real possibility Utah simply wouldn’t have the financial ability to retain Favors when his present contract is up due to obligations to other players.
What nightly competitive advantage would the current Jazz core without Favors boast, especially against quality teams, especially in the playoffs?
Gobert can single-handedly change a game defensively – until he’s drawn out of the paint, leaving Lyles or a gaping hole in the roster to protect the rim and gather rebounds.
Hayward, Hill, Hood and help9 present an admirable combination of diverse scoring, passing, and ball handling options – but nothing to match the Warriors’ four All-Stars, or Portland’s dynamic guards, or even the independent brilliance of a James Harden or Chris Paul.
Utah’s starting lineup would be strong, but what resources remain would be well spent if they collected a merely competent bench. The depth the team now enjoys10 would be gone, the price of investing longer term in many good players with no franchise-defining advantage.
At the moment, there are many questions and concerns in Jazzland. But only one is ticking toward urgent, inherently problematic, and of profound importance. Extending Favors is a $100 million11 dollar crap shoot with the ceiling of this generation’s Jazz at stake.
Will Utah place that bet? If so, will Favors’ balky knee and the rest of his troublesome body reward the risk?