Our first Salt City Seven of 2017 is heavy on questions about a particular Jazz big man. But that’s just part of what we have to talk about after the Jazz went 3-1 during the week1.
At some point, it’s OK for even Derrick Favors believers2 to worry about whether the two-way big man will get back to his old self this season.
The 2016-17 Jazz are approaching their halfway point, and Favors just hasn’t looked like himself yet. He’s averaging his lowest scoring and rebounding numbers since his rookie season, and his efficiency (.485 TS) is at a career low.
But it goes beyond numbers. His usual rhythm and explosion have been lacking for most of the season, and we’ve seen numerous uncharacteristic moments where he has struggled defensively. The guy deserves a lot of credit for playing through knee pain, but his fluidity has taken a visible hit, sapping effectiveness from his rim rolls, pull-ups and defensive movements.
Favors’ has been visibly frustrated of late, and fans are right there with him, wondering when they’ll see a return of the guy whose recent production earned him a FiveThirtyEight projection of “borderline All-Star.”
The productivity dip has led to new questions about Favors’ long-term fit, both among the Jazz community and on a larger scale. ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently remarked on a podcast3: “I think they will ultimately move on from him. They just are not convinced that Favors and (Rudy) Gobert can play 25-30 minutes together and be the core of a great team.”
For what it’s worth, Quin Snyder is singing a different tune. He recently pointed out at a shootaround press gaggle that Fav and Gobert have looked good together. And that was after he told Lowe himself, “The answer to whether Derrick and Rudy can play together is unequivocally yes,” although he did allow that they had to think about how and when to do that and still “maximize every player.”
A lot of this comes down to a question of whether you see Favors as the current shell of his former self, or as a dinged-up guy who will eventually return to being a 16-and-8 contributor with above-average defensive chops both in the paint and out in space. If we accept that this current version is the new Fav, then yes, it gets harder to imagine his long-term fit alongside Gobert.
But he’s 25, so it seems unlikely that this is the start of an irreversible turn in his career trajectory. He will probably return to something approximating his usual level. Remember: once he was established as a starter, Favors performed with pretty solid consistency for a two-year period: 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, .554 true shooting, .174 Win Shares per 48 and right around six and a half VORP-based wins added. None of those numbers are a guarantee, but the fact that he sustained that over two seasons says that it wasn’t circumstantial.
And even if you wanted to see what Favors could fetch in the trade market, it’s hard to orchestrate a deal that doesn’t leave a gaping hole in the Jazz’s frontcourt. I scanned4 literally every starting-caliber big currently under contract in the NBA. There we no obvious answers.
For starters, it makes no sense to trade Favors for a center, or even a power forward with a strictly inside game. If you’re moving him because he allegedly doesn’t fit alongside Gobert, then it doesn’t add up to acquire someone like Ed Davis or Kenneth Faried. And anybody who’s truly a one-position center (Meyers Leonard, Robin Lopez) would be capped at around 16 minutes per game behind Gobert anyway. So that cuts down the list significantly.
There are rangier fours out there, but a lot come with either basketball or contractual warts. Patrick Patterson and Nikola Mirotic are both stretch fours in the truest sense (and Amir Johnson less so), but all will be free agents next year and will likely command more than Favors’ salary. Ryan Anderson is locked up for a long time, but he’s pricey (4yrs, $80M) and would make it hard for Utah to retain its defensive identity. Ersan Ilyasova, Darrell Arthur and Channing Frye are varying degrees of stretchy and are cheap for the next two years, but all would be significant downgrades from peak Favors.
Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka are closer to Favors’ tier, but the price to get either would be substantial, and then both are free agents this summer. And the Pacers would want way more than the Jazz would want to give up for Myles Turner.
After that, you’re talking about guys who are obvious downgrades — Mike Scott, Andrew Nicholson, Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Josh McRoberts.
Bottom line, trading Favors might sound alluring until you actually look at how few realistic avenues there are to replace him with a starting quality 4 that’s more suited to play alongside Rudy. Dealing him likely means trotting along with some fill-in starter until the Jazz stumble — via development or draft — into someone that’s starting caliber. That could work out eventually, but the short-term cost could be steep, especially if the dip in 2017 competitiveness prompts Gordon Hayward to depart via free agency.
A smarter investment is probably to take the time to get Favors back to his usual self — a player that is probably better than most of those names anyway.
Staying on the Favors topic for a second…
Like Snyder, I still bristle at the notion that Favors and Gobert aren’t well-suited to play together. Look, there are a lot of different ways to space a basketball court, it’s not always about having 4-5 three-point shooters on the court. When they’re both playing well, Gobert and Favors actually are quite formidable, as on-court numbers suggest.
Here are a couple of plays that make a compelling case, too.
Normally on this type of play — a Shelvin Mack – Gobert P&R on the right side — the Jazz would have a guy like Trey Lyles or Boris Diaw spacing the weakside corner, and that’s where Boston would send the help from. Here, the corner is empty, but Favors makes spacing difficult on the Celtics in a different way — he hangs out in an area of the floor the Jazz call the dunker, behind the plane of the backboard. Amir Johnson can’t possibly cover both the Rudy roll and the Favors cut from there, so it just becomes a question of luring the help one way to dish back to the open guy. Favors does just that, part of a seven-assist effort in Boston.
On this one, we see Favors space in a more traditional way. The P&R allows Rudy to seal his man on his back, so Favors’ defender has to help guard the roll. But since he has to respect Favors on the catch out front, he retreats, leaving Gobert with just one man to beat who happens to be playing catch-up defense.
News flash: these guys can play together. Their offensive and defensive ratings — 108.5 to 97.0 — are both better than the team’s average rates of 106.9 to 101.5.
“He did it in all kinds of ways… He was finding people everywhere.”
– Quin Snyder, in the Salt Lake Tribune, after Isaiah Thomas dropped 29 points and 15 assists on the Jazz
It’s getting remarkable how many of Utah’s losses have come at the hands of players like Thomas — speedy point guards who are good with the ball and can beat their man with or without a pick.
Utah’s previous loss came when nobody could stop Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in a 19-point fourth quarter in Salt Lake. Before that, it was Ty Lawson channeling his 2011 alter ego and flattening the defense time after time. Two losses to Steph Curry’s Warriors preceded that one, and before that it was Miami point guard Goran Dragic who decimated the Jazz at the point of attack.
That George Hill was available for a grand total of zero of those games in question shouldn’t be considered a coincidence. But while Hill recovers from his meeting with lip piercing specialist Alex Len, the other Jazz guards need to get better at slowing attacking PGs without requiring the whole offense to go into “oh crap” mode.
One way to do that: don’t pressure a guy like Dragic or Thomas at 30+ feet from the basket. Too often, Jazz guards ride the hips of those speedsters way out front and then wind up in the rear view mirror. Staying in front of players on defense is easier when you don’t voluntarily scoot out of their path for the sake of putting a body on someone who still has a third of the court between himself and the basket.
However they solve it, the PG defense thing is quickly becoming one of the recurring themes of Utah’s season, and a big factor in essentially every loss from the last month-plus of the season.
Happily, we have a bit more work to get done this week in the game ball department. Three Jazz wins means three hunks of leather to bestow, so let’s get to it.
Jazz 100, Sixers 83: George Hill
From a narrative perspective, Hill was probably a frontrunner even before he reeled off 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists. His return after 13 missed games was going to be the story of the game almost regardless. But he absolutely sealed it with a 13-point (on 5-for-5 shooting) fourth quarter precisely when the Jazz played their best ball and finally put away the league’s worst team with a 30-9 quarter. Hayward and Hood each had 20 and would have armwrestled for this Spalding had Hill not gone nuts in the fourth.
Jazz 91, Suns 86: Rudy Gobert
It’s not easy choosing between 18 & 13 with 3 blocks and 18-9-4 with two steals, especially when both of those guys (Gobert and Hayward) had great defensive moments to boot. But Rudy’s biggest moments on both ends came late in this unexpected nail biter. He had two late dunks that basically put the game away, and in between them he dealt admirably with being switched onto Eric Bledsoe twice, including one play where he stayed in front of the speedy guard’s drive and blocked him at the rim. He held the Suns to 35.7% shooting at the rim on the night, so I’m sure Hayward will understand if the big guy gets this one.
Jazz 101, Nets 89: Gordon Hayward
A line like the one Hayward put together in my borough (30-4-3-2-1) is almost always going to yield a game ball, although I’d be lying if I said that Rudy’s 15 & 16 with three more blocks didn’t at least garner him some consideration. Hayward’s night just included way too many starry moments, especially during an almost effortlessly excellent 13-point third.
Tuesday’s loss at Boston means Utah still hasn’t enjoyed a five-game win streak this season. They’ve had three four-game spells, but were stopped before five by the Heat, Warriors and now the Celtics.
Two games into Alec Burks’ long-awaited return to basketball, that’s the number of seconds he posted in the back-to-back that kicked off 2017. He played 3:07 in Brooklyn and then set against Boston. Expect that kind of slow burn on his reintegration process. The guy has missed a LOT of basketball, and it appears as though the Jazz want to test out his physical abilities, confidence and stamina little by little.
Utah’s two-game week (since our last SC7) means that things have to even out. They have four games coming in the next 168 hours.
Thursday at Raptors: Surely the Jazz remember this elite team after the Raps brought their league-best offense to Salt Lake, dealing Utah a home loss on Christmas Eve Eve. But here’s the thing: Utah hung with Toronto, leading for the early part of the fourth quarter and getting as close as four points down in the final two minutes. That was without George Hill and Dante Exum, meaning the Jazz didnt’ have anybody to stop Kyle Lowry, who went nuts with 19 points in the fourth quarter. Could a healthy team give Toronto more trouble? Will it matter, since neither Hill nor Exum has made an appearance yet on this road trip?
Saturday at Wolves: Minny enters Thursday’s action tied for fewest wins in the West, but this is a tougher matchup than it looks. The Timberpuppies have a really good offense and a possible All-Star in Karl Anthony Towns. They’ll be on a tough back-to-back, though, having come all the way from the capital after playing the Wiz on Friday.
Sunday at Grizzlies: Each team has already won on the other team’s court, leveling an important series off at 1-1. Both teams are hanging out on 22 wins, so this could be a game that winds up having tiebreaker implications. Weirdly, the Grizz are 3-6 in the nine games Mike Conley has played since returning from injury, and a Friday matchup in the Warriors’ house could make it 3-7.
Neither Gobert nor Hayward appeared in the NBA’s first voting release for this February’s All-Star game. Hmm, I wonder how Gobert felt about that…
— Bryce (@hoopsapprentice) January 2, 2017
Fret not, though; the Jazz duo’s best chance was always to come later in January when it’s up to the Western Conference coaches to pick reserves for the squad.
(And yes, in case you’re wondering, that tweet did earn a Rudy RT. For more about Gobert’s social media tendencies and a detailed look at his path to stardom, be sure to check out SCH alum Ben Dowsett’s feature on the young fella.)