Should Trevor Booker Start?

November 10th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Over the course of the summer, speculation began to be whispered around Salt Lake City that a controversy could begin emerging in Utah’s frontcourt before long once the season got started. If Enes Kanter was unable to improve upon some of his notable flaws from last season in a new, friendlier system, some opined that his starting job could once again quickly be in jeopardy, just as it was early last season before he was eventually relegated to the bench. To some, given the performance of guys down the frontcourt depth chart, this was more a matter of “when” than “if.”

Of course, what most of these folks likely weren’t expecting was that rather than summer sensation Rudy Gobert threatening Kanter’s minutes, it would be newcomer Trevor Booker. But lo and behold, that’s exactly what’s happened. Whether or not Kanter is truly at risk of losing his starting job is still a quite subjective question, to be sure, but Booker has performed so well to this point that if a controversy were to arise, it would surely be the former Wizards forward being discussed as Kanter’s replacement.

It’s early yet, and sample size is still a concern, but the numbers bear out a fairly convincing case in Booker’s favor. For starters, the broader metrics paint Booker as not only a deserving starter, but as Utah’s most impactful player1 in terms of team performance with him on and off the court. The team has performed at a net plus-8.9 points per-100-possessions clip during his 144 minutes to date, per, a figure that would rank fifth in the league to this point in the young season and would have led the NBA last year. This is easily the highest number of any Jazz rotation player, and is second overall only to Jeremy Evans…who has played four minutes.

When Booker sits, however, the Jazz have cratered. Their net minus-11.1 rating without him is the worst discrepancy on the team, and also worse than the miserable Sixers posted for the year last season. Again, these remain small-ish samples, but the way the group has struggled in multiple areas makes them difficult to ignore. They’ve had less meaningful ball movement, more turnovers, and have gone from an elite rebounding team with him on the court to a subpar one when he’s on the bench2. They’ve also taken slightly more fouls on a per-minute basis while drawing nearly 25 percent fewer of their own.

Booker’s mobility plays a huge role on both ends of the floor. He’s the only rotation big to whom Quin Snyder has given consistent license to leap out and hedge, or sometimes even fully trap, ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll. There’s no such thing as a perfect Dirk defender, and Booker lacks the height and length to consistently check a unique talent like Nowitzki, but watch him sell out repeatedly through multiple picks, hounding the big German into a contested shot:

Nowitzki’s shooting prowess makes him one of the toughest roll-man covers in the league, and Booker played this perfectly. With a growing number of these sorts of players in prominent roles around the NBA3, this sort of ability is of paramount importance, even if Booker will never be able to fully lock down these sorts of guys in other areas. Watching the team’s two games against Dallas, particularly the way Kanter was repeatedly unable to recover to Dirk in time to prevent mayhem on similar sets, threw this sort of issue into sharp focus early on.

Furthermore, Booker is almost certainly the only Jazz big capable of this sort of pseudo-zone double with a timely recovery to force a bad shot:

And of course, a power forward with both the willingness and ability to exploit a momentary lapse in defensive rotation and put the ball on the floor from the perimeter is a big positive, particularly in a motion system. Jazz fans surely haven’t forgotten this one by now:

To be clear, and to spare my Twitter mentions the agony: I’m not advocating for a change to the starting lineup, at least not yet. A number of variables go into the calculus here, from the small sample to unavoidable team context that comes with the sort of on/off court numbers cited above. Perhaps the most relevant, though, is the same factor that caused such divisiveness over Kanter’s removal, and subsequent inability to see court time with Derrick Favors, last year: putting the best possible basketball team on the floor at all times is simply not the only priority for the Jazz this season. Kanter hits restricted free agency after this year, and Jazz fans are only too aware of how dicey a process this is after last summer; determining his true value, and doing so over a robust enough sample in a system that has changed drastically from his previous years in the league, is vital despite the potential effect on on-court performance.

But with all of this said, the evidence is beginning to mount, to the point where even all of the above paragraph might become moot. The Jazz are still hovering near .500 despite a murderous opening schedule, and as long as this remains the case, it will be increasingly difficult for Snyder to justify giving more playing time4, particularly against opposing starters, to a player who has simply been inferior thus far.

And while on/off numbers do contain some amount of noise, there are others that don’t, at least not to nearly the same degree. Utah’s two most-used lineups so far both contain four of the same names – Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, and Derrick Favors. One lineup, the starters, has Kanter at the second big position. The other has Booker. Check out how the two have compared thus far:

Small sample or not, these results are somewhat astonishing. The same four-man group has been borderline unplayable with Kanter while putting up ridiculous (and of course, unsustainable) figures with Booker. If this trend continues into periods where the amount of data becomes robust enough to pass real judgments, it will likely be the single most damning factor working against Kanter’s case to remain a starter.

Whether or not this ever happens, the Jazz have to be thrilled with an excellent free-agent signing at a good price. Booker brings fire and energy to a team that will be in need of it from time to time over an 82-game schedule given their frenetic style, and has the sort of grit and attitude that has instantly endeared him to the fanbase. He’s announced himself loudly, and should he keep up this pace, expect to see a lot more of him going forward.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. IDJazzman says:

    A couple of things should be said here. One, this article tells me that Quin is using Booker correctly. Used in another way and he probably wouldn’t have the +/- numbers as high as he does. The other, Booker we be 27 years old in a few weeks, nearing the peak of his NBA ability. Kanter will be 22 years old the entire 2014/2015 season, still very young and a ways from his peak. The Jazz are not competing for an NBA championship this year or next year, they are rebuilding and developing towards that goal of contending. Kanter is either an asset to develop and trade or one of the pieces for that future team so his development is imperative right now and I can see improvement this year with his game over last year. From what I can see, Quin is doing an amazing job balancing between the two.

  2. LKA says:

    Would concour with ID. That is why teams have three to four coaches. You can believe that every minute is watched and thought about. It is a plus for any team for the second unit to keep the wolf away and even increase a lead. And players can start or be part of the bench because all is important.

  3. Paul Johnson says:

    The answer, of course, is no–as you stated in your article. This is not the year of discovery concerning Trevor Booker or Steve Novak. It’s great that Booker has been competently fulfilling his role off the bench, but playing him more minutes or starting him in place of Kanter would serve about the same purpose as was served by starting Marvin Williams over Kanter last season–namely, no useful purpose. In fact, I’m not sure why Snyder has been finishing games with Booker in the lineup, because doing so has been depriving Kanter of that experience, as well.

    Much like Marvin Williams, Booker looks like he is a nice backup player to keep on the roster, if he can be re-signed on a reasonable contract, and the Jazz are at a stage where building depth on the team is starting to be important. However, unless the whole league moves to a roster wherein the PF is a mobile player who is 6’8″ or smaller (in essence, a bit larger, but less mobile SF), or unless the Jazz get a superstar player at another position, having Booker as the starting PF is never going to get the Jazz to the championship level. And, much like Paul Millsap, the jazz don’t want to unwittingly create unreasonable expectations for Booker about starting, which might cause him to go to another team, if he figures out he will not be guaranteed to start for the Jazz.

    Whether Kanter can overcome some of his defensive issues and get back to doing those things that made him such a tantalizing prospect is what I would like to discover this season.

    We already pretty much know what Booker can give us, so why do we need to experiment with him as a starter at the expense of failing to discover whether Kanter can be a star (or at least a solid starter) for the Jazz? Corbin already wasted 3 of the 4 seasons the Jazz had to make that determination, and the Jazz can ill afford to waste the last season of Kanter’s rookie contract without discovering those things, as well. And, other than a game here and there in which Booker is a better matchup, I’m not sure sure that starting Booker or playing him more minutes is going to help the Jazz win more games this season, either.

    • Mewko says:

      I agree. We’re singing the same song as last year. Kanter started the first few games, he and Favors faired horribly, Marvin Williams replaced him.
      We’ve got to try this Kanter/Favors pairing, and see if they can play together. We used a lottery pick on Kanter, we had enough faith in him to take him 3rd. Although he isn’t saavy or quick to play like a starter, it’s better than throwing out Favors and Gobert.
      If Kanter can be a short term frontcourt partner with Favors, and eventually be replaced by Gobert in 2016, that would be better than giving up on his potential, which is way higher than Booker’s.

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