As a long season winds down in Salt Lake City, we begin the transition to the offseason – both a look back at the results from the year that was, and a look forward to the future. In this year’s case, there will be somewhat more of the latter and less of the former than would typically be expected in Utah – we’ve had a pretty good idea what this year’s team was for quite a while now, and a look to the near and distant future will certainly make for more intrigue and fascination.
Falling somewhere between the two categories, as many elements of Utah’s offseason evaluation surely will given their personnel, is the issue of the Derrick Favors-Enes Kanter pairing in the frontcourt. It’s an issue I’ve tackled already this year, when I identified the struggles the pair were having on the court together as one of the more serious and worrisome issues going forward for a franchise surely banking on these two top-five picks to be a longtime frontcourt foundation. But that was nearly two months ago, and the issue is certainly worth revisiting as we approach year’s end. Coach Ty Corbin, whether having heard the pleas of many to get the duo more time together in what amounted to a lame duck season or simply having decided to do so on his own, has showcased Favors and Kanter for slightly longer periods as the year has gone on, so there’s certainly a large enough sample to work with as well.1
Put simply, some things have changed since then, but many (including much of the overall picture) have stayed the same. Offensively, in a trend that had begun to develop even before my previous piece in late January, the two have found their footing to a small degree.2 Well, let’s put that more accurately: Favors has found his footing and then some, while Kanter has actually somewhat regressed offensively.
While Enes has continued to use a very similar portion of possessions while the two share the court, his efficiency has dropped across the board, most notably a large decline in shooting. His mid-range game has fallen off at a remarkably alarming rate – his percentage on shots from 16 feet out or further has gone from 48.4%3 to a morbid 17.6% in the last two months with Favors also on the court, though he continues to shoot them just as often.4 He’s forcing up any partially open jumper available to him, and though they’re shots he’s capable of making, he’s shown very little situational selectivity – just because you can make a shot doesn’t make it a good shot, especially if there are other options available. Watch here, and note the time on the shot clock:
There are big men in this league with with a deserved license to take this look with 12 seconds on the shot clock anytime it’s available; Enes Kanter is not yet one of them.
Favors, on the other hand, has taken a big dip in usage over the last two months when the two share the court, but this has been accompanied by an equally large jump in offensive efficiency. He’s shooting the ball much more effectively, particularly from close to the hoop – he’s reversed an ugly sub-60% rate 5 from within three feet of the basket to a more acceptable (for his position) 73.9% since mid-January, a pretty huge increase for a guy who takes over 40% of his attempts from this range.6 His mid-range game remains spotty, but it’s still a big improvement on previous seasons and is at least enough to warrant a small amount of attention from defenders. Meanwhile, he remains a beast out of the pick-and-roll, in the league’s top 25 for per-possession efficiency, per Synergy Sports, and continues to hone an increasingly polished post game.
The overall result is, as I mentioned above, a departure from the sub-league-cellar numbers the pair were putting up earlier in the year, but not by too much. Favors’ improvement is a positive, though, and Kanter certainly won’t continue to hit under 20% of his longer range jumpers while they play together – of the two areas, the duo has certainly progressed more on offense.
Of course, that could also be because they haven’t progressed at all on defense. They’ve hardly budged an inch from their per-possession defensive numbers since my initial assessment in January, numbers that would rank them even lower than the league-worst figure the Jazz and Bucks currently share. Like on offense, though, the way they’ve gone about things has changed a bit, though many of the larger themes remain the same.
For starters, lineups with the two on the floor together continue to allow opponents remarkably high shooting percentages, including a nearly 50% figure overall from the floor that has remained relatively constant throughout the year. They’ve started defending medium mid-range shots more effectively, bringing their field-goal percentage against on looks between 10 and 15 feet down from well over 50% to a more manageable 44.2% the last two months. Unfortunately, they’ve allowed an unfavorable trade-off here – the percentage they allow from between four and nine feet has simultaneously risen nearly seven percent, and these shots are not only easier to make but also represent a far larger portion of total opponent field-goal attempts. They’ve also forced less turnovers than what was already a very low rate to begin with – in a general sense, the pair continues to appear to be too slow and laborious as a frontcourt defensive duo, one unable to prevent any decent opponent from creating spacing and good looks, and without the trickiness to make up for it by generating lots of turnovers.
But even more concerning, perhaps, has been the lackluster way the Jazz have rebounded with the two sharing the court. A problem earlier in the year that’s only gotten worse in recent months, these lineups are among the worst groups of any high-minute twosome on the team. They were already in the bottom half here before it, but since my first piece on January 22nd, of 28 two-man units that have logged at least 150 minutes for the Jazz, the Favors-Kanter unit ranks 27th, or second-last, in percentage of total rebounds collected:7
The reasons have ranged from mental lapses to flat-out laziness at times, but the results are simply not good enough from a duo many expected to be a premier rebounding force within the league. Given some of their other limitations, the pair simply has no chance as an effective defensive frontcourt going forward if they continue to anchor such subpar rebounding units.
Overall, there continue to be a ton of question marks and worries surrounding the presumed big tandem of the future. Far from the least of these is the simple fact that, regardless of which period of time you examine within the season, both players have performed significantly better while the other sits on the bench. Kanter remains the larger culprit of the two from a big-picture standpoint, particularly in terms of his wobbly offensive play of late, but Favors is far from blameless.8
And just as it was a couple months ago, this remains a big issue for the Jazz going forward. The front office would certainly have hoped for many more questions surrounding the pair, and particularly Kanter, to have been answered by the end of this year,9 but they may not entirely get their wish as the Jazz play a slate of relatively meaningless games to close the year. Properly evaluating this will be one of many difficult tasks ahead for Dennis Lindsey and crew this summer during an offseason that could prove to be a pivotal one for the next half-decade of Jazz basketball.