Utah Jazz Frontcourt: Three-Headed Monster?

September 16th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Between FIBA and summer league play, August pieces written by local and national media alike, and even gushing podcast segments, it’s been a Gobert love-fest this offseason. Shoot, there hasn’t been this much ado about Rudy since 19931. But with international play all wrapped up and September flying by, the hype factor slowly beings to taper off into reality – the next on-court action we’ll see from the towering Frenchman, along with the rest of his Jazz teammates, will be at training camp and, before you know it, the start of the preseason.

The questions as he once again steps onto an NBA court will be twofold, and one will be dependent on the other:

1. Can Gobert develop his offensive game to a point where lineups featuring him can hold their own on that end, particularly while next to Derrick Favors?

2. If so, what does this mean for the future of Enes Kanter – and/or how might Kanter fit in the picture?2

As far as the first question goes, they’ll be hoping for short memories, as Charles would say. With the necessary caveats surrounding small sample size, Gobert’s time on the court saw an already bland offense crater spectacularly. A squad that was already just outside the league’s bottom five in per-possession scoring posted an ugly 95.3 points-per-100, over a full point lower than Philadelphia’s league-worst mark, per NBA.com. These figures were even worse (though on an even smaller sample) when he was paired with either Favors (82.0) or Kanter (88.4).

There’s cause for optimism, however. For one, all this Gobert gushing is happening for a reason – he appears to have improved, perhaps somewhat drastically. Favors and Kanter are both at a point on their developmental curve where they’ll be expected to have done the same to some degree. And my writing it ad nauseam doesn’t make it any less true: the new coaching staff will be expected to leave their own imprint on personnel across the board.

Speaking more generally, precedent exists for a successful frontcourt even if development stalls for one or more of the potential pieces involved, including the spatially-challenged Favors-Gobert unit.

Compare them, for instance, with one of the league’s top offenses in San Antonio. Gobert, like typical Spurs starter Tiago Splitter, is mostly ignored by opposing defenders outside the paint. The two combined attempted just 15 shots from beyond 10 feet all last season – 14 by Splitter, who also played about triple Gobert’s minutes. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan is a better midrange shooter than Favors both in perception and reality, but perhaps the latter gap isn’t quite as large as the former would indicate. The two shot nearly identical percentages between eight and 16 feet from the hoop (37.7 percent for Duncan, 37.6 percent for Favors) last year. Duncan had a big advantage from beyond 16 feet, but team context plays a role here; where Favors drew assists on 66.7 percent of his makes from this distance, Duncan did so 95.5 percent of the time. We see that San Antonio’s vastly superior talent and comfort within their system led to Duncan almost never being forced to create these shots for himself, with Favors far more often required to do so. This jives with SportVU data tabulated by my Nylon Calculus colleagues Darryl Blackport and Krishna Narsu, which shows that Duncan took 37.5 percent of his total shots while “uncontested” (no defender within four feet) while Favors took just 24.5 percent of his under the same circumstances. The spacing and team construct was just so different, and this certainly played some role3.

Obviously, the Spurs are on a whole other planet, one this Jazz core may never even get within eyesight of. Numerous advantages in nearly every other aspect of NBA basketball of course play a large part in their ability to keep a Duncan-Splitter frontcourt viable offensively where Utah failed to do so with their own. But like several other aspects of the Jazz franchise moving forward, San Antonio has laid out the blueprint. Common sets like Horns, detailed in the video below on a team-by-team basis by Coach Nick of bballbreakdown.com4, and the specific variations used by Gregg Popovich are among the simplest starting points:

If we’re being fair, some of this may end up being a bit thin. Favors and Gobert are likely to struggle offensively as a pairing, perhaps mightily so, unless one or the other undergoes a shooting renaissance that seems highly unlikely. Heck, the Duncan-Splitter duo, while far more effective than Utah’s frontcourt to be sure, was still among the least productive of San Antonio’s high-volume two-man units, and Pop wasn’t shy about mixing things up to inject more spacing when necessary.

This is where Kanter remains an intriguing piece of the puzzle. Should the change of coaching scenery and another offseason of work be enough to propel him from awful to simply below-average defensively, his abilities as a midrange shooter and low post operator could be surprisingly complementary while Favors or Gobert run more pick-and-roll action.

In truth, a Favors-Kanter-Gobert three-headed monster frontcourt may be nothing more than a pipe dream. Any major tangible improvement from Kanter before his expected RFA summer could easily push his perceived value around the league even further beyond what the Jazz would be comfortable paying him, and Gobert comes in at a far cheaper tag and in a situation they control for longer (he’s also just as large of an offensive question mark as Kanter is a defensive one, if not more so). And don’t forget, Utah is widely expected to score another solid lottery pick in the 2015 Draft – one that, at least for now, appears to contain at least three or four highly-touted prospects at the big positions. For all of Dan’s talk (and my repetition) of consolidating assets, the opportunity to pick a name like Jahlil Okafor or Karl Towns might be too good to pass up, particularly if one of the three incumbents isn’t pulling their weight.

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. Tony says:

    Mate this is a great article and you have my thanks for the positive nature of it. I hope very much that kanter has improved his defense but I really think it is much more about effort on his part, I’m convinced he is the front court scorer the jazz need, he has a great low post game, though he needs to be better at passing out, he can hit the mid range shot often and now just needs to show that perhaps his range can increase or at least that his mid range game can be dangerously effective. Favors and Gobert are going to be defensive juggernauts and I don’t think they’ll have to improve offensively a great deal to make the jazz better, our three point shooting should do that, they just have to swat away like fiends and keep other teams honest. As an aside to all my ramblings, it’s too early here in Oz, I am actually very high on Evans as a 3 or 4 and hope that they can keep him for his career. I saw in the last game against KLove he was awesome, I mean Kevin was always gonna get his but Jeremy made it very hard and limited him well and Kevin was getting very pissy which is a good sign you’re doing it right. Oh well again cheers bloke for your article.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      Thanks for reading. Kanter really is a super-intriguing name, both in terms of his potential ceiling and the way he’s viewed around the league. Evans I’m unfortunately not as sold on – he just doesn’t seem to be consistent enough and really lacks one or two elite skills. I see the Jazz drafting a big next year as highly likely also, making any room for Evans even tighter.

      • Tony says:

        Yes I do think you might be correct on Evans but I’ll remain high on him because I saw great improvement when he finally got consistent minutes and that is what all players need to develop. I think that the jazz will have a high pick again this coming year, whichever lottery system is in place, and there is a few potential big names there so this year is huge for kanter, Evans and the like if they are hoping to stay in SLC so I say give minutes and persevere regardless of results so they can see who is worthy of the contracts. Go jazz

  2. LKA says:

    Good post. It would be interesting to see what the Jazz deo in the next five to six weeks on a contract extention. With the jury still out on Kanter this will be hard to do. Not sure but I think Kanter would have the option of sighning say a two year contract that would not be close to a max deal so he could still prove himself one way or the other. If he goes the RFA route he would have several months to prove one way or another who he is. But like you say there is always one team out there who will offer him a whole wheelbarrow full of money. If they cannot sign a deal befor the end of October deadline I see a trade..I would like to see a Kanter to Hornets for Vonlegh and Kidd Gilcrest who is still unproven. Great chemistry there between Kanter and big AL.. Vonlegh is out with a sports hernia but could be brought along slowly this year.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      At this point I see very few ways Kanter will be re-signed before the RFA deadline. I also don’t think a 2-year deal is likely, as Kanter’s representatives view him as a valued asset and, due to his draft position and pedigree, will push for a long-term deal. A trade is certainly possible, and an avenue I think the Jazz will have to explore, especially if Favors and Gobert have any immediate success together on the NBA court.

  3. Mewko says:

    Great piece ben. Rudy Gobert will have to continue to impress, at the NBA level. I bet the Jazz front office isn’t completely sold on Gobert as a long-term NBA starter. I want to see him work like crazy on his offense. Unless he turns into a poor-man’s DeAndre Jordan, and isn’t a turnover liability at all, than I think Kanter will be getting the starter minutes. Don’t sleep on Kanter this year, he has confidence he can play with Favors, and will have better coaching/development. We saw what happened to Big Al Jefferson’s defense in Charlotte, and know that kind of improvement is possible for Kanter.

    If I was in the Jazz front office, I would be heavily encouraging the players to set goals and improve on both ends of the floor. We need two-way players to win in this league.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      There’s certainly no ruling out a resurgent year for Kanter given some of the changes around him and another year of development. Al is a great example of what can happen when a limited defensive player is coached toward their strengths rather than forced into a box they don’t fit inside. And certainly, Gobert has plenty of proving left to do on the NBA level regardless of his performance over the summer.

    • Powertaijicoach says:

      Based on what we’ve seen in the Summer League and FIBA, Rudy is ready to start at Center position with either Favors or Kanter as Power Forward – their natural position to be subbed be Brock Motum and Trevor Booker and Jeremy Evans;

      Hayward as our starting Small Forward (Rodney Hood and Steve Novak to follow);

      Alec Burks as our starting Shooting Guard (Ian Clark, Kevin Murphy, and Carrick Felix to follow);

      Trey Burke as our starting Point Guard (Dante Exum, Toure Murry, and Dee Bost to follow.

      There is a possibility to Trey Burke and/or Kanter will be traded for a 2015 First Round pick(s) and that will be great for the Jazz Team. That will allow us to develop Brock Motum as a Stretch 4 and early PG development of Dante Exum.

      Go Jazz!

      • Ben Dowsett says:

        I’d caution against reading so much into summer play as to declare Gobert ready to start at center in the NBA. The Jazz also see Favors as a center, and while I don’t fully agree, there’s no doubt he’s the far more capable NBA big at the moment, to the point where which position each is playing will be somewhat irrelevant.

        I’d also caution against expecting too much from Motum, though he could be a fun piece. A trade of Burke or Kanter isn’t out of the question, but at this point it’s very hard to imagine the Jazz punting recent lottery picks just to make more lottery picks. If either of those players are moved, I’d assume it would be for a package that gets the team closer to contention on a more immediate timeline.

        • Tony says:

          Remember guys coach is leading to a flowing position less type of game plan soooo I think the bigs will sub and rotate as match ups and flow dictate

          • Mewko says:

            Tony’s right. There is no center, power forward positions anymore for the Jazz. There’s frontcourt, backcourt, and the wing. I do remember Walt Perrin telling us that the Jazz view Favors as a center. What that means to me is that Favors has bulked up since he was drafted, and he is better sticking in the low post area.
            He’s not a rim protector specialist like Roy Hibbert, he’s a combo bigman like Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Garnett. I mentioned in a comment above that we need two-way players, and the players need to develop both sides of the games. I don’t think it’s too late for Favors to develop a good mid-range shot, like all of his comparisons above. It would open up his potential as a #2 scoring option.

  4. Clever name here says:

    I’m not sure that the Gobert-Favors pairing would work without one of them getting a mid/long-range game. Pop has to (I haven’t looked at the numbers; sorry if I’m exaggerating the severity) split the Splitter-Duncan combo against good defenses specifically because of the spacing problem. Plus, two rim protectors seems redundant; most teams seem to only rely on one. And Gobert’s defensive numbers are so good I’m not sure I’m not sure he needs additional help under the rim, particularly if it’ll gimp the offense. Is there any team that runs a combo like this successfully besides SA?

    I’m really, really, really hoping that Kanter manages to get the three ball people keep talking about. That’d fix the spacing problems and F or G could cover his defensive liabilities. If not, I think Utah’s got to go get themselves another stretch-4.

    Good piece though; well thought out even if I don’t agree with everything.

    • Powertaijicoach says:

      That’s where 6’10” Australian Brock Motum and/or Jack Cooley comes in :)

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      You’re certainly right about Pop splitting up Duncan and Splitter, which is part of why I think Kanter is still an intriguing piece. All the buzz is that he’ll be shooting at least corner 3’s this year, and I think the new staff won’t be shy about letting him fire away if he’s effective. I guess answering your question there would require defining “successfully” since the Spurs are a bit of a high bar, but there are certainly other teams both presently and in recent years who have made similar systems work by tailoring to their bigs’ strengths – think the Clippers a couple years ago before Blake could shoot at all.

      With certain obvious exceptions and limitations, I shy away from capping the amount of a certain skill a team can have within a successful roster. Down the line, as long as a Favors-Gobert combination isn’t outright unplayable offensively, they can free each other up a bunch defensively given that they have somewhat different skill sets outside their rim protection (an area where honestly, as I’ve discussed before, Favors has yet to prove his elite status on an NBA level – I expect him to improve greatly in this area this year). Still so much to see this year, so calling any of this stuff is far too early, of course.

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