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.