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The Evolution of the Power Forward in Utah

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How could the franchise that was built on the back of Karl Malone post ups not have a traditional four?

Since 1986 the Utah Jazz have had a pretty clear idea of what they liked in a power forward and what he did. And since then the Jazz have had a steady stream of the same archetypal four rolling in and out of Utah.

It was in 1986 that head coach Frank Layden unleashed his rookie power forward, the then-22-year old Karl Malone, onto the NBA. The 6-foot-9, approximately 250 pound man with biceps as wide as the Wasatch Mountains he performed in front of would end up defining what it meant to be a power forward in Utah for the next 30 years.

In his 18 years playing for the Jazz, Malone essentially did two things: dominate the paint and score out of the pick and roll. This simple and straightforward approach landed the now 55-year old Malone in the Hall of Fame, placing him near or at the top the career lists in points, rebounds and free throws.

For years after Malone, very little changed at the four in Utah. Just one season following The Mailman’s departure, Carlos Boozer took up the mantle, then Paul Millsap and now Derrick Favors.

All three of the successors fit in one way or another in the same archetype at power forward. They all did the dirty work in the paint, they shot almost exclusively two-point shots, and they were all around 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds.

[Editor’s Note: At least that’s what they were listed as. We all know that Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap were a bit shorter than their listed heights.]

The NBA has since moved on from this version of power forward, though. The four is now smaller than ever before. Back east in Boston, Jayson Tatum, listed at 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, could see significant time at power forward this season. In the West, Draymond Green has been playing the four spot in Golden State while listed at 6-foot-7.

Utah actually got a glimpse of what that looked like years ago in 2003 during that brief interval between Karl Malone and Carlos Boozer. Many would point to Draymond Green as the first stretch four, but the Jazz had a player that beat him to it a full decade earlier. That glimpse came in the form of a certain Andrei Kirilenko. The third-year player out of Russia stepped into the starting power forward slot and proceeded to give the NBA a glimpse into the future.

Kirilenko’s 2003-04 season was a spectacle to behold. He wasn’t anything like Malone nor any of the fours that would follow him. He wasn’t a 250-pound big, he was a 220-pound small forward masquerading as a PF. He wasn’t a pick-and-roll target, he handled the ball himself. He was perimeter defender with unprecedented tools and talents. He even **gasp** shot 3-pointers.

Unfortunately, after that revelatory season, Jerry Sloan went back to what he knew—or what he was forced to do due General Manager Kevin O’Connor’s free agent coup—building a second era with a PG/PF duo with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and, in so doing, maintained the idea of having a traditional four.

Enter Quin Snyder.

In his first four years as head coach, Snyder redefined what a Jazz power forward looks like and does. He drafted Trey Lyles, signed Trevor Booker, two stretch fours. After Booker and Lyles, it was Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson.

The conventional myth that the Jazz haven’t kept up with the trend of stretch fours is exactly that, a myth. Favors is still technically the starting four, but that’s not his primary job. Since Dennis Lindsey sent Enes Kanter packing in 2015, Favors has played the majority of his minutes at center.

It can be argued that this year, the Jazz don’t have a designated power forward. Much like a running back by committee, the Utah Jazz have a stable of Power Forwards built for the situation. Favors may fill the mantle of the designated power forward on paper, but on the court, his job mirrors that of Rudy Gobert. Furthermore, when you look behind Favors there is no longer a backup four. No Trevor Booker, Trey Lyes or Boris Diaw. Not even Joe Johnson. Instead, it’s the 6-foot-6 Crowder, the 6-foot-7 Thabo Sefolosha, and, at times, the ever evolving Joe Ingles. All three have been small forwards or even shooting guards their entire careers.

There’s more to the evolution to the four in Utah than just whether or not he’s 6’9” and 250 pounds. Since Malone, the Jazz have gradually relied less and less on the power forward for things like scoring and even rebounding.

Malone ended his career as the franchise leader in points and second all-time on the NBA points career points list. Boozer was a 20/10 player and was the leading scorer in his two most productive seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08. But when Paul Millsap inherited the role, he was not the leading scorer. He was the first non 20/10 starting power forward (outside of Kirilenko) in decades. Favors has deviated even further with his averages of 13/8 during his years as a starter.

This isn’t to say the Jazz don’t need or even rely on the power forward. Favors has been a huge part of Utah’s success in the previous two seasons. It means that gone are the days when the leading scorer was a big. Scoring is now the role of the shooting guards, small forwards and point guards. Even rebounding has been spread out more across the five positions.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will carry this team on offense and defense. But with an inordinate amount of the leagues best players playing significant time at the four during games, the Jazz will need to be strong. They will need Ingles, Crowder, Sefolosha and Favors to step up at a position that has been a strength in Utah for 32 years.