The Utah Jazz have a conundrum at power forward. Do they continue with Derrick Favors? If so, at what price? And if not, who is the replacement?
If you’re a Jazz fan who pays even cursory attention to the team outside the games, you’re likely aware of the following: Favors is a free agent this summer, and his return is far from a sure thing.
In fact, prior to Utah’s dramatic turnaround in the second half of the season, it was Favors’ departure that almost seemed inevitable.
“Derrick Favors is probably the most likely Jazz player to be traded, as he has made it known to the Jazz front office that he intends to not [re-sign] with the team in free agency this summer,” KSL’s Andy Larsen wrote in late January. “As a result, the Jazz are looking to get the best value they can for the remaining few months on Favors’ contract.”
Three things happened after that report. Favors took to Twitter to deny he’d made up his mind (not unusual in situations like this), he didn’t get moved at the deadline and that mind-blowing 29-6 finish to the season happened.
And that last one might have changed everything.
During the 19-28 start, Utah was outscored by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when Favors was on the floor with Rudy Gobert. The Wasatch Front (one of the NBA’s most criminally underused monikers) looked unplayable. Finally, the game had changed just enough that having two traditional bigs on the floor was a death knell.
Over the rest of the season, though, Favors and Gobert was one of the best duos in the NBA. When they were both on the floor, the Jazz outscored opponents by a whopping 17.1 points per 100 possessions. The Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets were the only two teams in the league with duos that played 500-plus minutes and posted a better Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) over that time span.
Then, in Utah’s first-round win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Favors was crucial. The Jazz were plus-57 when Favors was on the floor and minus-31 when he was off. Outplaying Carmelo Anthony wasn’t surprising. Making him look like a complete and utter liability whenever he was on the floor probably was for some fans.
But the lasting impression may come from the Rockets series. After all, it’s the most recent memory, at least in terms of games. And against Houston, coach Quin Snyder struggled to find any minutes for Favors.
After averaging just over 23 minutes in the first two games of the series, Favors played just over 14 minutes a game in the final three. Over the course of all five, the Favors/Gobert pairing was minus-28 in 30 minutes, good for a minus-47 Net Rating.
Suddenly, the question is back: Can Favors and Gobert play together? Or, more specifically: Can Utah truly contend with Favors and Gobert together? Does dominating the second half of the season matter if the Jazz still can’t get by teams like the Rockets or Golden State Warriors in the postseason without a playmaking 4?
The front office is almost certainly looking for answers already, and the following options should be on the table.
Re-Sign Derrick Favors
If Utah decides to bring Favors back, and he’s amenable to it, a few things will have to happen (and one big one already has).
First, regarding that parenthetical, cap space is going to be hard to come by this summer. Only seven teams — the Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls — are projected to have any by RealGM. Only the Lakers, Pacers and Hawks project to have space for a max contract.
Scan those teams again and ask yourself if Favors makes sense for any of them. Then, ask yourself if there are other free agents those teams might chase before Favors. If there’s no interest from those seven, Favors could be looking at a mid-level exception-type contract. That would pay him less than $10 million a year. And since Utah has his Bird Rights (meaning it can exceed the cap to re-sign him), that’s not a number that would be tough to beat.
But let’s back to those other things that would likely have to happen for Favors to return. He’d likely have to accept a role in which he plays as much backup 5 as he does starting 4. That’s something he’s already done over the last two seasons, so maybe we can check that off.
On the other side, Utah’d probably have to take itself out of the hunt for other free agents. Right now, the Jazz are projected to be over the cap when free agency starts. They can get to $20-plus million in room, but that would mean letting every free agent and potential free agent go (Favors, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, Dante Exum, etc.).
If Utah wants to chase other free agents, it’ll have to let at least some of those guys go (or find takers for the salaries of guys like Ricky Rubio or Alec Burks). Problem there, again, is lack of cap space around the league.
Let’s say Favors signs elsewhere and Utah adds a wing instead of a 4. Could Jae Crowder really be the answer?
Defensively, there’s almost no question. Utah allowed just 91.6 points per 100 possessions when Crowder and Gobert shared the floor this season. Want some context on that number? It’s ridiculous. You can trust me on that.
The questions would come on the other end. Crowder’s good at attacking closeouts and showed some flashes as a creator. But he has a tough (impossible?) time getting all the way up to the rim, leading to a 35.7 field goal percentage within three feet of the hoop in the playoffs.
Then there’s his outside shooting, which is streaky, at best. Actually, most of the streaks are cold ones. He shot 32.3 percent from three in the regular season and 32.4 percent from the field in the postseason.
Chase Restricted Free Agents
Let’s say the Jazz find a way to get to around $20 million in cap space. Maybe they let a couple of the non-guaranteed contracts go, as well as Favors, and find a taker for Burks. Honestly, that may not be terribly likely, but we need to go there for this exercise.
The most intriguing options for that potential cap space are the restricted free agents (RFA), and this crop raises a bunch of other issues.
First, the very act of signing an RFA is a risk. The cap space Utah would have to work so hard to manufacture would be tied up for days, while the incumbent team decides whether to match the offer. Those days are precious in free agency, and could cause Utah to miss out on other free agents. But let’s look at a few who may be worth the gamble.
Jabari Parker’s injury issues are worrisome. His defense is almost non-existent. And the Milwaukee Bucks could never quite figure out the fit with he and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But he did average 20.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 1.4 threes per 36 minutes over the last two seasons. He’s just 23 years old. And he’s never had coaching as good as Snyder’s, or rim protection as good as Gobert’s.
It’s probably early enough in Parker’s career to still bank on talent and circumstance over results.
Next, there’s Aaron Gordon. He’s certainly a better defender than Parker, but also a far worse shooter (his three-point percentage over the last two seasons is about six percent lower than Parker’s).
With Gordon, there’s theoretically not as much of a dropoff in defense from the Favors/Gobert frontcourt. And Gordon’s shooting woes outside (41.1 percent from the field and 30 percent from three post-November 11 of this season), he can handle the ball a bit more than Favors on the perimeter.
Another playmaking 4 option is Julius Randle. He had a better season than Parker or Gordon and makes tons of sense for the developing Lakers core. Unless, of course, the Lakers are able to lure two max- or near-max-contract players.
Assume L.A. lands Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. Suddenly, bringing Randle back isn’t so easy.
And finally, there’s Kyle Anderson. His skill-set is a bit redundant with Joe Ingles already on the roster, but that’s not really a bad thing anymore. Wing/forwards who can do everything are the next wave. And despite their “slo-mo” nicknames, Ingles and Anderson are both very smart defenders.
Other Free Agents
All four of the following will be unrestricted free agents, assuming Wilson Chandler and Rudy Gay don’t pick up their player options.
Chandler’s scoring dropped from 15.7 all the way down to 10 this season, but he probably wouldn’t be called upon to put up much more in Utah. The point is his ability to do more around the perimeter.
Gay’s a full-time 4 now. Age, changes in the game and a ruptured Achilles dictated that. This would be another clear downgrade defensively, but after years of being a scoring machine on the wing, he could give the offense more space.
The idea of Mario Hezonja is a personal favorite of mine. He came into the league as a 2-3, but the evolution of the game might allow him to play some 4. He’s only 23, and he showed flashes of a Swiss Army Knife game after the Orlando Magic declined the team option on his contract.
Finally, there’s Luc Mbah a Moute. He hasn’t been asked to do a ton of playmaking with the Clippers or Rockets over the last two seasons, but his three-point shooting has improved dramatically, and he can guard all over the floor.
So, then. Feeling more confused? So am I. This is going to be a really tough choice for Utah’s front office. There are pros and cons to every option. And missteps in the NBA can be devastating.
Thank goodness Utah has Dennis Lindsey, right?
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.