clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Best center talent in NBA goes to...Utah?

New, comments

Signing Favors and extending Gobert makes you wonder if Jazz have the best center talent in the league.

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors contest a shot by fellow divisional center Nikola Jokic of Denver.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz doubled down this offseason on the strategy of elite center play for 48 minutes.

By signing Derrick Favors for three years after a brief stop in New Orleans and extending Rudy Gobert for an additional four years plus player option, the Utah Jazz are betting on this strategy being the difference for a first round exit team since Donovan Mitchell’s rookie season.

Through six games, the Jazz stand at 4-2. How have the centers fared? Naturally, Utah has a +9.6 Net Rating when Rudy is on the court. When he steps off and Derrick takes his place, Utah has a +5.9 Net Rating.

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz - Game Three
Utah’s “Wasatch Front” of Gobert and Favors look to take the Jazz defense back to ELITE status this season.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

We’ve seen instances of Rudy in foul trouble, above average backup centers, and other situations where a Gobert-Favors combo as aided the Jazz. Though an incredibly small sample size, things are looking swell.

Such a strategy doesn’t come without a price, however. For the 2020-21 season, Utah is on the hook nearly $17.9M on average for their rotational centers. This number will skyrocket next season as Gobert’s extension kicks in.

The only team exceeding that rotational average (among players with 10K possession experience) is Cleveland, who is hoarding Love, Drummond, and Nance for asset collection purposes. Denver nearly matches Utah with Nikola Jokic and JaMychal Green on the books.

This begs the question. Do the Jazz have the best center talent in the league to justify such an expenditure?

Let’s break down players projected for starter level minutes, then players with reserve level minutes, and finally a composite view.

Methodology

There are dozens of perspectives to use when evaluating players. Many choose traditional counting stats (points, rebounds, blocks, etc.). Others might use film to present a qualitative case for talent. Every perspective is flawed to some extent, but not every approach focuses on the objective of the game.

Contrary to popular belief, the objective of the game of basketball IS NOT to score as many points as possible for each individual player; nor is the objective to amass any statistic at the individual level.

The goal is for the team to score more points than the opponent. This implies scoring and scoring prevention. It implies that the team should engineer the best route to points, from creating opportunities to scoring, from reducing opponent’s possessions to forcing inefficiency.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs
Donovan Mitchell celebrates en route to a blowout win over the short handed Spurs
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Given this goal, let’s focus on the effect players have on their TEAM through the lens of scoring and scoring prevention (offense and defense). We will use a calculation called “On/Off Ratings Swing” for offense and defense.

We’ll take the offensive rating of the team when Player A is on the court, subtract the result from the offensive rating of the team when Player A is off the court, and the final result will be the “Offensive Rating On/Off Swing”. Example:

Team B’s Offense with Player A on the floor: 111.8
Team B’s Offense with Player A off the floor: 110.5
Team B’s Offensive Rating On/Off Swing: +1.3

A +1.3 means that Team B scores 1.3 more points per 100 possessions with Player A than without him. Over a large sample size, that is indicative of Player A positively contributing to the goal of the sport.

The same situation applies to defense, though the goal is to reduce (or lower) the team’s defensive rating:

Team B’s Defense with Player A on the floor: 109.8
Team B’s Defense with Player A off the floor: 110.5
Team B’s Defensive Rating On/Off Swing: +0.7

We often switch the signs (+/-) for the “Defensive Rating On/Off Swing” so that positive (+) means “better” (or accomplishing the objective).

We will use this methodology to evaluate rotational centers throughout the league since 2016-17. Our sample criteria is players who qualify as centers per NBA.com. We also require each center to have played a minimum of 10,000 possessions since the 2016-17 season.

With a large sample spanning four seasons, natural variance due to individual performance, lineups, coaching philosophies, injuries, etc., will have a very small impact on the results.

A big shoutout to PBP Stats, whose WOWY tool generated the data for this study.

Let’s get started.

Starters

22 players from our 47 player sample size project to have starter level minutes for the 2020-21 season. This implies that approximately 8 teams this season will not have a qualified starting center with 10,000+ possession experience.

The player with the highest “Offensive Rating On/Off Swing” since 2016-17 is Karl-Anthony Towns of Minnesota at +9.4. The worst player impacting their team’s offense is Tristan Thompson of Boston at -0.8.

The player with the highest “Defensive Rating On/Off Swing” since 2016-17 is Joel Embiid of Philadelphia at +5.9. The worst player impacting their team’s defense is Julius Randle of New York at -3.3.

Look below to find where each starter comes out in the offense and defense swings:

On/Off Ratings Swing for projected NBA starters who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league.
On/Off Ratings Swing for projected NBA starters who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league.
Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

There are some general tiers identified from this list (no particular order):

Tier 1: Joel Embiid*

Tier 2: Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Nikola Vucevic

Tier 3: Jusuf Nurkic, Kristaps Porzingis*, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Steven Adams, DeAndre Jordan, Bam Adebayo, Clint Capela

Tier 4: Myles Turner, Andre Drummond, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, LaMarcus Aldridge, Julius Randle

Tier 5: Mason Plumlee, Tristan Thompson

*Embiid and Porzingis has vastly lower possession counts than those in their respective
tiers and surrounding tiers.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs
Rudy Gobert defending the rim, per usual, against the Spurs on Sunday night
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

For the Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert is a +3.6 in “Offensive Rating On/Off Swing” (8th in the sample). This means that since 2016-17, the Jazz have been 3.6 points per 100 possession better ON OFFENSE with him on the court than off.

On the flip side, Rudy is a +4.7 in “Defensive Rating On/Off Swing” (2nd in the sample). This means that since 2016-17, the Jazz have been 4.7 points per 100 possession better ON DEFENSE with him on the court than off.

Though there is much debate about Rudy’s overall ranking, he’s likely in the top 3-4 of our sample.

Reserves

25 players from our 47 player sample size project to have reserve level minutes for the 2020-21 season, many of which are on the same team as other reserves and starters.

The player with the highest “Offensive Rating On/Off Swing” since 2016-17 is Kevin Love of Cleveland at +4.9. The worst player impacting their team’s offense is Gorgui Dieng of Memphis at -3.7.

The player with the highest “Defensive Rating On/Off Swing” since 2016-17 is Derrick Favors of Utah at +2.0. The worst player impacting their team’s defense is Enes Kanter of Portland at -2.7.

Look below to find where each reserve comes out in the offense and defense swings:

On/Off Ratings Swing for projected NBA reserves  who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league
On/Off Ratings Swing for projected NBA reserves who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league
Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

There are some general tiers identified from this list (no particular order):

Tier 1: Kevin Love

Tier 2: Derrick Favors, Domantas Sabonis, Dewayne Dedmon, Kelly Olynyk, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Powell, Jarett Allen

Tier 3: John Collins, Montrezl Harrell, DeMarcus Cousins, Marcin Gortat, Dario Saric, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Larry Nance Jr.

Tier 4: Robin Lopez, Frank Kaminsky

Tier 5: Gorgui Dieng, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Len, JaMychal Green, Lauri Markkanen, Enes Kanter

Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors matches up with one of the better backup centers in the league, Ivica Zubac of the Clippers.
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

For the Utah Jazz, Derrick Favors is a -0.1 in “Offensive Rating On/Off Swing” (14th in the sample). This means that since 2016-17, the Jazz have been -0.1 points per 100 possession worse ON OFFENSE with him on the court than off.

On the flip side, Derrick is a +2.0 in “Defensive Rating On/Off Swing” 1st in the sample). This means that since 2016-17, the Jazz have been 2.0 points per 100 possession better ON DEFENSE with him on the court than off.

Though there is some debate about Derrick’s overall ranking, he’s likely in the top 5 of our sample.

Composite

With Gobert ranking in the top 3-4 of starters and Favors ranking in the top 5 of reserves, the Jazz contextually appear to have one of the best rotational center talent pools in the league.

Is it the best?

Look below to find where each reserve comes out in the offense and defense swings:

On/Off Ratings wing for players who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league (UTA players highlighted)
On/Off Ratings wing for players who qualify as centers per NBA.com and have 10,000+ possession experience in the league (UTA players highlighted)
Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

To fully answer this question, we’d have to inject additional perspectives such as skill metrics, film, etc. While implementing such data points would certainly clear up the answer on the best rotational center talent in the league, it would cloud the picture of impact on winning (scoring more team points than the other team).

However, let’s proceed with our current approach.

Only 13 teams from our sample sported more than one player. When adjusting “Net Rating On/Off Swing” (combo of offense and defense) for projected share of center minutes, three teams stand out:

PHI: +7.7 - Joel Embiid + Dwight Howard
UTA: +6.7 - Rudy Gobert + Derrick Favors
DEN: +5.6 - Nikola Jokic + JaMychal Green

There are a host of questions on each of the three teams above. Is Howard the Lakers version or the Hornets/Hawks version? Is Favors healthy enough to be at his best or better in a reserve role? Is Green the Memphis version or Clippers version?

The answer to these and other questions will likely determine the talent level of the position and how they compare across the league.

Ultimately, the answer of “best” isn’t really that important. Is the #1 in the Harvard Law graduating class assured a better career than the #2 graduate?

The more important question is if the Jazz have an elite center rotation? The answer is unequivocally, yes.

Does it justify the expenditure? Time will tell but so far, things are looking up.