Derrick Favors Pushing Jazz into New Era
Roster stagnation and prolonged success are mutually exclusive in the NBA.
The Utah Jazz, for instance, have missed the playoffs just four times since the start of the 1983-1984 season, and that has everything to do with the franchise’s ability to replenish its ranks. The Karl Malone-John Stockton era gave way to Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, which spawned some recent success with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Obviously there are different lengths to these tenures, but the next one promises to be a long one given the ages and ceilings of big men Derrick Favors (21) and Enes Kanter (20), both of whom continue to bridge the gap with their mentors.
“[It’s] competitive,” Favors told HOOPSWORLD of his battles with Jazz big men Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson in practice. “We come out and try to push them but at the same time they do the same thing to us because they don’t want to get embarrassed by the young guys and me and Enes [Kanter] don’t want them to embarrass us.”
And because they refuse to be embarrassed at practice, they’ve more than held their own in games this season. The 14-13 Jazz are competing for a playoff spot thanks largely to the deepest rotation of talented big men in the NBA.
Other teams might boast a few interior players that are better than coach Tyrone Corbin’s guys, but there isn’t another team that offers four players like Millsap (14.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Jefferson (16.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg) , Favors (9.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and Kanter (6.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg). It’s why the Jazz average more points in the paint (45.0 per game) than all but two teams.
“We’ve always been a team that plays inside out,” said Millsap, who agreed that practices have gotten more competitive this season.
Utah’s youngsters — particularly Favors — are starting to catch on with that philosophy, and their progress has only fueled the competition at practices.
“From Day 1 it’s been fun to watch,” Corbin said before Tuesday’s comeback win over the Brooklyn Nets. “It’s fun to watch as we go forward as these guys grow and their confidence gets better, as they get more used to the speed of the game, the veteran craftsmanship of the game and how they can incorporate some of those things in their game and read off what the other guys are doing.”
Corbin hasn’t said it, but that growth is leading this franchise to an inevitable crossroads. Millsap and Jefferson are still valuable commodities, but their contracts expire after this season, which means they likely represent trade bait or salary cap relief to general manager Dennis Lindsey and executive vice president Kevin O’Connor.
Re-signing the pair would be a possibility if they didn’t already cost a combined $23.6 million this season, but the larger reason the Jefferson-Millsap era could be coming to an end is the aforementioned progress of Favors and Kanter.
Jefferson and Millsap each post a Player Efficiency Rating over 20 (15 is the league average) but Kanter (17.1) and Favors (18.9) are catching up, even if they are playing fewer minutes (Favors and Kanter average 21.9 and 15.1 mpg respectively). And according to Hoopsstats.com’s Efficiency Recap Difference, the Jazz actually boast the league’s sixth most-efficient bench.
“You can take Al and Paul out and you can come back with me and Enes and there’s no drop off in production,” Favors said. “I mean there might be [fewer] points with Al [on the bench], but there’s no drop off.”
Corbin was reluctant to say how the offense changes when the youngsters are in the game, but Favors said they’ve only had to make some minor adjustments for himself and Kanter.
“Most of the time we are but it’s a little different from the starters,” Favors said. “It’s a little difference, you probably couldn’t tell but it’s a little more different because me and Enes are a little bit more athletic than Paul and Al, but Al and Paul are better low post scorers on the block than we are, so most of the plays for the starting unit goes to them, where, from the bench, we just run around set screens and make plays that way.”
Athleticism only goes so far in the NBA, which is why Corbin has directed Favors to develop a back-to-the-basket game.
As Corbin sees it, once Favors has his “staple move,” his athleticism will be even more of an asset.
“He’s so versatile, he’s so quick off the floor, he’s fast for a big guy, he’s athletic for a big guy,” Corbin said. “But then what is your main move?”
“I am good rebounder, good defender but I think in order for me to take my game to the next level I have to improve on the low block,” Favors said. “Back to the basket, because as I quick as I am, I think I can get by anybody in the league. So I think guys are starting to sag off me and force me to shoot the jump shot or whatever and force me to play with my back to the basket more, so just those things I’ve got to improve on.”
Favors wasn’t kidding about having to improve his jump shot. Through his first 20 games of the season, according to Hoopdata.com, he was making 60.2 percent of his shots at the rim, which represented the vast majority of his field goal attempts. But as he pulled back to 3-9 feet, that figure falls to 25 percent and then 28.6 percent between 10 and 15 feet.
Kanter, Millsap agreed, is basically just a bull in the paint for right now (“He’s just trying to bully his way down there”), but Favors is making some tangible progress offensively.
“He’s getting a better touch around the basket,” Millsap said. “His touch is a lot better. Now he’s just starting to get a feel for the game. He’s making pretty good progress. I know he’s going to continue to get better because he comes in and works out every day. You can’t help but enjoy it.”
And Utah Jazz fans will get to enjoy it for years to come.