To say that things have changed somewhat drastically for the Brooklyn Nets over the past two seasons would be a bit of an understatement. Heading into their fifth season in Brooklyn, after seeing the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson change zip codes, newly installed general manager Sean Marks installed Kenny Atkinson as his head coach. Atkinson will assume the helm as the fourth head coach hired since the franchise’s move to Brooklyn, and together with Marks represents a major departure from the “get rich quick” schemes that the franchise famously employed.
With a few budding prospects and a willingness to embrace a slow and steady rebuilding process, fans of the Nets will enter the 2016-17 season with hopes that the roster assembled can find a way to outplay its perceived talent.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s easy to beat up on the Brooklyn Nets for the mistakes they’ve made over the last few seasons. However, I actually liked the strategy rookie general manager Sean Marks took this offseason. With essentially no assets to work with to replenish the team’s young talent, Marks went out and attempted to acquire some youth by extending big offer sheets to Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson. Those offer sheets were ultimately matched by each player’s original teams, which meant Marks had to go to Plan B. Sure, the offer sheets were overpays, but the cap will continue to rise next season, so I understand trying to lock in young talent with cap space when there is essentially nothing else to work with. Unfortunately, the Nets only managed to bring together a mishmash of players that are neither competitive now nor the foundation for a youth movement moving forward. Marks and the Nets will continue to suffer for the mistakes made by the past regime for the foreseeable future.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
With newly installed general manager Sean Marks assuming the helm in Brooklyn and with head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets hope to begin piecing together some sort of a franchise in the aftermath of Billy King’s ouster. Unfortunately, that rebuild is something that is going to take a bit longer than one offseason.
Make no mistake about it, the Nets came away from the summer of 2016 about as well as they could have hoped, realistically speaking. With most of the league’s teams boasting significant cap space, it was difficult to imagine impact free agents taking residence in Brooklyn. Losing out of Allen Crabbe will hurt in the short-term, but at the very least, it shines a light on the blueprint that Marks will attempt to follow in rebuilding the franchise. He will take risks on young players with promise and will likely take fliers on some overseas and D-League prospects.
In the end, I’m not sure that Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez will be able to get anything of substance accomplished in Brooklyn this season. They still seem a relatively safe bet to finish ahead of the Sixers, but I’m not expecting much more from them than that.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
From the front office all the way down to the locker room, the Brooklyn Nets have plenty of work to do and a long way to go to before becoming relevant in the win column again. Brooklyn has new leadership at the executive level (Sean Marks) and roaming the sidelines (Kenny Atkinson), but the scars from the franchise mortgaging their future in a failed title run a couple years ago are evident. Marks attempted to infuse the team with much needed young talent this summer by signing guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to offer sheets. But those deals were matched by Miami and Portland, respectively, and left Brooklyn scrambling. There isn’t a quick fix to get Brooklyn back in contention for the Atlantic Division crown. This is going to be a painstakingly long rebuilding effort, if it’s done right. Be prepared Nets fans – for plenty of losing until the ship is righted.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
The Brooklyn Nets are going to win a whole bunch of games this year; the only problem is that they’re going to win most of those games for the teams they’re playing against. Completely stripped of any real transcendent talent outside of Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin, the Nets are stuck in NBA purgatory for the next couple of seasons while they wait to regain control of their own first-round picks. The real bummer in all of this is that Sean Marks can’t even focus on the rebuilding process because his high draft selections the next two seasons are headed to Boston. While it may be fun to see how rookies Caris LaVert and Isaiah Whitehead come along, this team looks like one that spent as little as they did.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
There really wasn’t much Sean Marks and his staff could do this summer in Brooklyn, as my colleagues have pointed out. With future picks still owed to the Boston Celtics, it’s hard to imagine this being anything but a long rebuild for the Nets. Marks will have to get creative to bring in new, young talent (as he tried to do this summer), but there’s no easy way to climb out of this deep hole. This is a cautionary tale for any team thinking of mortgaging their future for a one- or two-year contention window.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
Say what you want about Brook Lopez, but you cannot deny that he is a gifted offensive player. In an NBA that is dominated by stretch-fours and floor-spacing centers, Lopez is a throwback who is capable of scoring with his back to the basket and from mid-range. His offensive versatility is somewhat overshadowed by his slow and plodding nature, which puts his team and coaches in a bit of a Catch-22. A team that plays to Lopez’s strengths will naturally play at a slower pace, but teams that are at a talent deficit will stand a better chance of winning games with hard-nosed defense and capitalizing on easy offensive opportunities born from turnovers.
To that end, it’s the job of Kenny Atkinson to figure out how to marry Lopez’s skill set with the rest of the talent at his disposal, but with a career average of 18.3 points and shooting percentages of 51.1 and 79.1 percent from the field and the free-throw line, respectively, there’s no question that the 28-year-old Lopez is the most gifted offensive talent in Brooklyn.
Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Anyone who paid even a tiny bit of attention to the Nets last season came away impressed with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite the fact that his work came in a very small sample size. Ankle surgery caused him to sit from early December through late March and resulted in him playing in just 29 games last season, but his defensive instincts were impressive. Hollis-Jefferson did a fair job of staying in front of his opponents and has a rangy frame that lends itself to peskiness both on the ball and in passing lanes. The Nets’ roster isn’t exactly full of defensive stalwarts, but among those that are there, it is safe to call Hollis-Jefferson the most complete and versatile defender of the pack.
Top Playmaker: Greivis Vasquez
One could make an argument that Jeremy Lin is a superior playmaker over Greivis Vasquez, but Vasquez has always been a player who has made the most of his opportunities and created for his teammates. Over the course of his career, his 7.3 assists per 36 minutes are a long way from Lin’s 5.9. Additionally, Vasquez could be fairly deemed a “pass-first” point guard, while many would argue the opposite of Lin. In all likelihood, the two will share the backcourt during the game’s key moments. In Charlotte, Lin had his fair share of moments playing alongside Kemba Walker, and that is something that was both a result of head coach Steve Clifford seeing limitations in Lin’s playmaking abilities as well as his belief that Lin could pay major dividends playing off of the ball and being featured as more of a finisher.
Top Clutch Player: Jeremy Lin
“Linsanity” may have been a long time ago, but Jeremy Lin has had some big moments since then as well. During last season’s playoff run with the Charlotte Hornets, Lin averaged 12.4 points per game in just 27 minutes off of the bench. On a roster with a number of players who haven’t been battle-tested, if the game comes down to one shot, in all likelihood head coach Kenny Atkinson will put the ball in Lin’s hands. It’s difficult to quantify which player is most clutch, but as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks during “Linsanity,” Atkinson had a front row seat to the magic that Lin was capable of producing. He probably still has some left in the tank, and we’re simply not sure if the same can be said of Brook Lopez.
The Unheralded Player: Trevor Booker
Trevor Booker is exactly the type of player that Sean Marks will have success with signing. After six years in the league, Booker has become renowned as a plus rebounder who is correctly served as a bench player who will warrant 15 to 20 minutes of playing time per night. Last season, Booker averaged 10 rebounds per 36 minutes, and that type of rebounding productivity is something that the Nets will need this season. With five of their top seven rebounders from last season now in new homes, Booker will have an opportunity to make an impact.
Best New Addition: Jeremy Lin
Of all the players acquired by general manager Sean Marks this offseason, Lin is most likely to pay the biggest immediate dividends. At the very least, Lin can create scoring opportunities for himself and help to open up the game for his teammates. Both Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert could end up being difference makers for the Nets, but as of right now, it’s safe to assume that their chances of escaping the cellar of the Atlantic rest on the extent to which Lin can lead them. LeVert gets an honorable mention for his appreciable upside, while Whitehead tugs at the heartstrings for being the first Brooklyn-born player selected by the franchise since its relocation.
– Moke Hamilton
WHO WE LIKE
1. Bojan Bogdanovic
Completely lost in the circus around him, Bojan Bogdanovic has proven to be a very capable NBA player. Entering his third season, he has averaged a very quiet 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career. He also happens to be a 37 percent shooter from downtown. As the 26-year-old continues to grow and adapt to the NBA game, he will only improve.
2. Kenny Atkinson
For those who aren’t familiar, Kenny Atkinson has long been highly regarded around NBA circles. Atkinson spent four years as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks before heading to Atlanta for another four-year stint. Atkinson has become renowned as a head coach who loves nothing more than to teach, and a fair number of young players that have come of age in New York and Atlanta -most notably Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore – would credit Atkinson for helping them develop. The Nets will need similar returns from their young players, but the data suggests they have found the right man.
3. Sean Marks
Marks has spent the past few years with the San Antonio Spurs with a front row seat to the operations of the franchise that has become regarded as the gold standard of the NBA. The Spurs have excelled in finding talent and either cultivating it or flipping it into better pieces. Case in point: the Spurs selected George Hill with the 26th overall pick of the 2008 draft and ended up trading him for Kawhi Leonard. Although Marks shouldn’t get all of the credit for that, it stands to reason that he understands the concept of finding a diamond in the rough and maximizing the return on investment. In Brooklyn, those skills are sorely needed.
4. Caris LeVert
Trading Thaddeus Young for the pick that ended up yielding Caris LeVert was a bold move made by Sean Marks and his staff. Standing at 6’7, though, LeVert is a knockdown shooter whose size should help his game translate to the NBA. Whether he can remain healthy is a bigger question (and concern), but oozing with potential until he proves it is unfounded, there should be some excitement to see that LeVert is capable of at the NBA level.
5. Isaiah Whitehead
The Brooklyn-born guard will have the opportunity to suit up for his hometown team. He called it a dream come true and, odds are, he will be motivated to prove that he not only belongs in the league, but that he is capable of carrying Brooklyn on his back.
– Moke Hamilton
SALARY CAP 101
The Nets are significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with 15 guaranteed players and a $75.6 million commitment in payroll. With up to $18.6 million in cap room, Brooklyn will be able to absorb players via trade throughout the season, although they’ll need roster space to do so. Additionally, if the team decides to keep partially-guaranteed players Beau Beech, Egidijus Mockevicius and Yogi Ferrell, they’ll need to cut or move a player with guaranteed salary.
Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season. If Brooklyn doesn’t add salary before the end of the year, they’ll need to cut a check for $9.2 million to their rostered players. Looking ahead, the Nets project to have as much as $41 million in salary cap space next summer. They’ll also need to decide on rookie-scale options for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough before November – both likely to be picked up.
– Eric Pincus
Since being purchased by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets have consistently found themselves stuck in a pattern of swinging for the fences and gambling their future away for the sake of short-term gains. From Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets traded away Derrick Favors and gave up the draft picks that ended up yielding Enes Kanter, Gorgui Dieng and Damian Lillard among others. In a way, Prokhorov and former general manager Billy King should be commended for having the guts to take huge risks, but in sports, when they don’t pay off, the repercussions can be felt for a decade.
As a result of their acquisitional tactics, since moving to Brooklyn the Nets always felt like a team full of mercenaries who were brought together (often against their own free will) and were asked to deliver on lofty promises made by Prokhorov. Now, the opposite is true. The Nets will head into the 2016-17 season with no expectations but with a roster featuring players who may amount to something—Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and Isaiah Whitehead. The best part of all? So long as they remain together, these players will have an opportunity to grow and learn without any pressure.
– Moke Hamilton
It’s no secret that the teams that fare better in the NBA are the teams that have had an opportunity to play together for a while. Chemistry is real. Continuity is necessary. In some instances, however, talent and continuity can make up for one another. In other words, a less talented team that has played together for several years can eventually become a sum that is greater than its individual parts. On the other hand, a team that has a superior talent base can often find success even if the pieces haven’t fully gelled.
Unfortunately for the Nets, they are at a deficit in both departments. In terms of the proven talent that is already on the roster in Brooklyn, the Nets appear to be much closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than anywhere near its top. And aside from having a new head coach, six of the top rotation pieces in Brooklyn are new to the team. In the NBA, that isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
– Moke Hamilton
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will the Nets’ rebuild take?
The Nets have been the butt of many jokes over the past few seasons. From the ill-fated trade with the Boston Celtics that yield Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the messy divorce between Jason Kidd and the franchise, Billy King’s regime is not one that will be remembered for prudence or predictability.
In his departure, King left a franchise that seemed to be lacking direction and one whose future seemed bleak, at best. The Nets do not own their own first-round pick until 2019. In 2017, they will have the right to exercise the less favorable pick between theirs and the Boston Celtics. In other words, there is a dearth of available draft picks in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future. The bright side? The Nets were one of the most heavily represented teams in Chicago during last May’s draft combine, and scouts within the organization have raved at the resources that newly installed general manager Sean Marks is putting into finding players who can play. In his introductory press conference, Marks said he knew he would have to be resourceful, and indications are that is exactly what’s happening.
Until the Nets find a few players that have game-changing potential, though, they will be battling with the Sixers to avoid the dubious distinction of being the worst team in what has recently been the league’s worst division.
How long, you ask? Let’s just say that 2019 can’t come quickly enough.
– Moke Hamilton
NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity
The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.
With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.
Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.
Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.
With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.
Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.
Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.
Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.
An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.
Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.
As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.
When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.
If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.
Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?
The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?
A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.
Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.
Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.
The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.
Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.
In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.
Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)
After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.
Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.
Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.
Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.
Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.
Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.
“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”
Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.
“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”
“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”
A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.
Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.
Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.
Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.
The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.
Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.
Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:
Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent
Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent
Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent
Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent
Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.
And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.
Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.
“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”
Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.
That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.
Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.
“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”
Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.
Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.
The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.
Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.
“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.
“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”
With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.
“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.
And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.
They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.
“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”
The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.
“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”
How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.
Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.
A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?
A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.
He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.
“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”
It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.
He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.
All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.
“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”
With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.
Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.
More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.
Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.
They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.