Connect with us

NBA

Cheap Seats: NBA’s Next Champion?

Which team is next in line to win it all? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor discuss.

Basketball Insiders

Published

on



The Miami HEAT and San Antonio Spurs have battled for the Larry O’Brien trophy in consecutive NBA Finals. Looking ahead to the 2014-15 NBA season, which team is next in line to win it all? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor discuss.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers finished last season with a 57-25 record, good for third in the Western Conference behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. The team was a legitimate contender to win the title last season, but it had to get through the tough Golden State Warriors in the first round and the Thunder in the second round, where they eventually lost in Game 6. In addition to stiff competition, the Clippers had to deal with the fallout from Donald Sterling’s racist rant that rattled the NBA.

Despite the disappointing second-round loss, there are many reasons to believe the Clippers could be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next year. First and most importantly, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both top-10 (and arguably top-five) players in the NBA. Both players are still in their athletic primes (though Paul may be on the tail end of his), and form one of the best one-two punches in the league.

Griffin in particular took a major leap forward in his development last season. Paul suffered a shoulder injury against the Dallas Mavericks on January 3, which kept him out for several weeks. In his absence, Griffin asserted himself as the alpha dog for the Clippers, combining his improved skill-set with the relentless aggression he played with in his rookie season. He improved his jump-shot, led fast breaks, became a playmaker to setup teammates for easy shots- especially DeAndre Jordan- and hit a new level altogether. The league took notice, and Griffin is now firmly engrained in the top tier of players in the league, evidenced by his third-place finish in MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

While Paul is 29, he still managed to contribute 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. Injuries have been an issue for Paul throughout his career, but based on his overall skill-set and high basketball IQ, Paul is likely to be a top-five point guard in the league for several more seasons. Griffin, at age 25, still has upside and he should be able to maximize his potential because he is a relentless worker who will spend the offseason trying to build off his impressive season.

Next, Doc Rivers is a championship coach entering just his second year with the team. Rivers, one of only four coaches in the league with a championship ring, implemented his strong-side pressure defense and motion-based offense last season, which took Clipper players the better part of a season to master. However, the long-term payout became clear as the season progressed. Jordan became a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, understanding his role within Rivers’ defensive schemes and receiving unqualified support from his coaches. The offense also improved, featuring more ball movement, backdoor screens and better spacing for Griffin and Jordan down low.

Also, the supporting cast is there. Paul, Griffin and Jordan are joined by J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley and Reggie Bullock are under contract moving forward. Redick struggled with a balky back throughout the season, but when he was on the court, he transformed the Clippers’ offense from strong to elite. Jordan became an elite rim protector, and played heavy minutes in fourth quarters after a season of being placed on the bench late in games by former head coach Vinny Del Negro. Barnes struggled early on, but regained his form later in the season. Crawford was as good as he has ever been and won Sixth Man of the year. Dudley struggled all season, and will need to bounce back, or else the team may look to trade him.

While there are skeptics who believe the Clippers are a fringe contender at best, advanced stats show that this team had as good of a shot to win the title as anyone last season, with the exception of the Spurs. The Clippers’ defense was eighth-best in the league last year, allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. They also were the best offensive team, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. This resulted in a 7.3 net rating, second-best in the league behind the Spurs (8.1 net rating).

By being contenders, the Clippers will again attract free agents in the offseason and players who are bought out looking to join a title contender midseason. Last offseason, Darren Collison took a small contract in order to reestablish himself after a disappointing season with the Dallas Mavericks. Collison’s best years were early in his career backing up Chris Paul with the New Orleans Hornets. Collison found his old form and was a major contributor last season, filling in at point guard and shooting guard as needed when Paul, Redick and Crawford were injured.

Then, in the middle of the season, Danny Granger and Glen Davis took minimum contracts to join the Clippers after being bought out by their respective teams. Both players were inconsistent last season, but the ability to sign established veterans for next to nothing midseason is a luxury that only top teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT and San Antonio Spurs are afforded and is a major advantage over other teams.

Another reason for optimism is that the bad karma of Sterling will soon be replaced with the enthusiasm and deep pockets of Steve Ballmer. For over 30 years, Sterling has been regarded as one of the worst owners in all of sports. His antics were well known, but his racist rant leaked by TMZ, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to his removal.

With Ballmer, the Clippers now have the wealthiest owner in the league and a person who will not shy away from investing heavily into the roster. While Sterling is dragging the process through the mud, the common belief is that sooner or later Ballmer will officially take over the team.

Despite the reasons for optimism about next season, there are obstacles. The Spurs are ageless, and look better than they ever have. They dominated the HEAT in the Finals and look as though they could play at a similar level for several more seasons. In addition, the Thunder are as dangerous of a team as there is in the league. Russell Westbrook should be healthier than he was last season, Kevin Durant still has room to improve and younger players like Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams will likely take on bigger roles moving forward. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are rock solid teams, and are both reportedly looking to acquire an additional star this offseason.

The Clippers also need to add new assistant coaches as Alvin Gentry is joining Steve Kerr’s Warriors staff next season and Kevin Eastman is taking over as vice president of basketball operations. Also, Collison, Granger and Davis will all opt out of their contracts in order to secure bigger deals. Each player reportedly wants to return to the Clippers, which may be difficult due to salary cap restraints. However, the fact that players want to return to the team, even if it means taking a pay cut, is a huge step forward for a team that has struggled to keep its free agents in the past.

With championship-level coaching, a deep roster, two superstars and a desirable location for free agents, the Clippers will have as good of a shot as anyone to win it all next season.

– Jesse Blancarte

Oklahoma City Thunder

Led by MVP Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to finish the 2013-14 season with more wins than any team outside of the San Antonio Spurs. Despite Russell Westbrook missing extended time (36 games) the Thunder were dominant throughout the regular season. During Westbrook’s absence Durant shouldered the load and went on a historic scoring binge. Entering the playoffs, with Durant having the best year of his career, Serge Ibaka playing elite defense and Westbrook back at full strength, the Thunder appeared to be as much of a threat as any team in the West.

The Thunder ran into a gritty Memphis Grizzlies team in the first round, and the Grizzlies were able to push the Thunder to the brink before bowing out in Game 7. This was somewhat of a surprise as many expected the Thunder to have too much firepower for Memphis, but the Grizzlies played tenacious defense, Tony Allen was magnificent on that end, and they used their size down low to make it a highly contested series.

The team advanced to the second round and faced the Los Angeles Clippers in one of the more entertaining matchups of this past postseason. The Thunder were able to take care of the Clippers in six games and went on to face the soon-to-be-NBA champion Spurs. The Thunder was considered long shots in that series following an injury to Serge Ibaka in Game 6 against the Clippers. Ibaka suffered a grade two calf strain and was expected to be sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs. However he was able to return by Game 3 of the Spurs series. Ibaka’s return gave the team a huge lift, but in the end the Spurs were just too much to handle, dispatching the Thunder in six games.

Looking forward to next season, the Thunder should again be a legitimate title contender. The stars Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook will all be back and should continue to produce at an all-star level. You can pretty much pencil Durant in for 25-30 PPG, Westbrook around 23 PPG as well as seven or eight assists a night and Ibaka scoring 14-15 PPG and grabbing around seven or eight rebounds per game with elite shot blocking. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all still relatively young and it’s certainly possible that they may even improve on their production from a year ago, which is a frightening thought for the rest of the league. The steady production from those three should allow the Thunder to cruise through the regular season and presumably finish in the top four in the West securing at least one home playoff series.

What will push the Thunder over the top will be the improved play from guys not name Westbrook, Durant or Ibaka. Kendrick Perkins will be on the final year of his contract and Steven Adams clearly looks like the future at the center position. Adams played some very strong minutes during the playoffs and will be a key factor to the team’s championship aspirations. He is a tough, physical player that has shown the ability to block some shots. He also showed this postseason he is not afraid to mix it up down low with opposing bigs or give that hard foul to prevent a lay-up; he brings a certain toughness and energy to the team, something that can be very valuable in the postseason. He grew tremendously throughout the year and in his first off-season as a pro should continue to make strides.

Another player who will be counted on to help take the Thunder to the next level will be guard Reggie Jackson. Outside of the big three, Jackson was the team’s most potent scoring option. He averaged just over 11 points per game during the playoffs and was the team’s most efficient shooter from beyond the arc. His ability to provide offense, whether in a starting role or as a sixth man, is something the Thunder will be counting on going forward. He did a nice job filling in for Westbrook when he missed time and scored the ball consistently. His ability to give the Thunder another scoring option will be crucial, especially in the playoffs when buckets come at a premium.

Outside of Adams and Jackson, Jeremy Lamb is another player with a lot of room for growth and his development could be an additional boost for the team. In spotty minutes during the postseason he had some nice moments, but overall was inconsistent. His offensive game should continue to get better with more time on the court. Defensively is where he must work hardest to improve. If the Thunder plan on increasing Lamb’s role he has to be able to do it on both ends of the floor. Thabo Sefolosha is a free-agent this off-season and his return seems somewhat unlikely. Lamb is the most logical guy to fill that void if he can prove he is ready. The talent is there for Lamb and his growth could help push the team over the top.

The Thunder have three of the most talented players in the league and those players will have the team in a position to compete for a title again; if guys like Jackson, Adams and Lamb can continue to develop the Thunder will become a very tough team to beat next year and there will be no reason why they can’t win their first title.

– John Zitzler

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls had a season that not many would have predicted given the circumstances. The Bulls suffered an injury to Derrick Rose and traded away Luol Deng, yet still managed to win 48 games and lock in the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, where they fell in five games to the Washington Wizards.

Pregame.com listed the Bulls as having the third-highest odds in the Eastern Conference of winning the NBA Championship behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT. With the status of the HEAT in question, and the way the Pacers have played in big-time games, the Bulls could find themselves in a great position to come out of the East in next year’s playoffs.

Reports have surfaced this week stating that if the Bulls’ season started now, Rose would be able to play. Rose has reportedly been playing five-on-five and looking like himself again. Obviously, this is great news for the Bulls and the road to recovery for Rose, who is aiming to participate in minicamp with Team USA at the end of July in Las Vegas. Many Bulls fans have been said to be upset with Rose playing now and possibly risk getting injured again. The news that Rose is playing again and willing to train with Team USA is perhaps the best news possible for the Bulls as it shows he is ready to begin the road back to playing at game speed, and this should allow Rose to be ready by next season.

The landscape of the Eastern Conference could see a major change during this upcoming summer. With the uncertainty of where players like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will end up, the Bulls could find themselves in a position to make a serious run. With Rose rejoining Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls will have their core of players returning and ready to go deeper into the playoffs. In addition to that core of players, the Bulls could add a superstar player in Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony through a trade or free agency.

Heading into the summer, the Bulls have been linked to Love or Anthony. Assuming they either use their amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer or they trade him to another team, the Bulls could have around $11 million in cap space to work with if they are able to cut the $16.8 million owed to him next season. The Bulls have found themselves in the conversation to acquire Love since reports first started surfacing that the big man isn’t interested in returning to Minnesota. The idea of Love joining Rose and Noah would give the Bulls the fire power needed to make a run, but it’s an idea that appears to be fading away. The Golden State Warriors appear to have softened their stance on including Klay Thompson in a deal for Love and could now find themselves as frontrunners to acquire him from the Timberwolves.

The Bulls are also thought to be one of the frontrunners to acquire Anthony and would need to cut a little bit more salary from the books to make that happen. A possible scenario would be a sign-and-trade with the New York Knicks, especially if the Knicks believe Anthony won’t stay. Players that could be in a potential deal are Gibson and the $8 million owed to him or Mike Dunleavy Jr. and his $3.3 million salary for next season. The Bulls would likely be open to the idea of adding a draft pick to clear that cap space owed to that draft pick, allowing more money to offer to Anthony. This scenario is contingent upon Anthony opting out of New York, which still hasn’t happened yet.

Should the Bulls prove unsuccessful in acquiring either Love or Anthony, they could then turn their attention to Orlando Magic swingman Arron Afflalo, who the Bulls have expressed interest in as of late. It’s unclear what the Bulls would be willing to part ways with in a deal with Orlando, but it would likely require at least one of their first-round drafts (No. 16 or No. 19).  As a last option after missing out on Love and Anthony, Afflalo would provide another scoring option for them after averaging a career-high 18.2 points per game last season with the Magic. Afflalo is also an above-average defender on the wing, but the Bulls would largely be seeking Afflalo’s scoring ability to put next to Rose.

If the Bulls are able to make a couple of moves and acquire either Love, Anthony or Afflalo then they would immediately enter the top-tier of the Eastern Conference and become favorites to win the conference and perhaps the NBA championship. While they appear set on making a huge deal to acquire a top player, the Bulls could also just look to add a couple of young pieces with their two first-round draft picks if they are unable to bring in a top player. One thing is very clear for the Bulls this summer: they have plenty of options.

– Cody Taylor

Who do you think will win the NBA championship next season? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

 

Advertisement




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

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.

Benny Nadeau

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

NBA

Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?

The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

NBA

Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt

Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending Now