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Cheap Seats: Who is NBA’s Most Improved Player?

Basketball Insiders’ interns debate who deserves the Most Improved Player award. Is it Lance Stephenson? Blake Griffin? Kendall Marshall?

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the NBA’s Most Improved Player for the 2013-14 season.

Lance Stephenson

Born ready, he may not have been, but with a few years of NBA experience under his belt Lance Stephenson has more than proven this year, he is ready.

Last year, following Danny Granger’s injury, the Indiana Pacers were in need of a player to fill the void left and that player was Stephenson. The former New York City high school legend and second-round pick out of the University of Cincinnati started 72 games during the 2012-13 season and played well, shooting 46 percent from the field while averaging just fewer than nine points a game.  He was a key contributor for the Pacers during the postseason, performing well in increased minutes. However, the Pacers’ championship dreams fell short.  Though Indiana was unable to achieve their ultimate goal, it was clear that they may have stumbled upon a diamond in the rough in Stephenson.

The Pacers to date have the best record in the Eastern Conference and Stephenson has been a major contributor to that success.  He is averaging a career high in minutes per game (35.5) and has parlayed those minutes into a very productive season thus far, scoring 14.2 points per game to go along with over seven rebounds and five assists. Stephenson has proven this season that he is one of the more valuable and well rounded guards in the NBA today.  His combination of size, strength and skill set make him a very tough match-up for opposing guards.  Stephenson may not be an elite shooter from deep, but if given some space he has the ability to knock down the three. While he can shoot it, the biggest strength of Stephenson’s game may be his ability to maneuver through the lane and finish strong around the rim. Inside three feet from the rim, Stephenson is making a very impressive 69.7 percent of his shots. His ability to contribute in many different aspects of the game has made him tremendously effective.

While Stephenson has improved mightily on the offensive end, he has made huge strides on the defensive side of the ball as well.  The Pacers hang their hat on their ability to shut down opposing teams in the half court and they do as good of a job as any team in the league. The Pacers’ defense is anchored by Roy Hibbert, who does a magnificent job protecting the rim and is one of the best defensive big men in the league. While Hibbert locks down the paint, Stephenson and Paul George have been great containing opposing wings out on the perimeter. Stephenson’s defensive rating this season is 98.5 and while the Pacers’ team defense might inflate his individual rating a bit, he ranks ahead of very good defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Andre Igoudala.

Stephenson will be a free agent following this season and is poised for a big pay day presuming he can continue to produce at this rate.  He is in the final season of a four-year, $3.35 million contract and will be due a significant raise.  The question is, will the Pacers be the team to pay Stephenson the money he deserves?  It is expected that Stephenson will garner quite a bit of interest around league if he doesn’t re-sign with the Pacers and will certainly be offered a very healthy contract.  What makes Stephenson so valuable and what separates him from many other wings in the league is that ability to contribute in many different ways.  Every night, he is a threat to put up a triple double. For a player still in the early stages of his career, it isn’t hard to see why GMs around the league may be ready to open their check books to try and land Stephenson.

The Pacers are loaded with talent, most notably George and Hibbert, but Stephenson has managed to carve out a very nice niche for himself. His play will be crucial in the postseason for the Pacers when they inevitably run into the Miami HEAT.  He has very quickly developed into one of the most valuable players on the Pacers.  Hibbert and George were both All-Stars this season, and you could easily argue that Stephenson deserved to be there with his teammates.  Playing a major role on the best team in the Eastern Conference may not have been enough to get Stephenson into the All-Star game this year, but it is hard to imagine Stephenson missing many more All-Star games in the near future. He is most definitely in the running for Most Improved Player of the Year.  He has improved his stats across the board, he is playing very well within the team’s defensive concepts and he has been a huge part of the Pacers’ success so far this season. Stephenson has put it all together this year and surely has a very bright future ahead of him.

– John Zitzler

Blake Griffin

One player this season has addressed weaknesses in his game, adapted himself to a new coach and system, improved his defense, and stepped up when his All-Star teammate suffered a major injury. This player is Blake Griffin.

After missing a year, Griffin burst onto the scene, averaging 22.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists, on 50.6 percent shooting from the field in his delayed rookie season. These numbers are historically impressive for a 21-year-old in his rookie year. Despite his impressive play, the Clippers did not make the playoffs in 2010-11, but an exciting core was in place that featured Griffin, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan.

Things changed, however, when the Clippers managed to swing a trade for Chris Paul. Griffin instantly became the second best player on the Clippers and the team’s focus shifted to winning right away. In spite of this change in the pecking order, Griffin was expected to develop and improve from his rookie season and be the Robin to Paul’s Batman.

With the inclusion of Paul, the Clippers were expected to compete for a championship. Thus, fans and critics looked for Griffin’s game to expand and improve from his rookie season. Unfortunately, Griffin’s highlight dunks subjected him to a reputation of being “just a dunker.” In his second season, Griffin averaged 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists, on 54.9 percent shooting from the field. Griffin’s stats were down, and, most notably, his free throw percentage dropped from 64.2 percent in his rookie season to 52.1 percent. He still struggled to hit midrange jumpers, and it seemed he was stuck in a sophomore slump. Because of this, the luster of Griffin’s historic rookie season was gone, and the skepticism of his game grew.

Last season, Griffin’s per game numbers continued to fall. He averaged 18 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, on 53.8 percent shooting from the field. However, this was mainly a result in a reduction in minutes per game. Regardless, there was a perception that Griffin was regressing. Any time TNT was televising a Clippers game, Charles Barkley would criticize Griffin for not imposing his will on opposing teams. Clipper fans would push back from this national criticism that surrounded Griffin, pointing to Griffin’s statistics averaged over 36 minutes per game, and his solid efficiency numbers. However, it seemed that with a secondary role, Griffin lost the confidence to play with the relentless energy and tenacity he displayed his rookie season.

Griffin seemed hesitant. He regularly passed up midrange jumpers, and seemed to use Paul as a crutch. In the biggest moments, Griffin would defer to Paul. Last year in the playoffs, Griffin suffered a high ankle sprain in practice, which limited his effectiveness. The Clippers lost in the first round, and it became clear that Paul could not carry this team to the Finals on his own.

This offseason, in an effort to add championship level coaching, the Clippers successfully negotiated with Boston to acquire Doc Rivers as their new coach. Rivers immediately instilled confidence in his players. Griffin was ready and excited.

“Our offense is going to have a totally different look this year,” Griffin told ESPN entering the season. “Our offense is going to have a lot of movement and floor spacing. I’m looking forward to it. … I’ve really been working, doing a lot of face-up stuff. Understanding where I’m going to be in the offense, what my options are and trying to be more of a facilitator this year.”

This season, Griffin is averaging 24.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and is shooting 70 percent from the free throw line and 53.3 percent from the field. The biggest jump has been in Griffin’s efficiency. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is at a career-high 24.12, and his true shooting percentage is at a career high 58.6 percent. While these numbers are good, they only tell a small part of Griffin’s development this season. On January 3, against the Dallas Mavericks, Paul separated his shoulder. Griffin took on the task of keeping the Clippers afloat without its leader, the team went 12-6, and actually gained ground in the West.

In those 18 games, Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 10.8 free throws a game and shot 55.4 percent from the field. Griffin recognized that he needed to again take on the role as the go-to player on the team. Often times he would grab a defensive rebound, run up the court and would either assault the basket with his athleticism or make a play for someone else to score. Griffin also implemented his improved jump shot. Last season, Griffin shot 34.3 percent from beyond 16 feet, and within the three point line. This season, he is shooting 40.6 percent there and looks more confident.

In February, Griffin averaged 30 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 11.2 free throws, while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. There was a concern that when Paul returned from injury, Griffin would regress to his usual secondary role. Instead, Griffin has continued his strong play, and the reintegration of Paul has added to Griffin’s enhanced production.

Doc Rivers has recognized Griffin’s improved play as well.

“(Griffin) facing up has just become a weapon,” Rivers told Reuters. “It’s so hard to guard and if you do he’s such a great passer. That combination is what has opened it up. If you help, he’ll pick you apart.”

With Paul, Jared Dudley, Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison, currently injured J.J. Redick and new addition Danny Granger surrounding him at times, opposing teams have to choose between double-teaming Griffin in the post or sticking with the shooters on the perimeter. Griffin has become a match-up problem for all teams, and it seems he is finally imposing his will on games just as Barkley had called for the last few years.

What is scary for the rest of the league is that Griffin is only 24 years old, and still has a lot of room for improvement. He will never be an elite defensive player like Anthony Davis, however, within River’s defensive schemes, Griffin can continue to improve his defensive efficiency, positioning and timing. His jump shot can also still improve, along with his free throw percentage. However, unlike in prior seasons, Griffin understands his role offensively and defensively, and has managed to combine the tenacity and confidence he played with his rookie year, with his improved skill-set and increased efficiency, making him a top player in the league.

With respect to players like Paul George, Lance Stephenson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Goran Dragic, all of whom can argue they are the most improved player, Griffin has done what none of them have this season. He has usurped the mantle of most important player on his team from a top three player in the league in Paul. That’s right, Blake Griffin is the key to the Clippers’ chances of winning a title this year. He is an outside candidate to win league MVP, and if things break the right way for the Clippers, he could win his first NBA championship this year. Not bad for “just a dunker.”

– Jesse Blancarte

Kendall Marshall

The Los Angeles Lakers signed point guard Kendall Marshall to a two-year deal back in December, shortly after they lost Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake to injuries. The result has been the best-case scenario for the Lakers, as Marshall currently ranks second in the league with 9.4 assists per game.

Marshall spent last season with the Phoenix Suns, the team that drafted him with the 13th pick in the 2012 draft. He was traded after the season to the Washington Wizards and was then released. The major knock against Marshall was his lack of an outside shot; he shot 32 percent from three-point range in 48 games with the Suns. It’s easy to see why the Suns traded him away, and why the Wizards then released him – point guards must have the ability to shoot the three ball.

Marshall worked hard last summer to improve, and the results have been staggering. From one season to the next, Marshall has gone from being written off as a shooter to sixth in the league in three-point percentage at 45 percent. Following his release from the Wizards, Marshall entered his name into the NBA Development League player pool, and was picked up by the Delaware 87ers. In Marshall’s first game with the 87ers, he dropped 30 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. In seven games in the D-League, Marshall averaged 19.4 points, 9.6 assists and 4.7 rebounds. He shot 46 percent from three-point range this season versus just 22 percent in nine games last season.

The Lakers made the decision to sign Marshall on Dec. 20 and two weeks later, Marshall would turn in his best performance as a pro. The game was against the Utah Jazz on Jan. 3, a game in which the Lakers had just two healthy guards on the team: Marshall and Jodie Meeks. The game would be Marshall’s first start, and first game seeing heavy minutes. Marshall led the Lakers that night with 41 minutes played, so any question regarding his physical shape was answered. Marshall dropped 20 points, 15 assists and six rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting from the floor, and 2-of-3 from three-point range.

Marshall’s first month back in the league saw him lead the league in assists with 11.5 per game. In 31 games this season, Marshall has recorded double-digit assists in 16 games, including two games with 17. Marshall’s college head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams, told Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak that Marshall is “probably the best passer in a fast break situation that I’ve ever coached in 26 years as head coach.” Williams also said Marshall is one of the most unselfish players he’s seen, which is backed up with Marshall’s 9.4 assists per game.

On a team with a lot of uncertainty going forward, Marshall has certainly put himself in a position to earn a roster spot next season. The Lakers have only three players guaranteed on the books for next season – Kobe Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre. Since joining the Lakers last season, Nash has only played in 60 games, including just 10 games this season, so it would be foolish for the team to continue to keep relying on him to return to form.

A positive sign for Marshall sticking around in L.A. was the Lakers’ decision to trade Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors at the trade deadline. By trading Blake, the Lakers saved money on luxury tax expenses. Marshall is just 22 and earning just $547,570 this season and $915,243 next season on a non-guaranteed contract, so depending on the team’s plans for next season, taking another season to look at Marshall may be in their best interest.

– Cody Taylor

Who deserves the Most Improved Player award? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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