It has been a relatively quiet first day of free agency as the market waits for big fish like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to bite. But the few deals that have been signed have shocked many observers in both salary and length. Notably, 30-year-old Marcin Gortat agreed to return to the Washington Wizards for a reported five-year, $60 million pact, Jodie Meeks agreed to three years and nearly $19 million with the Detroit Pistons, and the Golden State Warriors reportedly agreed with Shaun Livingston on a three-year deal for their full mid-level exception, although the last year is only partially guaranteed. This morning it was reported that restricted free agent Avery Bradley agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal to return to the Boston Celtics, and C.J. Miles agreed to four years, $18 million with the Indiana Pacers.
While these contracts are far above the market rate for last year, the rising cap this year, the number of teams hording cap space and the increased number of teams looking to compete this year has significantly inflated the market compared to the last few post-lockout years when the cap remained relatively flat.
Bear with me if you will for a short gaming of what this offseason will look like. Please note that this is not a prediction of where these players will land necessarily, but more of an exercise to get an idea of how much money will be left once the main players have found their destinations. To do so, I went through the salary situations of all 30 teams starting with the updated salary situations from our Eric Pincus.* The goal was to determine how much room they would have, either via exceptions or outright cap space. Obviously such an exercise involved myriad assumptions such as which players’ cap holds will be renounced, which non-guaranteed players will be retained, ad infinitum. Clearly, not all of these can be correct. They will not be delineated here, as that is not really the purpose of the exercise. The point is more to get an idea of the total amount of free agent money available.
*Eric’s numbers include cap holds that have yet to be renounced as well as a lot of non-guaranteed money that will likely be cut.
As we will see, not only are the Meeks, Livingston and Bradley deals in line with this year’s market, but the teams signing them might have even been smart to move on them so quickly.
The Big Fish
The first part in modeling the summer is accounting for where the major free agents will land. Aside from where we have reporting to the contrary, the assumption will be that most if not all of the major free agents will return to their prior teams. Because the market is so inflated, the incumbent team will often have to use the advantage of offering a fifth year, as only the prior team may do. Since many of those teams are over the cap with no way to replace those players, that seems the most likely scenario in these cases. This is especially so since most of the teams in this situation are trying to get better this year.
If so many players end up returning to their prior teams, that will cause more overall money to be spent due to many of those teams using Bird rights to re-sign those players by going over the cap. If those players leave, then those teams likely will not have the spending power to replace those assets, while teams with cap room still must spend to at least 90 percent of the projected $63.2 million cap this year.*
*If a team does not spend that much, it must distribute the difference between its actual payments to players and the salary floor to the players on its roster via whatever formula the NBPA finds appropriate. This would most likely be pro rata based on how much the players on the team are already making.
On to the main players.
Reports have generally indicated that LeBron James will demand a maximum deal. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade may sign for the max as well, but it’s possible that they’ll re-sign for less. Udonis Haslem will also re-sign for less than his original salary, but probably for more years to make up the lost income. Most estimates have floated the idea that the Miami HEAT could have around $10 million in space to sign free agents, plus the $2.7 million Room Exception for teams under the cap.
Anthony seems the most likely star to leave his prior team. This analysis will assume he goes to the Chicago Bulls, but the overall league market would be much the same if he goes to another new team. If he remains with New York, that leaves another team with cap space that must be filled and inflates the market even further.
All reports have indicated he is going back to the Dallas Mavericks, likely for about $10 million per year.
Because the Pacers have no way to replace him, the assumption will be he ultimately returns there despite reports of an impasse after Indiana offered him a five-year, $44 million deal.
Reports have Toronto mulling whether to offer him a fifth year on a contract starting at $12 million per year. If that is indeed the offer, it is hard to imagine him leaving because there is no way he would get that kind of money as a 32-year-old free agent coming off a four-year deal.
We will assume he returns to the Sacramento Kings on something like an $8 million per year contract as a restricted free agent. They too have talked about trying to get better this year, and if they lose him they would still be capped out with no other decent point guard on the roster and only the MLE to offer. Given the amount of money available around the league, I am surprised Thomas isn’t being talked about for offers over $10 million per year. Apparently teams are scared off by his size.
It has long been predicted that Ariza will return to the Washington Wizards. With Martell Webster going under the knife for back surgery, Otto Porter nowhere near ready to start (if he ever will be), and Marcin Gortat already paid, the Wizards will likely retain the 29-year-old Ariza as well using Bird rights. This too may be tougher than expected for Washington, given the other potential suitors for Ariza.
Restricted Free Agents
As reports of the Cleveland Cavaliers making a max offer to Gordon Hayward swirl, it appears very likely that Hayward, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe will get maximum offers given the amount of space available around the league. A maximum offer sheet for these restricted free agents will start at approximately $14.7 million. We will also assume that their incumbent teams will match such an offer sheet. If, however, they do not, the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons will all have an extra $14.7 million in cap room to use on other free agents since they are all below the cap. Therefore, the ultimate destination of these players does not really affect the total amount of money available in the system.
Meanwhile, it seems very likely that Chandler Parsons has some sort of arrangement to return to the Houston Rockets, or they would not have let him out of his contract a year early when his signing an offer sheet as a restricted free agent could potentially scuttle their free agent plans. Because he still has a low cap hold of $2.9 million, the Rockets will still be able to sign free agents up to the cap before exceeding the cap to re-sign him with Bird rights. The assumption will be that he returns on something approaching a $10 million deal, presumably with a bit of a discount priced in since the Rockets did him a favor by not exercising their team option for under $1 million for 2014-15.
Edit: To be clear, under this scenaio Parsons would not actually sign his new deal until after the Rockets sign additional players. Signing it before the Rockets sign anyone else would use up their Room prematurely.
Teams With Cap Room
Now that those assumptions are in place and most of the major free agents are accounted for, here is my projection of the remaining available cap room around the league.
Philadelphia 76ers–$30.9 million
Orlando Magic–$22 million*
Los Angeles Lakers–$21 million
Phoenix Suns–$20.9 million
Charlotte Hornets–$18 million
Atlanta Hawks–$16.1 million
Dallas Mavericks–$16 million
Cleveland Cavaliers–$15 million
Utah Jazz–$13.8 million
Milwaukee Bucks–$13.1 million
Miami HEAT–$10 million
Houston Rockets–$7 million*
Detroit Pistons–$2.8 million
*The Orlando projection includes the two-year, $9 million contract given to Ben Gordon. Houston’s includes Jeremy Lin on the roster for now. Although they will likely move him, it would be to another team with cap space so it would not affect the total amount of money in the system.
Look at those figures again. Even with most of the major free agents gone, there could remain as much as $218 million in cap space around the league. That number could of course change based on the potential destinations for the big boys, but it represents a reasonable proxy for what is out there.*
*While teams like Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah may not spend all the way up to the cap on their own free agents, the 90 percent salary floor means they are incentivized to take on bloated contracts from other teams in exchange for assets, which would open an equivalent amount of cap space elsewhere in the league.
Of course, that is nowhere near the maximum amount of money available around the league. Based on the math and what we know of teams’ luxury tax tolerance, quite a few teams will have the full mid-level exception to spend. By my projections, Boston, Denver, Indiana (partial use), Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis (likely Mike Miller), Minnesota, New York (if Carmelo leaves), Oklahoma City (possibly a partial use), Portland, San Antonio and Washington (depending on how high Ariza’s contract goes) could use the MLE. That is 11 teams. If we conservatively assume that six of them will use the full MLE and another two use part of it, that is another $35 million or so in the system.
Many teams could also use the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception. These include Boston, Los Angeles Clippers, New York, Portland, and San Antonio.* If four of the six use it, that’s another $8.4 million.
*If Chicago can execute a sign-and-trade for Anthony or another target, they will likely use the MLE and BAE as well. Edit: A previous version of this article stated that Washington could also use the BAE, but it was used on Eric Maynor last year.
Given Brooklyn’s recent spending habits, it will likely use the $3.3 million Tax-Payer MLE (MMLE).
Finally, many teams trying to improve with cap room could use their $2.7 million Room Exception. These include Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans (lost other exceptions due to going under the cap for the Omer Asik deal) and Phoenix. That is another 11 teams. All but Atlanta and Milwaukee of this group seem certain to use theirs, so let’s conservatively say nine teams. That is another $24.3 million.*
*I assumed that cap teams Orlando, Philadelphia and Utah would not use their Room Exceptions.
That now leaves us with approximately $289 million in available money—an absolutely enormous sum.
Who Gets the Money?
Now remember again that this $289 million is available to be spent with almost all of the best free agents off the market.
In the scenario I’ve modeled, here are some of the remaining notable free agents:
Patrick Patterson (RFA)
P.J. Tucker (RFA)
*Mills has a shoulder injury that will keep him out until at least midseason, and is widely assumed headed back to San Antonio.
Certainly other players could get paid this offseason, but that list is incredibly unexciting. And yet in this scenario $289 million, plus minimum salaries, is going to be split up among these players and even lesser lights. The choice between massively overpaying older players like these and investing in maximum contracts for players like Hayward, Bledsoe and Monroe is an obvious one. That is why those players will almost certainly get maxed out.
What is Market Value?
Given the realities of the market, the Livingston, Meeks and Bradley contracts do not look nearly so bad. Then consider that the salary cap is projected to increase a further $4 million next year, and may see even higher increases in the years after that as new national and local television deals kick in.* Even the Gortat contract seems to be right about what he would have gotten on the open market in terms of annual value.
*Especially with respect to the national deal, the NBA may elect to mute a possible huge one-year jump in the cap by structuring the national TV contract to increase in value over its lifetime rather than doubling the previous contract in year one.
Nevertheless, the mere fact a contract is market price based on what other teams are willing to pay does not necessarily make it a good deal. This is especially so for players like Gortat, Lowry and Ariza who will likely re-sign with their old teams. With the market so competitive, the fifth year becomes critical for both player and team, especially when a player is on his third long-term contract. With the amount of competition on the market, length of contract rather than size will become more important than ever. We may see smart teams move ever more in the direction of shorter offers for more money to free agents when they are signing players below the upper crust.
For the first three offseasons after it was enacted, many cited a depressed free agent market as the reality of the 2011 CBA. It is now clear that was an artificial reality imposed by the flat cap required to reduce the players’ percentage of BRI into the agreed-upon 49-51 percent range from the previous CBA’s 57 percent, as well as bloated longer contracts left over from the previous CBA. The shorter contracts under this new CBA will put many more free agents on the market every year. The new breed of general managers are much smarter about maintaining flexibility. The cap is now rising, and should continue to do so beyond what many have imagined. Get used to three years, $19 million as a relative “bargain” for Jodie Meeks for the foreseeable future. It is the NBA’s new reality.
NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity
The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.
With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.
Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.
Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.
With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.
Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.
Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.
Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.
An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.
Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.
As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.
When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.
If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.
Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?
The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?
A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.
Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.
Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.
The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.
Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.
In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.
Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)
After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.
Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.
Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.
Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.
Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.
Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.
“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”
Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.
“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”
“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”
A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.
Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.
Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.
Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.
The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.
Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.
Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:
Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent
Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent
Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent
Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent
Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.
And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.
Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.
“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”
Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.
That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.
Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.
“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”
Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.
Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.
The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.
Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.
“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.
“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”
With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.
“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.
And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.
They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.
“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”
The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.
“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”
How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.
Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.
A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?
A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.
He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.
“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”
It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.
He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.
All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.
“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”
With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.
Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.
More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.
Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.
They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.