Rookie-scale contracts have given teams time to assess talent, but they still have to make bets on very young players, often committing borderline star money to guys who have never worked as anything close to primary options — or who have perhaps not even started for their own teams.
The Jazz made such a wager over the weekend, reportedly signing Derrick Favors to a four-year, $49 million extension (though the team has never confirmed those numbers, and wouldn't over the weekend) that will pay him a tad more than fellow defense-first extension signee LARRY SANDERS! Favors will earn about $12 million per season — in the Joakim Noah/Al Horford salary range, about $2 million less than what Favors could have earned on a max-level contract (and what DeMarcus Cousins will earn on a contract that surely hovered over the Favors negotiations).
The Long-Term Impact
Favors won't start earning that money this season, and that's the key point here. In his fourth season, the last on his rookie contract, Favors will finally get a chance to start. The Jazz are betting that after such a season, Favors will have emerged as the sort of restricted free agent to whom some team would have offered a max deal — forcing the Jazz to match at that level. If it's right, Utah will have saved itself some valuable cap space by acting early, just as Philadelphia (Jrue Holiday, now gone) and especially Golden State (Stephen Curry) did a year ago by acting in advance of restricted free agency. There are at least eight teams with the potential for max-level cap room next summer, and though a few are already crowded on the front line (Detroit, perhaps Orlando), there are at least a couple that would have loomed as potentially aggressive suitors for Favors. The Mavs, Suns, and Wizards all come to mind, though Washington will have to decline some pricey options on its own rookie-scale guys (and Snakey the Snake) to achieve that position. Then again, teams are reluctant to tie up cap space chasing restricted free agents — witness the non-offers for Nikola Pekovic — and Utah, given its massive cap space, could have played the season out at very little risk beyond irritating Favors.
If Favors falls short, Utah won’t have been disastrously wrong, though waiting so long to give Favors a central role cost Utah the chance to watch him outperform his rookie contract over multiple seasons — a key source of production-over-salary profits. It's not ideal to pay a $10 million player about $12 million a year, but it's not a massive failure, either — especially when the guy is 22, with a real willingness to play defense. And as the salary cap jumps by a couple million over each of the next two seasons, Favors’s deal will look proportionally even better.
This is all about defense for Utah. The Jazz let Al Jefferson, a proven commodity, walk away in free agency without receiving any compensation, and they've now decided to pay a raw 22-year-old nearly as much per year as the Bobcats are paying Big Al. Of course, that's a simplistic way to characterize the Jazz's course. They didn't get "nothing" for Jefferson and Paul Millsap. They got cap space, which they have since used to acquire two first-round picks from Golden State, and now to re-sign Favors without worrying about what it does to their cap sheet. Even factoring in a coming mega-deal for Gordon Hayward (via Marc Stein) and two first-round picks in the 2014 draft, the Jazz should still have about $15 million in cap space this summer — max-level room. Favors’s new salary for next season will essentially be the same as the cap hold he would have left upon Utah’s books had he entered free agency. The long-term picture will get tighter if Utah extends both Enes Kanter and Alec Burks a year from now, but the cap sheet is still pretty lean.
And any Jefferson-Favors comparison must take into account the nearly seven-year age gap between them. These would never be equivalent player assets, even if their games were identical.
But there's still something to looking at this as a Jefferson-Favors swap, and Dennis Lindsey, the Jazz GM, didn't dance around it in a chat with Grantland over the weekend. In Jefferson, Utah let go an old-school post player who has struggled badly, by his own bald admission, to defend against the NBA's speedy pick-and-roll offenses. And it has chosen to hand Jefferson's money to an unsculpted offensive player who has nonetheless shown he can defend modern NBA offenses at a high level.
"The way the league is adjusting,” Lindsey says, “we believe that bigs have to be just as good in pick-and-roll coverage as they are against post-ups. And you have to have a presence at the the rim.”
The Jazz are investing in rim protection, and just about everyone within the league who has studied which team-level skills correlate most closely with winning has settled upon rim protection as one of the core two or three things any serious contender must have. Every team that has chased a ring in the last half-decade has featured elite-level interior defense. Miami doesn't appear to qualify at first glance, but the Heat have done very well defending at the basket, in part because their star wing players bring historically rare shot-blocking and strength for their positions.
Lindsey says he hopes Favors eventually develops into Utah's version of Noah, and he praised the Bulls' defense-first model as a sound approach to winning. “We just have so much respect for the program [John Paxson] and [Gar Forman] have built in Chicago, and that Tom Thibodeau has developed,” Lindsey says. “We aspire to be that, and our hope is that Derrick can be our Noah.”
Favors can get there, but he has a ways to go on both ends. He's much closer on defense. He's more explosive and athletic than Noah — a scarier shot-blocking menace in the paint, either on the ball or darting over from the weak side on a help assignment. The Jazz have asked Favors to defend the pick-and-roll in at least two very different ways — sometimes by dropping back toward the foul line, and sometimes by blitzing out at the opposing point guard well above the 3-point arc — and he's proven solid, and often much better, at both. He's among a select few big men who can contain a point guard 25 feet from the rim and scamper back to challenge a shot at the basket in the same five-second window. He's also already one of the 10 or so best two-way rebounders in the league. He's almost charmingly diligent on the defensive glass, always glancing around to find a body to box out, instead of lazily boxing out air.
There are hiccups, of course. Favors can get caught in awkward in-between positions defending the pick-and-roll — not quite containing the point guard, but also not quite staying attached to his own assignment rolling to the hoop. Big men skilled at fake screens and other misdirections can trick Favors out of position. Opponents shot a robust 47 percent from the post against him last season. He sometimes gave top midrange shooters too much space on the block, and crafty post scorers can twist Favors into off-balance backpedaling or stationary and easily manipulated upright stances.
He's also needlessly physical, one of the reasons he fouls way too often. Favors likes to play with his arms down low, bumping drivers at waist level in a way referees always spot. He gets frustrated and shoves guys, and will run into the occasional shooter on an out-of-control closeout. He hasn't mastered Roy Hibbert–style "verticality," something Lindsey mentioned specifically as a potential key skill. Favors tries it, but he's often a hair out of balance — jumping a bit sideways, or holding his arms out in front of him, where they can whack shooters, instead of straight up above his head. "The league is doing a really good job, in our opinion, of officiating verticality in the restricted area now,” Lindsey says. “Watch Roy Hibbert, and you can see what a player can do with good habits. Derrick has that ability.”
But he's 22, and we're talking very nuanced NBA defense. He'll get there, and his raw tools are such that he can lurch a step out of position, look almost out of a play, and then suddenly appear back into things with an emphatic block from behind. He's not unlike 2011-12 Serge Ibaka in that way, and Ibaka has made strides on all the little stuff since then. Favors will, too, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that he becomes a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at some point. It'll just take time.
The thornier questions come on offense, as I've addressed at length here. Favors's third season was a disappointment on that end. His shooting percentage dropped a tick, his turnover rate remained higher than you'd like for a big man, and he's still at the infant stages of learning NBA passing. And in the bigger picture, there just wasn't an area in his game that made you say, "Wow, Derrick Favors has really gotten better at Skill X this season."
He's still a bit of a mess in the post — a blur of spins and drop-steps and quick dribble moves that don't really go anywhere. Defenses shouldn't double-team him yet, unless they're swiping for steals. Favors will unveil a polished move now and then — a righty hook in the lane from the left block, or a counter drop-step back to his left — but he's far from being a post-up threat.
And that's fine. That will probably be Kanter's job going forward, and finding a way to generate enough spacing with two interior bullies is head coach Ty Corbin’s challenge now. The Jazz have been very stingy on defense with the Kanter-Favors combination, going mostly against backup units, but they’ve struggled badly to score, per NBA.com.
Favors's bread and butter will be as a pick-and-roll beast — the kind of big man who can catch the ball above the dotted line and dunk the thing, in a flash, and without a dribble. You can build a very effective offense around that kind of player, provided you've got a solid starting point guard and the right kind of shooting around him.
Favors hasn't had either, and that explains why he has been very uneven in this role. He shot only 42 percent out of the pick-and-roll last season, a very bad number for a big man; out of 112 players who finished at least 50 plays out of the pick-and-roll as a screener, that shooting mark ranked Favors 90th, per Synergy Sports.
Favors's footwork is in the developmental stages, and an elite pick-and-roll big man needs great footwork — the ability to set screens with good timing, to flip the direction of those picks at the last millisecond, and to slow down for a start-and-stop roll to the hoop. Not every roll can be a full-speed assault. The best bigs can pause on their toes, like ballet dancers, in order to maintain a passing lane with a point guard who might be dealing with pressure.
And bad things tend to happen when Favors catches the ball on the pick-and-roll, turns toward the hoop, and sees a help defender has slid into his way. Sometimes he just runs over the poor sap, earning an ugly charge and/or sending the ball flying across the court. Favors often stops on a dime, fails to read the rotating defense in time to spot the teammate who was just open but no longer is, and flicks up a tricky midrange jumper that just doesn't go in very often.
That's where the Noah comparison doesn't really ring true. Noah reads those situations beautifully. He's not just a good passer; he's one of the very best big-man passers on earth. The Jazz have very slowly expanded Favors’s role in the offense, even allowing Kanter and Favors to facilitate a bit from the elbows last season. And Lindsey correctly points out that playing in Utah’s share-the-ball flex system has improved the passing of almost every big man that has come through — even Jefferson, once a black hole.
But there’s a long way to go. The debate about Favors’s offense around the league is basically this: Is he an athletic freak, or can he develop a real feel for the game? Even if the answers trend toward the negative, the Jazz have paid market price, and perhaps a bit below market price, for a game-changing defensive big man. Favors isn't there quite yet, but he should be soon.