The big question: Can Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter anchor the Utah Jazz's frontcourt together?
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — During the 2013-14 season, the Utah Jazz played 3,956 minutes of basketball while compiling a 25-57 record.
It wouldn’t exactly be a fun offseason experience to relive details of the oft-painful rebuild year, which ultimately cost former Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin his job. But, as a friendly reminder, most of those moments included less-than-stellar hoops.
Four weeks after the third-worst season in franchise history mercifully ended, it’s worth pointing out that big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter only played together for 771 minutes. Or 19.5 percent of the time.
Considering the third overall picks of the 2010 and ’11 drafts are positioned to be cornerstone players for this team’s future, their rare pairing was certainly one of the surprises of the season.
It’s also a big question the team must answer going forward.
Can Favors and Kanter be the imposing frontcourt Jazz management envisioned when it decided to allow established veteran talents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to wander elsewhere last summer?
That will be especially important for the Jazz to consider this offseason for several reasons.
Will Utah pick big should it be in a position to select Kansas center Joel Embiid on draft night?
Does the organization trust Kanter enough to give him a contract extension offer when that option becomes available in July? Or does the team need to land another stretch-four with proven outside range in the offseason?
The overriding question about whether they can co-exist — and produce on a winning team — might be difficult to answer due to the fact the Jazz aren’t sure exactly what type of a system the yet-to-be-hired new coach will implement and how Kanter and Favors will fit into his plans.
Then again, Jazz players and personnel believe they already know the answer.
“I think it’s crazy that people think that we cannot play together,” Kanter said.
“Obviously, we’ve still got a lot of work to do together,” Favors added. “We’ve still got to work the chemistry thing down and we’ve still got a lot of work to do together, but I think we can.”
So does Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, who also certainly knows the team had 19 other two-man combinations that logged more time together than Favors and Kanter, including Marvin Williams-Richard Jefferson (1,163 minutes) and even Jeremy Evans-Alec Burks (934 minutes).
The duo of Favors and fellow fourth-year pro Gordon Hayward topped the team with 1,833 minutes.
Lindsey isn’t fazed by the limited experience Favors and Kanter had as an ensemble, something that Corbin experimented with early on before sending the Big Turk to the bench to be a reserve while keeping the Georgia Tech product in the starting lineup because of production, spacing and chemistry issues.
After the initial and brief tryout didn’t pan out, Lindsey believes “some premature opinion” was made that a Kanter-Favors teaming can’t work. He also refused to blame Corbin for hitting the eject button too early on that combo. Even if they didn't play together that often, Favors still averaged a career-high 30.2 minutes, while Kanter logged a career-high 26.7 minutes.
“Frankly, that’s nonsense,” Lindsey said in regard to criticism about Favors and Kanter not being able to play together. “Enes can really shoot the ball. And Derrick can really anchor a defense from a rebounding, shot-blocking standpoint.
“In combination going forward, they’ll be fine,” the GM continued. “Will it be them as starters or closing games is really immaterial to me.”
Despite the positive statements, the Favors-Kanter duo had the second-worst plus/minus scoring differential rating of the Jazz's top 20 two-man combos: minus-12.1 points per 48 minutes. (Kanter and Jefferson were the worst of the main pairings at -12.8, according to NBA.com/stats.)
Lindsey blamed some of Kanter's early struggles on his shoulder-surgery rehabilitation. The center’s 2012-13 season ended prematurely after he suffered a dislocated left shoulder in late March, an injury that required a minor reattachment surgery in April. He was then unable to fully participate in basketball-related activities for six months, putting him behind physically when training camp began in October.
Kanter was quickly relegated to a reserve role and then slumped during an extended stretch in the middle of the season until breaking out with a strong finish for the final month and a half. The earlier struggles gave some cause to openly wonder if he's got what it takes to be a leading man in the middle. Even so, the 6-11 center capped off his third NBA season by averaging 13.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in March and April. He averaged 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds over the course of the season.
“It took Enes a few months into the regular season to develop a good rhythm,” Lindsey said. “One of Enes’ best strengths is his rebounding ability. He has that natural ability. I thought even his rebounding, his timing and his rhythm suffered a little bit because of the inactivity (last) summer. The last two months specifically we saw a big uptick. You saw several Enes-like rebounding games.”
In that category, Kanter was especially impressive in April when he had five straight double-digit rebounding games, including a career-high 19 boards against Dallas.
The biggest knocks against Kanter were his defense and the lack of fluidity on offense during those inconsistent minutes with Favors.
“I think his post game is improving. The defense (issue) is well-documented. We’ll have those conversations,” Lindsey said. “The challenge to Enes is, ‘Be as physical on defense as you are on offense.’ Enes is very smart. He’s a very committed kid and I think he’ll accept the challenges to move forward defensively.”
While Kanter showed an improved mid-range game, Favors’ offensive improvement and all-around consistency were among the highlights in a Jazz season that didn’t include many highlights. The 6-10 center was rarely an offensive beast while averaging 13.3 points on 52.2 percent shooting. But his offensive contributions were fairly reliable, and he showed more moves than in previous years when he was backing up Millsap. Combine that offensive increase with his defensive prowess, and Favors was arguably the team’s MVP for the 2013-14 campaign.
Despite hopes for the future, Favors seemed to function better when he was paired up with a big man who could (or was allowed to) stretch the floor with outside shooting. Williams was usually that man charged with hanging out on the perimeter, allowing the 22-year-old to roam freer in the paint.
The Jazz want — and need — even more from Favors in the future.
“(We) posed a strong challenge to Derrick Favors. He’s playing off his ability. Derrick’s a very intelligent player, an instinctive player. We think there’s two more levels that he can hit as he improves his conditioning, his activity level, his intensity level,” Lindsey said. “I think there are a couple of more steps that he can take, that (he) could be our franchise piece if there’s internal growth.”
Kanter, who hopes to extend his green-light area beyond the 3-point line next season, is optimistic the Jazz will get that development and improvement from both guys going ahead.
“I think we can play together," Kanter said. "It’s my third year now with him and I feel so much more comfortable with him on the court — offensively, defensively, both sides on the court — because he’s helping me know what he’s going to do and he knows what I’m going to do on defense and offense.
"The people out there that thinks that (we can’t play together) is wrong," he added. "I don’t care. People’s going to talk. People can say whatever they want to say. In the end, it’s me and him playing out there.”
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