The Utah Jazz are starting two bigs, which is basically like opening Jurassic Park in modern times; it doesn’t end well. The NBA has gone away from the traditional big-man game of posting up and forcing a way to the basket.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe calls the modern power forward a play-making four. They can do a little of everything. Golden State's Draymond Green is the poster child for the new power forward position. They are expected to bring the ball up the court, initiate the offense, be a threat from long range and defend multiple positions. If they can’t do all this, then just being able to spread the floor is important as stretch four. This is very different from the Karl Malone/Tim Duncan kind of power forward.
NBA offenses revolve around the pick-and-roll, and to make this most effective is to have shooters spreading the floor and a big man rolling to the rim. This makes the defense choose who to leave open: the ball-handler, big man rolling or shooters at the 3-point line.
If one of the shooters isn’t good at making long-range shots, defenses have no problem with letting him shoot. An example of this is during the playoffs a couple of years ago when Golden State essentially didn’t guard Memphis’ Tony Allen. This changed the series. Trying to run an offense one man short is extremely difficult.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton described this as basketball gravity: “Every offensive player has gravity — but not all players have the same gravity. Beyond them, the ball has gravity, because of the need to pressure the ball-handler and keep him from getting a wide-open shot. And the basket itself has gravity, since the highest-percentage shots tend to be taken from close range.”
Rudy Gobert is such a threat at the rim, he creates open shots for his teammates. On the other hand, Kyle Korver is such a dangerous shooter, a defender can’t leave him. If he is given the slightest opening, points usually are added to the scoreboard.
The Jazz’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, doesn’t fit the mold for this position nowadays. He does have the ability to guard multiple positions but isn’t elite at it. He isn’t able to run the offense or bring the ball downcourt, and he doesn’t scare defenses from the 3-point line. So how have the Jazz and their superb coaching staff made this work?
The most important thing the Jazz need is to have very good shooters at all the other positions. Last season (when healthy), the most successful lineup with their two bigs was George Hill, Joe Ingles and Gordon Hayward. They sported a positive 22.7 net rating. All of these players were a threat from deep and allowed the Gobert/Favors duo to succeed.
This season, the Jazz replaced Hill with Ricky Rubio, a 31 percent 3-point shooter, and Hayward with Rodney Hood, a 38 percent 3-point shooter. The lineup of Rubio, Favors and Gobert to start the season had a -18 net rating. Having three non-shooters on the court was killing the Jazz offense. Since Gobert’s return from injury mid-January, this lineup has a +15 net rating.
What has triggered their improvement? It has been Rubio’s improved shooting, and not just at the 3-point line but all over the court. He isn’t a great shooter from anywhere, but during this streak his shot from long range has been closer to league average (36 percent) and his rim finishing has been at a career high (56 percent). Defenses aren’t able to leave these shooters, which opens things up for the two bigs to succeed.
Favors has developed a nice midrange jump shot. This season he has been working on his 3-point shot, mostly coming from the corner. He isn’t shooting great (21 percent) but he has taken 38 this season so far. His career high in 3-point attempts in a full season was just 10 attempts. Having Favors at least take some shots may have helped also. David Locke on his daily podcast “Locked on Jazz” said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Favors eventually is able to hit 30 plus percent from three.
When the Wasatch Front shares the court, the defensive rating is at a 99.5. The Boston Celtics’ defensive rating is 101.03, which is the best in the NBA. Teams have a very difficult time scoring against this combination. Gobert is as elite as they come at protecting the rim, and Favors is no slouch either, so scoring close to the rim is some kind of rarity, like solar eclipses. Favors is also capable of switching on to smaller players and doing an above average job of keeping them in front of him.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder has done an excellent job of using the two-bigs lineup, but only when it can be successful. When watching a game, Snyder will sometimes keep Favors and Gobert on the court together for several minutes, like when playing the Knicks with Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis. But other times he will quickly pull one of the bigs in favor of a more modern power forward, like Jonas Jerebko or Jae Crowder.
Favors is a free agent this summer and will have to decide if he likes his role as starting power forward/backup center with the Jazz or a starting center on another team. Money will play a big factor in this, but his desire to be on the court consistently (30 plus minutes a night) and play his natural position will be key. Either way, Favors has been great for the Jazz and credit goes to Snyder, Gobert and Favors for doing what it takes to make this lineup as successful as it can be.
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