Following a slow and steady rise to contention, the Utah Jazz must reset their future after losing All-Star Gordon Hayward. That future will in part be determined by Derrick Favors.
The Utah Jazz find themselves at a crossroads.
Over the past four seasons, the franchise has slowly built a contender from the ground-up, increasing their win total each year before finally making the playoffs in 2017. They then played their part in the destruction of the Chris Paul-era Clippers, defeating Los Angeles in seven games before losing to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors.
Then free agency hit, and All-Star forward Gordon Hayward decided he would rather move East, reunite with his old college coach Brad Stevens, and pursue the NBA Finals as far away from the Warriors as possible. [Literally. Boston’s TD Garden, where the Celtics play their home games, is the furthest NBA arena from Oracle Arena, three miles further than the Heat’s American Airlines Arena in Miami. Fun fact!]
With point guard George Hill also leaving town to sign with the Sacramento Kings, the Jazz have to replace their two top scorers from last season. They must do this quickly, or risk falling behind the pack in a Western Conference where teams that finished behind them in last season’s standings added Paul George, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, and Ben McLemore (Memphis hasn’t added anyone of note…).
As such the franchise is at a crossroads, between continuing their rise towards contention or resetting and acquiring assets to prepare for another attempt down the line. The moves they made to convince Hayward to stay — trading for Ricky Rubio, re-signing Joe Ingles — suggest they want to keep fighting, but the on-court results may be more of a deciding factor.
There are plenty of challenging spots across the roster, places where players need to step up if this team is going to return to the playoffs next season. The backcourt specifically needs someone to step up, be that Dante Exum or Donovan Mitchell. Both are long and athletic with high defensive ceilings, but can one of the young guards become something more? And does Alec Burks have anything left in the tank?
Rodney Hood will need to take over Hayward’s role as the primary creator off of the dribble, and he has shown flashes of being that player in the past. Can he take on that mantle full-time? And is Joe Ingles going to be the same valuable player has has been alongside Hayward, or will he fade back to Earth in another role?
The Jazz also added a bevy of veterans to shore up the rotation and maintain the defensive culture Quin Snyder has instilled. Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh and Jonas Jerebko will provide depth, but can one of those three transform themselves into something more?
These questions and more have been handed to the Utah coaching staff and front office, and there will be important answers sought throughout training camp and the season. But for the Jazz to change their new fate from mediocre to serious contender, the answer lies with Derrick Favors.
The former Georgia Tech big man has been with the Jazz for all but a few months of his NBA career, now spanning seven seasons. As recently as 2015-16 he averaged 16.4 points per game along with 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. It wasn’t unreasonable to make an argument at the time that Favors, and not Rudy Gobert or Hayward, was Utah’s best player.
Then injuries struck, and Favors spent the last season-and-a-half unavailable more often than not. As Gobert turned into a defensive player-of-the-year candidate, and Hayward took on the mantle of number-one option and All-Star, Favors sat on the bench in suits and spent hours and hours in physical training instead of running drills with the team.
If these injuries have sapped Favors to the point that he cannot be the fringe All-Star he was just two and three years ago, then the Jazz will move on. They will use a combination of Ingles, Jerebko and Joe Johnson as small-ball fours and play four-out around Gobert. They did that frequently last season, especially in the postseason, as Favors was all-too-frequently unavailable.
But if Derrick Favors returns this season fully healthy and back to his former self, then this team has something special. They have a pair of big men who can play well together, with years of chemistry and huge defensive impact. Favors can be the backup-5 when Gobert is on the bench, and the team can still unleash their versatile four-out lineups.
As the Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers and other contenders in the league trend towards smaller lineups, a two-big lineup that can guard in space and bully teams on the glass has a role as a counter-movement. Golden State’s “death” lineups work because clubs can’t truly punish Draymond Green and Kevin Durant on the glass, much lesss keep up with them on defense. A healthy Favors-Gobert combo can, and that is why the team always gave Golden State problems prior to their postseason meeting.
A lineup of Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert may be the best defense in the league. They will lack spacing, but they are going to regardless with how the team is currently constructed. Nevertheless, they will punish teams inside, make every bucket an absolute grind, and force teams to buckle down and beat them with hyper-efficient offense.
The Utah Jazz won 50 games last season with two All-Star caliber players in Hayward and Gobert. If they can go through this year again with two All-Star caliber players — this time with Favors and Gobert — they have a chance to stay the course and continue growing into a contending team. There is not the upside of a Hayward-led team, but that ship has sailed. Still, the possibility of something unique to the modern NBA could lead them to exciting destinations nonetheless.
Derrick Favors must stay healthy for that hope to be realized. But if he does, a 20-10 season is both attainable and impactful. That is the Favors Utah fans were hoping they would see, and the one who could show up this season. That is what makes Derrick Favors the Jazz’s X-Factor in 2017-18.