The Utah Jazz may be struggling early this season, but they know where their hopes are pinned for the time being. With a young core of Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward, it's possible we'll see signs of maturation from this team later in the season.
But as the Jazz come off a 33-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, facing the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday takes on some extra meaning. For big men Favors and Kanter, a reunion with Al Jefferson -- just one day after playing Paul Millsap -- shows how far they've come, and how much further they need to go.
"Staying behind them [on the depth chart] helped me out a lot," Favors said of Jefferson and Millsap to Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune. "I wouldn’t be the player that I am right now if I didn’t play behind those two."
When Utah acquired Favors and Kanter, it was the first signal of a rebuilding effort. The Jazz knew a team built around Jefferson and Millsap could only be so good, but the new players they brought in were too raw to handle things immediately. Instead, Utah kept the veterans, holding off the complete rebuild while the younger guys learned.
"He helped me realize I need to be a better basketball player," Favors told Falk of Millsap. "I was a good athlete, but there was stuff I needed to work on to be a good basketball player."
Drafted third overall in the 2010 NBA Draft by the then-New Jersey Nets, Favors was considered a superb talent who needed to develop. He played 19.5 minutes per game as a rookie in New Jersey. After being traded to Utah in the Deron Williams deal, his minutes crept slowly to a career-high 23.2 per game last season. It seems this was all by design, though.
During the summer, Utah didn't hand big money to either of their free-agent veterans. Millsap signed a two-year deal with the Hawks, one that increasingly looks like a bargain with each passing day. Jefferson got a lucrative three-year pact from Charlotte, which happens when you put up numbers like he does. Instead, the Jazz committed to the future, and the guy who never averaged more than 9.2 points per game.
Favors got $48 million over four years in October; by all indications, the rebuild was on. A lot of smart people felt what Utah did made a good deal of sense. As we near Christmas, the jury is still out on all that, but that exciting progress we hoped to see from the young guys? Let's just say it hasn't gone swimmingly.
Through 29 games, the Jazz are a noticeably worse team this season. It's tempered a lot of the excitement around the team, for good reason. If Favors' expanded role was expected to have any effect on the team, you would've expected it to come on defense. Nope. Utah is the worst defensive team in the league, by far. Favors is averaging career-high per-game numbers nearly across the board -- 31.6 minutes, 13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals -- but he's not having the expected impact.
A team's best players should be the antidote to problems, but Favors seems to be a central part of them. Utah gives up more when he's playing than sitting, per NBA.com. Obviously you can make the usual qualms about sample size, but the Jazz have looked much, much better defensively with guys like Rudy Gobert and Andris Biedrins in. This presumably won't last, but at some point, you'll have to consider how this affects the development of Favors and Kanter.
It's early, but the Jazz's brutal defensive struggles have created this unusual situation where a seemingly solid rebuilding effort is giving way to horrible results. With that young core, Utah shouldn't be a contender, but one would at least expect some respectable effort. Allowing nearly 109 points per 100 possessions (per NBA.com) isn't really that. As we've seen in the past, rate of development often increases significantly in a winning environment. The Jazz are too far into their rebuilding process to be losing this many games, this badly.
If there's any silver lining, it might actually be Burke. While the team continues to struggle defensively, that's not unusual for a young team -- with the rookie guard on the court, at least the Jazz have been able to keep up offensively to some degree. After losing 11 of the 12 games Burke missed at the start of the season, Utah has gone 6-11. It's not great, but it's better.
Otherwise, we may remember the great development of Favors and Kanter, who similarly has seen a huge boost in per-game stats belied by poor advanced numbers, as something that stalled without Jefferson and Millsap. For nearly two years, we all heard about how the Jazz would take off, how this exciting new young core might change everything. But as the young guns face their veteran mentor for the first time, Utah remains doing the same thing as before: waiting.