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Why Derrick Favors and Larry Sanders got paid

The Hook explores the impact of elite defensive big men. Plus: another verse on the James Harden trade and more.

Jim Urquhart-USA TODAY Sports

Another defensive-minded big man got paid a huge chunk of money over the weekend, as the Jazz reached a four-year, $49 million deal with Derrick Favors.

The deal is a bit richer than Larry Sanders's $44 million contract with the Bucks, but it tells the same story. And that story is that big men are crucial to team defense. That's why two guys with shrugworthy primary box-score stats are getting paid.

Favors averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds last season. Sanders came in at 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds. But some other numbers and a list show their worth. According to one version of regularized adjusted plus-minus, the Jazz were 3.1 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Favors on the floor last season. The Bucks were a whopping +6.1/100 possessions defensively with Sanders on the court. Sanders was ranked No. 3 in that stat; Favors was No. 30. Others in the top 10: Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Marc Gasol, Omer Asik, Joakim Noah, Chris Andersen, Tyson Chandler and Roy Hibbert. Noticing a trend?

Now look at the top five defenses in the NBA last season: Indiana (Hibbert), Memphis (Gasol), Spurs (Duncan), Thunder (Serge Ibaka, No. 17 in defensive RAPM) and Washington (Nene, No. 14). Each one of the top five defenses had at least one player in the top 5 percent in the league in defensive RAPM. And at least one of those elite defenders was a big man.

An elite defensive big man playing starter minutes is not a strict requirement of an elite defense; in 2011-12, Miami and Philadelphia ranked in the top five thanks to a well-coached system and elite wing defenders (Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young, LeBron James). But certainly, the big man seems to help. That's why Sanders got paid. Not because of what he does on offense or how well he boards. He got paid because he is an elite 6'11 defender.

Favors isn't quite there yet, but he's a) pretty damn good on defense, b) 22 years old and c) 6'10.

DeMarcus Cousins is the other big man from the 2010 NBA Draft who got a fat extension this summer. His deal was based more on offense and raw potential, which is kind of amazing considering how many more minutes he's played than Sanders or Favors. Michael Malone's bid to improve the Kings' defense relies a lot on Cousins improving on that end or the team picking up a second big man who can handle that work.


Let's stick with big man defense for a second. Sam Presti is still getting heat for the James Harden trade and will as long as the Thunder are without a championship. The trade-off there, given the financial constraints of a team located in Oklahoma City and the need for payroll sustainability, was between Harden and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder reached a sub-max deal with Ibaka before Harden's negotiations came to a head. Critics of the eventual Harden deal set it up as a coach between Harden and Russell Westbrook, but that seems unlikely. The Thunder picked up both Harden and Ibaka in the 2009 NBA Draft, and once both blossomed, the team could only afford to keep one of them with Kevin Durant and Westbrook.

So a team loaded with Durant (a three-time scoring champ by age 24) and Westbrook (the NBA's No. 1 shot creator) opted for the elite defensive big man over the ace scorer. In 2010-11, before the breakouts for Harden and Ibaka, the Thunder ranked No. 5 on offense and No. 15 on defense. The Thunder made the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka and Harden had fabulous 2011-12 seasons. The Thunder had the No. 3 offense and the No. 8 defense and made the NBA Finals. Ibaka signed an extension, Harden got traded and in 2012-13 ... the Thunder had the No. 1 offense and the No. 3 defense.

Yes, OKC could have used Harden once Westbrook was injured last season. But without Ibaka, chances are the Thunder would have entered the postseason with a less than great defense and would likely have lost a different way. You can argue that the Harden trade itself wasn't good -- the remaining pieces in OKC are basically Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. You can also argue that Presti and Clay Bennett should have figured out a way to afford Ibaka, Westbrook and Harden, possibly by using the amnesty clause to expunge Kendrick Perkins.

But Presti's building a Spursian model in OKC, and you can't really afford to goes absolutely nuts in any given season. It's not sustainable, and when you're not building a sustainable model in a small market, you get into a painful boom-bust cycle that causes major revenue problems.

Given the exact circumstances -- you can afford Harden or Ibaka -- I still think OKC made the right choice. Whether the actual trade as it happened was good will depend on Lamb and Adams from here on out.


From Metta World Peace, natch:

"A lot of people been calling me old. I can't help that I'm 33 because when God brings us in this world, he says you will age, and there's nothing I can do about it."


.... which we talked about a couple weeks back.

Artis Gilmore, everyone! (And that's an old Artis Gilmore.)


Mouhamed Sene, the Sonics' No. 10 overall pick in 2006, is currently a teammate of Larry O'Bannon on a second division French team named the Sharks.


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