Derrick Favors was due to get a poignant highlight video tribute from the Utah Jazz on his first return to Vivint Smart Home Arena with his new team, the New Orleans Pelicans, on Nov. 23, but he didn’t make the trip due to back spasms.
The make-up montage was then rescheduled for the Pellies' return trip to Salt Lake City on March 13 — a game that never took place, as the NBA shut down two days before when Favors' former teammate, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19.
There’s a possibility now that the video may never actually see the light of day — not because the franchise has forgotten about thanking its longtime big man, but because of the potential for his next game in Utah to once again happen in a Jazz jersey.
Yeah, it could happen.
Though the free-agent addition of Bojan Bogdanovic last summer proved a most adroit maneuver for a Jazz front office looking to bolster the team’s offensive firepower, it did not come without a cost. Specifically, it meant the salary-cap-space-creating trade of Favors — a move that did not sit well with fans of the franchise who valued the loyalty, stability and continuity he represented.
The thing is, though, what if Favors' exit was more like a temporary break? What if the team had the chance to bring him back? It’s actually not all that far-fetched.
In his exit interview with local and national media a few days ago, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Dennis Lindsey noted that while Utah’s offensive upgrade had proven an incredible success, the team had perhaps deteriorated a bit too much on the other end.
“We lost some defensive integrity, some activity, some deflections,” Lindsey said. “… Anybody who has defensive integrity at their position, can be an active, athletic defender, will be someone that would be of interest to us, especially if they don’t compromise the spacing.”
Given those parameters, in addition to anecdotal evidence gleaned from the regular season, the restart seeding games, and the playoff series against the Nuggets, it seems likely that the Jazz’s primary targets this offseason will be an upgrade at backup big, and the addition of a defensively-inclined wing with some physical size and shooting ability.
The former of those needs ought to have been addressed by another member of the Free Agent Class of 2019, but while Ed Davis remains a respected locker room presence, his fit within coach Quin Snyder’s system proved an epic miss. Meanwhile, though third-year center Tony Bradley showed marked improvement and flashes of promise, the physical limitations and consistent lack of defensive instincts demonstrated in his end-of-season run have led some to conclude he’s better-suited in a third-string role.
Which brings us to Favors.
His 8.5 years in Utah provided a clear and steady blueprint of his contributions and limitations alike — an imperfect fit alongside Gobert but a high-end substitute for him; a competent rebounder and an excellent rim-protector; a soft touch around the rim and a “dead-ass serious” but nevertheless-negligible impact beyond the arc.
In his season with the Pelicans, Favors played center exclusively, eschewing any time at the four, and acquitted himself well. Though his points and blocks were down in New Orleans relative to his previous season with the Jazz, he did have a couple of career-highs, with 61.7% shooting and 9.8 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, the Pelicans posted a minus-4.1 net rating with him off the floor, and saw their defensive rating drop 4.2 points when he sat as well.
Now, it just so happens that Favors' contract is up, and he will be an unrestricted free agent whenever the season ends and the league’s murky-for-now financial picture gains some clarity. There is zero ambiguity, however, about the notion that a return to Utah would necessitate him being on board with a significantly-reduced salary and a moderately-reduced role.
For starters, Favors started 49 of the 51 games he played in this season, but would definitely have to accept an off-the-bench role were he to return. Furthermore, he was slated to make $18.8 million in 2019-20, while the Jazz’s present salary-cap situation means that the most they can offer him is the midlevel exception — originally due to be around $9.7M, but sure to be less once all the league’s loss of basketball-related income is fully calculated.
And that’s assuming the Jazz aren’t planning to split the MLE between multiple players, as they are allowed to do. After all, they’re in need of a 3-and-D wing with size, too, remember? They also have the biannual exception at their disposal, which was slated to be around $3.5M per year but now will likely be less.
So, who might be some other options?
Well, another full-circle option could be veteran Wesley Matthews, who began his career in Utah and just wrapped a one-year stint in Milwaukee. He’s a soon-to-be 34-year-old who’s made 38.1% of his 3-point tries in his career. Too old? A slightly younger-but-much pricier option could be 31-year-old Justin Holiday, a 6-foot-6 gunner who hit 40.5% from deep this year for the Pacers. If the Jazz really want to go young and really want to put a premium on athleticism, dunk champ Derrick Jones Jr. is just 23, and also stands 6-6; he averaged 8.5 points and shot 52.7% from the field for Miami (though his 28.0% success rate beyond the arc would seem to be a strike against that “don’t detract from the spacing” directive). Should the team want to take a flier on an upside guy with some measurables, Wesley Iwundu is a restricted free agent who got sporadic playing time but took advantage of opportunities when players ahead of him missed time. He is 25 years old, stands 6-5, hit 34.1% of his 3s this year, and ticks the boxes on myriad defensive metrics.
As for other center options, while Mike Conley certainly would be thrilled by a Marc Gasol reunion, the Spaniard figures to be out of Utah’s reach, in terms of both price and role. Same for current Raptors teammate Serge Ibaka. More modest alternatives could include Aron Baynes, who’s less of a defensive presence but could create five-out offensive options; bouncier types such as Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel; or solid-if-unspectacular role-fillers such as Alex Len or Ian Mahinmi.
Still, given Favors' history in and with Utah, his return could make a lot of sense. For one, he clearly is exceedingly familiar with Snyder’s system already; and secondly, he has no reservations about living in Utah, having told reporters during his one previous foray into free agency two years ago that he enjoys spending offseason in the valley because of the laid-back, low-key vibe it affords him.
Though USA Today recently quoted him as saying he has liked his time in New Orleans and wouldn’t mind returning (“I enjoyed being around the young guys, being around this organization. Hopefully, I can come back.”), he’s also said similar things about Utah before.
“I would prefer to come back here,” he told reporters during his exit interview a year ago. “I have a team option; I need that option picked up!"
TEN AND TEN
With the Jazz likely to try and add both a center and a 3-and-D wing to the rotation this offseason, here are 10 potential candidates for each of those spots:
Derrick Jones Jr.
Glenn Robinson III
**—restricted free agent