How Derrick Favors’ season in New Orleans paved the way for his return to the Utah Jazz

The veteran big man never wanted to leave the Jazz, though his year with the Pelicans wound up setting the stage for a reunion that both sides saw value in.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaylen Brown (7), shoots as Utah Jazz center Derrick Favors (15) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics, at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

When a professional athlete spends a long time with one franchise before departing to play for another, any eventual return typically tends to be very far down the road, and of the symbolic and ceremonial one-day-contract-before-retirement variety.

Which is what makes Derrick Favors’ reunion with the Utah Jazz this season so unique.

Not many NBA players get a second chance to play in a place that “feels like home” while still in their relative prime.

Though Favors didn’t start out as a Jazzman (he was acquired on Feb. 23, 2011, as part of the Deron Williams trade after just 56 games with the then-New Jersey Nets), he subsequently spent 8.5 seasons in Utah, becoming as equally beloved in the community as he was in the locker room.

But in May 2019, after the Jazz’s first-round playoff elimination at the hands of the Rockets, the future of the team was very much uncertain. It had become apparent they lacked sufficient offensive firepower to keep up with the elite teams, and that significant change was coming.

Favors, who had a team option for roughly $18 million the next season, knew his status was tenuous, but argued for staying, telling reporters at his exit interview: “I’m happy in the situation that I’m in — I think it’s good for me and the organization.” Executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey politely agreed in public, saying, “Derrick Favors isn’t part of the problem, he’s part of the solution.”

But that July 7, they traded him to the New Orleans Pelicans for 2021 and ’23 second-round draft picks.

The big man was neither blindsided nor betrayed. The Jazz’s long-discussed and finally consummated pre-draft trade for Mike Conley telegraphed their intentions. And besides, the deadline for exercising Favors’ contract option — several days after the start of free agency — had been deliberately timed to give the team the ability to assess the market for offensive upgrades, a process that quickly culminated in an agreement with sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic.

Did going from “part of the solution” to burdensome salary cap figure in the span of two months bother him?

“No, it didn’t. I saw the way the NBA was trending. I knew the Jazz wanted to go that way, too,” Favors told The Salt Lake Tribune recently in an exclusive interview. “I wanted to be here. I wanted to stay. I thought I was going to stay. But it was because of the money, the business side.”

Such circumstances would not appear to set the table for an amicable and willing return to the franchise just 16 months later.

And yet, that’s precisely what happened.

Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky, right, drives against New Orleans Pelicans center Derrick Favors during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Jazz do Favors a solid, and he goes back to school

It should be noted that the Jazz didn’t simply pick up Favors’ option on July 6, 2019, then cold-heartedly send him packing a day later.

Conversations he’d had with his agent, Wallace Prather, had prepared him for the inevitability of the Jazz needing the salary they were paying him to disappear in order to create the requisite space for their other moves.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, they’re probably gonna have to let you go or trade you,’” Favors recalled.

Thing was, the Jazz indeed had that choice. They could have easily just declined Favors’ option and made him an unrestricted free agent, but knew doing so would mean he’d wind up taking a significant pay cut from his existing deal.

So instead, Lindsey and general manager Justin Zanik worked with Prather, exploring which teams had both the cap space to take on Favors’ contract and the desire to have him on their roster, and then cross-matching that list against Favors’ optimal landing spots. Pretty soon, a mutually beneficial arrangement was reached.

The Pelicans had the available salary, and wanted to augment their talented-but-young roster — highlighted by Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and several rookies, including No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson — with savvy veterans and solid locker room presences.

Favors though the fit was perfect.

“If Utah would have waived me, I would have lost a lot of money, but they ended up trading me, and I’m blessed and thankful that New Orleans was willing to pick up that option for me,” he said. “… New Orleans was one of the places I wanted to go, because it’s in the South, they had just drafted Zion, which was a lot of hype, and it was a chance for me to go down there and be a starting center and a main guy on the team.”

Though he initially had wanted to stay in Utah (he had re-signed there as a free agent in 2018, after all), he decided to embrace his new challenge with an open mind.

As Favors went through his introductory news conference and played in some open-gym runs with his new teammates, he was repeatedly struck by the youthful energy, by the change in atmosphere. And yet, he couldn’t help but feel a bit daunted at having to start all over again.

“It was like going to a new school. Like being at an elementary school for three, four, five years, and all of a sudden your family moves and you’ve got to go to a new school, meet new friends, new teachers and everything,” Favors said. “I’m in a different environment now, in a different organization, different city, different teammates, different culture. Obviously, the relationships are different. … You go somewhere new, now you got to figure all this stuff out again.”

‘One of the best teammates I’ve had’

He resolved to get comfortable, figure it out, and make it work.

Favors’ combination of self-awareness and selflessness regarding his game (”I knew my role wasn’t to come in and score 20 points and demand the ball in the post”) immediately endeared him to his new crew.

He approached Ingram and recently signed veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick with a simple message of intent: “I’m just gonna get y’all open.”

Favors also wanted to replicate the presence of a certain ex-teammate on the other end of the court: “They felt comfortable [with me in the middle] just the same way this team feels comfortable with Rudy [Gobert] on the court.”

Beyond that, he simply wanted to set a tone with a consistent approach: The big man was going to rebound, set screens, organize coverages, communicate, keep his head down and do his job.

“That stuff goes a long way,” Favors said. “Within the locker room, guys respect you for that, guys respect guys who don’t really complain about touches, who just go out there and play hard, who just try to make life easier for everybody else.”

Yeah, that didn’t go unnoticed.

“He’s actually one of the best teammates I’ve had,” Redick, now in his 15th season, told The Tribune. “Just a consummate pro, great in the locker room, as low-maintenance as they come. He’s just a pleasure to be around every day, and a pleasure to have on your team. He does all the dirty work, incredibly unselfish, and every team he’s been on, he makes them better when he’s on the floor.”

Ball agreed.

“Nothing but respect for D-Fav. Everybody will say that he’s a true pro. We were glad to have him on our team,” Ball said. “We know he did all the little things that we needed to win games.”

Jaxson Hayes, then a rookie lottery pick, said Favors took him under his wing, instructing him in everything from little on-court tricks of the trade to navigating professional life in the NBA.

“I loved getting to know D-Fav. He did a lot to help me as a player,” Hayes said. “He was teaching me every day. He just taught me how to act right. He’s a quiet dude, so he just shows you what to do.”

Favors bemusedly noted how many of his young Pelicans teammates apparently “looked at me like the O.G., the big veteran-type guy, always asking for advice,” and it was a role he was happy to fill.

Not everything, though, was quite that smooth.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Derrick Favors (22) shoots over Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

Going from structure to randomness

While everyone’s intentions were good, the Pelicans were a pretty bad team. They lost seven of their first eight games. A short time later came an epic 13-game losing streak.

Favors, meanwhile, admittedly had trouble adjusting to the massive differences in styles between Utah and New Orleans.

“Here in Utah, we kind of have all this structure. … Down there, the offense was kind of like, just free-ball, pretty much — just running up and down,” Favors said. “But it fit the Pelicans. The way we play in Utah doesn’t fit the Pelicans, and the way the Pelicans play doesn’t fit the Jazz.

“[It was] just go out there, take shots, get up and down, play at a fast pace,” he added. “I was here for eight, nine years in a structured offense, and then to go down to New Orleans, it was, ‘OK, look, we’re just going to do a lot of random stuff — set random pick-and-rolls, set random pin-downs.’”

While he had a few strong performances early — in particular, notching 20 points, 20 rebounds, three assists and a block in just under 35 minutes of action in a 132-127 win over the Clippers on Nov. 14, 2019 — he also had plenty of nights like Oct. 26 in Houston, where he generally looked lost in totaling four points, five rebounds, and four turnovers in just 18:25 of court time.

His play and his minutes were uneven, and so too was New Orleans’ willingness to let him stay on the court and figure it out. Though he came in with the hope of expanded playing time, and though he’d go on to post career-highs in field-goal percentage and rebounds, and though New Orleans’ net and defensive ratings dropped significantly when he sat, Favors wound up playing just 24.4 minutes per game — barely more than the previous season in Utah, where he’d been a nominal starter but, in reality, was pretty much serving as Gobert’s backup.

Beyond that, he missed some games with right knee soreness, then developed back spasms that kept him out for a time. He missed more games still when his mom, Deandra, died unexpectedly at 55 years old in the days before Thanksgiving. That brilliant game he had against the Clippers would be the last one she ever saw him play in person.

“I was blessed that she got to see me get my first 20-20 game in the NBA,” Favors said. “It was just crazy.”

He returned in mid-December after taking a few weeks to grieve. A few months later came the pandemic … and the shutdown … and the bubble restart, where Favors did not play particularly well. New Orleans finished 30-42 — 13th place in the Western Conference — and coach Alvin Gentry, who’d called Favors “the most low-maintenance guy I’ve ever coached in my life,” was fired.

Favors was on the market again, and though he “wanted to go back” to New Orleans, his agent informed him that front office exec David Griffin was likely to “go in another direction.”

An unexpected call settles things quickly

In what would prove to be an accelerated and compressed offseason, free agency negotiating “officially” kicked off on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m. ET, and quickly played out akin to something approaching speed dating.

“With free agency, you don’t want to, I don’t want to say ‘waste time,’ but you don’t want to wait too long,” Favors explained. “If you have a team talking to you, they can give you an offer and you say, ‘OK, give me five or 10 minutes,’ and then you wait for another team [to call]. But you don’t want to lose that opportunity for a contract.”

Favors and Prather started fielding calls and offers from teams. A few were legit and worthy of consideration. Others didn’t really have the money to make a competitive bid, but figured they’d shoot their shot. And a couple tried to play wait-and-see, telling the big man that should a player of their own not re-sign, or if a preferred target were to choose somewhere else, they’d like to circle back.

Favors admitted to being a little surprised when Lindsey, Zanik, and coach Quin Snyder called him up, making the Utah Jazz the third team of the day to officially reach out. They had good reason for doing so, though, considering the Jazz defense had hemorrhaged points any time Gobert went to the bench. Prior free-agent addition Ed Davis had proven a poor fit, while third-year big Tony Bradley was maddeningly inconsistent. Both wound up traded in the days before free agency began.

In Favors, the Jazz saw a familiar face who could potentially fix their biggest problem. In the Jazz, Favors saw a team he knew and liked, and a chance to go back to a place he’d never wanted to leave to begin with.

After some initial catching up, Utah’s contingent made a pitch he found pleasantly straightforward.

“They literally just said, ‘Hey, you want to come back? We want you, here’s what we’re offering. Do you want to take it or not?’ It kinda felt like that!” Favors recalled with a laugh. “… It was just real simple. They didn’t have to do any recruiting, they didn’t have to come in and say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’ It was just, ‘We’ll welcome you back. Here’s what we’re offering. Let us know.’ And I said, ‘Give me a few minutes.’”

He wanted to check in with the Pelicans one last time, though that ship sailed when an initially modest trade to move Holiday for some extra assets soon expanded to a four-team deal that would be bringing OKC center Steven Adams to New Orleans.

“There was no hard feelings, but I just didn’t want to be put in that type of situation,” Favors said. “Steven Adams is a great player; they got Jaxson Hayes, who’s a young player who’s improving; they got Zion [in small-ball lineups], so it would have been a logjam at the 5, and I didn’t want to go through that.”

Prather then took a few more calls for the sake of due diligence, but Favors was eager to get it all settled.

“I didn’t want to waste my time or waste an opportunity,” he said, “and I knew with Utah that they had other guys that they wanted to go after if I didn’t commit, so I didn’t want to waste Utah’s time.”

They called the Jazz back. A three-year deal for the midlevel, non-taxpayer exception was agreed to.

“And that,” Favors concluded, “is how it happened.”