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Derrick Favors, the backbone of the defense and a monster on the glass, was quietly the Pelicans most pivotal player

New Orleans starting center deserves greater accolade

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans most important player before the NBA suspended the 2019-20 regular season was not Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson or Lonzo Ball.

It was Derrick Favors, by a landslide.

After a horrid 6-22 start in which the Pelicans were left with more questions than answers, Favors’ return spurred a 22-14 run that vaulted New Orleans right back into the thick of the playoff race with 18 games to play and the league’s easiest schedule remaining.

During the marked improvement in play, the Pelicans were most effective with Favors on the court as evidenced by a +9.9 net-rating, which qualified as ninth in the NBA. He ranked in the 92nd percentile on the season with a plus 9.2 per 100 possessions.

Not bad for a guy the Pelicans picked up in a trade with the Utah Jazz for a couple of late second round picks.

Antonio Daniels of Fox Sports Nola spoke about Favors on The Bird Calls Podcast on March 24:

“He impacts winning. That’s the most important thing. When he’s not present, you know it, other teams know it. There’s a huge hole in that middle when he’s not present.”

Not only did he impact winning, Favors’ presence was the perfect compliment to the young core of Zion, Ingram and Ball, giving they and the Pelicans’ starting lineup a league-best +26.3 net-rating among groups that played together for 180 minutes or more.

Let’s break down just how Favors managed to impact both ends of the floor.

Defensively

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said that “getting Derrick Favors back and him anchoring our defense was a real key.”

To say Favors was a sizable upgrade over Jahlil Okafor and Jaxson Hayes may be the understatement of the season. While both possess unique skill sets on the offensive side of the floor, each often found themselves out of position defensively. In Hayes’ case, foul trouble was a consistent problem that often sidelined him early, forcing Nicolo Melli into the paint.

Favors, on the other hand, ranked in the 73rd percentile in fouls per game despite playing the defense’s most critical position. His rebounding role was even more crucial as he impacted the team in ways no other Pelican could match. With him on the floor, the Pelicans ranked in the 90th percentile in team rebounding on the offensive glass and 90th on the defensive end.

The Pelicans ranked 21st in rebounding percentage before Favors return on December 18th.

This body of work was instrumental in reversing the Pelicans’ fortunes. In addition to playing elite level defense, the Pelicans eliminated second-chance points and gave themselves extra opportunities on the offensive glass, thereby eliminating opponent fast break opportunities.

“Once Derrick Favors came back after missing that month basically, we started to sort of have a defense that was rooted in a much better place,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve started to show some growth at that point, and that growth continued as we led into the period where Zion came back and that sort of became our third season.”

The size, athleticism and skill that the 2019 eighth overall pick and 2015 third overall pick possess are not what drives Favors as much as his positioning and anticipation. Favors knows when to stunt opponents, when to hedge and how to manipulate both the handler and roll man in pick-and-roll coverage, an instrumental key in defending the paint.

In addition, Favors brought the veteran leadership that Griffin often spoke of last offseason. Assembling young talent isn’t enough to building culture. We’ve seen that experiment try and fail across multiple organizations. Someone like Favors is needed to breed a culture of diligence by studying his opponent as well as doing typical drills and getting shots up before and after games.

As Antonio Daniels continued on The Bird Calls Podcast:

“When you hear him in postgame discuss other guy’s tendencies, this is going to pay dividends. You may not be able to see it. A lot what he brings may not show up on the stat sheet, but you best believe the things he’s saying off and on the camera, Zion, Ingram and others are listening. Having an impactful veteran like Favors in that locker room is huge for this young frontcourt.”

Offensively

Part of what sold the former Jazz big was Griffin’s proclamation of Favors possessing ‘untapped offensive potential.’ Unfortunately, that didn’t always translate in the way we all hoped, but it wasn’t his fault.

Favors never secured the opportunity often thanks to his own selflessness. Thus, he experienced the lowest usage rate of his career, ranking in the 20th percentile (12.9 percent). His previous low mark occurred during his rookie season (15.1 percent). Zion, Ingram, Jrue and Lonzo each earned a rate of over 21 percent, with Zion and Ingram ranking in the 95th and 96th percentile, respectively.

Despite those offseason proclamations, Favors never once uttered a complaint.

Still, when Favors earned any opportunity, he made the most of it. Undeterred by the lowest number of shots in eight years, he responded with his highest field-goal percentage (62%) and eFG percentage (62.1%) by a significant margin. For some reference, Shaquille O’Neal didn’t hit those numbers until his 19th season when he took just over five shots per game. Favors ranked in the 85th percentile in eFG% and 84th in shots at the rim (75 percent of his shots) — far above that of even Zion. As mentioned previously, the way Favors impacted the offensive glass by grading out in the 94th percentile in offensive rebounding also paid nice dividends.

And Favors made all of his teammates look great in the pick-in-roll.

On January 16th in a huge victory against the Jazz in which Ingram exploded for 49 points eight rebounds and six assists, each once of his dimes went to, you guessed it, Derrick Favors.

Favors is also an underrated passer. While he established immediate chemistry with Holiday in the pick-and-roll, he didn’t just force his way to the basket. He’d use the evidence presented in front of him to read and react by attacking the basket, hitting a wing in the corner, or even returning a bounce pass to the initiator. Favors displays an innate knack for diagnosing the defense before he commits to anything, always reacting in a way that benefits the offense.

On the possession in the link below, two Jazz defenders occupy opposite sides of the paint. If the two collapse to the center, Favors kicks to the corner. Instead, Tony Bradley hedges to force the pass and offers the easy path to the basket. Though the Pelicans are just inside the final minute, Favors can anticipate this because Bradley has already committed five fouls and isn’t playing as physically as he was through the first three quarters. Favors can sell the pass because he has excellent hands for a big capable of catching and dishing on the move and in traffic.

As we mentioned above, Favors is more than just a roll man who can set a proper screen. When he anticipates a defender’s reaction as he does above, he can also use those instances to make opportunities for his teammates.

On this following specific possession, Favors rolls to the free throw circle, drawing in the only weakside defender (Gary Harris). Once the strongside is overloaded, Favors kicks to Lonzo Ball who hits the wide open three from the wing. Favors had two of his six highest usage games against Denver. In this clip below, his net rating for the game was +17.7 thanks to the added offensive workload.

The Passing of Derrick’s Mother

The Pelicans center position was of critical concern through the first 27 games as Favors suited up and played 20 minutes or more in only seven of those contests. A combination of back and knee issues sidelined him initially, prompting the same concerns Jazz fans had in November of 2018 as Favors attempted to work his way back from bask spasms, IT bands and a sore knee.

The Pelicans could’ve desperately used Favors throughout their 13-game losing streak, but he experienced the deep and traumatic loss of his mother, Deandra.

“Through injuries and trade rumors, she was always that person I could call,” Favors said of his mother. “She helped me out a lot. That’s something I’m going to miss. But I learned a lot from her.”

Never one to be longwinded with his words, Favors’ emotions spilled out, revealing his heavy heart.

Pelicans’ fans have seen their fair share of traumas both in the city of New Orleans and with their favorite franchise. Watching Favors respond with such strength couldn’t help but lift his teammates and a fanbase desperate to return to competitive basketball. Once again, Favors proved the selfless warrior plodding on from game to game without uttering so much as a word of his personal plight. This kind of leadership not only breeds bonds within a locker room, it leads to the foundation of an atmosphere built on trust and empathy, one that inevitably impacts a team-first approach on the court.

“We have a group of guys that are very competitive,” Trajan Langdon said. “The guys that are going to come in here, mentally, are going to have to be ready. They’re going to have to be tough. They’re going to have to be strong-minded. We need to have guys with the mental fortitude and that will to be a part of this group and push this group in not only games but in practice every day. And that takes a special kind of person and those kind of people are the ones we’re looking for.”

Is Favors a Part of the Future?

Despite all of the positives, there are concerns. Favors averaged 76.5 games played in the past two seasons, but he’s missed 20 or more in 2019-20, 2015-16 and 2016-17. Although he’s only 29 years of age, his long term health seems an issue because of a propensity for injury and the good deal of mileage on his 265-pound frame.

Add it all up, the Pelicans have to wonder if they can even afford Favors in free agency. With a maximum contract coming Ingram’s way, plus high-priced potential extensions going to Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball this summer (taking effect 2020-21), the Pelicans could soon find themselves near the luxury tax.

The Pelicans have also invested quite a bit in eighth overall pick, Jaxson Hayes. Hayes proved himself a ways away, but it may not be in New Orleans best interest to hand Favors a long term deal with Hayes waiting in the wings.

In addition, true centers are considered somewhat outdated in today’s NBA. Versatility has become a critical part of team defense and spreading the floor on the other end. While Favors plodded his way through the rotation as a power forward for the Jazz in spurts, he was really a de facto center backing up Rudy Gobert.

Regardless of the validity of this argument, the right move for the Pelicans is to re-sign Favors. They are not expected to have any available cap space, making re-signing their own players critical. Plus, there isn’t a big on the market anywhere close to what Favors provides. In addition to all of the accolades expressed above, Favors ranked seventh among centers in real plus-minus in 2019-20, this after grading as Five Thirty Eight’s best DRAYMOND defender in 2018-19.

And besides, we have witnessed proof of his importance — the young core thrives with Favors on the floor. The Pelicans are 17.7 points better than their opponents with Zion and Favors, far better than any other combination on the floor (yes, even 3.2 points better than Lonzo-Zion). Favors is +8.7 with Lonzo and +4.5 with Ingram.

The Pelicans have the means to bring back Favors and should do so on a rich but short-term deal as many in the league believe will be a common occurrence this offseason. Due to the possibility of the cap falling well below initial projections, many who would have opted to drop their player options previously will pick them up, shrinking available space throughout the league. This will limit the level of suitors for Favors this summer but will also limit what the Pelicans can offer.

In just over a year’s time, the likely new contracts of Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart will take effect and possibly make retaining Favors beyond the 2020-21 season difficult. Therefore, the Pelicans should offer Favors a one-year extension worth between $15-20 million, which would allow him the freedom to explore free agency again when the market is flush with cash the following summer. This decision benefits everyone and should make the Pelicans a force to be reckoned with next season.

So, what about you, Pels’ fans? Should the Pelicans bring back Favors back? If so, on what terms? Let your voice be heard and be sure to share this article!