The preseason has revealed a problem for the Utah Jazz, though it's a happy one for Tyrone Corbin, Kevin O'Connor and Dennis Lindsey: Their frontcourt is too full. In Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Utah has a pair of above-average starters at power forward and center. Behind them is Derrick Favors, who played well enough during his second NBA campaign to justify a starting spot. Behind Favors is Enes Kanter, the No. 3 overall pick of last year's draft who has enjoyed a breakthrough month of October.
For now, the problem belongs to Corbin, who has to find minutes for all four players up front. Last season, Jefferson averaged 34.0 minutes per game and Millsap nearly 33. Favors, as the top reserve, averaged 21 minutes and Kanter a little over 13. The latter two figures might not be enough this year as Favors and Kanter develop. Already, Favors pushed his playing time to nearly 23 minutes after the All-Star break, and Kanter has played so well in the preseason--leading all NBA players in Wins Above Replacement before Thursday's double-double--that he may demand nearly equivalent action.
Last spring, Corbin found a creative temporary solution--playing Favors, Jefferson and Millsap all together in a supersized frontcourt with Millsap acting as the nominal small forward. Though that group was famously successful as the Jazz secured a playoff spot, and to a lesser extent against the San Antonio Spurs during a four-game series loss, it hasn't seen any action during the preseason and is unlikely to be a regular fixture this year.
Utah filled a gaping hole at small forward over the summer by dealing for Marvin Williams, who also has had a strong preseason--he's made 11 threes in 19 attempts. So moving Millsap to the three no longer fills the need it did last season, though Corbin's options behind Williams--primarily Demarre Carroll--remain lacking.
At times, injuries will surely solve the issue. When any one of the four players is out of the lineup, there are plenty of minutes for the remaining three to split, with athletic Jeremy Evans around to serve as a fourth big.
The larger question is how this group fits together going forward. Both Jefferson and Millsap will be unrestricted free agents next summer, when Utah has just $25.3 million in committed salary, assuming the Jazz picks up options on all four players on rookie contracts (a no-brainer) and Marvin Williams opts against hitting free agency. With Mo Williams' contract also ending, Utah will have the ability to find a long-term solution at point guard and bring back one of Jefferson or Millsap while staying under the salary cap.
Of course, the Jazz could keep both Jefferson and Millsap, especially since Salt Lake City isn't exactly a destination for coveted free agents to take their talents. As Favors and Kanter develop, however, that could be too much money--and more importantly talent--invested in two positions. So one of Millsap or Jefferson is likely headed elsewhere.
The intriguing possibility this preseason has offered is that both Favors and Kanter may be ready to start soon. Favors already appears to have reached that point, and Kanter is getting there quickly. As we've discussed all week, overreacting to preseason is dangerous, but Kanter hasn't just played well this month--he's played better than anyone else in the league, averaging 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 58 percent from the field.
Kanter is down 30 pounds from his playing weight last season, and the physical transformation is striking--he looks like an entirely different player, and plays like one too. During Monday's preseason game at Portland, Kanter probably made half a dozen plays he would have been incapable of making as a rookie. Kanter is lighter on his feet, more agile and gets off the ground better. Consider also that this is hardly a case of a player coming out of nowhere, since Kanter was good enough to be taken third overall with little track record before reaching the NBA.
Of course, even if Favors and Kanter reach that point, Utah will still need someone to back them up, which makes it unlikely the Jazz would let both players walk. That could make the rest of the season an audition between Jefferson and Millsap, who have similar overall value (Millsap posted 11.5 WARP last season, Jefferson 10.4, both marks career highs) but very different styles. Corbin will need to make sure that the Jazz can play with any combination of the remaining three players. Jefferson and Kanter spent nine minutes on the floor together all last season. Kanter's increased mobility and budding midrange game make that duo a more realistic option this year.
Depending on how optimistic Utah is about the future for Favors and Kanter, Millsap's proven ability to come off the bench could be a differentiating factor between the two bigs. His style is also somewhat more complementary, since Favors and Kanter remain most effective in the paint.
The other thing Lindsey and O'Connor must consider is the possibility of a midseason trade. If the Jazz can get a starter in the backcourt in exchange for either Jefferson or Millsap during the season, that may be a safer option than relying on something to materialize during the summer. At the same time, no one knows better than Utah that cap space need not always be spent on free agents. The Jazz have used trade exceptions to take on two veteran contracts (Jefferson and Mo Williams) while sending no salary back. Another deal like that could be an alternative to free agency.
With so many options, there are important decisions ahead for Utah. Nonetheless, the Jazz can take comfort in the fact that if the young big men continue to play so well, every choice is a favorable one for the team's future.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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