The news that Utah big man Mehmet Okur signed with Turkish club Turk Telecom Ankara (with an opt-out clause to return to the NBA when the lockout ends) is a reminder of just how many rotation-level big men the Jazz have: Okur, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. That’s five, and you could make the argument that four of them (all but Kanter) deserve starter-level minutes if healthy. And we haven’t even addressed Kyrylo Fesenko and Andrei Kirilenko, both free agents, or Jeremy Evans, whom the Jazz have to hope can swing between both forward positions after mostly playing the power spot in small lineups last season.
Something is going to have to give here, either via trade or some positional shift. This is why the Jazz experimented toward the end of last season with Millsap at small forward in an ultra-big lineup that included both Jefferson and Favors. Millsap is a good athlete with smart feet, capable of working off the dribble occasionally and finishing drives at the rim with both hands. But he’s 6-foot-8, weighs 250 pounds and just doesn’t seem built to chase small forwards around the perimeter. In a league getting smaller, quicker and more three-happy, is playing Millsap at small forward really workable?
This is basically a theoretical question, since we don’t have much evidence to work with; the Jazz played with Millsap as the nominal small forward for about 81 minutes last season, excluding lineups that logged three or fewer minutes together. (This leaves just five units.) That sample size tells us nothing, but let’s look at the numbers, via Basketball Value, just for kicks:
• Offense: 167 points on 153 possessions, or 109.1 points per 100 possessions – above Utah’s season average of about 107.6 points per 100 possessions. That scoring rate would have cracked the overall top 10 last season.
• Defense: 168 points allowed on 155 possessions, or 108.4 points allowed per 100 possessions – about a point better than Utah’s stinky season average of 109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. That represents an improvement, but even this mark would have ranked below the league’s average. Utah had serious defensive issues, regardless of where Millsap plays.
Interestingly, these ultra-big lineups struggled on the defensive glass, as the Jazz did in general last season. Only one of these five units put up a better defensive rebounding rate than Utah’s awful overall average, and three of the others missed the mark by quite a bit. Again, sample size is a glaring issue here. The group among these five that played the most — Devin Harris/Gordon Hayward/Millsap/Jefferson/Favors, with about 25.5 minutes — basically matched Utah’s overall defensive rebounding rate, which ranked 27th in the league. The others put up disastrous rebounding rates in very limited minutes, often against just one or two opponents.
What we have here is neither encouraging nor discouraging. The Jazz played a bit better with Millsap at the small forward, which is to say they were so-so instead of bad. Still, those looking for evidence that this might be workable can at least point to these numbers as evidence that the team didn’t fall apart amid a barrage of open opponent three-pointers.
That’s a legit worry, though, just as it is when we talk about the Lakers going big with Lamar Odom at small forward alongside both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Millsap’s feet might be smart, but they are not super-quick. He struggled (though not as badly as Jefferson) to help and recover on pick-and-roll plays, and he had trouble running out at spot-up shooters, especially behind the three-point line, according to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports. Opponents shot better than 40 percent from deep in spot-up chances against Millsap, and he ranked well below the league’s average in points allowed per possession on spot-up looks overall, per Synergy. Watch the video, and you see Millsap can look a bit uncomfortable diving down into the paint and then recovering onto an outside shooter.
Of course, most of the clips involve Millsap working as a power forward, with a different set of responsibilities than he’d have as a wing player. But it’s worth worrying whether he’s really up for chasing around true small forwards with good outside shots and/or dribble-drive games.
On offense, Millsap is a tricky player with a surprisingly good off-the-dribble game and a lethal mid-range jumper. He can hit that jumper off the catch and off the dribble, and his go-to isolation move usually involves launching an 18-footer after creating space with a jab step or a couple of bounces. He can hit it on the move, too. He can work a crossover dribble, and he’ll occasionally (but not often) take the ball from the outside all the way to rim. Playing for Jerry Sloan also turned Millsap into an efficient scorer on off-the-ball cuts, something that could help him play the kind of outside-in game he’d have to play more often on the wing.
Still, his in-game range stops about 20 feet from the rim, even if he’s a great practice three-point shooter. He has only 11 career three-pointers, and three of those came in one brief, divine shooting stretch in Utah’s epic early season win in Miami last year. And despite Millsap’s perimeter gifts, he is still a guy who worked from the post on 15 percent of the possessions he used, per Synergy. He’d be able to bully smaller guys down there, but doing that with Jefferson and Favors lurking in the same area could muck up Utah’s spacing.
As a neutral fan always looking for intriguing League Pass entertainment, I always root for experiments like this, and almost anything can work in small doses against the right lineups. But I’m skeptical that this is a long-term solution, which means the smart money remains on a roster move.
MORE POSITIONAL QUANDARIES:
• Trail Blazers: Can Aldridge become a long-term center?
• Lakers: Should L.A. go big, make Odom a starter?