Why the Jazz kept their free agents

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz could spend over $70 million over the course of the next three years to keep their free-agent trio around.

It's an easy decision to justify in a press conference. After all, the Jazz did have an unexpectedly successful season last year, making it to the Western Conference semifinals despite losing their big perimeter star in last year's free agency. And with the team coming together to finish the season with a 30-6 run, the young group could figure to grow, becoming an even better team next season.

And yes, some of those platitudes were used in Friday's press conference officially announcing the signings of Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto to multiyear contracts.

But more revealing was the Word document sent to beat writers just afterward, directly from Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. These were the arguments and statistics used inside the Jazz's front office at the Zions Bank Basketball Center, the real currency among the decision makers.

So here's why Favors, Exum, and Neto are still with the Jazz today.

Derrick Favors

While those outside the Jazz organization question the fit of Favors with center Rudy Gobert, Lindsey has always been a bigger believer than most. He acknowledged Friday that there are times when the Jazz have to keep only one big man on the floor, but Favors and Gobert are a duo to be reckoned with.

In particular, Lindsey pointed out that the Jazz allowed opponents to shoot only 51.9 percent in the paint when Favors and Gobert were on the floor — first in the league. The Jazz outscore opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when they're together — a number that would rank second in the league if it happened for all 48 minutes.

And, as you'd expect, the Jazz have been a good offensive rebounding team with both big men out there, getting 24.4 percent of their own team's misses; that's fourth in the league.

That duo was dominant in the Jazz's second half of the season. Lindsey broke it into three parts: the 38 games of the season after Gobert returned from injury, the 24 games after the Crowder trade, and the 14 games after Exum returned from injury. Here's the table:

Last 38 Games114.9 (9)96.1(1) 15.3 (1)
Last 24 Games109.7 (15)96.3 (1)13.4 (1)
Last 14 Games113.6 (7)94.8 (1)18.8 (1)

Finally, Lindsey pointed out that Favors is an elite-level rim finisher. He shot 77.5 percent at the rim this year, which was second among all centers behind only Anthony Davis. Gobert, for what it's worth, finished fourth. Favors also had 165 dunks in 2017-18, far more than any other year of his career.

Dante Exum

Given that Exum only played 14 games in the regular season this year (plus 10 in the playoffs), there's some risk of playing "small sample size theater," eye-popping stats that don't really mean much. Never is this more clear than in a section Lindsey titled "Fun Dante Stat:"

Guards who produced at or above Dante’s level in usage (USG), assist percentage (AST%), free throw attempt rate (FTA Rate), and True Shooting this year: Dante Exum, James Harden and Damian Lillard.

That's pretty impressive. But with Exum, it seems as if Lindsey's criteria was mostly about his proficiency on the defensive end. Here's a table of the top 10 guards in the NBA — with a minimum of 100 shots allowed — and the effective field goal percentage they allowed when they were the closest defender to the shot.

Shooter DefShots AgainsteFG%
Dante Exum12440.3
Raul Neto24345.1
Ian Clark48945.1
Joe Young15345.1
Mike James24245.9
John Wall51645.9
Josh Huestis36946.5
Mike Conley11946.6
T.J. McConnell55546.8
Goran Dragic65346.9

Lindsey also pointed out Exum's success at defending Harden in the playoffs. Exum defended Harden for 53 possessions in the playoffs, according to Lindsey, and only scored 12 points, shooting 3-14 from the floor (21.4 percent), 0-5 from 3-point range, and added four turnovers.

Raul Neto

Neto's case is a defensive one, too. Lindsey pulled the following table from the team's deep-dive analysis of Neto:

Raul Neto - Def. Rating when On Court - with and without Gobert
With RudyWithout RudyOverall
With NetoTeam Av.DiffWith NetoTeam Avg.DiffWith NetoTeam Avg.Diff

"This, by far, is the most conclusive thing I've seen regarding Neto's contribution to team defense. Across all three seasons, and every cut, the defense is significantly better when Raul is on the court," the report says. "While this does not control for opponents, it seems fairly stable given that this trend continues across all seasons and with/without Gobert on the floor."

Lindsey also talked about Neto's improved 3-point shooting. When Neto was in the Spanish league, the ACB, he was a very bad 3-point shooter, going just 29 percent in European play. But he's improved to 38.8 percent as an NBA shooter.

Usually, players' shooting percentages decrease when moving to the NBA, but Neto's improved. That NBA percentage ranks him sixth among Jazz 3-point shooters all time.

These statistics certainly don't tell the whole story among every player, and of course, Lindsey only sent us the positive stats on his players. But given the source, it's a good example of how the Jazz think when considering the best in their players.

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