There’s a basic understanding when NBA general managers put rosters together: every piece to the puzzle should have a defined role. That isn’t always the case, but for the most part it’s easy to differentiate the starters from guys who will be used as reserves.
For a variety of teams that made changes during the off-season and free agency, however, the big picture isn’t quite so clear. As a result, position battles will jump to the forefront as guys compete in the short term for long-term playing time. In some cases, it’s all about winning a starting gig. But crowded depth charts will lead to players at the same position merely fighting for minutes.
With the start of the 2015-16 season still a ways away, here are just a few of the key position battles to keep an eye on leading up to the fresh campaign.
Celtics: Power Forwards Galore
If you followed Boston’s 2015 off-season closely, chances are you took a step back and wondered why Danny Ainge and Co. stocked up on so many power forwards. Free agent Brandon Bass left to sign with the long-time rival Lakers, but the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson and Perry Jones while retaining Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder. That’s one heck of a logjam at the four spot.
It’s true that both Jones and Crowder primarily play small forward, but those guys spent 22% and 30% of their court time, respectively, at power forward a season ago—according to position estimates by Basketball Reference. Each guy can thrive at the four in small-ball lineups, so that’s probably not a look head coach Brad Stevens will totally abandon.
It is fair to assume, though, that Kelly Olynyk will now spend all of his time at center (he played sparingly at power forward a season ago). But with the incumbent, trimmed-down version of Jared Sullinger in the mix, the Celts still have a lot of questions to answer in the frontcourt.
Even by leaving out Crowder and Jones, Boston has four solid options who all deserve playing time. One has to figure Johnson will get significant run after signing a lucrative two-year, $24 million contract this summer. Lee is deserving of minutes as well, but his poor defensive chops all but ensures he can’t play alongside Olynyk in the post—that is unless Coach Stevens wants to forgo any and all rim protection.
There’s a lot to unwrap here, but Boston, at the very least, will have plenty of depth in the frontcourt to mitigate any potential injury troubles.
Suns: P.J. or T.J.?
The battle for court time between P.J. Tucker and T.J. Warren in Phoenix is going to get far more interesting in Warren’s second professional season. The 2014 lottery pick out of N.C. State played well at the end of last season, but ultimately wasn’t given much opportunity. That should change in 2015-16 following an impressive Summer League showing.
In seven starts in Las Vegas, Warren scored 18.7 points per game on 54% shooting from the floor. He didn’t make much of an impact on the glass, but his uncanny ability to contort his body in the lane and score with ease on the inside despite a below-the-rim style is intriguing. And you have to keep in mind Warren is just 21 years old (he’ll be 22 in September). Fostering and developing that young talent has to become a priority in the desert sooner rather than later.
Where Tucker still has the edge is on the perimeter. He’s a career 35.7% shooter from beyond the arc and the only remaining Suns player who shot above 34% from deep a season ago for head coach Jeff Hornacek. Those figures are far from elite, but three-point shooting is a skill Warren hasn’t developed at all yet. He was 5-of-21 last season over the course of 40 games and 0-of-4 during Summer League.
• MORE NBA: Suns forward Markieff Morris demands trade
Due to the ongoing Markieff Morris saga—the talented power forward reportedly wants to be traded from Phoenix—Warren may ultimately slide to the four spot. In that case, Tucker’s standing as a trusted veteran could be safe, but we’ll also have to see what Sonny Weems can bring to the NBA table after dining overseas since 2011.
Lakers: Rookie or Sophomore PG?
A number of pundits expected Lakerland to use its No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft to select standout Duke big man Jahlil Okafor. Instead, L.A.’s brass opted for the dynamic playmaking abilities of Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell.
• MORE NBA: Russell puts on show at rookie photo shoot
The remarkably talented one-and-done led all freshmen in scoring (19.3 points per game). He drained 41.1% of his three-pointers and dished out nifty passes en route to five assists per contest (third among freshmen). His Summer League showing, however, raised some concerns.
The sample size is pretty negligible (five games), but Russell averaged 5.2 turnovers against 3.2 assists while converting 37.7% of his field goals and only two of his 17 three-point attempts (11.8%). Ultimately, he’s young, inexperienced and it’s not often wise to put too much stock in Summer League showings (good or bad). However, it may be an early sign that Russell shouldn’t be thrown into the NBA crucible as the Day 1 starter. Luckily, the Lakers have another option in-house who has already proven to be quite effective.
Former second-round pick Jordan Clarkson, who already has a year of professional experience under his belt, put on a show in April. During the last month of his rookie campaign (eight games played), Clarkson averaged 19.4 points, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 47.7% from the field and 34.5% from three-point territory. There’s a similar issue with playing time. Additionally, Clarkson didn’t exactly light the world on fire during Summer League—though he was more efficient than Russell—but there aren’t as many question marks swirling around the incumbent floor general.
Prior to this year’s draft, NBA skills trainer Drew Hanlen (who has worked with Clarkson) told me he believed the All-Rookie First Team member would “take a big leap forward” in his second year as a pro. The addition of Russell could throw a monkey wrench in that outlook, but the two can certainly play simultaneously (pushing Clarkson to shooting guard).
For Lakers fans and the organization at large, this competition could ultimately prove a best-case scenario. Russell and Clarkson will theoretically go head-to-head in practice and challenge each other to get better. They can’t both orchestrate the offense at the same time—especially with Kobe Bryant around to command his own usage percentage—but each youngster has tantalizing potential.
Timberwolves: Veteran vs. Youth
With three former No. 1 overall picks on the roster—Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns—it’s abundantly clear Minnesota is experiencing a youth movement. There is, however, a big decision that needs to be made at the shooting guard spot moving forward.
The T-Wolves have both 32-year-old veteran Kevin Martin (a career 18-point-per-game scorer) and 20-year-old leaper Zach LaVine on the depth chart. The latter has been tiding over anxious NBA fans with his off-season dunking, while the former remains one of the game’s most reliable pure scorers when healthy.
Martin is getting paid significantly more, but LaVine is a young prospect viewed as part of Minny’s future. Will the reigning Slam Dunk Contest champ show enough all-around improvement in practice to justify starting in Martin’s place? Can he shed the “just a dunker” label this season, or is he still a year or two away?
Chances are Martin will begin the year as the starter, but LaVine could stake a claim to that spot early by displaying an evolution in his game. It will be tough to take Martin’s scoring chops out of the lineup, but LaVine’s athleticism and upside may act as a trump card for a team looking to develop its young core.
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