By Rob Mahoney
As coaches begin to shape their regular-season rotations, one can't help but take notice of the playing time deficits among capable NBA players. No player needs to be liberated just yet; the season is far too young for us to judge any coach's initial decisions too harshly, especially when the allocation of minutes winds up being a fairly fluid affair. For now, we can simply make note of those getting a bit less burn than they deserve, if only to keep an eye on their minutes as the season progresses.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Favors has the unfortunate distinction of being his team's third-best big man -- a title that's far more complimentary of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson than it is critical of Favors, but it's a drag on his minutes nonetheless. Inevitably, having so much talent stacked between three positionally similar players creates a crunch and makes it incredibly difficult for Utah coach Ty Corbin to play each of his skilled bigs as much as he'd like.
Yet out of that logjam came a bit of ingenuity; last season, Corbin employed lineups featuring all three bigs (arguably his three best players) at once to give the Jazz a stark interior focus and glaring point of advantage. Such configurations weren't without their flaws, and they certainly aren't useful in all situations. But Corbin owes his most talented prospect a chance to prosper with more playing time (Favors is averaging about 22 minutes for the third straight season), and shifting Millsap to the wing more frequently may be the most accommodating way to accomplish that goal.
Favors' two foundational skills -- his finishing ability and shot blocking -- could form a stellar all-around game if properly cultivated, and given the contract uncertainty of the Millsap-Jefferson tandem, the Jazz will likely need Favors to take on a bigger role sooner rather than later. So why not steal Favors some extra court time to refine his awareness and instincts now, especially when the only playing-time victims would be Marvin Williams and DeMarre Carroll? Favors needs as many reps as he can get at this point in his career, and if those opportunities aren't going to come at the expense of Utah's frontcourt, it should at least come by way of some lineup creativity.
Every minute that Willie Green steals from Bledsoe is a crime against basketball itself, one that should be met with a hearing and sentencing in some unforgiving hardwood tribunal. But the justice system is nothing if not slow-moving; Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro thus far has gone unpunished, and he continues to slot Green as his starting shooting guard, awarding him ample playing time.
Green, despite all his flaws, is an NBA player. His skills warrant a roster spot and a handful of minutes in lineups that can benefit from his mid- and long-range shooting while dealing with all the other quirks in his game. But Bledsoe's athleticism makes him a multi-positional wonder capable of defending expertly on the ball, accelerating through the core of opposing defenses and bolting to loose balls and backdoor scoring opportunities. He may not be the easiest player to incorporate into traditional offenses, but Bledsoe does so much in so many different ways that it's a wonder Del Negro has been able to keep him off the floor as much as he has.
Yet there Bledsoe sits, logging just 18 minutes per game to Green's 19.8, with added rotational pressure on the way with Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill close to returning. If Del Negro doesn't get a clearer idea of Bledsoe's on-court virtues soon, a valuable Clipper could wind up living on whatever tiny bits of playing time trickle down through the cracks of the roster.
Once Brendan Haywood had been divorced from his bloated, $10-million-a-year contract with the Mavs via the amnesty clause, he actually made a lot of sense for the Bobcats. All things considered, Charlotte wound up with a decent (and now very tradable) center option for roughly $2 million a season over three years -- perfect depth-chart fodder for a team looking to build slowly from the ground up. Haywood may not be around to see the Bobcats eventually hoist themselves out of the lottery, but in the meantime he'll do little harm to Charlotte's financial outlook.
He does, however, sop up a little more playing time than one might have anticipated. After two straight seasons of playing 22 minutes or fewer per game in Dallas, Haywood's average has jumped to 31 in Charlotte. Coupled with the 31.5 minutes set aside for Byron Mullens to launch errant three-pointers, that creates a bit of a problem. It would be perfectly valid to claim that either player is currently better overall than the 20-year-old Biyombo (who is averaging 14 minutes in two games), but neither Haywood nor Mullens is as vital to Charlotte's growth. In a nutshell, this is the Jefferson-Millsap-Favors scenario, save the All-Star talent or playoff prospects; the Bobcats have an athletic big man who badly needs playing time, and they need to find a way to give it to him.
Andris Biedrins, Golden State Warriors
In 2009, Biedrins' game shattered. Injury compounded on self-doubt, and the weight of it all came to be too much for the once-promising center to bear. First went the free throws, then the finishing ability and then everything else. The Warriors' $54-million man turned to dust on live television, and though Biedrins has gone to considerable lengths to rebuild himself ever since, reconstructing a basketball player from shards is quite an ordeal.
But with Andrew Bogut's minutes and game availability limited, Biedrins deserves at least a tiny sliver of playing time, flaws and all. Rookie Festus Ezeli is a worthy recipient of most of Bogut's minutes on the first-string center's nights off, but playing Biedrins more is surely preferable to relying so heavily on David Lee to be a bumbling defensive centerpiece. Biedrins has played just seven minutes in four games, with most of that time coming in a six-minute stint against the Memphis Grizzlies. Let's be clear: Biedrins has done little in his short minutes to legitimately warrant extended time. But with so little depth behind Bogut, and Ezeli already playing big minutes, would it really do so much harm to run an occasional salvage mission on a theoretically effective big man making $9 million this year?
This pick is a plea, of sorts, to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. We get it, Thibs: Luol Deng is an amazingly functional player. He's somehow still criminally underrated as a perimeter defender, and no one is more important to the Bulls' offense with Derrick Rose out of the lineup. I appreciate the willpower it takes to play Deng just 38.3 minutes per game so far this season, but at some point the man will need a break.
That's where Butler comes in, and, in a sense, already has. Thibodeau has used Butler to spell Deng often this season, giving the second-year guard 14 minutes a night to fill out the available playing time at small forward. Butler has done quite well, and he's even offered bits of offense to complement his stout defensive game. As the season drags on, the Bulls would be wise to scale back Deng's minutes and lean on Butler's energy and defense to help fill the void.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Despite a useful skill set, Beal is losing minutes to a far less remarkable veteran -- a common thread in most of these rookie scenarios. In this particular instance, the vet in question is Martell Webster, a player assumed at the time of his signing to be an end-of-the-bench utility shooter. Instead, coach Randy Wittman has played Webster for more total minutes than all but two other Wizards, chipping away at the playing time of both Beal and third-year guard Jordan Crawford.
Considering how much ball-handling and pick-and-roll potential the Wizards have lost because of John Wall's knee injury, one would think that creative guards like Beal and Crawford could be quite valuable to the offense. Wittman is clearly of a different mind and has cut into the playing time of his two wing prospects in order to play a shooter who, at the moment, can't shoot (Webster is making 16.7 percent from three-point range). Beal is, unfortunately, not so different. Although he's converting three-pointers at a rate (33.3 percent) just below league average, the No. 3 pick has made a miserable 15.4 percent of his field goals overall. There's absolutely no doubt that Beal's struggles from the field play into Wittman's currently justifiable decision, but one can only hope that Webster's oddly high usage dwindles once Beal's performance levels out.
Landry Fields hasn't been a Raptor long enough for anyone to claim a definitive stance on his place with the team. But through four games, it's impressive that coach Dwane Casey has been able to stomach Fields' play for roughly 22 minutes a night. The Raps are short on alternatives, but further down in the depth chart is the No. 8 pick, Ross. The rookie (9.3 minutes per game) waits behind Fields, DeMar DeRozan and Alan Anderson for whatever few minutes of playing time go unclaimed, and with none of those three making a steadfast claim for a featured role, a theoretical opening for Ross remains.
Based on what we saw of Ross' game in the preseason and at the Las Vegas Summer League, there's plenty of reason to start him off slowly. But he may already be a better wing defender than DeRozan and a more useful offensive player than Anderson. That has to count for something, and with this Raptors team so badly in need of some kind of consistent production from either wing position, Ross should be afforded the opportunity to try his hand against pro competition.
The Nets lobbied Teletovic, considered one of the top scorers not yet in the NBA, to sign for for the mini mid-level exception this past summer. But Avery Johnson has largely overlooked the 27-year-old rookie in order to play Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans for a combined 32.5 minutes per game. That's a low blow; Blatche and Evans haven't been horrible, but given the glaring limitations of each, it's a bit surprising that Teletovic hasn't been simply gifted some of their playing time. It's impossible for us to know at this point how Teletovic's game will translate to NBA-style ball, much less the dynamic of this team. But must we really wait for Blatche to establish a pattern of blown rotations and Evans to bungle a dozen layup attempts before an experienced pseudo-rookie gets a proper shot?
Kendall Marshall, Phoenix Suns
Over the summer, the Suns acquired Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Jermaine O'Neal and delusions of grandeur. How else to explain their current construction, distribution of minutes and odd prioritization of Sebastian Telfair -- who, in his defense, had a nice 2011-12 season -- over their most recent first-round selection? Phoenix drafted Marshall 13th in June, but coach Alvin Gentry has given him little more than a comfortable seat at the end of the bench.
That's a shame, because Marshall's composed playmaking style is likely to translate well to the NBA game. His overall play will undoubtedly be lacking in the same way that a rookie performance almost always is, but Marshall's poise certainly bodes well for his immediate use. Even if that weren't the case, playing a potentially useful prospect would surely be more helpful to the franchise than kicking around the current roster's pipe dreams. Dragic is a really nice player, and Scola, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Jared Dudley give Phoenix some other interesting pieces in addition to the Beasley-Johnson experiments. But Phoenix would be incredibly lucky to make the playoffs with this core in place, and its long-term ceiling is first-round obliteration.
This isn't a tanking issue; it's a player development issue. The Suns are a team in transition and need to get the most out of their developing prospects. Marshall is perhaps chief among them at this point and has the game to warrant an immediate investment of minutes and instruction.
Kevin McHale isn't a terribly rookie-friendly coach, and one can see his rotational preferences in the consistent DNP-CDs handed out to Jones, White and Motiejunas. Greg Smith and Cole Aldrich have both played relatively well in the rookies' stead, but don't the Rockets have some sort of obligation to more fully evaluate their recent first-round selections? Houston's collective inexperience can only be remedied with actual playing time, and, apparently, McHale believes those minutes to be a luxury that his young players have yet to earn.