Wolves’ Williams among those sliding further down the depth chart
By Rob Mahoney
The work of an NBA coaching staff is never done. There are always games to re-watch, strategies to alter, or decisions to be made — the most glaring of which may be the difficult choices that come in managing minutes and a sensible rotation. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to doling out playing time, but NBA head coaches are ultimately responsible for the product on the floor and the success of the lineups that they field. It’s a privilege of the gig to have that much power, but one that undoubtedly comes with all kinds of internal second-guessing and a never-ending string of potential alternatives.
Today, we take a look at some of the more serious rotational changes that have taken place throughout the first quarter of the season or so — with a particular emphasis on those who have lost minutes or prized roles in their coach’s search for a more productive organization of talent.
Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves
In a move that should surprise no one at all, Williams has been relegated back to the end of the bench, a place from which he is summoned only to fill gaps in the face of foul trouble or when a matchup specifically requires his tweener skill set. After all, the string of 20-minute outings Williams received early in the season was never meant to last; it was solely the product of a horrid streak of injuries, and ultimately, it was offset by Rick Adelman’s clear lack of confidence in the second-year forward.
And honestly, who could blame Adelman for shrugging his shoulders at Williams’ struggles around the rim, poor mid-range shooting and limited defensive game? It’s not as if Williams was the first rookie to enter the league with some areas of concern. But injuries to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio put the Wolves in a position with an almost nonexistent margin for error. They won games with defense, and couldn’t afford to have Williams learning on the job while logging heavy minutes. So Adelman instead defaulted to Dante Cunningham, one of this year’s more unexpected surprises. After a decent year in Memphis, Cunningham wound up as an essential piece for Minnesota through the first 10 games of the season or so, an athletic defender who funnels the right way, helps at the right times and offers all of those little things that are currently lacking from Williams’ unseasoned game.
The Wolves had no room for wild-card talent due to their rampant injuries, and now they have no room for combo forwards with Kevin Love filling 34.1 minutes a night, Andrei Kirilenko playing an vital role and Cunningham still playing such reliable defense. Ideally, Williams would be able to work out the kinks in his game with plenty of on-court reps, but lottery talent alone won’t guarantee minutes on a deep, playoff-caliber roster.
D.J. Augustin, Indiana Pacers
The problem with having a limited skill set in the NBA is that one’s footing can give out quickly when those strengths disappear. Such is the fate of D.J. Augustin — the scoring point guard who can’t seem to score, and has thus tumbled into the third position in the Pacers’ depth chart. Perimeter scoring was Augustin’s most marketable NBA skill, and yet after shooting three-pointers at a slightly below-average rate for the past two seasons (while playing for the offensively challenged Bobcats, mind you), Augustin has converted just 21.3 percent of his long-range tries for Indiana this year. He’s largely defenseless, would never be confused for a dynamic playmaker and is turning the ball over at a career-high clip. Things could hardly be going any worse for the relocated point guard, who has thus far failed miserably in his attempts to fill in for former Pacer Darren Collison.
What’s even more strange: The Pacers’ offense isn’t all that point-guard dependent, making the wide impact of Augustin’s struggles that much more incredible. Even in what is ultimately a complementary role, Augustin is doing enough damage just by being on the floor to hinder Indiana’s scoring by about 10 points per 100 possessions. Some of that is a product of Vogel’s rotations (rarely is Augustin used with more than a single Pacers starter at a time), but even lineup construction can’t fully explain how poorly Augustin has played. Rotation-level NBA players have to provide value on the court, even if that value isn’t immediately apparent to the casual observer. But Augustin isn’t scoring (he’s averaging 9 points per 36 minutes on 26.6 percent shooting overall), can’t seem to see past the initial defensive pressure in order to set up teammates and spends far too much time fleeing from ball pressure rather than actively engaging and creating for himself or his teammates. It’s a disaster of a season, frankly, for a player whose weaknesses were better disguised while playing for a basement-level team.
Willie Green, Los Angeles Clippers
For a moment there, Willie Green had carved out a pretty respectable role for himself as a Chauncey Billups placeholder. Limited though his game is, he filled minutes admirably, spending offensive possessions waiting patiently in the corner for a kick-out pass. On defense, the physical guard was capable of cross-matching as the Clippers needed. He didn’t do anything spectacular, and for that reason many observers — myself included — clamored for Green’s minutes to be cinched for the sake of the far more sensational Eric Bledsoe. L.A.’s playing time allocation slowly started to drift that way, and once Billups made his return to the lineup, Green fell out of Vinny Del Negro’s rotation entirely.
An inflamed tendon in Billups’ foot has bought Green a little more time, but a stop-gap role seems to be his lot with these Clippers. He’ll snag 15 minutes a game whenever Bledsoe or Billups sits, make a few spot-up jumpers and find his way back to his front-row seat. Green is who he is, and L.A. is deep enough not to expect anything else of him.
James Johnson, Sacramento Kings
The first nine games of the Kings’ season provided an exercise in how much ill-fitting offensive personnel could effectively shrink the court. Isaiah Thomas was the best long-range shooter of Sacramento’s starters, but his short stature means he needs fairly optimal conditions in order to fire off a jumper. DeMarcus Cousins’ decision making seems to regress the farther he gets from the basket. Jason Thompson is a pretty reliable mid-range shooter, but couldn’t reasonably be expected to get open looks from that range without the floor spacing necessary to create driving lanes. Tyreke Evans on the wing without a shooting counterpart is a bit of a disaster, and so naturally Keith Smart opted to finish his starting five with James Johnson — a good fill-in-the-gaps player without much of a scoring game or any capacity to space the floor whatsoever.
That’s not an exaggeration; Johnson has hit a total of 42 three-pointers in six NBA seasons, and this year has yet to make a single one. In fact, Johnson is shooting 20 percent on all attempts more than five feet from the rim this season, per NBA.com. Given his limitations, Johnson does a good job of sticking to the script with regard to his role, but he’s ultimately the kind of drag on a team’s spacing that could only be managed within the context of a more well-constructed offense lined with better perimeter shooters. In that scenario, Johnson’s passing and cutting would prove wonderful assets. But he was part of the reason why the Kings’ starting lineup drowned; that group scored at a rate of 88.6 points per 100 possessions, and while we should hardly blame the role player who just happened to be on the floor at the wrong time, removing the unassuming Johnson (along with Thomas, who has had trouble recapturing the magic of last season) from the starting lineup was too easy a change for Smart to implement.
Gerald Green, Indiana Pacers
The Pacer bench was an outright disaster a season ago, and I had hopes that Green — who scored 18.4 points per 36 minutes for the Nets last year on 48 percent shooting — might provide just the offensive spark that Indy’s second unit needed. That hasn’t been the case. Although stylistically Green isn’t playing all that differently than he did last year, he appears encumbered by the offensive funk that has seemed to infect the entire Pacers roster. His scoring is way down, his shooting percentages have dropped and Green hardly seems suited for anchoring a bench lineup that so rarely seems to know what its doing. As bad as Indiana’s starters have been on the offensive end, the subs have been even worse, troubled by both a low overall talent level and a poor fits.
Green hasn’t at all been the worst among them (Augustin should be truly proud for taking home that superlative), but he also has yet to find a rhythm despite Vogel shifting him into different lineups and using him all around the court. As such, the Pacers haven’t given up on Green so much as tabled their experimentation; he still has a chance to log 20+ minutes on a pretty regular basis, but Lance Stephenson now receives some of the playing time that was once Green’s. Stephenson may be no catch himself, but this is a decision validated by Green’s lackluster play and motivated solely by the desire to pull the Pacers’ offense out of the roadside ditch it’s been idling in since Danny Granger’s injury.
Josh McRoberts, Orlando Magic
Admittedly, the only reason that McRoberts is included on this list is because Jacque Vaughn went out of his way to incorporate him into the rotation early in the season. For that he can hardly be faulted. I probably wouldn’t have played McRoberts at small forward were I arbitrarily made the Magic’s head coach, but I have no problem with a new coach experimenting a bit and feeling out his roster. Vaughn found a way to get McRoberts some extra minutes, wasn’t terribly impressed with the results and has since given a bit more playing time to rookies Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless.
Even though Harkless hasn’t done all that much to shore up the weakest postion on Orlando’s active roster (oh, what misery Hedo Turkoglu’s injury has wrought), the decision to ditch the McRoberts experiment and give a pair of first-year players some extra minutes is exactly the kind of move that the Magic are in a position to make. It’s clear that McRoberts is an NBA-caliber player, but he isn’t quite effective enough to warrant more than a handful of minutes a night.
MarShon Brooks, Brooklyn Nets
MarShon Brooks is a natural, pro-level scorer who was assumed to be an important reserve asset for a team lacking in second-unit options. That hasn’t exactly been the case, if only because his role and minutes were swept out from under him while he sat with injury. Over the course of Brooks’ recovery, Nets head coach Avery Johnson found more value than many had anticipated in veteran wings Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans, to the point where Brooks is often the third option among reserve wing players despite his natural offensive aptitude.
For that, we can blame Brooks’ defense — which is legitimately as bad as advertised. Stackhouse and Bogans may not be able to keep up laterally with ball-dominant opponents, but due to the nature of the Nets’ rotation they rarely have to. Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace have the honor of taking the majority of Brooklyn’s most difficult defensive marks, and there’s enough cross-matching potential with C.J. Watson and Deron Williams to shield Stackhouse and Bogans from opponents who would capitalize heavily on their declining athleticism. Whereas Brooks loses his way on an incredibly regular basis, Stackhouse and Bogans at least have their defensive bearings about them — a trait which Johnson obviously puts at a premium, even relative to Brooks’ bucket-getting potential.