Position battles, lineup decisions to watch in training camp
Free-agency investments have been made, trades have been consummated, rookies have been selected and decks have been shuffled. Some rosters have been blown up, contenders have stocked up and teams stuck in the middle have tried to keep pace through modest moves. All 30 NBA teams will conduct training camp this week, giving them a chance to finally see how the new pieces fit in practice, rather than in theory.
Here’s a quick survey of some of the most intriguing position battles, roster logjams and open questions that should gain clarity in the weeks between now and opening night.
Five teams to watch
The biggest move of the summer — Dwight Howard’s decision to sign with the Rockets — immediately provoked speculation that incumbent center Omer Asik wanted a new home where he could again lay claim to a full-time starting job. The second wave of stories suggested that the Rockets, who are without an obvious starting power forward candidate, might open camp with the hope that Howard and Asik could start together. The third wave saw Asik, who averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds last season, duck all Media Day queries concerning his (un)happiness after coach Kevin McHale made it clear that his Turkish center needs to focus on doing his job.
Whether or not Houston pursues its Twin Towers approach in the starting lineup, McHale will surely be best served by staggering the minutes so that either Howard or Asik is on the court at all times, allowing the Rockets to protect the rim while avoiding troublesome matchups against perimeter-oriented power forwards. Both players ranked in the top 20 for regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) last season, and both were game-changing presences last season: Houston’s defensive efficiency was 5.7 points better with Asik on the court, and the Lakers were 6.1 points better with Howard in the lineup.
So who fills the gaps when only one of the Howard/Asik combination is on the court? The top candidates: 23-year-old Donatas Motiejunas, a skilled Lithuanian who played limited minutes during his rookie season and at EuroBasket this summer and hasn’t shown much accuracy from long range; Terrence Jones, a 21-year-old second-year stretch four who was a D-League All-Star last season; and Greg Smith, a more traditional inside player entering his third season. None jumps off the page as a surefire favorite, as the Rockets would surely like to get some floor spacing and perimeter shooting from that spot.
The good news is that Howard is a legitimate rock, capable of affecting Houston’s defense and rebounding to the point that McHale should have enough time to experiment and tinker with the combinations around him.
Golden State Warriors
The surprising sign-and-trade deal that landed Andre Iguodala with Golden State trailed only Howard’s signing in Houston on the list of summer transactions that have the potential to alter the hierarchy of championship contenders. The bold, creative move necessarily shakes up the status quo for the Warriors, who enjoyed excellent stability from point forward to power forward (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and David Lee) during the 2012-13 regular season, before riding small ball to the second round of the playoffs in the wake of Lee’s hip injury. Indeed, that foursome was by far Golden State’s most-used four-man group, posting a plus-4.2 in more than 1,300 minutes played together.
Conventional NBA wisdom dictates that the All-Star-caliber player being paid eight figures while in his prime (Iguodala) will get the starting nod over the promising 21-year-old coming off a solid rookie season (Barnes). There are no easy alternatives that would allow both to start. The Curry/Thompson backcourt combination has proved too potent and cohesive, and it’s the foundation of Golden State’s identity. Lee, who says he’s had no setbacks in his recovery from hip surgery, looks equally entrenched at power forward after an All-Star season. Barring a major injury to one of those principals — or more health problems for center Andrew Bogut that would require a desperate small-ball configuration — this appears to be an either/or proposition between Iguodala and Barnes. There would be no shame in a demotion for Barnes, the only 2012 lottery pick to serve as a full-time starter for a playoff team last season, but such a shift will likely require him to play a more proactive offensive role when he’s on the court with second-unit players.
Oklahoma City Thunder
How big is the Thunder’s hole at sixth man now that shooting guard Kevin Martin, the replacement for James Harden, signed with Minnesota this summer? Well, if you have to put a number on it, try 10.1 shots, the amount Harden attempted per game in 2011-12 and Martin averaged last season. Expecting a third year of similar continuity would be a mistake, as neither of the two candidates — second-year guard Jeremy Lamb, who played only 147 minutes as a rookie, and third-year guard Reggie Jackson, who has averaged 13 minutes in 115 games — are established, efficient scoring options at this early stage in their respective careers.
Lamb, a 21-year-old two-guard with prototypical size, fits the niche more traditionally, as he made his name during two seasons at UConn as a volume scorer with passable range. For the time being, though, Jackson, 23, is the more accomplished player, especially after a strong 2013 postseason in which he stepped into Russell Westbrook’s shoes and performed admirably, averaging 13.9 points and 3.6 assists in 11 games. Unfortunately, Jackson’s range is limited and he works best on the ball, so he’ll need to show that he can flourish in a complementary role if he wants to see a significant uptick in minutes.
Barring a leap from either of those two players, those 10.1 field-goal attempts (and the minutes that go with them) will likely be carved up by committee. The Thunder’s top-three scoring options — small forward Kevin Durant, Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka — are all fully capable of adding more to their plates, and the in-a-pinch fallback here is — as always — Derek Fisher. Yes, he’s still in the league.
UPDATE: Westbrook has undergone a second knee surgery that is expected to sideline him for the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season, so this issue is resolved for now as Jackson will likely step in as the starter.