Position battles, lineup decisions to watch in training camp
Indiana is really the only conference finalist from last season that has a major rotation pinch to work out — a wrinkle that centers on Danny Granger’s status in his return from knee surgery. When he’s healthy, the Pacers know exactly what to expect from Granger. The 30-year-old small forward, who averaged at least 20 points for three consecutive seasons and made the 2009 All-Star team, boasts a nice all-around scoring game and deep shooting range. But Granger played only five games last season, and his practice time is being limited in training camp.
The only logical way for coach Frank Vogel to play this is to restrict Indiana’s dependence on Granger until he proves he can handle a meaningful workload over an extended period of time. That would suggest a restricted bench role to start and extensive monitoring, while leaving last year’s starting five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert intact. Remember, that group posted an outstanding net rating of plus-12.1 in more than 1,200 minutes together last season; that quintet is definitely not broken. If Granger does somehow prove up to snuff, Indiana would have the option to shift Stephenson into a reserve role.
The most intriguing battle in Heat camp has raged so long that it’s probably more accurate to refer to it as the Six Years’ War. The conflict in question is Greg Oden’s ability to coax his surgically repaired knees into allowing him to play in his first NBA game since 2009, after dealing with injury after injury since the Trail Blazers made him the No. 1 pick in 2007. The initial updates have been typically vague, optimistic and noncommittal, but his progress is attracting attention across the NBA world. A skilled 7-footer with power would be a game-changer for the Heat, who barely held it together inside against the Pacers and Spurs during the playoffs last season.
“I think [Greg] can actually make them better,” Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Oden’s former teammate, told SI.com on Monday. “If he gives them eight [points] and eight [rebounds] a night, that’s a mean eight-and-eight because you have to double-team him. … He’s definitely what they needed. [The Heat] saw the Indiana series and they saw how big [Roy] Hibbert was, and I feel like he can go at it with Hibbert if he’s healthy.”
Even eight-and-eight might be overly optimistic, given Oden’s track record, but this is the most riveting story going for the Heat, who have so few lineup questions after returning virtually their entire rotation from the team that won its second title in a row.
Five more teams to keep an eye on
Cleveland Cavaliers: The frontcourt puzzle in Cleveland is pretty amazing. With Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, the Cavaliers have an embarrassment of riches; without those three — and all are dealing with various injuries issues — the Cavaliers are left with a potential embarrassment. Varejao is reportedly at 70 percent in his return from a leg injury, Bynum says he will “definitely” play at some point this season (when? who knows) in his comeback from knee trouble and Bennett has been cleared for five-on-five play after shoulder surgery in May. Who makes it through camp and in what condition?
Detroit Pistons: According to NBA.com, big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe shared the court for just 452 minutes last season. This year, under new coach Maurice Cheeks, the initial plan is to start both Drummond and Monroe in a jumbo front line that also includes newly signed Josh Smith at small forward. That prospective trio drew questions all summer, given the obvious spacing issues on offense. As camp plays out, the big question is whether Cheeks’ commitment to the concept wavers or if Detroit, lacking overwhelmingly preferable alternatives, stays the course.
New Orleans Pelicans: Coach Monty Williams told reporters on Monday that he plans to use Tyreke Evans in a reserve role, which provides a preemptive answer to how New Orleans intends to sort out a guard mix that also includes Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers and Anthony Morrow. In the most likely scenario, Holiday, Gordon and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu start, with Evans seeing time off the bench at both shooting guard and small forward. Staggering Evans’ minutes to minimize the overlap and potential redundancy with Gordon makes plenty of sense. If Gordon winds up sidelined again, as he has in each of the last two seasons, Evans plugs in pretty readily alongside Holiday in the starting lineup.
New York Knicks: If the Knicks don’t announce Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee surgeries, that means they never happened, right? If only. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which Stoudemire, who has had three surgeries over the last year, can make a serious run at a starting position. Stoudemire’s health is only the beginning of the Knicks’ lineup questions. Assuming New York doesn’t opt for a two-point-guard look (which could be on the table), the two most logical remaining starting configurations would be to use Carmelo Anthony at power forward and Metta World Peace at small forward or to try Anthony as a three and insert Andrea Bargnani at the four. If Stoudemire is healthy, it would make some sense to stagger his minutes with Bargnani’s, as their defensive limitations could prove horrific in tandem. If Stoudemire isn’t healthy, New York would seem to be best off going smaller and using Bargnani as its third big man.
Portland Trail Blazers: Mo Williams declared himself Portland’s “sixth starter” when he was signed during the summer, but 2013 lottery pick CJ McCollum is champing at the bit for backcourt minutes, too. The plan, as laid out by coach Terry Stotts on Monday, is to lessen the load for starters Damian Lillard (38.6 minutes last season) and Wesley Matthews (34.8 minutes last season). That’s likely to be a modest decrease rather than a slash-and-burn, meaning Williams should enjoy a healthy role but McCollum might begin the season on the outside looking in. After missing the playoffs for two straight years, Portland is focused on a return trip to the postseason. That leaves McCollum, who is untested as a point guard and needs work defensively, in a position where he could be fighting an uphill battle for a major rotation role in the short term.