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.
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.