NBA Position Battles: Orlando's Frontcourt Is About to Get Messy
Some NBA teams have starting lineups that are so indisputable that you could chisel them in stone. Of course, that's not the case for the majority of teams.
Most organizations spend entire seasons tinkering and experimenting with lineups, looking for the perfect combination of five players to start (and often finish) games. It's not an exact science -- especially in today's growingly position-less NBA -- and the discussions that arise about who should start over whom on any given night make for some of the most interesting debates in basketball.
That's what this weekly column will be all about: checking in on various position battles from around the league and how they're shaping up.
We'll look at who is currently starting for a given team at a certain position, who might be threatening to steal that spot, who is actually closing games or getting the most minutes in that battle, and how those trends are changing from week to week.
There are a lot of these battles happening across the league (too many to cover in each installment), so we'll try to focus on the most pressing and interesting disputes, or at least the ones that have recently seen the biggest change.
This is not necessarily a season-long fantasy hoops or DFS column, but the information contained within could certainly be used to gain an advantage on either of those platforms. At the very least, it'll all make for some interesting discussion.
Let the battles begin.
Aaron Gordon, the Magic's power forward of tomorrow, has been relegated to playing out of position at small forward to make room for his new teammates. The organization likely realizes that stunting Gordon's growth would be a mistake, so his minutes are probably safe between starting at the three and playing some backup four.
But where does that leave everyone else?
The team is trying to convince Ibaka he should stay beyond the last year of his contract, they just signed Biyombo to a four-year deal with a promise he could start, and they still have the incumbent Nikola Vucevic -- who has started almost every game he's played for the team over the last four seasons -- under contract for another three seasons.
This has the potential to be a mess of big contracts and bruised egos if it's not handled properly. So, how did new Magic head coach Frank Vogel tackle the task in the team's first game?
Well, that was easy, right? Gordon, Ibaka, and Vucevic all started, played 35 or 36 minutes, and had a relatively productive game. The pecking order by shots and usage rate was Ibaka, Vucevic, Gordon, but the margins were so small that it seems likely change on a game-to-game basis. Green, meanwhile, was sprinkled in for 25 minutes off the bench with various combinations of the other three and has bascially the clearest role of the bunch as a scorer off the pine.
Things would be all fine after one game if it weren't for one thing: Biyombo was serving a one-game suspension for having accumulated too many flagrant points in the 2016 NBA Playoffs with the Toronto Raptors.
Things will get very interesting tonight when the Magic head to Detroit with their full complement of frontcourt weapons. We won't speculate too much just yet and instead check back in on this situation in the coming weeks when we see how Biyombo's return impacts the minutes and usage of Orlando's other bigs. Something's gotta give.
Washington's Small Forward Position
Otto Porter had a mini-breakout campaign in 2015-16 for the Washington Wizards. He started 73 of his 75 games played and averaged a healthy 30.3 minutes per contest. With that opportunity, he posted averages of 11.6 points, 5.2 boards, 1.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, while shooting 47.3% from the field and 36.7% from deep.
He looked set to be the team's regular starter again this season, but new Wizards coach Scott Brooks showed that he wasn't prepared to just give it to him when he claimed that the starting three spot was "up for grabs."
Enter second-year swingman, Kelly Oubre.
Oubre was fairly unassuming in his rookie campaign -- averaging 3.7 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 0.3 steals in 10.7 minutes per contest -- but a strong preseason makes this an interesting conversation.
Here's how the Wizards' first game of the year played out, with Porter starting and Oubre coming off the bench:
For now, Porter's job seems safe. The minutes were strikingly close, but Porter played a subtly solid game filling in around John Wall and Bradley Beal, while Oubre kind of fell on his face. This will, however, continue to be an interesting situation to monitor in the coming weeks (and we will).
Chicago's Power Forward Position
Four out of five positions in the starting lineup for the Chicago Bulls are pretty well set in stone, but the starting four position is shaping up to be a very interesting battle, indeed.
Taj Gibson seems to be Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg's power forward of choice, but a severe lack of spacing out of the remaining four starters makes Nikola Mirotic an interesting option. Throw promising sophomore Bobby Portis into the mix, and you've got a full-blown position battle on your hands.
Gibson got the start in game one, but he and Mirotic played strikingly similar minutes with a near-identical stat line. Meanwhile, Portis got a DNP-CD and is clearly the least likely candidate for the job for the time being.
Spacing didn't look to be an issue in this one, as Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo combined to go 9-for-14 from deep, but don't expect that to happen every game. For now, Taj and Niko look locked into a timeshare, but we'll see if one emerges as a more clear-cut option when the data set grows a little more.
Miles Plumlee started at center for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, but Greg Monroe put up 14 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and 2 blocks in 29 minutes off the bench, compared to Plumlee's 8 scoreless minutes. Monroe could push his way back into the starting lineup before long, despite head coach Jason Kidd's insistence on going away from him.
Luol Deng started the first game for the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday but was mostly ineffective with only 7 points and 5 rebounds in 28 minutes. His understudy, rookie Brandon Ingram, played 24 minutes, but was equally quiet with his 9 points and 3 boards. We'll keep an eye on this one, but it's not heating up just yet.
Myles Turner started at center for the Indiana Pacers, played 37 minutes, and dropped a monster line of 30 points, 16 rebounds, 2 steals, and 4 blocks. Al Jefferson came off the bench and put up 7 points, 6 boards, and a block in 11 minutes. Any thought of there ever being a battle at the center position in Indiana has officially been put to rest in week one.
Kenneth Faried is coming off the bench for the Denver Nuggets, while twin-tower youngsters Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic man the starting frontcourt. Nurkic was a beast in game one (23 points and 9 rebounds), Jokic was quiet (5 points and 7 rebounds), and Faried was effective off the bench (9 points and 14 rebounds), but don't expect this setup to change anytime soon. Faried's a likely trade candidate and the Jokic-Nurkic pairing is the future.
Cody Zeller could eventually threaten Roy Hibbert for the Charlotte Hornets' starting center spot, but Hibbert (32 minutes, 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 5 blocks) did just enough in game one to hold off Zeller (14 minutes, 15 points, 3 rebounds, an assist, and 2 blocks), at least for now.
The Philadelphia frontcourt jam will become very interesting and likely a staple of this column when Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric are all healthy. For now, Noel and Simmons are out, while Okafor and Embiid have minutes restrictions. To be continued.