NBA Position Battles: The Lakers Are Favoring Experience Over Youth on the Wing
We're now a little over a week into the NBA season, and every team has played enough games that small sample sizes have become...well, slightly bigger small sample sizes.
Still, data sets are growing, and trends are emerging in the various position battles around the league. Some situations have been made crystal clear (Myles Turner being the definitive starter at center for the Indiana Pacers over Al Jefferson, for example), while many more are still being sussed out.
We're here to tackle a few of the messier situations in an attempt to make sense of what is happening and -- in some cases -- what should be happening.
The Lakers' Wings
With Kobe Bryant retired and Byron Scott out of town, the youth movement is on for the Los Angeles Lakers. Luke Walton, the new Lakers head coach, is not about to hand the reigns to his youngsters without their earning it, however. D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are entrenched in starting roles, but Brandon Ingram is currently backing up Luol Deng, and Jordan Clarkson is surprisingly coming off the bench behind Nick Young.
After the Lakers gave Deng a four-year, $72 million deal this summer, it was easy to see that they planned on bringing Ingram along slowly. Through five games, that plan is playing out as one would expect:
Deng hasn't exactly lost the starting job yet, and Ingram has yet to break out and take it from him. This situation will probably play out like this for at least the first few months of the season.
Meanwhile, the move to start Young over Clarkson caught a lot of people by surprise -- especially because Clarkson started all 79 games he played for the Lakers last year. If you look at the numbers, though, Clarkson is still getting plenty of run as the team's sixth man. In fact, he's playing more minutes, getting more shots, and has a higher usage rate than Young through five games this year:
Walton's move to bring Clarkson off the bench is likely an attempt to motivate him, but Clarkson might actually be suited to the role of scoring punch off the pine for the Lakers' second unit anyway. He hasn't quite done enough yet to make starting him an obvious choice, so he could be the team's sixth man for a while.
Either way, this situation is worth monitoring to see if Clarkson gets the chance to start again in the future. Young hasn't exactly been a consistent starter in his career (he only started 11 of his 160 games played for the Lakers over the three previous seasons), and the Lakers will lose enough games soon enough that their focus will likely have to shift to youth development. In other words, the position is Clarkson's for the taking.
Milwaukee's Center Position
Greg Monroe was a big signing for the Milwaukee Bucks last summer, but he doesn't seem to be head coach Jason Kidd's favorite choice at center. Despite being the team's highest-paid player, Monroe has been coming off the bench for the Bucks in all five of the games that they have played so far this season, backing up Miles Plumlee.
And this isn't the first time that Kidd has relegated Monroe to the bench either, as he ran that same arrangement last year for a 12-game period spanning February and March. For all of Monroe's skill in scoring and rebounding, his deficiencies on the defensive end seem to get him in Kidd's doghouse quite often.
But don't be fooled: Miles Plumlee might start for the Bucks, but he is not on the floor as much as your standard starter. In fact, Monroe is outpacing him from the bench in just about every stat category:
Perhaps Kidd just likes Monroe's scoring punch coming off the bench, but either way, this just doesn't feel like an arrangement that will last the whole season. It's hard to imagine that Bucks management is perfectly fine with Kidd handling their biggest financial investment in this manner, and they might intervene before it goes on too long. Monroe's name has also popped up in plenty of trade rumors over the last year, so it's also possible that he gets moved to another team before this position battle ever gets resolved. Either way, it'll be an interesting one to keep an eye on (and we will).
Checking in on Orlando's Frontcourt
Last week, we checked in on the Orlando Magic's crowded frontcourt though one game, but the numbers were highly misleading because Bismack Biyombo was out of the lineup, serving a one-game suspension. Now that we've got four games in which Biyombo has been in the mix with Nikola Vucevic, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon, and Jeff Green, let's compare everyone's minutes and production when they've all been available to play:
The trio of Vucevic, Ibaka, and Gordon have been the Magic's starting frontcourt through these four games, but none are cracking 30 minutes per night. Both Biyombo and Green are getting around 20 minutes each off the bench, so this is pretty close to a five-headed timeshare so far.
There was initially talk of Biyombo being signed to start for the team, but he hasn't really shown enough ability on the offensive end yet for head coach Frank Vogel to give him a nod over Vucevic. It's still possible that a trade materializes eventually that frees up some space here, but for now they'll all have to concede minutes and touches to each other while coach Vogel juggles his rotations.
Taj Gibson has started all four games for the Chicago Bulls so far this season, but he and Nikola Mirotic are in a full-blown timeshare. Gibson is averaging 13.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steal, 0.8 blocks, and 2.0 turnovers in 25.8 minutes per game, while shooting 53.3% from the field and 80.0% from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Mirotic is averaging slightly more minutes than Gibson at 28.7, and putting up a fairly similar stat line of 14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.0 steals, 1.3 blocks, and 2.0 turnovers per contest, while shooting 45.0% from the field, 34.6% from deep, and 78.6% from the line.
Otto Porter is running away with the starting small forward position for the Washington Wizards, leaving Kelly Oubre in his dust. Through three games, Porter is playing a healthy 33.5 minutes per game while averaging 15.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per contest and shooting a blistering 62.9% from the field. Oubre, meanwhile, is averaging a mere 3.3 points on 30.0% shooting in 14.6 minutes per game. This battle is over until further notice.
Kenneth Faried is still backing up Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic for the Denver Nuggets, and that's starting to look like it will remain the case going forward. All three bigs are averaging between 23 and 28 minutes per contest and putting up good numbers.
The Philadelphia 76ers are still deep in injuries and minute restrictions, but now they've traded for Ersan Ilyasova and added him to their already crowded frontcourt. How that whole situation plays out when everyone gets healthy and available remains one of the more interesting storylines to follow this season. A trade of one of Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor still seems likely.