NBA Position Battles: Making Sense of Denver's Frontcourt Rotation
We're drawing closer to the 10-game mark for most teams on the young NBA season, and with that, we might be getting close to having data sets that no longer need the "small sample size" caveat. At least when it comes to position battles, 10 games or so can tell you quite a bit about how things are going.
While the main purpose of this column will generally be to examine teams that have players jostling for starting positions, there are also intriguing situations to consider in which the starters are unlikely to change but the distribution of minutes and touches between a few players within the rotation for a position (or positions) is still worth monitoring.
Here are three such examples of situations in which a team seems set on who's starting at a given position but might still have an interesting timeshare going on between said starter or starters and one or more players off the bench.
Denver's Frontcourt Situation
While most of the NBA is going small these days, the Denver Nuggets are trotting out a twin-tower frontcourt of a 7'0" Jusuf Nurkic at center and a 6'10" Nikola Jokic at power forward. Meanwhile, the team's regular starter at power forward for the past five seasons, Kenneth Faried, has been relegated to the bench.
Nurkic, 22, and Jokic, 21, are both young bigs with tantalizing upside, so it makes sense that the Nuggets would look to throw them both into the fire early in their careers to see exactly what they have to look forward to. Conversely, the team seems to know pretty much what it has with the 27-year-old Faried and looks open to limiting his role and perhaps even trading him eventually.
Nurkic and Jokic might not have very complementary playing styles, though, so their minutes are getting fairly split and staggered as games wear on. Here's a look at how all three have performed so far this season:
Based on minutes, usage rate, touches per game, and field goal attempts, there appears to be a slight pecking order emerging of Nurkic, Jokic, and then Faried. That said, the three have traded off production pretty heavily through seven games, with one or two going off on any given night and the other(s) putting up relatively quiet numbers by comparison.
The big thing to consider, then, might be the question of which combination of the three makes for the most effective frontcourt. Through seven games, there has been a clear answer that might surprise you:
It's still a small enough sample size not to overreact, but the data suggests that the Nurkic and Jokic combination hasn't worked very well just yet. Meanwhile, it's been the Nurkic-Faried pairing that has been the most effective in terms of offense, defense, and rebounding, albeit in limited minutes.
That's not a complete indictment of the "Jorkic" pairing, but the data does suggest that the situation might be worth monitoring as the season wears on.
Phoenix's Guard Rotation
Another year, another backcourt logjam for the Phoenix Suns.
Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker are all starting-caliber guards, but it's been Bledsoe at the one and Booker at the two for the Suns through nine games (with the exception of the one game that Booker sat out due to injury and Knight started in his place). Knight has been relegated to a sixth-man role after starting 59 of the 63 games he played for the Suns coming into this season and results have been mixed.
Through nine games, here are the numbers for Phoenix's three-headed guard monster:
While Bledsoe is the closest thing to an All-Star-caliber player of the three, Booker is in the midst of a breakout in his second season and might eventually overtake him as the top dog in Phoenix's backcourt. So far this season, Booker has a higher usage, is taking more shots, and is scoring more points than Bledsoe. Meanwhile, Knight hasn't performed well enough coming off the bench to threaten Booker or Bledsoe to get his starting spot back just yet.
It will be interesting as the season goes on to see if Booker hits a wall or if Knight goes on some kind of scoring binge, but for now, the pecking order of Booker/Bledsoe followed down the line by Knight seems set unless the Suns end up trading either Bledsoe or Knight.
Oklahoma City's Frontcourt Rotation
The Oklahoma City Thunder have used the exact same starting five of Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, and Steven Adams for all eight of their games so far this season. While the guard and wing rotations and hierarchies are obvious to even the most casual of viewers (all hail Russ), the frontcourt situation is an interesting timeshare to monitor.
Steven Adams has run away with the starting center job thanks to his strong contributions on both ends of the floor, but Enes Kanter's offensive and rebounding abilities make him hard to keep benched for too long (despite his defensive deficiencies). Rookie Domantas Sabonis has shined so far in his rookie season with eight consecutive starts at power forward, but the presence of Kanter makes his starting spot and minutes anything but a given.
Ersan Ilyasova once factored into this situation and looked like he could even start over Sabonis at the beginning of the season, but his trade to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerami Grant quelled any thought of that happening. Grant still factors in as a combo forward, of course, but he's clearly pegged for a backup role and has played 87% of his minutes in OKC to date at the small forward position, according to Basketball-Reference.com's position estimates.
Because the Ilyasova trade for Grant has altered the rotation slightly, let's focus solely on how things have shaken out in the five games since Grant's arrival:
Adams doesn't demand a high usage rate but still averages close to a double-double in points and rebounds and is the anchor for the Thunder's third-ranked defense (98.9 defensive efficiency rating), so his job is safe. Sabonis spreads the floor nicely next to Adams -- shooting a blistering 47.1% from deep over his last five -- so he looks to be the Thunder's starting four for the foreseeable future.
Kanter's 11.6 points and 6.4 rebounds is impressive in only 17.5 minutes per contest (23.9 and 13.2 per 36 minutes), but he's most useful against second units, as he's such a liability on defense.
The Thunder's frontcourt rotation has fallen cleanly into place, but it's worth monitoring to see how Sabonis develops, what adjustments will need to be made if he ends up hitting a rookie wall, or if matchups will occasionally dictate that Kanter is a more viable option to play alongside Adams (a duo that was fairly successful during the Thunder's 2016 playoff run).
Taj Gibson seems to be running away with the starting power forward position for the Chicago Bulls. Through eight games, he's averaging 12.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.0 block in 27.9 minutes per game, while shooting 51.1% from the field and 72.7% from the charity stripe. His challenger, Nikola Mirotic, is slumping, averaging 2.7 points on 11.1% shooting and little else over his last three games, while playing only 15.1 minutes per contest. Mirotic might have higher upside than Gibson, but the lack of consistency and extreme streakiness might keep him on the bench all season long.
The Orlando Magic's frontcourt logjam of Nikola Vucevic, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon, Bismack Biyombo, and Jeff Green continues to be an unpredictable handful for head coach Frank Vogel, and it even looked like a shakeup was coming to the starting lineup after the Magic got blown out by the Chicago Bulls on Monday. The Magic trotted out the same starting five of Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka, and Vucevic against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, however, so it looks like the messy status quo will have to do for now.
Darren Collison returned from an eight-game suspension on Tuesday night and immediately started over Ty Lawson at point guard for the Sacramento Kings. Collison put up nine points, a rebound, four assists, and two steals in a healthy 29 minutes in his first game back, while Lawson went from averaging 32.0 minutes per contest during Collison's absence to 21 minutes in his return. We'll call this a position battle for now, but one that Collison should quickly run away with.
Rookie Pascal Siakam has started at power forward for the Toronto Raptors for all seven of their games in place of the injured Jared Sullinger, who is due to miss two to three months as he recovers from foot surgery. Siakam is only playing 17.6 minutes per game, while Patrick Patterson -- his "backup" -- has played 31.0 minutes per contest and closes out close games for the Raptors in place of Siakam. Patterson hasn't exactly been having a great season to earn those minutes -- 6.3 points on 32.7% shooting from the field and 21.4% from long range -- but his experience, familiarity with the team, and defensive presence makes him head coach Dwane Casey's preferred option at the four, even if Siakam continues getting the ceremonial starts. Worth noting: the Raptors' starting lineup with Siakam has a -4.5 net rating, while the same unit with Patterson in his place is a +9.8.