NBA Position Battles: Center Situations Abound
Through two installments, this piece has revolved a lot around the point guard position. After all, the NBA is a point guard driven league, as they say.
But, as we saw with Joel Embiid's dominant game on Wednesday, centers -- particularly next generation centers like Embiid -- still play a major factor in team success. So we're showing some love to the big guys this time around.
The Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers all look like they're headed toward the draft lottery, but each of them have a situation to deal with at the center spot -- and it's imperative they address it correctly to set themselves up for success now and in the future.
Let's see what the numbers say they should do, starting with Brooklyn and working our way west.
Over the last two games, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has decided to go with a small-ball starting lineup of sorts. Sending 6'8" Trevor Booker out to play center, Atkinson hasn't started a single player 6'9" or taller. With D'Angelo Russell (knee) sidelined indefinitely, Booker's been flanked by Spencer Dinwiddie (6'6"), Allen Crabbe (6'6"), DeMarre Carroll (6'8") and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6'7").
The Nets' guards aren't exactly short, but with one look, you'd expect this lineup to fail miserably, especially on the defensive end. And, as the numbers bear out, you'd be partially correct in that assumption.
|Brooklyn Nets||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg||PACE|
|First 13 Games||102.3||106.7||-4.4||107.74|
|Last 2 Games||108.5||108.8||-0.3||100.32|
In back-to-back matchups against the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz, the Nets have gone 1-1 with a seven-point loss to the Celtics and an 11-point win over the Jazz. In other words, they've been really competitive, and a large part of that can be attributed to better efficiency on the offensive end.
Rolling with Booker over the alternative, 7'1" Timofey Mozgov, the Nets have performed six points better over a 100-possession basis. How much of that has to do with Booker's presence, though?
Per NBA.com's lineup data, the starting lineup of Booker and company has been a net rating of -6.0 in 29 minutes together over the last two games. While they've been much better offensively (111.9 Off Rtg), they've been allowing 117.9 points per 100 possessions on an effective field goal percentage of 64.6%. Surprisingly, they haven't been hurt on the boards, allowing just 14.3% of misses to be rebounded by their opponent.
Beyond the last two games, the five previous minutes those five players had logged together help to boost their net rating to a 4.8 with an improved offensive (118.8) and defensive (114.0) rating. Opponents have managed an offensive rebound rate (21.4%) closer to what we probably would expect given Booker's lack of height, but it seems like the lineup's issues have been defending the three, as they've allowed a total of 12 triples on 48% shooting from beyond the arc.
If it's down to Booker versus Mozgov, it has to be Booker. Not only does he fit what the Nets want to do offensively, but his on/off net rating of 35.2 ranks second to only Caris LeVert over the last two games. At that, the team's on-court defensive rating of 103.6 tells us that the problem lies elsewhere (*cough* -- the perimeter) in Atkinson's new-look lineup.
When the Phoenix Suns obtained Greg Monroe in the Eric Bledsoe deal with Milwaukee, there was questions as to whether they'd flip him or buy him out altogether. To date, there hasn't been talk of a buyout and general manager Ryan McDonough made it known that he and the Suns are open to many scenarios.
It's now been more than 10 days since the trade, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team to have shown any interest in Monroe, per reports. With that being the case, Monroe has played in two games since recovering from a calf injury. In the first, he went for 20 points and 11 rebounds as he logged 26 minutes in a blowout loss to the Houston Rockets. In the second, he was limited to just 16 minutes and managed only six points and a single rebound against a poor Lakers defense.
Monroe's been seeing the floor with Tyson Chandler out with an illness. When Chandler returns, he is likely to get minutes back, somewhere in the 20-to-25 range. There is certainly a chance that Monroe is shipped out sooner than later. However, if he, Chandler and Alex Len all stick around, which is the better option for the Suns' style of play and development.
In a small sample of 42 minutes, Monroe's presence has the Suns playing at the highest-pace (109.51 possessions per 48 minutes) of any player on their roster. But his defensive rating of 125.7 stops the argument there. On a team looking to improve defensively, Monroe's even more of a liability on that end of the floor than what they had before.
Both Len (110.7 Def Rtg) and Chandler (103.2 Def Rtg) have much better defensive games and are allowing the Suns to play at a reasonable pace between 105.36 and 106.13 possessions per 48 minutes.
For now, Len and Chandler will probably continue to split time before Len takes over the majority of minutes down the stretch. He has averaged more points, rebounds and blocks per 36 minutes through 16 games.
Los Angeles Lakers
Absent the presence of a third wheel like Monroe, the Lakers are dealing with a very similar problem of experience and influence versus youth and explosiveness. On one end of the spectrum is 29-year-old Brook Lopez and on the other is 22-year-old Julius Randle.
To this point, Lopez has started all 16 games while Randle's come off the bench to play 20.1 minutes per game. Despite the starting role, Lopez has played just 24.4 minutes a night with Randle playing his minutes and Andrew Bogut picking up minutes here and there in certain spots (and when healthy). On a per-36 minute basis, Lopez (22.2 points) and Randle (20.5) rank second and third, respectively, on the team in scoring while Randle's been the better rebounder (12.0 to 7.3 per 36) and defensive presence (100 to 102 Def Rtg). Randle provides versatility on both ends and switch-ability on defense, but he lacks the same shot-blocking ability that Lopez has displayed with his 1.8 swats per game this season.
At 6'9", Randle's unlikely to ever be a Hassan Whiteside-type shot-blocker, but he's upped his block percentage from 1.4% in 2016 to 3.2% in 2017. That makes him even more intriguing as the superior defensive player down low. Is he good enough offensively, though?
Based on his per-36 numbers alone, he might be. If we want to take it further, he has even more of a case to play more minutes or even start for the youthful Lakers. As Randle's 104 offensive rating trails Lopez's 107 mark, his 1.45 points per pick-and-roll possession place him in the 93rd percentile, with Lopez ranking in the 36th percentile with 0.97 points as the roll man.
The Lakers are all about the development of Lonzo Ball, and being a team ranked 20th and 15th as pick-and-roll handlers and rollers, respectively, isn't helpful to the young point guard's offensive game. If the Lakers want to simplify and allow Ball to play from what he knows and what his strengths are, more Randle could do a lot of good for the future of the team. Plus, extending a $5.6 million qualifying offer to Randle sure beats re-signing a Lopez when the front office hopes to land two max players in free agency next summer.