NBA Position Battles: What Does the Future Hold for These Backcourts?
Today's NBA is phasing out the traditional big man. We know that, and the numbers bear it out.
Just under halfway through the 82-game season, only 11 centers listed at 6'10" or taller have played more than 1,000 minutes. For comparison, of all players classified as guards, 43 have played more than 1,000 minutes to this point. Other than the obvious otherworldly exceptions -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo -- the NBA is a guard-driven league, and it's not like those four aforementioned stars are immune to playing a guard-like role.
These three teams -- who are at various points in their rebuilding projects -- seem to believe in that sentiment. While they've done their part to shore up positions down low and create versatility at the four and five spots, many of them are stockpiling guards in hopes of owning one of the league's best one-two punches for years to come.
The Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers are doing that. But with backcourt players working their way through -- and eventually back from -- injuries, what is the best way for each team to approach their individual situations?
If you would've told me that the Nets would be four games out of a playoff spot 38 games into the season, I would've been a little surprised. But if you said the same thing, and added that D'Angelo Russell has played in just 12 of those games, I would ask you to please stop feeding me lies.
Thanks to the efforts of Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and company, the Nets have managed to go 11-15 in the 26 games Russell's missed with injuries. They've averaged 105.3 points per game -- a respectable number when you consider that they put up 110.5 points with Russell and his 20.9 points per game.
As usual, the Nets have been pretty tight-lipped with Russell's status and timetable, but general manager Sean Marks did suggest that Russell was a couple weeks away roughly two weeks ago. So, he's really due back at any time, and the likelihood that he returns by at least mid-January is high. When asked about whether Dinwiddie will stick in the starting lineup when Russell gets back, coach Kenny Atkinson has said that the team will worry about it when the time comes. The time to start evaluating that is now.
Dinwiddie is a taller point guard and, with a team-high 6.5 assists per game, he's proven to be a very good distributor. As for Russell, he was already playing a high-usage (33.5%) two-guard earlier in the season. And he played a similar role in his short time at Ohio State. It looks like it makes a ton of sense to roll them out side-by-side, but do the numbers agree?
According to NBA.com, in just 46 minutes together, the two have an uninspiring net rating (-8.0). At face value, that would say no. But when you stack that up against other combinations, it's worth a shot. The Russell/Allen Crabbe combo has posted a -9.3 rating with Russell and LeVert at -9.4 points per 100 possessions in 155 minutes together. With Atkinson set on LeVert coming off the bench, the only other possibility would be Dinwiddie and Crabbe -- a backcourt that's seen success (3.7 net rating). There's just no way that Russell comes off the bench, too.
Dinwiddie's a low-usage (21%) guard, and Russell may perfectly complement him with his playing style. On the other side of the coin, LeVert's played with a 23.8% usage rate over the last 10 games. Off the Nets' bench, he would be a nice replacement for Russell or Dinwiddie, with Crabbe (17.7% usage) providing the bang from the outside (2.4 threes per game). It's probably safe to say that Nik Stauskas wouldn't see many minutes if this rotation pans out for Brooklyn.
For the Chicago Bulls, they've really turned it on of late and are showing promising signs with their improved play. Thanks to Kris Dunn's quick development, the rebuilding Bulls are 14-25 (11-5 in last 16) after starting the season 3-19.
Over Chicago's strong stretch of play, Dunn has averaged 16.0 points, 8.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, but he's basically been a wash (-0.4 net rating) in the last 16 games. During that time, though, the frontcourt of he and Justin Holiday have pushed the pace (104.4 possessions per 48 minutes) for coach Fred Hoiberg, while earning a net rating of 0.1 in 418 minutes together.
Despite the team's success, the Dunn-Holiday days as a starting backcourt might be numbered. The Bulls are set to decide on a return date for prized combo-guard Zach LaVine early next week. After months of rehab from a torn ACL, LaVine has reportedly been putting together some solid practices and is progressing toward a season debut in mid-January. That could mean big changes for Chicago.
Just this week, Dunn spoke about LaVine's speed and said that he believes the "speed of the game is about to change." Who could doubt him? Last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, LaVine averaged 3.9 fast-break points per game while averaging an offensive speed of 4.66 miles per hour. In fact, according to NBA.com, Dunn (4.67 miles per hour) was the only Timberwolves' player with a faster average speed on offense. Together, the two of them failed to play at a high pace (95.9 possessions per 48) and weren't very effective (-3.1 net rating) in 531 minutes.
This year, the two should be able to capitalize on their speed and athleticism. They're in a higher-paced, more offensive-friendly system, and Dunn's another year older and another season wiser. Once LaVine's past his limitations, he should start and flourish alongside Dunn. With Dunn averaging only 0.9 makes on 34.1% shooting from three, LaVine -- who averaged 18.9 points and 2.6 threes on a 38.7% clip from deep in 2016-17 -- will provide the outside shooting Dunn lacks in his distributor role. After all is said and done, the Bulls might just have the last laugh in a Jimmy Butler deal we all thought they lost -- and lost handily -- when it went down.
In addition, it's worth noting that Cameron Payne will also be back at some point. It's unlikely that he returns before mid-February, but when he's back, he's expect to compete with Jerian Grant for backup minutes at point guard. The Bulls obtained Payne in the Taj Gibson trade a year ago and, per Spotrac, he's making $500,000 more than Grant this season. They'll want to see what they have in the 23-year-old -- he has one year before the Bulls are forced to make any kind of decision on his contract. Down the stretch, Hoiberg will be faced with a task of splitting the point guard minutes as well as finding a permanent bench role for Holiday.
The Philadelphia 76ers are used to dealing with players coming back from injuries. To this day, they're still dealing with the issues that come with Joel Embiid's injury history and his ridiculous upside. But they're also trying to get Markelle Fultz back to where he was before the team went with him in the first pick of last year's draft.
Fortunately, we might not have to wait much longer to see how Fultz fits into the grand scheme of things. Though he's without a set date to return, the 19-year-old's been seen getting up shots at practice. Per reports, he's been cleared as of Tuesday to begin the final stages of his rehab program. He will participate in more practice activities and work on increasing his conditioning before returning from the shoulder injury that plagued him early on in his rookie campaign. Before too long, he should be out on the floor.
So long as Fultz avoids a setback and his form returns to where it was in his college days, he figures to play a big part for the Sixers. Coach Brett Brown said that the team has high expectations for him and that "he completely connects the dots to what we don't have." And that's not an exaggeration.
Through 38 games, Philadelphia is 19-19 and are 16th in the league in offensive efficiency (106.8 points per 100 possessions). According to Cleaning the Glass, they are 21st in points per play in the halfcourt and 23rd in transition. They've been particularly poor (28th with a 121.5 rating) at capitalizing on steals in transition.
In his one year at Washington, Fultz posted an offensive rating of 116.3 while averaging 23.2 points on a true shooting percentage of 55.8%. He shot 50.2% from inside the arc and even averaged 1.6 steals per game. His nose for the ball and ability to hit just about any shot from around the rim to the perimeter makes him an ideal fit alongside point-forward Ben Simmons and shooters J.J. Redick and Robert Covington.
Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell and Dario Saric haven't provided the same versatility with Fultz sidelined. Bayless has finished on 69.0% of his opportunities at the rim, but he's no better than 39% (corner threes) anywhere else. McConnell is averaging 1.2 steals a game and has an assist percentage of 27.3% when on the floor -- it's his reluctance to shoot from three (just 16% of his shots are threes) and ability to finish at the the rim (29%) that keeps him from being that versatile guy on the wing. As for Saric, he's a more-than-capable stretch forward, but he rates in the 29th percentile in finishing at the rim (62%) and has been fouled on just 7.2% of his shots -- speaking to his lack of finishing strength around the hoop.
It might take some time. Fultz is only 19 and doesn't have much time (four games, 76 minutes) under his belt. Before long, though, he should start and see the bulk of the minutes for a Sixers team starving for a playoff appearance in 2018.