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September 13, 2012
NBA Training Camps
Positional Battles

by Bradford Doolittle

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When it comes who actually makes onto the basketball court on any given night in the NBA, it is not always a matter of better, but more of fit. You see this all the time in the league. If a team's rotation were decided by a one-on-one tournament, then we'd see a different list of names showing up each night in the box scores. Instead, coaches deploy the combinations that can best execute their plan on the court. Not coincidentally, the list of best fits is usually very similar to the list of best players, but not always.

You see a lot of bad analytical arguments that miss this basic point, that make a mistake of judging the component parts of a team as if it played in a vacuum. This blind spot is why stat geeks get accused of spending too much time with their noses buried in spreadsheets and not enough time actually watching the games. Of course the two activities can and should go hand in hand, because there are innumerable things that happen on the basketball court that matter and which are not counted in the same way we keep track of field-goal attempts and rebounds. Mark Cuban knows this, which is why the Mavericks are one of the smartest organizations around.

A good projection and evaluation system doesn't just assign a catch-all metric for player value and leave it at that. At Basketball Prospectus, our bottom-line metric is WARP and we use it all the time for all sorts of purposes. But even we recognize that so much more goes into building a roster than simply assembling the 13 highest-WARP players you can find.

So we work hard to study all of the underlying categories that make up WARP and how they interact with each other. Our projection system, SCHOENE, seeks to model the game as it's actually played on the court. The inputs to the system are basketball data and countless hours of watching, and playing, the game we all love. It's the game that drives the model, not the other way around.

Consider the case of the point guard position for the Houston Rockets. For 25.1 million obvious reasons, it's Jeremy Lin's position to lose. SCHOENE would agree, forecasting the following projected winning percentages (the per-unit companion of WARP) for the point guards at Kevin McHale's disposal: Jeremy Lin .613, Courtney Fortson .526, Toney Douglas .462, Scott Machado .446.

These are four very different kinds of players. Lin, as we all remember, is a dynamic pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick kind of a point guard that uses his ability to penetrate the lane to get to the rack, the line and to set up spot-shooting teammates. Fortson is more of a pure waterbug type, more adept at getting his own shot in the paint than kicking out. Douglas, as Knicks fans remember, is really only a point guard in size and shape. He's basically a 3-point guy with a tendency towards streak shooting.

Machado, the undrafted assist dynamo from Iona who agreed to a partially-guaranteed contract with Houston recently, is the only pure playmaker on the roster. While he projects to have the lowest overall value among the four, his standout skill might make him a more useful player than the other two players behind Lin. And, depending on what lineup McHale rolls out, there might be situations in which Machado fits better with a certain group than even Lin.

With that in mind, let's look at some rotation battles that you might see when training camps open. These aren't necessarily battles for spots in starting lineups, but in some cases about filling important roles.

Hawks: Perimeter Rotation

Atlanta has one of the more intriguing rosters in the league, one which SCHOENE likes a great deal. Yet, much remains to be seen in terms of how Larry Drew is going to piece all of this together. He's got two basket-attacking, shoot-first point guards (Jeff Teague and Devin Harris) and potentially the best trio of deep-shooting wings in the league (Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and John Jenkins) and a top-notch combo player who does a little of everything (Louis Williams).

In addition, there isn't a pure starting small forward in the bunch. Josh Smith will play there at times in big lineups, but more often than not, Drew is going to have to play small. Does he pair Teague and Harris? To say that their skillset is redundant is more than just rhetoric. On Teague's SCHOENE-generated list of most-comparable players, Harris is No. 1. However, there may be something in the matchup issues created by pairing two penetrators, if they can hold up defensively.

Williams may be the best player in the bunch, but he's proven to be so good off the bench that you hesitate to use him differently. As for the shooters, what benefits are there to having not one, but two (or even three) premier floor spacers in the game at the same time? There are a lot of fascinating basketball questions to be answered in Atlanta, the answers to which will have something to do with who fits best with Smith and Al Horford.

Lakers: Small Forward

The easy answer is Ron Artest, er, Metta World Peace. Right? We'll see. Peace has the pedigree as a former All-Star and one-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But that was eight years ago, and the problem for Mike Brown is to find the perfect fifth guy to go with the fantasy lineup of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant.

Peace has willingly accepted the role-player phase of his career, which is to his credit. However, he's not really still an elite defender anymore, and last season he shot under 30 percent from 3-point range. Brown isn't really an out-of-the-box thinker, so Peace's job is probably safe. However, the Lakers' best bet may be to let Bryant play plenty of three, while Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks share minutes as shooting specialists. With Howard and Gasol anchoring the lane, you can certainly live with the defensive ramifications of that configuration.

Sixers: Wing Positions

Doug Collins has lots of new pieces to play with. Now the question becomes how he gets his best five onto the floor in key situations. It's not really a new challenge for Collins, it's just that this year's pieces are different. Jrue Holiday is a fixture at the point. The presence of Andrew Bynum, Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown and LaVoy Allen means that Collins will play plenty of double-post lineups. But what about the wing?

After his emergence last season, you expect Evan Turner to play a featured role, whether you call him a shooting guard or small forward. Then it gets more dicey. Do you go with the length and athleticism of Dorell Wright? How about the floor-spacing ability of Jason Richardson? Nick Young is a ball stopper, but he sure can score.

And, no, we haven't forgotten Thaddeus Young, who has designs on the starting spot at three. Young has always been a tweener forward and his offensive ability under that umbrella has made him an invaluable bench option for the Sixers the last few years. Can he play the three full time? If the answer is yes, then the Sixers' rotation really starts to fall in place.

Jazz: Frontcourt

It's one thing to have depth of talent and with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Jeremy Evans on the roster, Utah certainly has that going for it. However, Jefferson and Millsap can become unrestricted free agents after the season and will be long shots to remain in Utah. Kanter, Favors and Evans are nice fall-back options in terms of a big picture frontcourt, but what about the 2012-13 season?

The temptation for Tyrone Corbin will be to continue to lean heavily on Jefferson and Millsap, especially because the Jazz will be a playoff contender. Corbin can't lose sight of the seasons to come, however, and he doesn't want to risk Favors in particular becoming disgruntled by a continuing lack of minutes. It's a touchy situation that would be made easier if Favors and Kanter played so well that they forced Corbin to shift minutes away from a capable pair of big men who may be leaving anyway.

Here are some other battles to watch, in bullet fashion:

Warriors small forward: Most likely, this is a battle between rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, though veteran Richard Jefferson is still around. Barnes is the one with the haughty draft slot and guaranteed contract. Green is the guy SCHOENE sees as the markedly better player because of his floor game. The key may well be who shoots better from the perimeter in which case it's advantage Green. Most people likely don't see this as a battle, so we'll see how Mark Jackson views the situation once camps start.

Grizzlies sixth man: It's really a pretty straightforward scenario. Jerryd Bayless will be looked upon to become the bench scorer in the role formerly filled by O.J. Mayo, one of the offseason's most crucial departures. If Bayless isn't up to the challenge, who is left among the perimeter players? Can young players Tony Wroten and/or Josh Selby step up? Can anybody on this team make a 3-pointer? A lot of talent; a lot of questions.

Knicks shooting guard: Who plays next to Ray Felton with the first five? You've got a classic offense/defense contrast between J.R. Smith and Ronnie Brewer, assuming the latter's knee is healthy. But what about Jason Kidd, the ultimate glue player? He's played off the ball plenty the last two years and is the best player of the trio. If Iman Shumpert comes back healthy at some point, these questions may become moot.

Pacers sixth man: Last season, the Pacers traded for Leandro Barbosa to take over the instant-offense role off the bench, but Barbosa is gone. So will the new bench spark be D.J. Augustin or Gerald Green? It's not just as easy as saying "both" because one of them may see finishing minutes when the Pacers can't use Roy Hibbert against small lineups. You'd like Green to step up because of his size, but his track record is short.

Heat fifth starter: Does Erik Spoelstra chuck the entire notion of a traditional lineup and just go with his lineup of interchangeable pieces from the opening tip? That would mean Chris Bosh and LeBron James as the frontcourt, with Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade in the backcourt. But who's number five? Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier and Ray Allen all could be the guy, and each brings something different to the table.

Rockets everything: Okay, maybe not everything. It seems like a Lin-Kevin Martin starting backcourt is a given. But how will the minutes be divvied up between the others? It's a transitional roster, but one that could become similar to the pre-Melo Knicks, which would give Daryl Morey plenty of assets from which to construct a new core. By the way, the same observations could be made about the roster of the Orlando Magic.

Clippers wing defender: Vinny Del Negro's roster, as constructed, is going to be relying an awful lot on 40-year-old Grant Hill to remain a premier defensive stopper. Someone else needs to step up to help him. Among the possibilities is hyper-athletic, second-year wing Travis Leslie, but will Del Negro trust him? More likely, veterans Caron Butler and Willie Green will be called upon to aid Hill, but the problem still remains.

Kings power forward: It's hard to say how much of a legitimate competition there will be between rookie Thomas Robinson and re-signed veteran Jason Thompson, a solid but unspectacular player. However, it's safe to say that it would be huge for the Kings if Robinson stepped to the fore and established himself as a core talent. Goodness knows, Kings fans have earned the right for some good news.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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