NBA's 10 Most Critical Training Camp Battles
Now that the Olympics are over and we've acquired the gold medals, the next step in our NBA journey is waiting for training camps to begin.
Training camp will be the first time we start hearing and discovering how the offseason truly shaped the teams around the league. We'll get to know if injuries from last season are showing any lingering effects. We'll see rookies pushing veterans for playing time and just how willing coaches are to include them into the fray.
We'll also see some intense position battles from players of all levels of experience and ability trying to earn a spot in some team's rotation. Some veterans will be given minutes simply because coaches trust them more (it's the only way to explain how Andres Nocioni got minutes after 2007). Some rookies will have their lack of NBA experience stifling the time given to them on the court.
We'll also get to see how the contenders are shaping up and the pretenders are trying to position their squads and develop their young talent into learning how to win. And we'll see how new coaches around the league will begin to implement their system on their new organizations.
It is a time of battling for playing time and battle these players shall. Here are the 10 most critical training camp battles that I'm looking forward to this coming fall.
Charlotte Bobcats: Ramon Sessions vs. Kemba Walker
You're probably asking yourself, "who cares about the Charlotte Bobcats?"
Valid question. Coming off of the worst season in NBA history, the Bobcats have completely deconstructed themselves down to the ground level and are attempting to build back up. They grabbed a great building piece in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and now have to figure out which young pieces will fit in with their basketball culture moving forward.
Kemba Walker had a pretty disappointing rookie season with averages of 12.1 points (on 11.6 shot attempts and 36.6 percent shooting), 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. Newcomer Ramon Sessions had a pretty eventful season after being traded from the Cavaliers to the Lakers. Sessions averaged 11.3 points (on 8.8 shot attempts and 42.8 percent shooting), 5.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game.
Sessions is pretty instinctively regarded as the better point guard when compared to Walker, but that decision of who gets more time and who serves as the backup could be much more complicated than that.
Looking a little closer, Walker took care of the ball better than Sessions with 2.4 turnovers per 36 minutes (compared to 3.0 for Sessions) and a turnover ratio (turnovers per 100 possessions) of 12.53 (compared to Sessions' 18.03).
Walker also might be a better point guard on both ends of the floor for the system new coach Mike Dunlap wants to install in Charlotte.
The Bobcats will be an uptempo team that plays a very aggressive style of trapping all over the court. Sessions' defensive abilities leave much to be desired, while Walker is exactly the type of scrappy and aggressive defender Dunlap could be looking for.
If he's worried about someone taking care of the ball and leading his trapping, aggressive defense, Walker could have a huge advantage in earning the majority of the point guard minutes. But if he can't make a shot and insists on taking so many shots, Sessions' pure point guard play could end up winning his coach over.
Golden State Warriors: Harrison Barnes vs. Brandon Rush
Mama, there goes that position battle.
If healthy (and I really wish we didn't have to use that qualifier), the Golden State Warriors could end up being one of the surprise teams in the West this coming season. They have good depth all around their roster, lots of defensive-capable players to complement the offensive darlings on the squad, and good scoring firepower to run with teams if they need to.
The small forward position could end up being the biggest part of their rotation. With Dorrell Wright shipped out to Philadelphia, that leaves the majority of the playing time up for grabs between Harrison Barnes and Brandon Rush.
Seems like a no-brainer, right?
I wouldn't be so sure that Mark Jackson will just gift minutes to Barnes right away. The rookie from North Carolina is going to have to fit into the offensive flow and not be a ball-stopper like some pundits have worried about with his game translating to the NBA level.
And if he can't successfully drive to the basket and move the ball when needed, Brandon Rush could be the guy that earns those minutes.
Barnes will probably be a fine shooter, solid scorer and good defender in the NBA. But we know Brandon Rush showed he can do all of those things last season.
Rush had by far the best season of his career with the Warriors by shooting 50.1 percent from the field, 45.2 percent from three-point range and 79.3 percent from the free-throw line. His true shooting percentage was 62.8 percent, good for fourth in the NBA.
Defensively, he gave up very respectable defensive numbers with a 12.9 PER against him at the shooting guard position and a 15.0 PER given up against him at the small forward position, according to 82games.com.
If the Warriors were still in a rebuilding mode, I'd suggest that Barnes is a lock to win the small forward job and play the majority of the minutes there. Since the Warriors have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs this coming season, Rush's veteran presence may win out in Mark Jackson's rotation.
Sacramento Kings: Aaron Brooks vs. Isaiah Thomas vs. Jimmer Fredette
As per usual with the Sacramento Kings and their personnel decisions post-Rick Adelman, I have no idea what this team plans on doing.
They made it pretty clear they no longer want Tyreke Evans as the lead guard and will use him a lot more as a small forward this year than they have in the past. And with Marcus Thornton as a volume-heavy scorer at the shooting guard position, they definitely could use more of a pure point guard in their rotation.
So naturally they have Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks competing for minutes?
How does this make sense?
Isaiah Thomas probably wins out by default because he's the most point guard-y of the three, but the Kings have a bit of a conundrum on their hands.
To salvage anything involving Jimmer Fredette, they're going to have to either play him and pray he earns himself some trade value, play him as an off-guard and pray he doesn't get completely torched on every defensive possession, or not play him at all and pray the fans don't revolt over a missed draft pick in the top 10.
Then you have to find a way to work in Aaron Brooks, who was last seen struggling to find any kind of offensive rhythm for the Suns and Rockets during the 2010-11 season. He averaged 10.7 points and 3.9 assists per game that year while shooting 37.5 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from three. Brooks took the lockout-shortened season off by playing overseas in China.
Now he'll be trying to crack a usage-saturated perimeter rotation that still has to figure out how to make Tyreke Evans effective without the ball in his hands.
I don't envy Keith Smart this year. Isaiah Thomas is probably your winner here, but it doesn't mean it will be a smooth decision-making process.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrei Kirilenko vs. Derrick Williams
Speaking of potential misses on draft picks, the Timberwolves have to figure out what they're going to do with Derrick Williams.
It's far too early into his career to panic about whether or not he can validate the Wolves' decision to select him with the second pick in the 2011 draft, but that doesn't mean they don't have to find a use for him soon or forever lessen his trade value/value within their own team construct.
The signing of Andrei Kirilenko for two years and $20 million gives the Wolves options at the small and power forward positions whilst putting pressure on Williams to perform and earn minutes. The good news for the Wolves is Williams seemed to take the blame for the Wolves exploring options earlier this summer with Nicolas Batum:
“If I had played a little better, maybe we wouldn’t be having this talk,” Williams said Friday, July 13, on the first day of the Timberwolves’ minicamp at Target Center to prepare for next week’s NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “I had an up-and-down rookie season. I know I can play better than what I did. Hopefully, I can play better next season.”
Williams worked on his perimeter play during the summer league and it was pretty up-and-down. He found ways to be aggressive and get to the free-throw line against lesser competition, but it wasn't convincing enough to believe it will absolutely translate to the regular season.
With Kirilenko on board, the Wolves have a versatile forward who can attack the basket and make plays on offense. Sound like something you heard about Williams when he was at Arizona? The difference is Kirilenko is known as a plus-defender and that will easily earn him minutes over Williams if Derrick can't figure out how to play in Adelman's system.
Williams is far from a lost cause but the money and commitment currently reside in Andrei's corner. It will be interesting to see which one gets playing time or if they can somehow all play in the same frontcourt with Kevin Love when Nikola Pekovic gets some rest from terrorizing the villagers.
New York Knicks: Raymond Felton vs. Jason Kidd vs. Pablo Prigioni
Now with Jeremy Lin off to the Houston Rockets, raise your hand if you know how the point guard situation in New York will work out with Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni in the fold.
None of your hands should be up.
My best educated guess would be Raymond Felton getting the initial crack at the point guard duties with Jason Kidd as the backup and Prigioni on the outside looking in. But that's assuming Felton comes into the season relatively in shape.
The tricky part is trying to figure out which version of which point guard will be showing up to be on the Knicks.
Felton was horribly out of shape last season, so much so that he ended up taking a lot of the fat jokes that would normally be fired at Boris Diaw. He played uninspired basketball for the Blazers, which was a far cry from the basketball we saw him play the previous year under Mike D'Antoni before he was traded to Denver.
Kidd had the worst year of his Hall of Fame career. Kidd did not handle the lockout-shortened season well. He shot horrendously for the second straight season and managed the highest turnover ratio of his career and the lowest assist rate he's ever had.
And Pablo Prigioni comes into the league at the age of 35. He's a pretty slow point guard and we have no idea if his game will fully translate to the NBA because of that. But he's extremely crafty, a decent shooter and could be a pretty steady hand if the Knicks decide to give him minutes.
The good news is the Knicks will presumably have this decision to make for the next three years. Kidd signed for three years and Felton will be under contract for four.
Wait, did I say good news? I meant horrifically awkward news.
Los Angeles Clippers: Caron Butler vs. Lamar Odom
The last time Lamar Odom played for a Los Angeles basketball team, he was the best Sixth Man of the Year.
Then the lockout happened, he went through a couple of personal tragedies, and had the worst season of his career. It was such a horrible season that the Mavericks asked him to stay home for the last part of it because there wasn't a point in him being around.
There's no denying that when Lamar is focused and in shape, he's one of the toughest guys to plan against in the league. He can play both forward positions, make plays for his teammates, and get to the basket for his own shot whenever he needs to. He's the perfect guy to insert into your lineup for versatility.
Unfortunately, we have no idea if he's going to revert to that form. He's stopped the distraction of having a reality show crew filming his every second of the day, and supposedly dedicated himself to becoming the player he once was. But can he earn the majority of the rotation minutes available over Caron Butler?
Butler was not good last year. He had the worst season of his career since he was a sophomore in the league. He took a lot of shots to score not very many points (11.2 attempts to get 12.0 points per game). He made just 40.7 percent of his shots from the field and 35.8 percent of his three-pointers. And he jab-stepped the offensive flow into submission.
But he fits more into the traditional small forward role than Lamar does right now and that could be a factor into which guy ends up playing more minutes on the floor.
How quickly Blake Griffin's knee heals could also make this training camp battle completely moot. If Griffin isn't healthy to start the season, Odom can slide into the 4 and Butler can slide into the 3.
But once Griffin is healthy, will the Clippers go with someone they know isn't afraid to shoot or a guy that could potentially make the ball movement of their offense extremely hard to keep up with?
Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague vs. Devin Harris
This is a tale of two point guards.
Devin Harris is a veteran who has been both a scorer and a distributor before. He has the experience at the point that Larry Drew could be looking for if they're going to try to salvage their playoff position post-Joe Johnson.
While Johnson may be incredibly overpaid, we shouldn't forget that he had a tremendous season last year and was a huge reason for why the Hawks were in the playoffs.
Teague is a more explosive option but also could be much more of a wild card. Teague's ability to run a pick-and-roll and catapult himself to the basket might be exactly what the Hawks are looking for with Johnson no longer on the team. They need someone who can establish himself as a threat on the perimeter.
Take a look at a comparison of their numbers last year and it's probably a lot closer than you'd expect. Teague is looked at as more of an up-and-coming point guard while Harris had a really down year for himself in Utah. And yet they still put up similar numbers across the board.
It's possible Harris could find a higher level of play in Atlanta with good scoring options around him on the perimeter and plenty of athletic post options to toss the ball to.
A change of scenery out of Utah might be enough to get him to capture the type of play that made him a nice piece to have on your team to begin with. Or maybe he'll continue down the road of becoming another Jameer Nelson.
With a bigger role, Teague could not blossom at all and actually become less efficient with more pressure on him to make plays. He also could revel in his newfound opportunity and become the next exciting point guard that gets the internet buzzing.
It will be up to Larry Drew to decide how much he buys into the idea of a veteran presence running his team or if he wants someone more capable of igniting the crowd and his teammates on the floor to make plays happen.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson vs. Tyler Zeller
Assuming he doesn't get traded, Anderson Varejao will most likely be heavily in the rotation for the Cavs this coming season.
The question at hand is which young big man that Cleveland employs will best complement Varejao on the court?
Tristan Thompson probably has more upside and potential to be a really good big man in this league. His athletic ability is pretty hard to match and he showed a really solid ability to rebound the ball. His per-36 minutes rebounding numbers were 9.8 and his rebounding rate was a very respectable 15.4 percent. But he struggled a lot in putting the ball in the basket.
His true shooting percentage was 46.9 and his turnover ratio was 19.2, which is pretty terrible for a big man.
The Cavs also didn't play well when he and Varejao were on the court together. The sample size isn't very big at just 47 minutes in 18 games together, but Cleveland was outscored by 28.6 points per 100 possessions when these two were on the floor at the same time.
If Thompson isn't able to find his way and improve immediately, the Cavs have the versatility to pit Varejao and Tyler Zeller next to each other.
Varejao can play both the 4 and the 5 at high levels and that will be a huge asset for Byron Scott. Zeller is probably more of a center in this league because he won't be quick enough to do much defensively on the perimeter against athletic power forwards.
But his skill set allows Zeller to play all over the floor on offense. He has great hands and is a solid passer. He also can knock down jumpers, score inside and hit the boards. It allows them to play more of a high-low when Zeller and Varejao are on the court together.
Of course, it's possible Kyrie Irving will be able to turn Tristan Thompson into a much better player in year two than he was in year one.
Thompson's footwork and comfort around the basket seemed much improved in summer league and if that carries over to the regular season, the Cavs will have plenty of options (especially with Samardo Samuels looking to be in fantastic shape).
Minnesota Timberwolves: Brandon Roy vs. His Knees
Last time Brandon Roy was on the court, he gave us glimpses of what he was once and heavy doses of cringes for what his knees had deteriorated to.
Now after taking a season off and having that revolutionary procedure on his knees that the kids seem to love, he'll be back on the court and ready to prove he can still play in the NBA. His determination could end up being inspiring to us all. He's willing to take a huge risk and sacrifice his health for a chance to play a game we all love.
He claims since getting the procedure done that he feels fantastic and his knees feel whole again.
The problem with this is he feels fantastic and pain-free because he hasn't been going through the grind of the NBA season. Training camp will be our first glimpse into knowing if Roy can once again be a consistent weapon in this league or if he'll be relegated back to spending too much time in the trainer's room.
After two-a-day practice sessions and tougher scrimmages than he's probably been used to in his training to get back into the league, we'll be able to see if the lack of cartilage in his knee can be helped by the procedure that Kobe Bryant used before last season.
If it works, Roy will be an integral part of this Wolves team and capable of helping Love and Pekovic carry the team until Ricky Rubio is healthy enough to play again. He could even win them a few games and provide a spark that carries this team through tougher stretches of the schedule.
However, if it doesn't work and his knees can't hold up, we'll have to watch him go through the pain of trying to recapture something that just isn't physically there anymore. It could be the best story of the season or it could be one of the most painful.
We'll finally begin to see where he stands when training camp gets going.
Houston Rockets: 14-Power Forward Battle Royale
Here are the power forwards the Houston Rockets currently have on their roster:
Royce White, Terrence Jones, Jon Brockman, Marcus Morris, JaJuan Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Patterson.
Sure some of those guys can play both the 3 and the 4 and some of them can moonlight between the 4 and the 5 positions. But that's A LOT of power forwards to have on your roster. There's clearly only one way to settle all of this.
We'll have these seven guys get into the squared circle and then we'll ring the bell. I imagine they'll all team up against Jon Brockman to try to throw him over the ropes first. Brockman is probably the strongest of them all so it will definitely take all six guys to get him out.
Once this happens, someone will try to surprise a guy he just teamed up against. I think we'll see Motiejunas fake the high-five to Johnson and then toss him over the ropes. It shouldn't be too hard because JaJuan Johnson weighs about 87 pounds.
We'll also see Marcus Morris try the same thing with Terrence Jones because he's a rookie, but Jones went to Kentucky and was coached up by John Calipari. He'll be able to spot this coming a mile away after being teammates with DeMarcus Cousins. He'll toss Morris over his hip and out of the ring, leaving just himself, White, Donatas and Patterson to battle it out.
We'll probably see Jones square off against Patterson and White go after Donatas.
Patterson against Jones will be a fantastic showdown. Patterson has a stronger base than Jones but Jones' reach is hard to deal with. After a couple of haymakers exchanged, I expect Patterson to suplex Jones onto the canvas and climb the ropes to drop an elbow so Jones won't be capable of fighting off being tossed out of the ring.
Donatas and White will notice the vulnerability of Patterson once he's atop the turnbuckle and take a break from wrestling. They'll rush over to the corner, rattle the ropes and drop Jones down onto the turnbuckle in a way that will make every guy in the arena cringe. White will use his tree trunk arms to clothesline Patterson to the wrong side of the ropes.
Donatas will try to attack White right away, but Jones will flip Motiejunas over the ropes. As Jones and White square off, they'll both have each other in a grapple and move toward the ropes. As each one tries to out-leverage the other, we'll see a masked man come running into the ring.
He'll rush the tangled duo and deliver a double clothesline to send them both over the ropes. He then will remove his mask and we'll see that Luis Scola has won the battle royale for old time's sake.
Either all of this will happen or Royce White will probably end up winning the spot with his passing ability and offensive versatility.