There's been a ton of speculation about who this season's Golden State Warriors' starter at small forward will be. I won't belabor what's already been extensively chronicled, except to say that the primary candidates for the position are rookie Harrison Barnes, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush. There's a decent argument for all three.
But there is also a decent case for dark horse starter Kent Bazemore.
Bazemore made the Warriors on the strength of an eye-opening summer league performance Golden State simply couldn't ignore. He was everywhere—using his seven-foot wingspan and quick feet to hound ball handlers and tip passes. Bazemore rejected an incredible seven shots against the Chicago Bulls, most of which came on soaring help-side leaps.
Bazemore's defensive pedigree is unquestioned. He won the Lefty Driesell Award in 2011 as the NCAA's best defensive player. If his summer league performance is any indication, he knows that his best chance to carve out an NBA career is by fashioning himself into a bona fide stopper on the wing.
And that's why the Warriors should be thinking about starting him.
If Golden State is serious about becoming a championship contender (and the moves they've made over the last year certainly indicate they are), they ought to be looking at what other championship teams are doing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder start defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha over James Harden—not because Sefolosha is a better overall player than Harden is, but because he's an elite defender. His lockdown defense keeps opposing wings from getting off to hot starts, often derailing their offensive games right from the jump ball.
For the same reason, Shane Battier started for the Miami Heat last year.
In fact, the more you look around at championship contenders, the more often you see defensive specialists starting on the wing. Danny Green started over Manu Ginobili for the Spurs last season because of his defense, and Tony Allen got the nod over O.J. Mayo in Memphis.
It's clear that the NBA's good teams have figured something out, and anybody paying attention to the league over the years knows it, too—if a team has an elite wing defender, he should start.
There are a handful of positive ripple-effects to this strategy as well. It allows capable scorers to come in off the bench against the opponent's second unit. That's certainly been a benefit to James Harden and Manu Ginobili over the years. Imagine how it could make life easier on Harrison Barnes, who wouldn't have to deal with the pressure of starting as a rookie.
Plus, Barnes showed that he is capable of leading a group of bench players throughout the Las Vegas Summer League. He'd have the opportunity to do that as Bazemore's relief.
Before anyone starts shouting about Bazemore being undersized at the small forward, relax. He proved in college and during summer league that he's more than capable of guarding any wing position. With Klay Thompson's size and athletic limitations making him a candidate to slide to small forward down the road anyway, Bazemore could simply attach himself to the opposing shooting guard or small forward—giving Thompson the easier matchup, regardless of size.
There are certainly arguments against giving Bazemore the starting nod. It might rub Barnes the wrong way, for one thing. Veterans Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush (who's already mentioned he wants to start) might take offense to an undrafted rookie beating them out of a role. Maybe Bazemore won't have the defensive success he enjoyed during college. Who knows?
But there's just no getting around the fact that most of the NBA's elite teams have (and start) a player like Bazemore—a guy they don't expect to score or finish games. Instead, they toss him out there to make life hard on opposing stars and set the defensive tone for the game.
Realistically, Bazemore's a long shot to start for the Warriors this year. But if Golden State really wants to become an elite organization with championship aspirations, they'd do well to at least consider the possibility.