Early Predictions for Fiercest NBA Training Camp Battles

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIAugust 17, 2013

Early Predictions for Fiercest NBA Training Camp Battles

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    With the start of the 2013-14 NBA season just a few months away, fierce training camp battles are sure to heat up while coaches decide which players are best for certain roles on the roster.

    Cellar dwellers like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings will embrace competition for various roles and starting jobs. Playoff contenders like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, will aim to find the final pieces to their respective roster puzzle.

    Oftentimes, NBA veterans hold the upper hand in training camp battles. However, a variety of rookies and promising young players are hungry for big minutes in order to prove themselves.

    The NBA community won’t know which players come out on top until we’re closer to the regular season, so it’s time to make early predictions regarding training camp battles.

Sacramento Kings Part 1: Starting Backcourt

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    The Sacramento Kings have had issues all over the roster for quite some time. Now that once-promising guard Tyreke Evans has bolted for the payday offered by the new-look New Orleans Pelicans, the outlook of the starting lineup has become even murkier.

    Aside from DeMarcus Cousins getting slotted into the starting lineup every night, the Kings could go in a variety of directions.

    First off is the team's backcourt. Needless to say, Sacramento had a ludicrous logjam at both guard positions last season (an unfortunate truth that had the Kings coaching staff playing Evans out of position at small forward). Now, in addition to Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette, the Kings brought in Greivis Vasquez, Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum to fill their infamous quota of backcourt players.

    The question is, who will make up the starting backcourt when the season starts?

    Thomas, who was “Mr. Irrelevant” as the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft, has been far from irrelevant to start his career. The 5’9” sparkplug has started 99 games for the Kings (37 as a rookie, 62 as a sophomore). Last season, the former Washington Husky averaged 13.9 points, 4.0 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game to go with an impressive 17.59 PER.

    He doesn’t turn the ball over much (just 1.7 per game in two seasons), and he shoots an efficient percentage from beyond the arc (36.7 percent for his career) and at the free-throw line (86.2 percent for his career). But will that be enough to secure the starting job moving forward?

    The player seen as Thomas’s biggest competition for starting point guard duties is Vasquez. The Venezuelan point guard, who was acquired in the deal that sent Evans to New Orleans, had a breakout season in 2012-13. The 26-year-old averaged 13.9 points, 9.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game.

    Vasquez turned the ball over 3.2 times per game and was a less efficient shooter across the board compared to Thomas. Part of that is due to playing more minutes and trying to distribute the ball more often, but it’s worth noting regardless.

    This decision could go either way, but I predict Vasquez to win the starting job following his huge year in New Orleans. The Kings could then utilize Thomas as a change-of-pace guard off the bench who would abuse opposing backup point guards with his quick feet.

    As for the shooting guard spot, McLemore is likely the favorite to start. The 20-year-old out of Kansas had an abysmal summer league performance in which he shot 33.3 percent from the field and 19.4 percent from three-point range. However, the Kings simply have to develop the young rookie after watching him fall into their laps at pick No. 7 in the 2013 NBA draft.

    If Sacramento doesn’t feel comfortable throwing McLemore into the fire, Marcus Thornton (who started just eight games last season) will get the nod.

Sacramento Kings Part 2: Starting Frontcourt

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    Again, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be the only clear-cut starter on the Sacramento Kings roster at this point. As a result, two of the three frontcourt spots will be open for competition.

    In the frontcourt, the Kings have Jason Thompson, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, Travis Outlaw, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Chuck Hayes and the freshly signed Carl Landry.

    Considering that Sacramento finished dead last in the league last season in points allowed, giving up 105.1 points per game, there’s no doubt in my mind that Mbah a Moute should be given a starting gig. He’s one of the most underrated defenders in the NBA, can lead the young players by example and take on the toughest defensive assignments on a nightly basis.

    If the former Milwaukee Buck is slotted at small forward, that leaves a competition for the power forward spot among Thompson, Patterson, Hayes and Landry.

    Hayes’ game is pretty limited to being a gritty rebounder, so he’ll most certainly be coming off the bench.

    Thompson started 81 games last season and showed some flashes, but he doesn’t fit very well with Cousins because he doesn’t spread the floor.

    Patterson is a solid option as a floor spreader because he can shoot the long ball (38.6 percent from deep last season). However, Landry was tremendous for the Golden State Warriors and received votes for Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2013.

    Ultimately, I predict that Landry will land the starting job at power forward. He brings a veteran presence and leadership (two things that are sorely lacking in Sac-town).

Boston Celtics: Frontcourt

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    Jeff Green has all but solidified a starting job with the Boston Celtics moving forward after a tremendous postseason performance. In the 2013 playoffs, he averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range.

    Whether Green will be playing primarily at small forward or power forward, however, is up for debate.

    With Kelly Olynyk likely to start at center for Boston following a solid summer league, the remaining frontcourt players are Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.

    Bass played 81 games (69 starts) for the Celts a season ago, but averages of 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds didn’t exactly get the job done.

    Wallace, who was acquired in the megadeal with the Brooklyn Nets this summer, was a complete shell of himself in Brooklyn. He averaged 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game (his lowest totals since 2004). Humphries also had a down year for the Nets, but he played far fewer minutes than he had previously.

    Sullinger showed flashes before season-ending back surgery, but the point is that Boston doesn’t have a clear answer in the frontcourt.

    If Sullinger bounces back from injury and proves to be 100 percent from a health standpoint, I believe he’ll be slotted in at the power forward spot while Green plays small forward.

    If he needs more time to recuperate, a three-way battle between Bass, Wallace and Humphries for a starting gig will surely keep Celtics fans riveted. (Please note my sarcasm.)

Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo vs. Jameer Nelson

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    Despite the fact that No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo has “never” played point guard in the early years of his basketball career, he’s now having to learn as much as he can in a limited time frame, per Michael Wallace of ESPN.com.

    Although Oladipo is regarded as a defensive-minded shooting guard, the Orlando Magic are asking the youngster to reinvent himself as a point guard to better the team.

    Since Orlando already has 27-year-old veteran Arron Afflalo manning the shooting guard spot, Oladipo will need to become as multidimensional as possible. If he can prove worthy of handling the ball and setting up the offense, the Magic will have a proverbial Swiss Army knife on their hands.

    That role certainly won’t come easy for the youngster, though, because Jameer Nelson has been a reliable starter in Orlando for the past seven seasons. Of course, you don’t draft an athletic phenom second overall to ride the bench, which gives Oladipo some leeway.

    If anything, the Magic’s problem is having one too many guards. Nelson and Afflalo are both solid in their own right, but the rookie will need to get his minutes in order to develop.

    Ultimately, Oladipo’s playing time depends on how well he picks up the point guard position. If he’s a quick learner who can be trusted with the keys to Orlando’s offense, he’ll earn big minutes over Nelson (even though the Saint Joseph's product is a proven veteran).

    Unless the front office finds a trade partner, the coaching staff is looking at a three-guard rotation that could mix and match in a variety of ways.

    Oladipo could be utilized as a super sixth man, but with his athletic ability and talent, he should start the majority of games for a rebuilding franchise.

Charlotte Bobcats: Can Jeff Taylor Crack Starting Five?

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    It’s hard to believe that the Charlotte Bobcats made the playoffs in 2010. Despite making the postseason a mere three years ago, it feels like a lifetime, and the Bobcats still need a lot of help to get back there.

    Adding Al Jefferson in free agency is a step in the right direction, but the offensively skilled big man is downright awful on defense. When he was on the court for the Utah Jazz a season ago, the offensive rating of opponents was 110.5 points per 100 possessions. That was 9.8 points per possession better than when “Big Al” sat on the sidelines.

    As a result of Jefferson’s defensive shortcomings, it makes sense for Charlotte to add as many defensive difference-makers to the starting lineup as it can. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a solid defender, but because the Bobcats were so bad defensively a season ago his presence made little difference.

    So is there a chance that NBA sophomore Jeff Taylor could earn a starting gig in Charlotte?

    The 24-year-old has a breakout performance in summer league to help his case. In four games, Taylor averaged 20.3 points while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc to go with his solid defense.

    Sure it was a small sample size, but if Taylor can bring offensive numbers to go with his defensive intensity, he’d be a huge asset in the starting rotation.

    The problem is that he’d have to win the starting job over shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who tested the free-agent waters before diving back in with Charlotte. He’s a reliable player on offense, but he simply doesn’t have the defensive skill set of Taylor.

    In my opinion, Henderson is better suited to coming off the bench and scoring points in bunches as the team’s sixth man. Meanwhile, Taylor could set a defensive tone early on.

    The chances of this happening are slim to none, but if Taylor keeps playing like he did in summer league, the Bobcats will have no choice but to give him more court time.

Houston Rockets: Power Forward

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    Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard have already solidified a very appealing lineup for the Houston Rockets next season. With that said, the starting power forward is far from set in stone.

    If you ask me, starting D12 at power forward beside Omer Asik—creating one of the best defensive interior tandems in the history of basketball—doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But since that thought hasn’t gained much steam, chances are Houston will look at other options.

    Since Terrence Jones is facing legal troubles for allegedly stomping on a homeless man, according to news outlet KATU, his opportunity at increased playing time next season might be in jeopardy.

    The hulking 250-pound, 6’10” frame of Greg Smith is an intriguing option, but the floor-spreading potential of Lithuanian 7-footer Donatas Motiejunas may be too much to ignore.

    Howard’s struggles with the Los Angeles Lakers stemmed from playing beside Pau Gasol in the post without a slew of perimeter threats around him. He was at his best in Orlando, working in the paint surrounded by shooters like Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis.

    Motiejunas showed that he was comfortable hoisting up the three-ball, but he only shot 28.9 percent from deep during the regular season. He was significantly better on corner threes, but shooting in the 32 to 33 percent range still isn’t great.

    If the lanky forward can improve his outside shot, he’s a no-brainer for the starting job. Of course, even if he continues to be raw shooting-wise, the Rockets don’t have many other options.

Phoenix Suns: Archie Goodwin vs. Shannon Brown

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    Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough has already hinted that Goran Dragic and offseason acquisition Eric Bledsoe will play side by side in the same backcourt.

    Since the Suns will likely opt for sheer talent over definitive positions, the other guards on the roster will compete for minutes behind those two guys.

    A key training camp battle to watch in the desert will be that between rookie Archie Goodwin and veteran Shannon Brown.

    Goodwin, the 29th overall pick in the 2013 draft, has already shown the ability to play with a chip on his shoulder. The 19-year-old guard out of Kentucky had an impressive showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 13.1 points and 3.3 rebounds to go with 50 percent shooting from the field and 57.1 percent shooting from three-point range.

    According to Tzvi Twersky of Slam Magazine, Goodwin said, “I’ve got to give them hell,” when referencing all the NBA teams that passed on him in the draft. Needless to say, he’s ready to show NBA teams exactly what he's capable of.

    Brown, meanwhile, is coming off one of the most disappointing seasons of his career. He started just 22 games, shot a career-low 27.7 percent from three-point range and fell out of the rotation when Lindsey Hunter took over as interim head coach.

    It was thought that Brown would blossom in Phoenix as he exited the shadow cast by Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Instead, his play has regressed despite an increase in minutes.

    Both players will be out to prove that they belong in the rotation for different reasons. Goodwin has the upper hand, though, because the coaching staff will want to develop him for the future.

Golden State Warriors: Backup Point Guard

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    Since Sixth Man of the Year award candidate Jarrett Jack signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors will look to fill the void left at the backup point guard position.

    Jack was a consistent contributor alongside starters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as a player who could come off the bench, handle the ball and set up the offense. Now that he’s essentially been replaced with Andre Iguodala—who fits best as a shooting guard/small forward—the Dubs need to find someone off the bench who can take the pressure off of Curry.

    The front-runner for that job, at least at the moment, is 24-year-old Kent Bazemore.

    Although Bazemore is best known for his bench celebrations, he showed in summer league that there’s more to him than towel waving and high-fives.

    In Las Vegas, the Old Dominion product averaged 18.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and led the Golden State Warriors to the championship.

    He played extremely well and had some highlights along the way, but he also averaged an alarming 3.6 turnovers per game—not exactly what you want out of a backup point guard.

    However, considering that the Warriors only other options are Toney Douglas and rookie Nemanja Nedovic, the backup point guard job appears to be Bazemore’s to lose.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson vs. Anthony Bennett

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    A frequent stereotype associated with Canadians is that they are polite, warm-hearted people. In the case of Canadian-born Cleveland Cavaliers Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, they’ll have to find a mean streak as they compete for playing time under head coach Mike Brown.

    It came as a shock to many when the Cavs selected Bennett first overall in the 2013 NBA draft. Not only because analysts didn’t see him as the best player available, but also because he’d be joining Cleveland’s clogged frontcourt.

    Thompson had a breakout year for the Cavs last season, averaging a double-double in January as well as in April—while starting all 82 games. But neither he nor Bennett fit any position other than power forward.

    Both are too undersized to play center, and while Bennett has plenty of athletic ability, he can’t defend opposing NBA small forwards.

    At the end of the day, this competition can only mean good things for the Cavaliers. If nothing else, they can package one player along with veteran Anderson Varejao to stockpile future assets.

    Since coach Brown doesn’t have any preexisting loyalties with Thompson, Bennett has an opportunity to overtake his starting job for the 2013-14 season.