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NBA Training Camp Battles Fans Can't Wait to See for 2013-14 Season

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2013

NBA Training Camp Battles Fans Can't Wait to See for 2013-14 Season

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    For a league that produces as much drama and as many surprises as the NBA does, its training camps often run free of question marks.

    With only 12 active roster spots and five starting gigs up for grabs, position battles can be few and far between. The weight of burdensome guaranteed contracts only closes the door to competition further.

    But not every roster is set in stone.

    With players on the move in free agency and talent flooding the league on draft night, there is a bit of fluidity as training camp nears. Rising stars will threaten to unseat incumbent veterans. New faces will battle for prominent roles in new places.

    Since expectations vary across the league, there is no single way to win these fights for floor time, but the goal remains the same for all of the players involved.

    *Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

A Perimeter Prizefight in Minnesota

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    With scoring savant Kevin Martin added to the Minnesota Timberwolves backcourt this summer, this playoff-hopeful roster now has playoff-caliber talent at four of the five starting spots.

    The small forward spot could be the make-or-break position for this franchise's bid to snap its nine-year playoff drought. There's a three-man competition for coach Rick Adelman to digest, but he should have a head start on the process given the stylistic differences between each candidate.

    Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, has the highest ceiling of the group. He's young (22), athletic and energetic.

    However, he's also better suited as an undersized post player as opposed to an oversized option on the perimeter. He'll likely have his own fight holding off journeyman Dante Cunningham and the unproven Chris Johnson to serve as Kevin Love's understudy.

    That means Adelman will likely choose between offense and defense.

    Chase Budinger, whose Minnesota debut was limited to just 23 games in an injury-plagued 2012-13 campaign, is the more complete offensive player. A former high school volleyball player of the year, he has serious springs and solid shooting mechanics (career .433/.358/.804 slash line).

    Corey Brewer is the superior defender, given his length (6'9") and athleticism. He's more limited offensively (career .416/.298/.697 slash) but could be the better perimeter complement to the offensive-minded Martin.

    Rookie Shabazz Muhammad could be a dark-horse threat due to his size (6'6", 222 pounds) and explosiveness, but he'll need to shore up his offensive game and stop a wavering defensive focus before he sees any significant minutes.

Dwight Howard's Running Mate

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    With Dwight Howard on board, the Houston Rockets have the best center in the business and no worse than a puncher's chance at the 2014 title.

    But the power forward spot is still an unanswered question.

    Houston has quantity at the position, but finding quality there requires a leap of faith.

    Ideally one of the Rockets' two sophomore forwards, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, runs away with the competition.

    Jones is a stat-sheet stuffer in the best way. His per-36-minute production touched all angles of the box score (13.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals), and he's comfortable operating away from the basket.

    Motiejunas has the skills to become the type of stretch forward that Howard has excelled with in the past (Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu), but he struggled finding NBA range. He shot just 28.9 percent from deep as a rookie, a figure he'll need to dramatically improve to keep defenders from collapsing on Howard.

    If Houston's looking for bulk, Greg Smith (6'10", 250 pounds) and Omer Asik (7'0", 250 pounds) would give the Rockets tremendous size along Howard. If either can find a mid-range game—they attempted just 22 shots combined from beyond 10 feet last season—that would go a long way toward solving some potentially nightmarish spacing issues.

A Bruiser for Boogie

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    The Sacramento Kings seem ready to tie their future to DeMarcus Cousins, potentially in the form of a max contract, according to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

    Whether that's a sound investment is a conversation for a different time. What matters here is that Sacramento needs to maximize Cousins' potential for success by finding him an ideal interior counterpart.

    The Kings have no shortage of options in that regard.

    Jason Thompson, a 6'11", 250-pound banger, has held that spot for most of the past five seasons. He's a somewhat reliable scorer (career 10.5 points per game), a steady rebounder (7.1) and a developing shooter (42.8 percent from beyond 10 feet in 2012-13).

    But he'll face stiffer competition in this camp than he has throughout his tenure with the team.

    Veteran Carl Landry landed in Sacramento by way of a four-year, $26 million contract this summer. He shined in a reserve role for the Golden State Warriors last season (17.5 player efficiency rating), but his contract will ensure him a lengthy look as a starter.

    Patrick Patterson arrived at the 2013 trade deadline and wasted no time throwing his name into the discussion. He shot 44.4 percent from beyond the arc in 24 games for the Kings, offering potentially ideal spacing for Cousins to operate in the process.

Unscrambling Boston's Bigs

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    The Boston Celtics would love to have Sacramento's post problems. At least the Kings have one of their frontcourt positions solved.

    Boston is looking for a pair of post players with no fewer than seven players potentially vying for those spots.

    Assuming new coach Brad Stevens avoids a small-ball starting five, then Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace should be out of the running.

    But that still leaves five players battling for two starting gigs.

    If the Celtics are preparing for the future, then sophomore Jared Sullinger and rookie Kelly Olynyk could emerge victorious. Neither is overly athletic, but both have shown glimpses of potential production down the line.

    Sullinger is a rugged post player with a nose for the basketball (10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes). His 102 defensive rating trailed only Kevin Garnett's 99 mark among Boston's top 10 rotation players last season. Olynyk is a sweet-shooting seven-footer who will be looking to build on his impressive showing at the Orlando Summer League (18.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game).

    But if the Celtics are still entertaining playoff hopes, a full-on youth movement might not yet be in the cards. That means veterans Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries could still crack Stevens' opening group.

    Rookie Vitor Faverani, the Brazilian native and European import, is a long shot but still worth mentioning. The 25-year-old needs some polishing, but Boston's three-year, $6 million commitment to him suggests the Celtics feel he's worth the effort.

Milwaukee's Interior Logjam

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    There shouldn't be a problem on the Milwaukee Bucks frontcourt.

    They have one rising star in the middle, Larry Sanders, and a second player appearing ready to follow his lead, John Henson.

    Sanders flirted with a nightly double-double with 9.8 points and 9.5 boards, while turning away 2.8 shots in 27.3 minutes per game. Henson compiled a tantalizing per-36-minutes stat line (16.5 points, 12.9 boards, 1.8 blocks) despite seeing fewer than 14 minutes a night over 63 games as a rookie.

    If the Bucks were ready for some bumps in the road, they could unleash these potentially potent twin towers and reap the rewards as soon as next season. If more turbulence was encountered than expected, this post pairing would still have a full year of seasoning and a possible franchise cornerstone teammate plucked near the top of the stacked 2014 rookie class.

    But nothing from this offseason even hints that this is being considered.

    Milwaukee brought veterans to town by the busload this summer: O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, Luke Ridnour, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal and Brandon Knight.

    So as exciting as the thought of a Sanders-Henson frontcourt might be, it could still be a season or two removed from being put into practice. With Pachulia thrown into the post discussion that already included Ersan Ilyasova and Ekpe Udoh, Henson in particular will be fighting for whatever minutes he can get.

Backcourt Battle in Orlando

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    The Orlando Magic are almost ready to turn the corner on their post-Dwight Howard rebuilding project.

    Between Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic—all under the age of 23—the Magic could have their starting frontcourt for the next decade.

    Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick from June's draft, undoubtedly fits Orlando's picture for the future. He's a supercharged athlete who attacks both ends of the floor with contagious energy.

    But figuring out where he fits in Orlando's immediate plans is the biggest task on second-year coach Jacque Vaughn's to-do list.

    Initially, Oladipo was penciled in as the Magic's starting shooting guard for 2013-14. That thought gained traction as rumors of a trade involving Arron Afflalo, Orlando's incumbent starter at the 2, and Eric Bledsoe, a rising point guard prospect, started swirling.

    But Afflalo was never dealt, Bledsoe ended up with the Phoenix Suns and Orlando went scrambling for answers.

    Suddenly Oladipo transformed from the Magic's shooting guard of the future to the starting point guard on their summer league squad. According to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, the results of this experiment were inconclusive, and it will continue in October.

    Oladipo is too talented to waste away on any bench, particularly on a team as far removed from the playoff picture as Orlando. But identifying which player he'll unseat, Afflalo or Jameer Nelson, remains a mystery.

Crowning the Kings Perimeter

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    There's a reason the Sacramento Kings are mired in a seven-year playoff drought.

    Good teams don't have this many question marks on the roster.

    Outside of DeMarcus Cousins, there isn't a player who can be penciled in for a starting job for next season.

    Veteran newcomer Greivis Vasquez, who came courtesy of the sign-and-trade deal that sent Tyreke Evans to the New Orleans Pelicans, will battle two-year pro Isaiah Thomas for the keys to Michael Malone's offense.

    At 6'6", 211 pounds, Vasquez has tremendous size for the lead guard spot. He's also an upper-echelon setup man, posting 9.0 assists against 3.2 turnovers per game last season, but he's had problems with his shot (career .429/.325/.806 shooting slash).

    Thomas has shooting success (.443/.367/.862) and the analytical crowd (career 17.6 player efficiency rating) backing his claim. But he's a point guard in training (career 4.0 assists per game) whose 5'9", 185-pound frame presents obvious defensive challenges, particularly on a team lacking rim protection.

    Jimmer Fredette and rookie Ray McCallum will be breathing down the necks of Vasquez and Thomas should either of them stumble out of the gate.

    Ben McLemore, the seventh overall pick in 2013, should have an early lead on fellow shooting guard Marcus Thornton. They share similar strengths (scoring and shooting), but the 20-year-old McLemore is a superior athlete with a much higher ceiling than the 26-year-old Thornton.

    Still, he'll have to shake the image of his rocky summer league play (33.3 percent shooting from the field, 19.4 percent from deep) to solidify his starting gig.

    At small forward, Luc Mbah a Moute plays with the defensive tenacity that Malone teaches, but his offensive game is limited enough that veteran John Salmons could still sneak into the opening lineup.

Cleveland's Lottery Winnings

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    If Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert gets his wish that the Cavs' lottery days are behind them, he'll have their previous lottery winnings to thank for that.

    Beyond Cleveland's obvious jackpot prize, Kyrie Irving in 2011, the roster has also added a pair of starters in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. A third name should soon be added to that list if Anthony Bennett can live up to his No. 1 overall draft slot.

    If Bennett can play his way into Mike Brown's starting five, though, will that come at Thompson's expense?

    Bennett has great footwork for his size (6'7", 240 pounds) and the ball skills to dribble circles around opposing bigs. He could even be a more efficient option as Cleveland's second scorer (.533/.375/.701 slash during his lone season at UNLV) than Waiters (.412/.310/.746 as a rookie in 2012-13).

    But Brown's brain often drifts to the defensive end of the floor, where Thompson should have a clear advantage early on.

    He added more than five percentage points to his defensive rebounding rate from his rookie season (22.1 up from 16.8) while cracking the NBA's top 10 in rebounds with 773.

    The versatile defender is also closing in on averaging a block and a steal per game (0.7 and 0.9, respectively last season), an accomplishment shared by just 10 players across the league last season.

    Ultimately this is a tandem Cleveland would like to employ together, either as part of a supersized lineup (with Bennett at the 3 and Thompson at the 4) or a small-ball unit (with Bennett at the 4 and Thompson at the 5).

    For now, though, the easiest way for either player to step on the floor will be by forcing the other one off it.

Houston, We Need a Point Guard

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    For all intents and purposes, Jeremy Lin should be the starting point guard of the Houston Rockets next season.

    After all, he started all 82 games for Houston at point guard last season and helped it snap a three-year playoff drought in the process.

    But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional sports, past accomplishments are all but meaningless.

    Lin is fighting for his job without having done anything to give it up—and he has sophomore-to-be Patrick Beverley to thank.

    A physical defender and knock-down three-point shooter (37.5 percent last season), Beverley is an ideal backcourt mate for rising superstar James Harden. Harden is at his best with the ball in his hands, and Beverley has no problems lurking off the ball in the corners and waiting for his chance to fire at will.

    As for Lin, he thrives as the focal point of an offense. When surrounded by playoff-caliber talent, he was a serviceable pro (13.4 points and 6.1 assists per game last year). But when he took over an injury-riddled New York Knicks team back in 2011-12, he was Linsanity—a global phenom and the source of an 11-game run of 23.9 points and 9.2 assists.

    Houston isn't searching for Linsanity, but a downsized version could bring a spark to the second unit. With Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons on the floor, the starting five could be just fine in Beverley's hands.

Finding the Right Warriors Wings

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    The roller-coaster ride for Golden State Warriors sophomore-to-be Harrison Barnes continues.

    He followed up his solid but unspectacular regular season (9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds) with a resounding breakout effort in the postseason. A torn hip flexor stripped David Lee of nearly all of his meaningful minutes, while Barnes erased any existing career projections with 16.1 points and 6.4 boards in 12 playoff games.

    Barnes' emergence also reportedly made Lee, Golden State's first All-Star in more than a decade, expendable. Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the Warriors were examining trade options for the eight-year veteran at the start of the offseason.

    Yet no matter how bright Barnes' future looks, he's now at risk of losing his starting spot.

    With All-Star Swiss Army knife and all-world defender Andre Iguodala now calling the Bay Area his third NBA home, Barnes may be the odd man out in coach Mark Jackson's opening lineup.

    Iguodala is already the team's best defender and slasher. He held opposing shooting guards to a meager 12.7 player efficiency rating last season and small forwards to a paltry 9.9 mark, via 82games.com. Nearly 23 percent of his field-goal attempts came at the rim last season, where he finished a staggering 74.9 percent of his chances.

    Klay Thompson is the long-ball threat who keeps defenders away from Lee, Iguodala and Stephen Curry. He's drilled 40.6 percent of his three-point looks over his first two NBA seasons. He's also a top-tier defender who will only benefit from Iguodala sharing the perimeter defensive responsibilities.

    That leaves Barnes, a player whose future has never looked so bright, the likely candidate to open the game on the sideline after starting all 81 games he played last season. He'll have the chance to fight for a starting spot, but it looks like it will be a steep uphill battle.

     

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