Early Predictions for Fiercest NBA Training Camp Battles

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

Early Predictions for Fiercest NBA Training Camp Battles

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    Can Dante Exum and Trey Burke co-exist in the same backcourt? The Utah Jazz will find out this fall.
    Can Dante Exum and Trey Burke co-exist in the same backcourt? The Utah Jazz will find out this fall.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    With only a few major free-agent dominoes yet to fall, it's time for most NBA teams to turn their attention toward training camp, which kicks off at the end of September.

    Though some teams will enter camp with their starting fives relatively set in stone, many others will have some difficult decisions to make before the season commences. Trades, free-agent additions and newly drafted rookies have drastically shaken up depth charts across the league, leaving some entrenched veterans in danger of losing their starting spots.

    Other squads are starting from scratch when it comes to filling certain positions in their starting fives. That will only heighten the importance of training camp and preseason for those teams, as they seek to sort out their depth charts before the season begins in late October.

    For now, 15 position battles stand out as the most up-for-grabs spots across the league. Read on to see how those fights are likely to shake out.

Boston Celtics: The Starting Backcourt

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Boston Celtics have an embarrassment of riches to choose from for their starting backcourt.

    Veterans Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley likely have the early lead for the starting 1 and 2 jobs, respectively, but rookies Marcus Smart and James Young could push the incumbents for those spots with strong performances in training camp and the preseason.

    Smart, in particular, could be primed for major minutes early in the season if the Celtics decide to trade Rondo, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2014-15 season. Back in June, Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (subscription required) reported that Boston would engage in trade discussions for Rondo if it was unable to land Kevin Love from Minnesota.

    Since Smart is somewhat interchangeable at either backcourt position, he should end up playing at least 30 minutes per game pretty quickly into his rookie season. However, unless the Celtics move Rondo between now and training camp, there's no way Boston would diminish the All-Star point guard's trade value by benching him and starting Smart.

     

    Prediction: Rondo will start at the 1, with Bradley at the 2.

Charlotte Hornets: Cody Zeller vs. Noah Vonleh

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In the days leading up to the 2014 draft, the Charlotte Hornets were largely linked with shooters like Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas. When Noah Vonleh took a surprising draft-night tumble, however, Charlotte pounced upon the opportunity and took its second top-10-pick big man in as many years.

    Cody Zeller, whom the then-Bobcats selected fourth overall in 2013, didn't begin his NBA career on the strongest note. He only cracked the double-digit scoring threshold 15 times in 82 games and snared 10 or more rebounds just once as a rookie.

    Those unimpressive statistics can largely be chalked up to paltry minutes totals—he played 25 or more minutes just three times last season and started only three games. With Josh McRoberts having taken his talents to South Beach in the offseason, however, a starting opportunity is wide open this coming year.

    Zeller should enter training camp with the inside track for that starting 4 job, mostly on the basis of his experience with coach Steve Clifford's system. Vonleh, whom most draft analysts considered one of the rawest prospects among the prospective lottery picks, will likely need time to acclimate to the intensity of the NBA but could challenge Zeller for the starting job before long.

     

    Prediction: Zeller will start at the 4.

Chicago Bulls: Mike Dunleavy vs. Doug McDermott

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Chicago Bulls should have one of the most heated training camp battles across the league at the 3 spot, with veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. attempting to defend his turf against McDermott.

    Dougie McBuckets earned his nickname for a reason—the dude can flat-out score. He's the fifth-highest scorer in NCAA history and has the fourth-highest three-point shooting percentage of all players who have attempted at least 500 shots from downtown, per Sports-Reference.com.

    Whether that leads to him starting over Dunleavy, however, is a matter of divisive opinions at the moment. Basketball Insiders' Joel Brigham believes he'll "come off the bench and be an offensive presence for the new Bench Mob," while Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta foresees a starting job in McDermott's near future.

    Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has long resisted giving rookies heavy minutes, especially from day one. Based on Scaletta's logic—keeping McDermott on the bench with second-year swingman Tony Snell and the newly arriving Nikola Mirotic would be "an array of mistakes waiting to happen"—expect the Creighton star to nudge Dunleavy Jr. out for a starting spot by opening night.

     

    Prediction: McDermott will start at the 3.

Dallas Mavericks: The Starting PG Spot

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    USA TODAY Sports

    After sending Jose Calderon to the New York Knicks in the deal that brought Tyson Chandler back to the Big D, the Dallas Mavericks are starting from square one at the point guard position this season.

    Vying for the starting spot will be former Knicks lead guard Raymond Felton, former Orlando Magic floor general Jameer Nelson and returnee Devin Harris, who spent roughly 45 percent of his 818 minutes last season playing the 1 for Dallas. Each candidate comes with significant flaws, however.

    Felton is coming off the worst season of his nine-year career, having averaged just 11.2 points on 39.5 percent shooting and 6.5 assists per game for New York. Nelson wasn't much better, finishing the year with per-game averages of 12.1 points and 7.0 assists. Both players either tied (Nelson) or set a new career low (Felton) in terms of player efficiency rating.

    Harris' familiarity with coach Rick Carlisle's system could give him the leg up in this three-way battle, but he's logged roughly two-thirds of his court time at the 2 these past two seasons. With Felton beginning the year on a four-game suspension stemming from weapons charges, Nelson may end up backing into the starting 1 spot almost by default.

     

    Prediction: Nelson will start at the 1.

Indiana Pacers: C.J. Miles vs. Rodney Stuckey

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    Jim Urquhart/Associated Press

    The Indiana Pacers' inability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this offseason could prove to be their downfall in 2014-15, especially in the wake of Paul George's presumptive season-ending leg fracture.

    Neither of Indiana's two main options at the 2-guard spot, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey, can hold a candle to what Stephenson provided last season.

    Both Miles and Stuckey shot below 44 percent from the field in 2013-14, while Stephenson drilled 49.1 percent of his attempts, and the oft-criticized Cincinnati product finished with a better total rebounding percentage (11.4) and assist percentage (22.1) than Stuckey and Miles combined.

    Which of the two has a better shot of replacing even 80 percent of Stephenson's production? Stuckey has averaged at least 11.5 points per game over each of his past six seasons, seemingly giving him an edge in that department, but Miles is a far better three-point shooter, having banged home a career-high 39.3 percent of his attempts from deep last year.

    With the Pacers in desperate need of floor spacers, Miles' three-point shooting ability should help push him past Stuckey, a career 28.6 percent shooter from downtown, in the race to seize the starting 2-guard spot. However, a strong training camp from Stuckey could flip that race on its head rather quickly.

     

    Prediction: Miles will start at the 2.

Los Angeles Lakers: Carlos Boozer vs. Julius Randle

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers have a conundrum on their hands when it comes to their starting 4 spot this season.

    Kobe Bryant, who turns 36 on Aug. 23, will likely have no patience for anything but making a playoff push. That could cause Julius Randle, the No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft, to be stuck behind veteran Carlos Boozer in the competition for the starting power forward gig.

    The 6'9", 250-pound Randle was one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the draft, and he has the strength and mass to bang around in the post from day one. However, Boozer's ability to space the floor with his patented pick-and-pop game could relieve pressure from Bryant as he works his way back from a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.

    The Lakers clearly view Randle as one of their franchise cornerstones of the future, while Boozer is nothing more than a short-term stopgap. However, with Bryant's career winding down, L.A. can't afford to let an inexperienced rookie take his lumps at the expense of wins.

     

    Prediction: Boozer will start at the 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Steve Nash vs. Jeremy Lin

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    The power forward job isn't the only role up for grabs in the Lakers' starting five. L.A.'s offseason trade for former Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin creates a legitimate competition at the point guard spot, too.

    The incumbent, Steve Nash, suffered a broken leg in his second-ever game with the Lakers in the 2012-13 season, which "caused a chain reaction in the nerves throughout [his] body that have left the 39-year-old in chronic, and sometimes debilitating pain ever since," according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne.

    Bleacher Report's Will Carroll described the nerve issues as "a chronic condition that won't be cured and can only be controlled."

    In a recent interview with Sport TV, the 40-year-old Nash conceded that this upcoming season will be his last. According to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, "the Lakers hardly have much confidence Nash can fully heal from a back injury that kept him sidelined for all but 15 games last season," which "partly explains" the acquisition of Lin.

    With Nash's career winding down, the Lakers would be wise to preserve his body by bringing him off the bench for short spurts. Starting Lin, who's entering the final year of his contract, would allow them to determine whether he's a piece worth re-signing next summer to a long-term deal.

     

    Prediction: Lin will start at the 1.

Memphis Grizzlies: The Starting SG and SF Spots

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    Lance Murphey/Associated Press

    The battle for the Memphis Grizzlies' starting 2 and 3 spots will be inherently linked once training camp commences. At the 3, Tayshaun Prince will duke it out with Vince Carter, while Courtney Lee and Tony Allen will be fighting for the starting shooting guard job.

    At this point in his career, Prince provides very little value offensively. He generated minus-0.2 offensive win shares in 76 games for the Grizzlies this past season and finished with career lows in both total win shares (1.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (0.38). His 6.0 points per game were the lowest since his rookie year, too.

    Carter, on the other hand, chipped in 11.9 points in 24.4 minutes per game for the Dallas Mavericks in 2013-14, proving that Vinsanity has not quite left the building. He's nowhere near the defender that Prince is, but given Memphis' desperate need for reliable shooters—the Grizzlies ranked dead last in made three-point field goals last season—his presence would help space the floor for the other starters.

    In essence, the decision boils down to starting Lee and Prince at the 2 and the 3, respectively, or sticking Allen and Carter out there instead. In the spirit of not disrupting chemistry, expect Memphis to stick with its starting five from last season and use Carter off the bench as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

     

    Prediction: Lee and Prince will start at the 2 and the 3, respectively.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Starting SG, SF and PF Spots

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    No team's starting lineup is as up in the air as the Milwaukee Bucks'.

    Nate Wolters and Kendall Marshall won't make things easy on Brandon Knight, but he's likely entrenched as the team's starting point guard. Likewise, after his disastrous 2013-14 season, the Bucks will trot out Larry Sanders at the 5 in the hopes that his four-year, $44 million extension won't soon become one of the NBA's worst contracts.

    The other three positions, however, are completely up for grabs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker figure to start, but it's unclear which positions both will play. Swingman O.J. Mayo should be out to prove that his miserable 2013-14 season was a one-year anomaly, while forward Ersan Ilyasova won't concede his starting job to the younglings readily.

    The smart money would be on Knight at the 1, Mayo at the 2, the Greek Freak at the 3, Parker at the 4 and Sanders at the 5, but a lackluster training camp from any one of those players could shake up the projected starters accordingly. The wide-open competition should add significant intrigue to a Bucks team that won a whopping 15 games last season, the worst of any team in the league.

     

    Prediction: Mayo will start at the 2, Antetokounmpo will start at the 3, Parker will start at the 4.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kendrick Perkins vs. Steven Adams

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Might this be the year where Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks gets over his stubborn insistence on keeping center Kendrick Perkins in his starting lineup?

    Since coming to OKC in February 2011, Perkins has yet to post a player efficiency rating above 10. (The league average is 15.) He also hasn't contributed even a fraction of a positive offensive win share; in fact, he's cumulatively compiled minus-1.4 offensive win shares over the past three seasons.

    Steven Adams, the No. 12 pick in 2013, quickly outshined Perk last season on both ends of the court. He finished the season with a higher PER, true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage, total rebounding percentage, steal percentage, block percentage, offensive rating, offensive win shares, defensive win shares and total win shares.

    In essence, there's no statistical argument to be made in favor of Perkins; Brooks can only rely on intangibles such as "leadership" and a "good locker room presence." With the Thunder firmly in win-now mode this season, however, Brooks has no excuse not to start Adams and play him for at least 25 to 30 minutes per game.

     

    Prediction: Adams will start at the 5.

Orlando Magic: The Starting Backcourt

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic's starting backcourt in 2014-15 is guaranteed to look considerably different than it did this past season.

    Orlando shipped starting 2-guard Arron Afflalo to Denver in exchange for Evan Fournier in the days leading up to the 2014 draft, and then consummated a draft-night trade with Philadelphia for Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton.

    Throw in the addition of Ben Gordon, whom the Magic signed to a two-year, $9 million deal in free agency, and Orlando should have four legitimate competitors for the starting backcourt spots heading into training camp.

    Payton and Oladipo figure to be the Magic's backcourt of the future, but their respective inability to space the floor with long-range shooting could convince Orlando to split them apart for the time being. Fournier, a career 38.1 percent three-point shooter, would be a significant improvement over Oladipo (32.7 percent as a rookie) or Payton (26.8 percent in college).

    Until either player can develop a reliable three-point stroke, the Magic will likely start Oladipo at the 1 and bring Payton off the bench as his backup. The choice between Gordon and Fournier could feasibly boil down to which player acclimates to Orlando's system more quickly, which would seem to give Gordon an experience-based edge.

     

    Prediction: Oladipo will start at the 1, Gordon will start at the 2.

Philadelphia 76ers: The Starting SG Spot

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers will enter training camp with nothing but questions at the 2-guard position. James Anderson, who started 62 games for the Sixers in 2013-14, is taking his talents to Zalgiris Kaunas of the Lithuanian Basketball League this coming season, per The Philadelphia Inquirer, leaving a glaring hole in the starting lineup.

    The Sixers won't have any shortage of options when it comes to filling that spot, luckily. Between returnees Tony Wroten, Elliot Williams, Jason Richardson and Hollis Thompson and rookies Jordan McRae and K.J. McDaniels, the battle for the starter job should be the highlight of Philly's training camp.

    Heading into camp, Wroten (16 games started last season) and Williams (two games started) likely have a slight edge based on their experience in coach Brett Brown's system.

    However, given both players' struggles behind the three-point arc—Williams is a career 29.6 percent shooter from deep, while Wroten has only knocked down 21.6 percent of his three-point tries—neither should be considered a lock to start by any means.

    Philly.com's Michael Kaskey-Blomain believes Thompson will ultimately win out, writing, "Thompson is one of the few players on the roster as it is currently constructed with the ability to stretch the floor and consistently know down an outside shot, which makes him very valuable on the offensive end."

    With point guard Michael Carter-Williams desperately needing floor-spacers surrounding him, Thompson's three-point shooting range should push him past the other candidates.

     

    Prediction: Thompson will start at the 2.

Phoenix Suns: The Starting SF Spot

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    After drafting T.J. Warren 14th overall and re-signing P.J. Tucker to a three-year, $16.5 million contract this offseason, the Phoenix Suns will enter training camp with four legitimate candidates to start at the 3. 

    Tucker, Warren, Gerald Green and Marcus Morris collectively played 131 minutes a night this past season, as Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun notes (Warren's minutes came at N.C. State), which puts Phoenix in somewhat of a bind. Even by occasionally sliding Morris to the 4 and Green to the 2, the Suns still won't be able to give all four of those players meaningful minutes on a nightly basis.

    Thus, expect the competition for the starting small forward gig to rapidly heat up once training camp begins. As the incumbent, Tucker should enter the camp as the favorite to retain the role, but Green and Morris in particular should make a hard push in fear of being phased out elsewhere.

    Tucker is suspended for the first three games of the season for "super extreme" driving under the influence, which will open the door for Morris or Warren to take the opening-night starting gig. However, it's difficult to see either player supplanting Tucker once he's eligible to return.

     

    Prediction: Tucker will start at the 3.

Sacramento Kings: Ben McLemore vs. Nik Stauskas

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    During each of the past two NBA drafts, the Sacramento Kings have selected a sharpshooting 2-guard in the top 10. That should make for quite the interesting training camp battle in Sactown this coming fall.

    Ben McLemore, the No. 7 pick in 2013, was caught off guard by the Kings drafting Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas eighth overall in June, according to The Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. "I wasn't expecting that," McLemore told Jones. "At the same time, they felt he was the best available draft pick, so I'm fine with it."

    During his one season with the Kansas Jayhawks in 2012-13, McLemore drilled 42 percent of his 174 three-point attempts, but that success from behind the arc failed to carry over once he made the jump to the NBA.

    He knocked down just 32 percent of the 320 three-pointers he attempted this past season, which likely made Stauskas, a career 44.1 percent shooter from deep, that much more attractive to Sacramento.

    Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro told reporters that he envisioned a time in which McLemore and Stauskas could play alongside one another, citing the latter's ability to create offense off the dribble. However, with Darren Collison also now in the fold, it's unlikely that both players crack the starting rotation.

    Collison will start at the 1, while training camp and preseason should go a long way toward determining who will slot in alongside him.

     

    Prediction: McLemore will start at the 2.

Utah Jazz: The Starting Backcourt

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Despite holding the No. 5 pick in what was widely seen as a four-player draft this past June, the Utah Jazz ended up with one of those top four studs, Australian combo guard Dante Exum. That selection did raise some questions for the Jazz, though, most notably what to do with former Michigan point guard Trey Burke, the ninth overall pick in 2013.

    Exum told reporters in the weeks leading up to the draft that he envisioned himself as a point guard, saying, "I have always played the point guard position and I am comfortable at that position." While the 6'6" Exum has the size to slide to the 2 if needed, the same can't be said about the 6'0" Burke.

    During Vegas Summer League, the Aussie bristled at his lack of touches at the 1, per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. "I think I'm still comfortable at the point," he said. "I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn't get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games."

    Utah could start Burke at the 1 and Exum at the 2, displacing Alec Burks to the bench, but it's clear where the Aussie's preferences lie. Thus, despite being a top-five pick in this June's draft, there's a realistic chance that he begins his career coming off the bench, unless he can beat out Burke for the starting spot in training camp.

     

    Prediction: Burke will start at the 1, Burks will start at the 2. (And Utah's announcers will weep trying to keep their names straight.)

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics and rankings come from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com.

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