NBA Training Camp 2014: Notable Positional Battles to Keep an Eye On
As NBA players jockey for minutes and roles, some of the league's most contentious position battles at training camp will influence how much the competitors' teams achieve in 2014-15.
The Association may be as star-driven as ever, but we're coming off an NBA Finals where the San Antonio Spurs proved resoundingly that cohesive five-man units can outgun the likes of LeBron James if he and his teammates don't sync properly.
This examination is about completing those units and rounding out rotations to best support the stars, as well as the combative origins from which those lineups can emerge. Or, the battles could swing things the other way, and the option that appears best in September will prove discordant and unproductive when the regular season rolls around.
We're looking at matchups between guys who don't have a role nailed down yet, both because of challengers to it within their own roster and because of their own as-yet-undetermined skill level. Will a burgeoning prospect rise to the occasion at camp and earn more playing time? Or will a veteran maintain his hold despite plateauing or even declining skills?
How the role players and up-and-coming youngsters perform before the season can make or break what happens during it and beyond.
Chicago Bulls SF: Mike Dunleavy Jr. vs. Doug McDermott
It might be time for the Chicago Bulls to play for today and look toward the future all at once.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. played all 82 games for Chicago last season, averaging 11.3 points per game and hitting 38 percent of his threes while providing some of the best team defense of his career. That said, he will turn 34 during training camp, so trusting him to hold up for 30-plus minutes per night in Tom Thibodeau's unforgiving defensive system would be unwise.
Enter Doug McDermott, the 11th pick of the 2014 draft. The Creighton product has the shooting prowess, athleticism and enough off-the-bounce skill at 6'8" to surpass what the aging Dunleavy can offer anymore. McDermott will immediately be a threat to nail more than 40 percent of his threes, and his versatility and mobility will allow him to better complement Derrick Rose as a secondary weapon.
Even so, McDermott's work on the other end of the court is a major question mark at this point. Few rookies are ready to guard the pace, motion and athleticism of NBA offenses, and McDermott enters the pros with an unremarkable defensive track record.
Coach Thibs does have an extensive history of integrating subpar pieces into a stalwart defensive unit—see Dunleavy for proof enough.
If Thibodeau can teach his rookie enough to slot him in at small forward immediately, the Bulls offense will gain a much-needed pure scorer. But if McDermott struggles, Dunleavy will be forced into more work, which could take a toll on his body and leave him at less than 100 percent in the postseason.
New York Knicks SG: Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. J.R. Smith vs. Iman Shumpert
Aside from Carmelo Anthony at small forward, the New York Knicks' roster lacks elite players at every other position. Only the shooting guards have the raw ability to deliver that level of play if they put everything together.
Let's not split hairs here, however: Getting that performance from J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr. isn't a given by any means.
All have the physical gifts to play both ends and score inside and out, but only Smith has actually done so, and his defensive engagement is far too lacking for New York to expect attentiveness. His mix of athleticism and whirling spins and feints make him the best driver of the bunch, though Hardaway has him beat as a three-point bomber.
But TH2 won't solve New York's defensive deficiency either. Only Shump, with his suffocating wing pressure and long-armed swiping, can do that, but he has ceased to be an effective part of the offense when his long-range shots aren't falling. Inside the arc, he has been a non-factor.
Looking ahead, Shumpert is optimistic about his prospects within the triangle offense. Per Ohm Youngmisuk and Ian Begley of ESPN New York, Shump feels confident he'll be able to make a more varied contribution due to the schematic change and improved health.
The way it's set up, you can start three guards, it really doesn't matter. Everybody's going to get touches, everybody gets opportunities to cut. It's constant action going on. So I think that I'll be able to capitalize on that and I'll be able to use my athleticism a lot more than standing in the corner.
I know this year in the offense I will have a lot more opportunities to cut and get to the basket. I just want to work on the strength of my leg. Been working on that and being able to pull up off one or two dribbles [and working] on corner [3-pointers] and open 3s.
Only if Shumpert can emerge from the pack as a solid two-way player can the Knicks make noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Smith or Hardaway will have their moments this season with their scoring outbursts, but New York needs to stifle opponents defensively to emerge as a semi-legitimate contender.
Houston Rockets PF: Terrence Jones vs. Donatas Motiejunas
Now that the Houston Rockets have parted ways with Omer Asik, their frontcourt situation will be a matter of weighing talent against need.
Not that Asik, with negligible offensive skill beyond arm's reach of the rim, had much utility at the power forward position. Terrence Jones put forth some efficient play last season, scoring 12.1 points on 54.2 percent shooting and adding 6.9 rebounds per game.
That recent production likely keeps him in the starting five, but Jones does not represent an ideal fit alongside Dwight Howard. For one, Jones is 6'9" and not a strong leaper, which forces Howard to protect the rim alone when they share the court. The power forward is also just a 30.7 percent shooter from beyond the arc, limiting his ability to space the floor around Howard's post-ups.
Donatas Motiejunas is basically everything Jones isn't: He's a true 7-footer who sports a face-up offensive game with legitimate three-point range but not the prior in-game performance to back up those skills.
A career 44.8 percent shooter in just 14.1 minutes per game, Motiejunas appeared poised for a leap in summer league play, attacking opposing bigs off the bounce and showing confidence in his offensive dynamism. He's still too skinny to hold up as a true Howard replacement, but his length will help deter would-be paint penetrators.
One complication: Motiejunas is now ostensibly the only backup center Houston has as well as the most natural frontcourt partner for Howard. Even if the Rockets wind up playing better with Motiejunas at power forward—a real possibility, despite Jones' experience edge—his minutes there could wind up being limited by circumstance.
Phoenix Suns SG: Gerald Green vs. Isaiah Thomas
Paul Coro of USA Today reports the Phoenix Suns are shopping restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe in hopes of putting together a sign-and-trade deal. After negotiations fell through between Phoenix and Bledsoe this summer, the future of the run-and-gun Suns offense that won 48 games last season suddenly became clouded with uncertainty.
How head coach Jeff Hornacek decides to deploy Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green in training camp will go a long way to providing an answer on the matter.
Thomas, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal with Phoenix this summer after three seasons as a Sacramento King, told Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders that he expects Bledsoe to resolve his standoff and join him in a three-point guard tandem with Goran Dragic.
"People always ask me, ‘What's going to happen with you, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic?' At the end of the day I'm going to play, we're going to play together, we're going to have fun with it, and we're going to figure it out," Thomas said.
Hornacek revamped the Suns last season by starting the 6'1" Bledsoe and 6'3" Dragic together, using their quickness and explosiveness to hound opponents defensively and blitz them going the other way. Phoenix suffered last season when one or both of those point guards sat, so Thomas' arrival will either offer that depth or function as a replacement for Bledsoe.
Then again, Thomas is listed at just 5'9", so he's fighting for the shooting guard spot only insofar as Dragic is locked in as at least one of the starters at point.
The question then becomes, which is more important to Hornacek's running style—the multiple facilitators or the backcourt length?
Outside of Dragic and Bledsoe, Gerald Green was the only Sun who could get his own shot last season, resulting in a career-high 15.8 points per game and even 40 percent shooting on his treys. Green can't be held responsible for orchestrating the offense, but at 6'8", he's a chore for smaller guards to shoot over or work their way around.
In the unforgiving West, the Suns must keep improving or risk getting knocked into mediocrity as their rivals get better around them. Without Bledsoe, Hornacek's choice will be a gamble that could shape the franchise's future for 2014-15 and possibly beyond.
Washington Wizards Sixth Man: Otto Porter Jr. vs. Glen Rice Jr.
The acquisition of Paul Pierce signaled the Washington Wizards will make a hard push in the East this season, but it has also put the team's future at the small forward position on precarious footing.
Both Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. were total afterthoughts in their rookie seasons, but they exploded in 2014 summer league play. Washington has to hope their performances in Las Vegas, where both youngsters were able to get to the basket, hit shots off the dribble and rain from deep, will translate to significantly improved sophomore showings.
Unfortunately, only one of them will be able to get the run he needs to develop next season. With Pierce getting starter's minutes and Bradley Beal attempting to make a star turn at shooting guard, there won't be minutes available for more than one bench scorer to get in the vicinity of 25 minutes per game.
Porter, the third overall pick in 2013, is the bigger prospect and the richer investment, which gives him an edge. Rice came off the board 32 picks later, though he plays a tougher style than Porter's jack-of-all-trades finesse game; at 6'6", Rice flashes more strength on his forays into the painted area than Porter, who has two inches on him.
Of course, summer showings can be finicky, and there's a very real chance only one is ready to enter the ranks of respectability next season, if not neither.
In the event of the latter, Washington's chances of overcoming the Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff series are slim to none. Just one could give the Wiz the depth of firepower to give the juggernauts a push. In that event, the other neophyte, stagnating on the bench, becomes more valuable as a trade chip and might not be long for Washington.