Play That Man! Fixing Frontcourt Rotations for NBA's Prospective Playoff Squads

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2016

Dec 9, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) and forward Dwight Powell (7) celebrate during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tinkering is a crucial part of the regular season's final weeks. Flawed contenders and squads hoping to embark upon Cinderella runs are searching for magic formulae to help position themselves against the overwhelming favorites. Whether due to injury or ineffectiveness, not every rotation is fully fleshed out. 

Here, we're going to help some of them. 

Trying to produce a sorely needed spark for the NBA playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder all have frontcourt players who need to see significant minutes during what remains of the regular season.


Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks

Feb 19, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle reacts with forward Dwight Powell (7) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando defeated Dallas 110-104. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Spor
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

"Since David Lee has come, [Chandler] Parsons has been a backup four pretty much full time. We just don't have the minutes," Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle recently told the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko, referring to Dwight Powell's diminishing playing time. "That's not to say he couldn't re-enter the picture. I've told him he's got to stay ready. It's one of the challenges of being a professional."

This system would be perfectly fine if the Mavericks were winning games. But they're not.

After opening March with a victory over the Orlando Magic, Dallas dropped five consecutive contests to fall back to .500, and it's now in danger of falling out of the playoff race. The Mavericks are tied with the Houston Rockets for the No. 7 seed—only two games ahead of the ninth-place Utah Jazz. 

Pinning the blame on any one spot in the lineup is a tough proposition, as failures have abounded throughout the depth chart. But the frontcourt has struggled in particular, especially because Zaza Pachulia's production has taken a nosedive in recent outings. 

Lee has been fantastic since joining the Mavericks, but the 32-year-old's production is ultimately unsustainable. Does anyone expect the power forward to continue shooting 62.5 percent from the field or posting what's easily the best defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) of his career, as he's done in his first nine games with Dallas? 

Dec 12, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (7) drives to the basket past Washington Wizards guard Jared Dudley (1) during the first half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Legitimate upside is needed, and that means turning back to Powell. 

Early in the season, the 6'11" power forward was an integral part of the rotation. Through the All-Star break, he was on the floor for 16.4 minutes per game, averaging 6.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.4 blocks while shooting 50 percent from the field. Since then, he's sat out of one contest after another while barely making it onto the court when he does play. 

Naturally, his production has waned significantly. Unable to establish any sort of rhythm, he's failed to find the bottom of the net and has struggled to make an impact in any facet.

But fortunately, we already know what he can do and that he's staying ready


JaMychal Green, Memphis Grizzlies

Nov 15, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green (0) dribbles in the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies have already played that man. But when Zach Randolph recovers from the knee injury keeping him sidelined, head coach Dave Joerger needs to keep playing that man. 

Since JaMychal Green first moved into the starting lineup just before the All-Star break, he's bounced between that unit and the pine, but he's continued to play significant minutes. In either role, he's been fantastic.

Beginning with his Feb. 10 performance against the Brooklyn Nets, he's averaged 10.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks while shooting 51.3 percent from the field. The offense is significantly better. The defense is significantly better. What's not to love? According to's databases, the difference has been rather stark since Feb. 10: 

Part of this is context-driven, as Memphis' depth chart has been decimated by injuries to the point that the backups comprise even more of a makeshift unit than the starters. But Green has undoubtedly had a positive impact.

We're talking about a young big man who threw up 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in a shorthanded win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. For good measure, he reprised that with back-to-back double-doubles against the Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans. 

And even before that, he had a nice moment against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz, posterizing the mountain who usually swats shots into oblivion: 

Green has taken advantage of this unexpected opportunity, and not just by filling some small role. Against the Boston Celtics on March 9, he was actually drawing double-teams en route to his 17 points. He's making plays happen by virtue of his mid-range shooting, aggressiveness around the hoop and feel for the piecemeal offense. 

At this point, it seems like the Grizzlies can win with anyone. We're talking about a team that's surging despite suffering so many injuries that Briante Weber, an undrafted 23-year-old from VCU, is starting at point guard. 

Joerger could easily decide to go back to his team's typical starting five when everyone is healthy. But even if he does, Green has earned the right to continue receiving copious playing time during the stretch run and ensuing playoff push. 


Mitch McGary, Oklahoma City Thunder

Nov 10, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Mitch McGary (33) celebrates with Thunder guard Dion Waiters (3) against the Washington Wizards in the second quarter at Verizon Center. The Thunder won 125-101. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burk
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

He's played just 66 minutes over the course of 19 sporadic appearances, and he's struggled to make a positive impact. His player efficiency rating is just 6.3, and both his offensive and defensive box plus/minuses are negative. 

But there's still talent lying dormant, and it's tough to put up strong numbers in a minimal role with no hope of consistency. To his credit, Mitch McGary has thrived with the NBA Development League's Oklahoma City Blue, averaging 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in just over 25 minutes per game. 

However, the argument for McGary getting a chance isn't about McGary.

Instead, it's about the stale nature of the OKC frontcourt, especially now that the team is struggling immensely in crunch-time situations and proving it may not be ready to take on the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series. 

The Thunder desperately need a spark, and one isn't coming from the established bigs. All of them are valuable in their limited roles, but they've grown predictable and offer too many weaknesses along with their strengths. 

For all of Serge Ibaka's defensive prowess, he's been a glaring negative on the offensive end. The opposite is true for Enes Kanter, whose offensive skill and rebounding prowess are invaluable to the OKC cause but get more than negated by his pitiful point-preventing porosity.

Nick Collison has become incapable on offense and, while Steven Adams is a plus on both ends, his utter lack of spacing limits the Thunder's scoring ability:

"The Thunder’s real problem is predictability," Patrick Redford wrote for Deadspin after a March 12 loss to the Spurs pushed OKC to just 4-8 since the All-Star break. "Their roster is stocked with a bunch of one-dimensional players. Steven Adams scores in the post, whoever plays shooting guard stands around, Serge Ibaka primarily spots up, and the two stars drive and shoot from the perimeter."

McGary, though he may have struggled during his sparse minutes, is anything but one-dimensional. 

He doesn't excel in any area quite yet, but he's shown an ability to knock down mid-range jumpers, score on cuts and post-up attempts, find open teammates with his passing chops and play high-quality defense—albeit against lesser foes.

Inserting him into the lineup on a consistent basis, even for a handful of minutes per game, could allow head coach Billy Donovan to unlock something new. 

At this point, new is necessary. Even if McGary initially flops, the Thunder can afford to lose a few more games, all with the intent of accepting a step backward and making a larger leap forward at the opportune time. 


Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from or Adam's own databases and accurate through games played on March 13.


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