Spots Up for Grabs During NBA Training Camp

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2017

Spots Up for Grabs During NBA Training Camp

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The best NBA teams already know who's playing where, who's doing what and how long they'll be doing it on a night-to-night basis.

    Rotational certainty is a hallmark of quality around the league, a signal of good chemistry and a clear plan. It's no coincidence the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics have their setups wired tightly. All figure to be among the last squads standing in 2018.

    Those teams are the exceptions. For most others, there's a job in limbo here and an undefined role there.

    While the resolution of these training-camp battles may not elevate teams to that upper echelon, they could still decide playoff positioning in a few cases. Failing that, winning a training-camp battle—even on a lottery team—can change the course of a player's career.

    There are minutes available across the NBA. Who's going to fight it out and claim them?

Miami Heat: Starting Frontcourt

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    Sometimes, having several rotational options is a sign of great depth. It can mean a club has the personnel to go small, spread the floor, defend the rim or flood the court with playmakers.

    It can also mean a team doesn't have a clear idea of its best self. After all, having several decent options is another way of saying a great one doesn't exist.

    It's hard to know where the Miami Heat fall in that dichotomy.

    They'll start Hassan Whiteside in the middle but could go with some combination of Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Justise Winslow or Josh Richardson at the forward spots.

    Olynyk would space the floor but surrender mobility as the 4 next to Whiteside. Johnson could make plays and switch on D, but his shooting wouldn't threaten defenses like Olynyk's.

    Winslow is the defensive ace with lottery pedigree, but Richardson is the more dangerous two-way threat with a sparkling new four-year contract.

    In a perfect world, the Heat could play matchups and shuffle their rotation depending on the competition. But NBA teams need clearly defined roles so players know what to expect night to night.

    Prediction: Johnson and Winslow earn starting gigs, and Olynyk spends significant time playing backup center in bench units. Richardson, more of a combo guard, gets occasional minutes at forward when Heat want to play fast.

Toronto Raptors: Starting Small Forward

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    CJ Miles is the new acquisition, a catch-and-shoot threat who is improving his best skill.

    For his career, Miles is a 36.1 percent shooter from deep. Over the last five seasons, he's at 38 percent. Last year, he drilled 41.3 percent, including an excellent 42.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes.

    For a Toronto Raptors team that has never gotten much stretch from DeMar DeRozan at the shooting guard position, a small forward with Miles' profile makes a lot of sense.

    Then again, Norman Powell is the younger, more athletic option whose bounce and aggression allow him, at 6'4", to play bigger than the 6'6" Miles on defense.

    Powell is the superior transition threat, and because he's heading into just his third year, it's fair to expect some improvement. Miles, 30, is more of a known commodity—even if he keeps honing that jumper. Put another way, it's conceivable Powell could add a couple of points to his career conversion rate of 35.1 percent from deep.

    If he does that, Miles' one-skill advantage diminishes.

    Prediction: This should still be Miles' job to lose—partly because he's a trustworthy shooter in a league obsessed with spacing, and partly because Powell's high-energy game fits snugly into the "bench spark" role. Don't rule out both of these guys sharing the floor down the stretch, though, when the Raps go small and take Jonas Valanciunas off the floor.

Utah Jazz: Third Guard

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Dante Exum is only 22, but this season feels like a critical one for him. In two healthy seasons sandwiched around one lost to a torn ACL, Exum hasn't shown a perimeter shot or consistent defensive disruption. The raw speed that helped make him the fifth pick in 2014 shows up in flashes, but Exum has yet to put it to use.

    Now he has serious competition for a bench role.

    Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood will eat up starters' minutes as long as both stay healthy (perhaps an unwise bet with Hood), which leaves Exum to compete with rookie standout Donovan Mitchell and forgotten man Alec Burks for Utah's third guard spot.

    Mitchell looked fantastic in summer league, and his rookie peers named him the biggest steal in the 2017 draft. So much for unlucky No. 13. He'll contribute on defense immediately and projects as a capable offensive player at either guard spot.

    Then there's Burks, who averaged 14 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2013-14, his last healthy season. When Burks could stay on the floor, he fit the sixth-man bill perfectly: a slashing scorer who could handle the ball and attack in transition while guarding either backcourt spot.

    According to comments he made to Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune, he's ready to prove he's still got it after three seasons ravaged by injury: "I feel so much better. I've had a great summer, and playing at UCLA was the first time that I thought to myself that I'm back and ready to play like my old self."

    Prediction: Exum wasn't great on either end last year, but it's too hard to trust Burks' health, and Mitchell can't expect to just be handed a big role. We'll give Exum the nod for now, but don't be surprised when Mitchell starts eating into his minutes, perhaps eventually stealing the gig altogether.

New Orleans Pelicans: Starting Small Forward

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    Even before Solomon Hill tore his hamstring, the New Orleans Pelicans were in trouble at the 3.

    Now that he's set to miss a chunk of the season, the straits are dire.

    New Orleans could look to Darius Miller, who, in addition to returning a search result of "Did you mean Darius Miles?," spent the last two seasons overseas after playing three uninspiring years in the NBA. The 6'8" Kentucky product is already 27, but perhaps his improved three-point shooting in the German league (46.9 percent in 2015-16 and 41.4 in 2016-17) means he'll make a bigger impact.

    E'Twaun Moore is undersized at 6'4", but his scoring would be welcome on the wing. Perhaps having Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins patrolling the lane would fill any defensive holes he'd create.

    Then there's Tony Allen—by far the biggest name, but a shooting guard by trade who would utterly cripple an already spacing-starved team that is going to have its hands full creating room with Rajon Rondo in the starting lineup.

    This is an open competition for all the worst reasons.

    Martell Webster and Perry Jones III are going to be in camp, for crying out loud.

    Prediction: Let's give the gig to Miller, whose theoretically improved shooting and traditional size for the position makes him a meet-in-the-middle selection. Allen, if healthy, could be called upon in critical moments when the Pels need someone to tangle with elite wings on D.

New York Knicks: Starting Point Guard

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    There's a right answer here if you frame the New York Knicks' point guard battle in broader organizational terms. Which is to say rookie Frank Ntilikina should get the job and keep it throughout his first season.

    What are the Knicks playing for, if not the future?

    Even in the watered-down East, New York has almost no chance at a playoff berth. Success will only hurt its lottery odds. For a team in need of more young talent with which to surround Kristaps Porzingis, losses and ping-pong balls should be the goals.

    In fact, that's another reason Ntilikina should be given every chance to play: The Knicks need to know if he can mesh with KP. If getting that information comes at the cost of wins, all the better.

    What's the downside to handing Ntilikina the reins? Angering Carmelo Anthony, who might want to chase a .500 record? Boy, it'd sure be dangerous to drive a wedge between Melo and the organization.

    He might even agree to a buyout or trade if he gets mad enough...

    Of course, the Knicks have a knack for doing the illogical. So we have to appreciate the possibility that they'll mess around with Ron Baker, Ramon Sessions, Chasson Randle and Jarrett Jack at the point. Realistically, every one of them has a chance to be better than the inexperienced Ntilikina.

    If this training-camp battle is based solely on the merits (and not long-term franchise concerns), one of them is going to deserve the job.

    Prediction: The Knicks...deep breath...are going to do the right thing. Ntilikina will "win" the gig whether he deserves it or not.