Play That Man!: Aaron Gordon Among NBA Bigs Deserving More Minutes

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2016

Dec 23, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) reacts as he makes a three pointer against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have figured out what makes them click, but everyone else is trying to catch up.

For a few teams, there are big men waiting to receive significantly more playing time, and January is often a month of experimentation.

These young contributors have shown brief flashes of excellence, and those spurts are convincing enough that they should lead to extra run in the coming weeks and months.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Jan 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) brings the ball up court during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After dominating during the exhibition season, Aaron Gordon hasn't been as consistently impressive against legitimate NBA competition.

Still just 20 years old, the forward is averaging 13.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes, and he's shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from beyond the arc. Every one of those numbers is up from his rookie season's marks, and the combination also puts him in a rather unique position.

During the 2015-16 campaign, only four qualified players have averaged at least 13 points, nine boards, two assists, a steal and a block per 36 minutes while matching or exceeding Gordon's shooting percentages. This includes Golden State Warriors superman Draymond Green, and since 1985-86, only 19 different players have even hit that mark during a qualified season.

Unfortunately, the Magic aren't letting him see many of those 36 minutes. Fighting to establish himself as something other than a positional tweener, he still doesn't have a defined role on this team. As a result, he's seeing just 19.4 minutes per game.

The good news is head coach Scott Skiles has recently found an unorthodox pairing that works nicely. ESPN.com's Zach Lowe has more:

In Orlando's past 10 games, coach Scott Skiles has paired Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon for almost nine minutes per game -- way more time than he gave the duo earlier in the season. That's healthy; the Magic have a lot invested in both Harris and Gordon, and they need to investigate how the two mesh.

They can switch on defense, and Gordon can try his hand defending elite wing scorers. Spacing becomes clunky on offense when they play alongside a traditional center and one of Elfrid Payton/Victor Oladipo, but the Magic have still outscored opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions since Christmas with Harris and Gordon sharing the floor, per NBA.com research.

Basketball-Reference.com also shows that the versatile duo has generated a net rating of 2.0 throughout the entire campaign, which stands in stark contrast to Gordon's overall net rating of minus-0.1. And, as Lowe pointed out, that's trending in a direction that has to make Magic faithful downright jubilant.

Pumping the brakes on shaky playoff dreams and instead pursuing the development of a potential centerpiece is well worth the risk of a minor fall in standings, especially when Gordon's developing jumper could eventually help out the team's spacing issues in a big way.

Richaun Holmes, Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA,PA - JANUARY 4: Richaun Holmes #22 of the Philadelphia 76ers goes up for the layup in traffic against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Wells Fargo Center on January 4, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Richaun Holmes understands why he doesn't get consistent minutes with the Philadelphia 76ers. He explained as much to Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:

I try not to concentrate on it and just try to focus or do what I can to help the team win, whether that's cheering from the bench or doing something well at practice. I just try to focus on bringing a positive energy to the team and try to help us in any game any way I can.

Development is extremely important. They invest a lot of time in the players here and try to get us better and make us longtime NBA players. I just have to continue to have the mindset of working hard every day in every situation and try to get better.

It's an incredibly mature perspective for a 22-year-old rookie, but that's no excuse that he was a healthy scratch from back-to-back January contests against the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even as the Sixers attempt to claw back toward mediocrity, there's no reason 32-year-old Carl Landry should be playing a combined 22 minutes in those outings while Holmes waves towels from the bench. Maintaining the balance between competitiveness and development is important, but not when it comes at the expense of a promising player during a lost season.

Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are firmly entrenched in the two biggest frontcourt spots—and they should be, even if they've struggled to show chemistry alongside one another. But Holmes absolutely needs a spot in the rotation. Not only does he have a chance to develop into a long-term commodity for this rebuilding organization, but he's also been one of the few offensive bright spots.

An adept and explosive finisher around the rim who can occasionally knock down some mid-range jumpers, the Bowling Green product is shooting 58.7 percent from the field but averaging just 6.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game during his limited run.

However, his per-36-minute numbers truly stand out. Just six qualified players throughout the league are averaging at least 15 points per 36 minutes while draining over 55 percent of their shots and posting a player efficiency rating north of 18: Festus Ezeli, John Henson, Dwight Howard, Enes Kanter, Hassan Whiteside and Holmes.

How many of those players have also attempted to space out the floor by taking at least 0.5 three-pointers per game? Holmes is the only one.

His skill set has the potential to be special, but only if he actually gets a chance to show what he can do. There's no reason he should be receiving even one "did not play—coach's decision" during his rookie season, as injuries would be the only legitimate excuse to keep him from playing time.

Adam Fromal/Bleacher Report

Even though he's been such a minuscule part of the rotation, Holmes is already the team's leader in offensive win shares, as you can see above. In fact, he's one of only seven players with a positive score, and his individual total (1.0) is significantly larger than everything earned—and taken away—by his teammates (minus-2.1).

Playing him might be a good idea, and Philadelphia is in a perfect spot to test that theory.

Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 27:  Kelly Olynyk #41 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against the New York Knicks on December 27, 2015 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Even though Kelly Olynyk was known as an offensive specialist when coming out of Gonzaga, it's not just his scoring ability that would aid the Boston Celtics. Allowing him to emerge from a crowded frontcourt rotation would actually enable the C's to grow more dangerous on offense while simultaneously maintaining their defensive effectiveness.

There's been virtually no consistency for the Boston bigs during the 2015-16 campaign. Jared Sullinger leads the pack with a meager 24.3 minutes per game.

Playing time might not allow for much separation between additional mouths to feed (like Amir Johnson, David Lee, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller), but some metrics certainly do. Here's where we'll turn to offensive and defensive box plus/minus (OBPM and DBPM, respectively), which estimate how many additional points per 100 possessions the player in question helps his team score or prevent as compared to a league-average contributor:

We can also allow playing time to factor in, which gives Sullinger and Johnson the biggest boosts.

We can use pace and minutes played to arrive at offensive points added (OPA) and defensive points saved (DPS). The former shows how many more points a team has scored with the player in question rather than the league-average contributor, while the latter shows the corresponding defensive boost. Both are explained in full throughout this article.

Olynyk is the only member of the Boston frontcourt who has managed to remain at a league-average level on offense while also providing a steady defensive contribution. And it's for that reason he should receive more playing time, especially since the Celtics currently boast the league's No. 19 offensive rating by scoring just 104 points per 100 possessions.

As Brian Robb posited for CBS Boston, Olynyk's shooting ability would open things up for his teammates:

A move to the starting lineup for Olynyk will not necessarily translate to more wins on its own, but playing with a better supporting cast should increase the odds that he plays better on the offensive end of the floor. With Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger unable to stretch the floor with their 3-point range so far this year, Olynyk provides the perimeter shooting threat that should open up more driving lanes for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner.

While taking three attempts per game from beyond the arc, the former Bulldog is knocking down his treys at a 39.1 percent clip.

Robb's point is further validated by the simple fact that the Celtics outscore the opposition by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when the Canadian big man is lining up next to Isaiah Thomas and by a gaudy 8.3 over the same stretch when Olynyk and Jae Crowder share the floor. For perspective, the team's overall net rating this year sits at 3.0.

Olynyk won't get to play 35 minutes per contest (the Boston frontcourt is too jam-packed with legitimate talents). But at the very least, he needs to see a significant bump that allows him to supplant Sullinger as the go-to big man in head coach Brad Stevens' rotation.

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

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Jan. 13.


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