Vince Carter? Justin Jackson? NBA's Best Veteran-Youngster Position Battles
The NBA life cycle is short, cruel and fraught with uncertainty.
Veterans fight for years to establish themselves, only to face up-and-coming challengers who want the minutes they've earned. There's no room for sympathy in position battles like these. It's just the way the league works, forever balancing the value of experienced leadership with the promise of youth.
In highlighting duels to watch, we'll use a loose definition of veterans and youngsters—not necessarily confining the categories to graybeards with a decade of experience and rookies, but focusing on entrenched pros and kids with something to prove.
Training camp isn't so far off. Veterans and upstarts are already thinking about keeping or taking positions that are up for grabs.
Denver Nuggets Point Guard: Jamal Murray vs. Jameer Nelson
This is actually a strange three-way situation in which Emmanuel Mudiay, entering his third NBA season, sits between youngster Jamal Murray and veteran Jameer Nelson.
Mudiay heads into 2017-18 with 107 career starts, including a team-high (at the point) 41 last season, but it's Murray who should win this job.
Nelson remains the purer point guard, the game manager who theoretically minimizes mistakes without doing anything spectacular. But he didn't significantly outperform the rookie Murray last year.
We have to consider the quality of opposing lineups (Murray saw most of his time against backups), but the Denver Nuggets posted nearly identical net ratings whether Murray (plus-1.0) or Nelson (plus-1.1) was on the floor last season.
Mudiay's on-court figure was minus-5.5, which means he should only see another 41 starts if something goes terribly wrong with the other two options.
Murray, the No. 7 pick in 2016, is the most gifted scorer of the three. He comes equipped with a smooth knack for shot creation, along with unteachable in-between shiftiness. He's a score-first thinker, but his ability to get to spots and pressure a defense will draw attention from helpers. He won't need to be a great passer to run up assist totals; the threat of his scoring will create big passing windows.
Verdict: Nelson is the stable journeyman whose 38.8 percent three-point shot last year makes him a sensible fit alongside a playmaking center like Nikola Jokic. But Murray profiles as the potential star, a ball-handling weapon with surprising bounce who shot over 40 percent from deep in college.
Put him out there with Jokic (and allow Gary Harris to defend whichever backcourt opponent is scarier), and the Nuggets could field a dual-creator offense with as much scoring punch as any team in the league.
Sacramento Kings Small Forward: Justin Jackson vs. Vince Carter
There will be several players vying to start at small forward for the Sacramento Kings, but for intrigue's sake, let's hope the battle comes down to Vince Carter and rookie Justin Jackson.
It's not every day you see two guys with an age gap of 18 years fighting for the same job.
Carter, 40, is the oldest active player in the NBA. He's settled mainly into bench duties over the last half-decade, but he still started 15 games for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2016-17. No longer able to of play big minutes, Carter may be best utilized with the first unit as a stabilizing influence.
His career 37.4 percent conversion rate from deep could also help space the floor.
Chances are, second-year players Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere will start. So even with George Hill at the point, the young Kings will need experience to keep the wheels from falling off.
Jackson, a Tar Heel like Carter, was the 15th pick in 2017. He's sharp for a rookie, but basketball IQ may not make up for a lack of explosive athleticism and strength. And if the shooting gains he made after retooling his jumper in college aren't sustainable, he may find scoring difficult.
It's worth noting the small forward battle could include another veteran-rookie pairing.
Garrett Temple and Bogdan Bogdanovic are in the mix as well. Either way, the Kings will put the position up for grabs with young and old (in some combination) trying to snatch it.
Verdict: Give Jackson or Bogdanovic the job at the outset, depending on who looks best in camp. Let Carter and Temple stabilize the second unit and close games when needed.
Toronto Raptors Small Forward: Norman Powell vs. C.J. Miles
It says a lot about the value of spot-up shooting when C.J. Miles' ability in that specific area is enough to (potentially) hold off Norman Powell, a better athlete, open-floor weapon, defender, cutter and ball-handler.
Miles, six years Powell's senior, is a deadeye marksman from deep. With Indiana last year, he hit 152 catch-and-shoot threes, knocking them in at a 42.6 percent clip. For reference, Kyle Korver played three fewer minutes than Miles last year and hit 23 fewer catch-and-shoot treys, albeit at a marginally higher 45.4 percent rate.
Point being: Miles cannot be ignored on the perimeter, and that makes any offense better.
Powell has shuttled up and down the Raptors' wing hierarchy in a short amount of time. He was in the G-League less than three years ago and has since started, lost a rotation spot, come off the bench and joined the first unit in playoff games.
He's no stranger to position battles, but he hasn't definitively won one yet.
There's logic to starting Miles, enjoying his spacing alongside DeMar DeRozan (who provides none) and letting Powell run up and down against backups.
But Toronto might need Miles to open up the floor even more on the second unit now that Patrick Patterson is gone.
Defensively, Powell gives up size against many shooting guards. Almost every small forward will be bigger than he is. But Miles isn't particularly strong, and his superior height (he's 6'6" to Powell's 6'4") doesn't give him any real advantages.
Verdict: Bet on the Raptors giving Miles the gig at first, but don't be surprised if Powell winds up taking it by midseason.
Orlando Magic Point Guard: Elfrid Payton vs. D.J. Augustin
Elfrid Payton started 58 games for the Orlando Magic last year, and he's the closest thing to a point guard of the future on the roster.
But he hasn't been a paragon of consistency.
Payton began 2016-17, his third year, as the starter. He lost the job for two separate stretches of the season, relinquishing duties to D.J. Augustin and failing to impress upon getting his first-unit credentials back during a brutal stretch from Jan. 4 to Feb. 7.
In that 18-game span with Payton as the starting point guard, Orlando went 4-14 and effectively lost any shot of a playoff berth.
With restricted free agency looming in the summer of 2018, Payton should be more motivated than ever to prove he's an NBA starter. Augustin turns 30 a few weeks into the 2017-18 season, and it would simplify Orlando's long-term planning if he'd stop challenging Payton for the gig.
But as long as Payton's unreliable jumper and sporadic defense are issues, Augustin will continue to make this interesting. Add Shelvin Mack, whom the Magic signed this summer, and you have two veteran stopgaps who could push Payton.
Verdict: A 23-year-old with lottery pedigree should take this job and run, but Payton hasn't been nearly consistent enough to make this a foregone conclusion. He'll get another chance, but this may be his last.
New York Knicks Point Guard: Frank Ntilikina vs. Ramon Sessions
If Ramon Sessions is parachuting in to save your point guard rotation, it's a good sign you have some positional problems.
That's where the New York Knicks stand, though, now that Sessions has signed on to add some veteran mediocrity to the battle between Ron Baker and 19-year-old rookie Frank Ntilikina.
The first question here should be: Why not Frankie Nicotine?
Why, if you're the go-nowhere Knicks, wouldn't you hand over control to a promising rookie and see what he can do? Worst case, Ntilikina is nowhere near ready, the losses mount and lottery position improves.
Plus, wouldn't it be nice to have a younger player defer to Kristaps Porzingis, setting him up in order to keep him happy? That'd be a fine change after a season of Derrick Rose ignoring the only young Knick who matters.
Baker's involvement in all this is inexplicable, and you'd have to think he's a third option behind Sessions, the 10-year veteran, and Ntilikina. New York won a bidding war against no one for Baker's services, but when you have an undrafted free agent who shot under 40 percent from the field and averaged 4.1 points per game, you just have to commit the full room exception to him...and give him a player option on the second year!
Verdict: Here's hoping Sessions is a backup and Ntilikina gets every opportunity to grow with KP.
The Knicks need some semblance of a core, and neither Baker nor Sessions belong in it.