C.J. Miles Is Indiana Pacers’ Best Bet to Fill Small Forward Void

The Indiana Pacers desperately need C.J. Miles to be an impact player at small forward this season. 

That desperation was not there when he was first signed this summer to a four-year $18 million deal. At that point, the best-case scenario for Miles was a role as a third wing off the bench behind Paul George and Lance Stephenson. The worst-case scenario was Miles replacing Stephenson in the starting lineup if Stephenson signed elsewhere. 

It turned out there was an even worse scenario lurking. 

Stephenson left for the Charlotte Hornets, and George suffered a catastrophic leg fracture at the end of August which will likely keep him out for the entire season. All of a sudden, the Pacers’ depth on the wings evaporated.

On Wednesday night we got a taste of the Pacers’ new wing rotation in a 103-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Rodney Stuckey was the star, scoring 16 points in 16 injury-restricted minutes, but the game underscored just how much the Pacers need Miles.

After starting the game 1-of-7 from the field, Miles finished with 15 points, making six of his last 10 shots. Although the 76ers are not the scariest offensive team in the league, Miles also played solid defense and helped funnel penetration toward Roy Hibbert—the backbone of the Pacers’ defensive scheme.

There is no way Miles will be able to completely fill the hole left by George, but like George he can contribute positively on both sides of the ball,which will be essential to Indiana.

ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus estimated Miles’ defensive impact at 0.21 points per 100 possessions. While that’s nowhere near the mark of 2.58 George put up last season, it puts Miles on the good side of the defensive ledger. That’s something that can’t be said for the Pacers’ other wing options:

Player DRPM
Paul George +2.58
C.J. Miles +0.21
Solomon Hill -0.84
Chris Copeland -1.93
Rodney Stuckey -3.24

While George was a phenomenal one-on-one defender, the Pacers’ defensive system is good enough to help ease the burden. What they really need from Miles is play within the system, sending penetration toward Hibbert and closing out intelligently on shooters. In those narrow capacities, he’s more than capable of following through.

Miles’ value goes beyond his defense. He was extremely efficient as a complementary scorer in Cleveland last season, finishing with a 56.9 true shooting percentage, shooting 39.3 percent on three-pointers and turning the ball over on just 9.1 percent of his possessions. 

However, Miles’ efficiency came in a very constrained role, much different than the one George played for the Pacers.

Player True Usage Ast Usage Drives per 36min. % of FGA on C&S
Paul George 40.7% 12.0% 4.2 31.7%
C.J. Miles 31.0% 6.2% 2.6 52.5%

True Usage and Assist Usage are more complete measures of offensive involvement that blend additional assist categories from the NBA‘s SportVU player tracking statistics with traditional measures of usage. You can see here that Miles played a much smaller role and created far fewer scoring opportunities for his teammates.

His role was much more centered around the perimeter than George’s—he drove the basketball far less, and more than half of his field-goal attempts were of the catch-and-shoot variety.

You can see from his shot chart from last season how his activity was focused around the perimeter:

Tim Donahue of 8Points9Seconds.com elaborated on Miles’ offensive skill set:

Spotting up and coming off screens. That’s what C.J. Miles does. People like to talk about his ability to put the ball on the floor and make things happen, but he’s a shooter. He’s gonna shoot. If the Pacers can get him good looks, he’ll knock em down. If not, don’t expect much dynamism or creativity, though he did score nearly 10% of his points leading the pick-and-roll, which is encouraging when it comes to a Miles/West two-man game.

Breaking things down into these stylistic categories, it’s clear that Miles will not be able to replicate a significant portion of what George gave the Pacers on offense last season. But he is a good fit for what is left on the roster and the way the team will likely play.

The Pacers will reportedly look to return to their smashmouth roots this season, running much more of their offense through Hibbert and David West in the low post. Stuckey, who will probably take over the starting shooting guard position when his minutes restriction is lifted, will be asked to replace a lot of the shot-creation and penetration contributions that George and Stephenson made. Stuckey is a questionable outside shooter, though.

Between post-ups for their big men and Stuckey’s dribble-drive attacks, spacing is going to be at a premium for the Pacers. The fact that Miles can be counted on for consistent outside shooting makes him extremely important.

Miles is a capable defender, one whose impact should be increased in the Pacers’ system and with Hibbert patrolling the lane behind him. On offense, he may not be a high-usage shot creator who can carry the perimeter scoring load, but he knows his role, doesn’t turn the ball over and is a very good outside shooter. 

He’s no Paul George, but unfortunately beggars can’t be choosers. The Pacers are short on wing talent, and there simply isn’t anyone else on the roster who can provide a reasonable facsimile of George. If the Pacers are going to be successful this season they’ll need positive contributions wherever they can find them.

That means a lot of C.J. Miles.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.

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Warriors’ Starting Small Forward Decision More Complicated Than It Seems

When your starting five registers a net rating of plus-15.4 over 819 regular-season minutes—as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut did for the Golden State Warriors a season ago*—you think it’d be best to leave well enough alone. 

The Dubs’ golden unit is good enough to single-handedly put them in the playoffs. Given the right breaks, it could be what carries them to an NBA championship.

But when it comes to who mans the starting small forward slot, the truth—as in any seemingly sublime relationship—is a bit more complicated.

This is no knock on Andre Iguodala. As the team’s best defender and foremost emotional leader, the 10-year veteran is the definition of “indispensable.” For the Warriors to reach their full potential, however, head coach Steve Kerr must not merely choose rotational convention over better depth.

The crux of the issue is as follows: By bringing Iguodala off the bench, Golden State would have a proven leader and playmaker to bolster what has been one of the league’s most woeful second units.

Meanwhile, starting Harrison Barnes—whose struggles last season were well-documented—could give the third-year forward a much-needed jolt of confidence. That in turn would help bolster Barnes’ value for any potential trade, something that’s been often discussed in the Warriors’ front office.

There’s certainly something to be said about tethering Barnes to Golden State’s stars as often as possible. Per NBA.com (subscription required), the three five-man units in which Barnes was included and that registered a positive net rating over a minimum of 50 minutes all included at least three regular Warriors starters.

It’s the definition of a “risk-reward” scenario. On the one hand, you know what you’re getting with Iguodala in the starting lineup. On the other, how can you know what you might have in Barnes unless you give him more minutes?

The idea of Iguodala as bench ballast was given an early boost during a recent preseason blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Afterward, Kerr told the San Jose Mercury News’ Diamond Leung that he wouldn’t rule out the 2012 Olympic gold-medal winner as a possible sixth-man extraordinaire.

“I thought Andre was brilliant, and I don’t know that (coming off the bench is) the route we’re going to go, but he solidified that unit,” Kerr said. “And our lead went up when we subbed in, which was encouraging.

For his part, Iguodala was a bit more circumspect when asked about the possibility, telling Leung:

It’s just playing ball, you know? You try not to make a big deal out of it. I think we know the depth we have and how many guys we can put out there on the floor, which should help us stay fresh throughout the year. It could be anyone’s night. Coaches continue to reiterate that fact that it could be anyone’s night at any given time, so be patient if that night’s not your night and just go with the flow.

During the 2013-14 season, it wasn’t uncommon see Iguodala serve as a primary ball-handler behind Stephen Curry; that’s how shallow Golden State’s backcourt was (Steve Blake being the only other true point guard in the regular rotation).

The addition of Shaun Livingston—signed to a full mid-level exception of a little over $5 million back in July—certainly changes that equation for the better. Still, beyond Curry and Livingston, Kerr’s only real ball-handler is rookie Aaron Craft, a hard-nosed but physically limited player coming off a woeful stint in the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues.

That’s not to say Iguodala’s only role would be running the reserves show, of course; the installation of Kerr’s triangle offense arguably makes the team’s positional makeup even more moot. Besides, there’s still the matter of that age-old basketball adage: It’s not who starts but who finishes that truly counts.

At the same time, As SB Nation’s Drew Garrison recently underscored, swapping Iguodala and Barnes isn’t a risk-free proposition:

This does represent a long-term trade-off for Golden State, though. Iguodala is one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders and the Warriors will need their defensive stopper as a starter during the postseason. If the Warriors rely on Iguodala leading the bench unit through the regular season, this could cause rotation issues if they shift him back into the starting lineup for the playoffs. He also fits nicely alongside the starting unit, complementing Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry on the wings and providing the kind of defensive support on the perimeter that David Lee and Andrew Bogut need in front of them.

Will Kerr stick with this newfound role for Iguodala? Time will tell, but giving it a chance and seeing how his Warriors respond to the lineup shift is a worthwhile preseason exercise if nothing else.

The idea of leveraging more minutes in order to massage Barnes’ trade value wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. With the team’s salaries already maxed out and both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—a bench revelation in his own right—due extensions over the next 12 months, it’s incumbent upon Golden State to cleave open as much cap space as possible.

Green adds yet another wrinkle to the Warriors’ small forward logjam, what with the third-year forward already being talked about as a possible replacement for the defensively limited David Lee as the team’s starting power forward.

Still, despite logging only 14 percent of his team’s minutes at the 3, Green’s impact—the Warriors registered a plus-8.2 with him as the small forward according to 82games.com—is enough to at least make Kerr consider what a Green-Lee, Green-Iguodala or Green-Barnes forward duo might look like.

Whatever Kerr’s ultimate decision is, it should be neither pressing nor permanent, which is a luxury one can afford when wielding one of the league’s deeper teams.

Sensational as Golden State’s starting unit was a season ago, it’s impossible not to see the end result—a disappointing first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers—as reason enough for a bit of tweaking and tinkering.

Even if the five that finish—Iggy included—are as much a certainty as Sunday Mass at the Vatican.

 

*Stat courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required).

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Ranking the 10 Best ‘Small Ball’ Lineups in NCAA Basketball for 2014-15

With Kentucky having seemingly every talented big man in the country, VCU, Wichita State and Michigan State headline what figures to be a long list of college basketball teams employing small-ball lineups during the 2014-15 season.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the ability of the dog to make ample three-pointers and limit turnovers well enough to make up for an inevitably negative rebounding margin on a nightly basis.

In ranking these top 10 small-ball lineups, we put together our best guess at their projected starting lineups and then subjectively graded them in both the “best” and “small” categories.

As you’ll see, it was a delicate balance.

Indiana ended up just two spots behind Michigan, even though we fully expect the Hoosiers to finish at least five places behind the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings. But because Indiana is so ridiculously small this year and because Michigan figures to start four guys who are 6’6″ or taller, they ended up in close proximity to one another.

Any team projected to start two players 6’8″ or taller was immediately removed from consideration. Beyond that, the smaller they are and the better they are, the higher they ranked on the list.

 

All advanced stats via KenPom.com (subscription required), NCAA.com and Sports-Reference.com.

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Breaking Down Brooklyn Nets Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The small forward spot is becoming an increasingly perplexing position in today’s NBA, especially when it pertains to the Brooklyn Nets.

Some small forwards bring the ball up. Others play in the paint. Then there are the three-point launchers who eat and sleep out on the perimeter.

The 3 has really become a wild card in terms of lineup configurations.

Last season, the Nets played small ball after starting center Brook Lopez went out for the year with a broken foot 17 games in.

After that, Kevin Garnett shared center duties with Mason Plumlee, Paul Pierce jumped to power forward, Joe Johnson slid down to small forward and Shaun Livingston joined Deron Williams in the backcourt.

But that was under Jason Kidd, who fled Brooklyn for the Milwaukee Bucks after just one year. Things will be different under new coach Lionel Hollins, who talked to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News about what he expects from his team:

I wasn’t trying to watch what they did because it’s really not the same team and what I want to do is different from what they did in the past. So, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out what they did (last season). And I had a vision of what this team could look like with the personnel we have.

We’re trying to develop a foundation of what we’re going to be defensively, and what we’re trying to be offensively. It’s all the same. It’s not like I have some special magic that I’m trying to get them to do. You create a mentality, you create a culture of being aggressive and being tough.

Bondy noted back on September 27th that Hollins had already locked in on four starters: Williams, Johnson, Garnett and Lopez.

Johnson, who had played shooting guard for 12 years before last season, could see minutes at both the 2 and the 3 under Hollins.

Outside of Iso Joe, the Nets are looking at a SF rotation that could include rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Sergey Karasev.

Now, all those guys aren’t going to play (we’re looking at you, Sergey). And the ones that do aren’t going to exclusively line up at the 3—for example, AK-47 and Teletovic are likely to see a good chunk of minutes at power forward.

Let’s put the Nets’ small forward position under a microscope and really dig in, shall we?

 

Grading Last Year’s SF Performance

Basketball-Reference.com listed Johnson as a shooting guard last year. So did ESPN.

Well…he was, wasn’t he? Yes and no.

As mentioned before, Johnson took Pierce’s place at forward, but still handled the ball a fair amount and took the most shots on the team by a large margin—the next closest was D-Will, who was 302 shots behind JJ’s 1,018 attempts.

Johnson, as he’s always been, was a stud in 2013-14. The 33-year-old scored a team-high 15.8 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting while earning his seventh career All-Star nod. He also led the team in three-point shooting with an average of 40.1 from beyond the arc.

Playing a different position didn’t faze Johnson. Here’s what he told ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo on September 30: “I’ll never complain. I’m a basketball player, so whatever offense you wanna run, I’m capable of running it or adjusting to it. Whether you want me to be more of a catch-and-shoot guy or you want me to be more off-the-dribble, post-up, whatever you want me to do, I can do it.”

After Johnson came Anderson. If Johnson is a designer clothing brand, Anderson is Old Navy—while Double-A is far from glamorous, the 32-year-old veteran is a gritty defender who can knock down an occasional jumper if left open.

Anderson started 26 games for Brooklyn and contributed 7.2 points and 2.2 boards in about 23 minutes a game last year.

Johnson and Anderson were the team’s primary small forwards, with Teletovic mixing in some time at the 3 while mostly lining up as a power forward. In his second NBA season, the sharp-shooting Teletovic gave the Nets 8.6 points a night while hitting 41.8 percent of his attempts.

Finally, there was Kirilenko, whose decision to come to Brooklyn resulted in an investigation. Last summer, the Russian signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s Nets after opting out of a $10.2 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The NBA cleared the two parties of any wrongdoing, though. Just goes to show you that players will do anything to get out of Minnesota.

AK-47 was hurt for much of the year, dealing with some back spasms that just would not let up. He played just 45 games and averaged the worst scoring, rebounding, steals and block numbers of his 10-year career.

Kirilenko is in for a significantly bigger role with the Nets this season, though. If he can stay healthy, he’ll bounce back into the spark-plug utility player that he’s been his entire career.

Grade: B+

 

Will Bogdanovic start?

Hollins is presumably going to commit to a fifth starter in the very near future, given that the season is rapidly approaching.

Bogdanovic, Anderson and Kirilenko have run with the starters in the preseason, though AK-47 suffered a back injury that sidelined him after the second day of training camp.

The rookie from Croatia has started the for the Nets the entire preseason, including their most recent game, which was an experimental 44-minute exhibition against the Boston Celtics. He played a team-high 28 minutes on October 19.

All signs point to Bogdanovic earning a starting role.

Johnson is a significantly better ball-handler than the 25-year-old, so Bogdanovic would presumably line up as a small forward.

“I think he’s got great size, he’s also got great speed and quickness,” Hollins said of the overseas star, per Mazzeo. “He can shoot the ball, but also put the ball on the floor. He can post up. I’m looking for players. Players that have multiple skills and are not just one-dimensional.”

There’s certainly expected to be a learning curve, though. Here’s an excerpt from my recent piece that focused on the importance of Kirilenko early in the year:

In addition to the differences in court dimensions and ball texture, the rookie will be thrust into a new world of frequent traveling and a rigorous, physically grueling 82-game season.

In the meantime, Kirilenko’s play will become so much more important. Alan Anderson is the team’s only other legitimate option at the 3.

Kirilenko won’t necessarily fade as Bogdanovic, who will likely play some shooting guard and some small forward, progresses. He’ll still be an important piece of the Nets throughout the whole season.

The strong, 6’8″ Bogdanovic has looked capable of holding his own on the defensive end thus far, which would be the only area in which he’d lose points to Anderson.

If Kirilenko can stay healthy throughout the whole year—and steady the ship when the rookie’s ride gets bumpy—the Nets are going to be pretty deep at small forward, especially with Anderson working his way into the rotation.

 

Looking Ahead to 2014-15

Hollins is going to have a ton of options in how he handles the small forward rotation this season. If Bogdanovic starts with Johnson at SG, the veteran coach can substitute Kirilenko, Anderson or even Teletovic, depending on the situation.

The coach is determined to establish concrete roles for his players this season, something that Kidd struggled to do in his first year on the sidelines.

Here’s Newsday’s Roderick Boone with more:

In dealing with rookie coach Jason Kidd last season, some players clearly were frustrated by the lack of clarity regarding their role, which became more apparent during these first few days of training camp with Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko mentioning how they were unsure where they fit in Kidd’s scheme.

That doesn’t appear to be an issue under Hollins, who continues to lay the groundwork, getting a feel for his team so he can deliver an edict on precisely what he wants from each of them.

“I think that’s something coach talked about today,” Deron Williams said, “was kind of we haven’t talked about roles specifically this year. But they’ll be defined at some point during the preseason. I think that’s what this time is about, is finding out chemistry and what team we’re going to be like, what guys like to do.”

Obstacles are going to emerge throughout the year. It’s inevitable. Injuries, slumps, controversies, transactions—it’s going to happen.

But that’s out of Hollins’ control. Each player will have a role in Brooklyn, a niche carved out specifically for his own self. And that will provide the team with stability through the turmoil.

For Johnson, it’s likely to be scoring isolation. For Bogdanovic, it’ll be knocking down shots from the outside and providing instant offense. Kirilenko will be a spark plug and a safety net, a guy who’s reliable and can defend. Anderson will serve as a hard-nosed, scrappy defender.

All of Brooklyn’s options are versatile guys who can play different positions and bring a unique ability to the court.

The Nets are going to be just fine at small forward.

 

All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

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Marquette must go small in Wojo’s 1st year

Wojo to lean on guards in 1st year at Marquette, though big recruit looms for next year

      
 

 

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Marquette must go small in Wojo’s 1st year (Yahoo Sports)

FILE - In this April 1, 2014, file photo, Steve Wojciechowski speaks at a news conference where he was introduced as the new head coach of the Marquette University men's NCAA college basketball team in Milwaukee. Wojciechowski is dealing with a thin roster in training camp as he prepares the team in his first year as head coach. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Practice for the 2014-15 basketball season at Marquette is barely a few days old and already there is talk about next year.


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Could Chris Douglas-Roberts Be Dark-Horse Small Forward Answer for LA Clippers?

Chris Douglas-Roberts and the Los Angeles Clippers sort of need each other. 

The player, a 27-year-old journeyman who’s drifted in and out of the NBA since first entering it as a 40th overall draft pick in 2008, is coming off a statistically unimpressive breakout season with the Charlotte Hornets.

Douglas-Roberts did not post career-high per-game numbers last season. He wasn’t the third-, fourth- or fifth-most important player on his own team, and he didn’t score a single point in nine of the 49 games he took the floor. 

But the latter half of that campaign was far and away the most significant stretch of Douglas-Roberts’ pertinacious career.

He grew into one of Charlotte’s most efficient players, specializing as a three-point marksman who seamlessly fit in as a noticeable cog for one of the league’s more consistent defensive units. And for this, the Clippers, a team with championship-or-bust expectations, snatched him up on a one-year, league-minimum contract. 

Los Angeles is already loaded on the wing (Reggie Bullock, Matt Barnes, C.J. Wilcox, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford all figure to see time on the perimeter), but the 6’7” Douglas-Roberts may provide the defensive effort and three-point shooting that just hasn’t materialized for Los Angeles on a consistent basis. He can really help. 

In a September interview with The Source, Douglas-Roberts spoke about a recent conversation he had with Clippers head coach Doc Rivers and what is expected from him this season: 

I spoke to Doc. Doc believes in me. He told me how underrated he felt I was. He couldn’t understand why my journey has been so rough but none of it matters now. He said he picked me and wanted me in LA. It feels great to be wanted by a team of this caliber. He wants me to be aggressive on both ends of the floor. Be that wing player/defender that he sees me as. He told me their goal is a championship and I’m definitely with it.

If you can consistently knock down a deep open shot, have especially long arms and the slightest hint of athleticism/defensive awareness, well, just about every team in the league is interested. Douglas-Roberts embraced the three ball last season, shooting 38.6 percent on nearly five attempts per 36 minutes (just over 50 percent of his total shot attempts). 

It was an effective and trustworthy—albeit seldom used—element in the Hornets’ attack, and it allowed him to showcase a new, transformative skill. In his first two seasons, nine out of every 10 shot attempts came inside the three-point line. The Clippers are paying Douglas-Roberts to make sure that version of himself permanently stays in the past. 

Unlike when he was a super-efficient scoring machine alongside Derrick Rose at the University of Memphis, Douglas-Roberts has never been great at attacking NBA defenses by himself. He rarely lived outside Charlotte’s offensive system last season, proving isolation isn’t really his thing. Neither is creating for others, as his 2.6 assists per 100 possessions suggests. 

All this is fine, though. The first thing a role player needs to do is find his role, and Douglas-Roberts finally discovered one he can thrive in. Synergy Sports (subscription required) listed Douglas-Roberts as the 10th-most efficient player in the league last season. He impacted Charlotte’s offense by knocking down spot-up shots, running the floor, filling lanes and attacking the basket in transition.

In his first and only 70 minutes experiencing the playoffs, Douglas-Roberts posted an impressive 68.8/50/85.7 shooting line. That accompanied an 18.9 player efficiency rating and 85.7 true shooting percentage.

The sample size here is tiny (he only attempted eight threes), but coming against the then-two-time defending world champion Miami Heat, Douglas-Roberts showed he can handle competing against the best of the best on a stage that matters, which is necessary on the title-contending Clippers.

Elsewhere, Douglas-Roberts is also a committed defender. He genuinely cares and hustles, putting forth maximum effort on a possession-by-possession basis. Three-point shooting is great, but this is one area where he has the potential to separate himself from L.A.’s other wings and crack Rivers’ starting lineup. Aside from Barnes, who’s 33 years old and slipping on both ends, Los Angeles has no above-average perimeter defenders. 

The tools and physical dimensions are there for Douglas-Roberts to become one, and he’s already shown he can be especially effective chasing his man through a maze of screens, artfully going above or below before almost always getting a hand in the shooter’s face. He fights to contest, a glamourless but essential task.

According to Synergy, Douglas-Roberts defended 49 plays last year where his man came off a screen to attempt a shot. He was merciless here, holding opponents to just 0.57 points per play, good for third best in the league. A couple examples:

After being waived four times by three teams since 2012, Charlotte granted Douglas-Roberts the opportunity to figure out who he is as a productive basketball player. He completely understands the responsibilities Los Angeles will let him have.

If Douglas-Roberts can replicate last year’s production in stable playing time and excel in his role as a three-and-D contributor beside insanely talented players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers may have found an ideal and affordable small forward to join their starting lineup.

 

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina. 

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Is Kobe Bryant the Answer to Los Angeles Lakers’ Small Forward Problem?

Small forward poses big problems for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Unless Kobe Bryant takes ownership of this situation, too. 

Immersed in the hustle and bustle of a very active offseason, the Lakers haven’t found a lasting solution to their void at small forward. With the summer winding down, they can’t expect that to change.

Anything they do now, anyone they plug into that starting 3 spot, will be a temporary stopgap or ill-equipped to perform there. Or both. 

But as luck would have it, all hope is not lost.

Turning to Bryant, like they tend to do when facing conflict, might be just the answer—however impermanent—they need.

 

Underwhelming Alternatives 

Assembling almost an entire roster on the fly isn’t easy. The Lakers have spent their offseason trying to remain competitive without compromising any long-term financial flexibility.

Options are limited in these situations. The Lakers haven’t had their pick of the litter, and it shows in their outcast-overloaded roster. 

Lottery busts Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson are the only two legitimate small forwards the Lakers employ.

Both are mobile enough to defend wings, and Henry proved a valuable source of instant offense for the Lakers last season (10 points in 21.1 minutes per game) while Johnson resembled a competent shooter, banging in nearly 37 percent of his three-pointers.

Johnson has also been working out regularly with Bryant, according to the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram. Bryant is the type to pick his workout partners very carefully. If Johnson is someone he’s willing to spend extra time with, something’s there.

Neither Johnson nor Henry are ideal candidates, though. Henry is slightly undersized at 6’6″, and Johnson remains too much of a specialist.

Starting someone else who’s a two-way player or allows the Lakers to experiment with various promising combinations—or both—makes more sense if afforded the opportunity.

Julius Randle, for the record, is not the player.

Even though he’ll tell you he’s that player.

“A lot of the league is going to small ball, but the good thing about me, I’m interchangeable,” he said in June, per Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell. “I can play small ball because I can guard multiple positions because I can really move. But I think it’s going to be an advantage for me to be able to take a smaller guy inside but also take a bigger guy on the outside.”

Watching Randle during the NBA‘s Summer League, it became clear his entire skill set wasn’t advertised adequately. He could be seen running point, taking opponents off the dribble and defending—halfheartedly at times—inside and out. There’s little doubt he could spend time at small forward…in a pinch.

Oversized lineups aren’t common for a reason. Starting Randle alongside, say, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill would be a floor-spacing nightmare. Not one of them has three-point range. Same goes for Ed Davis. 

Playing Randle at small forward should be a last resort. Ideally it’s something the Lakers won’t even entertain.

Ryan Kelly saw some time at small forward last year, but it didn’t go well. Or even close to well. He notched a 5.8 player efficiency rating there, per 82games.com.

At 6’11″, he’s more of stretch 4 who relies too much on spot-up shooting to play a small forward’s game. That he’s not quick enough to keep pace with traditionally athletic wings hurts as well.

Better alternatives aren’t found in Wayne Ellington or Nick Young. Ellington is too small at 6’4″, and Young doesn’t play enough defense to police shooting guards, let alone the deeper, scorer-stuffed small forward slot.

It’s not that the Lakers don’t have options—they do. It’s that the options they do have don’t justify not looking for something, anything, better.

 

Benefits of Bryant

This is the part of the movie when Bryant rides into Staples Center wearing a just-for-show cape ready to save the day.

Assuming health, and also assuming a lottery-doomed roster doesn’t drive him into abrupt retirement, Bryant can play small forward. Though he stands at only 6’6″, he’s a self-sufficient scorer who can double as a point forward at times.

Sliding into the 3 spot isn’t anything new for him, either. He’s logged at least 18 percent of his minutes there four times since 2000. Nearly a third of his playing time came there during his historical 2012-13 campaign, and he registered a higher PER at small forward (24.5) than shooting guard (23.1).

Most importantly, though, placing Bryant at small forward allows head coach Byron Scott to tinker with his starting five in ways he otherwise couldn’t. 

Not to mention it prevents him from making a massive mistake. 

Speaking with the Los Angeles Daily NewsMark Medina, Scott revealed he already had four of his five starters in mind: Bryant, Boozer, Hill and…Steve Nash.

You read that correctly.

Rolling with the 40-year-old Nash—no matter how healthy he seems now—over the 26-year-old Jeremy Lin reeks of an obsession with yesteryear. It isn’t smart. David Murphy of Bleacher Report recently made it his mission to tell us why: 

The issue of who should start and who should come off the bench is not about who should or should not play. It’s a question of what most benefits the team—both now and moving forward.

Everyone who has ever been a fan of basketball wants to see Nash go out on his own terms and go out successfully.

But wouldn’t helping Lin to be a better player and bolstering an already potent bench be preferable to struggling against time and a bad back to hold onto a starter’s role and minutes?

As someone who openly wants Nash to end his career on a high note, this is difficult, yet not impossible to accept.

Push come to shove, Lin should start over Nash. He’s younger, better fit to defend opposing point men—which is more an insult to Nash than compliment to Lin—and he’s the incisive handler neither Bryant nor Nash can be at this stage of their careers.

But let’s take this one step further.

Why choose?

Plugging Bryant at small forward enables Scott to start both Nash and Lin, deepening a tape-thin positional rotation in the process.

Nash shouldn’t be charged with primary point guard duties anymore. He can still direct an offense—5.7 assists per game last year—but he can be equally effective off the ball as a spot-up assassin who doesn’t move too much. He’s only one year removed (2012-13) from ranking in the top 10 of standstill efficiency, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

Using Nash as an undersized 2-guard also allows Bryant and Lin to operate with the ball in their hands more, which is how both are accustomed to playing.

Creating these mismatches makes them harder for opposing defenses to guard, ensuring they’re running with three established scorers rather than two, plus Johnson or Henry. And with the Lakers built to repeat their defensive performance from last season—28th in efficiency—they’ll need to score. A lot.

A whole lot. 

Moving Bryant to small forward puts them in position to concoct the strongest, most potent offense possible, diminishing the likelihood they field a below-average product.

 

Decisions, Decisions

Displacing Bryant from that shooting guard spot isn’t all dandelions and offensive euphoria. 

There are warts to worry about.

Expecting Bryant to defend opposing small forwards is ambitious.

Regardless of how healthy and spry he’s feeling, guarding the Kevin Durants and Carmelo Anthonys of the world pushes the boundaries of logic. Someone his age (36) shouldn’t defend the opposition’s best wing scorer daily. That, in part, is why Johnson calls Los Angeles home.

Seeing Nash or Lin match up against shooting guards would be just as painful. Neither player is a strong defender, and both stand at 6’3″ tall. They’ll be at severe size disadvantages nightly, waiting to be exploited off the dribble, their sheer lack of height begging opponents to shoot over them.

Under normal circumstances, teams should try to avoid such defensive detriments. 

For the Lakers, this must be viewed as a necessary evil.

Enough concerns and questions plague this team that some must be overlooked, defensive demerits being one of them. It doesn’t matter whether they install a dual-point guard lineup. The Lakers don’t have the luxury of a true, reliable small forward. If they wish to be competitive immediately, sticking with what they know is the only course of action.

And Bryant, when healthy, is someone they know can create options and offer solutions—no matter where or how he plays—that otherwise wouldn‘t exist. 

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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Heat Likely Committed to Playing Small Ball

During the Big Three era of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, the Miami Heat transcended the way traditional basketball was meant to be played. Instead of having a traditional point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center position, Miami introduced a new era of position-less basketball.
With multiple players being able to guard a multitude of positions, the Heat came away with two NBA championships and four NBA Finals appearances by playing “small ball.” During the Heat’s glorified four-year tenure, many teams tried to replicate Miami’s small ball approach to try and keep pace with the two-time champs, but to no avail.
One of the clear reasons why the small ball approach was so effective was because of LeBron’s versatility and ability to guard positions one through five, which allowed the Heat to adjust and plug any glaring holes in the system accordingly.
With James now out of the picture, Heat fans must be wondering, ‘Is Erik Spoelstra going to sti…

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Breaking Down Oklahoma City Thunder’s Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

When it comes to the small forward position, the Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant and not much else. 

In fairness, having the reigning Most Valuable Player in his prime is more than enough for any team. Durant is one of the two best players in the NBA, arguably neck-and-neck with the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ LeBron James. He’s an effortless scorer who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his excellence in the other aspects of his game. 

Durant is relentless on the glass, especially on the defensive boards. He’s finished in the top seven in defensive rebounds twice during his seven years in the league. Last season, he averaged 6.7 defensive rebounds per game, which was tied for 12th with the Memphis GrizzliesZach Randolph. He finished with 7.4 total boards per contest (34th in the NBA). 

Defensively, he’s vastly underrated. According to 82games.com, opponents had an effective field-goal percentage of 48.9 percent against Durant. His 4.4 defensive win shares were good for 10th-best in the league, and he had a defensive rating of 104.

Still, the biggest feathers in The Durantula’s cap are his offensive skills. He averaged 32 points per game last year, which earned him his fourth scoring title in seven years. He shot 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from behind the arc. He also shot 87.3 percent from the free-throw line. 

During his MVP campaign, Durant led the league in win shares (19.2), offensive win shares (14.8), win shares per 48 minutes (.295) and player efficiency rating (29.8). He also led the league in minutes played (3,122) and usage rate (33 percent), which explains why he cited fatigue as his reason for withdrawing from the Team USA prior to the start of the FIBA World Cup. 

“After going through training camp with USAB, I realized I could not fulfill my responsibilities to the team from both a time and energy standpoint,” Durant said in a statement from USA Basketball. “I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Last season, Brooks wrote off the idea of Durant being fatigued, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: ”It’s nothing that I’ve talked about and worried about. Fatigue is not an issue with our group. We’re talking 39 minutes of your day. I think he (Durant) can handle that at age 25.”

Durant can clearly handle it, but for how much longer? And is it worth it to KD if he’s not hoisting a championship trophy at the end of the season? 

 

Grading Thunder Small Forwards’ 2013-14 Performances

There’s no doubt that the play of Oklahoma City’s small forwards last season is worthy of high marks. After all, the top guy on their depth chart took home the NBA’s best individual honor. However, the quality of OKC’s 3′s in 2013-14 goes beyond Durant’s excellence. 

The team added depth in March when they signed veteran Caron Butler, who was available after being bought out by the Milwaukee Bucks. While he wasn’t the same player from his glory days with the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards, the man known as “Tough Juice” gave the Thunder a reliable veteran presence. 

He logged 27.2 minutes a night in 22 games, averaging 9.7 points and 3.2 rebounds. He shot 40.9 percent from the field, including 44.1 percent from three. He also contributed 1.1 steals per contest. Butler struggled to find his shot in the playoffs though, converting just 32.4 percent of his attempts (35.6 percent from three). 

He’d finish the postseason with an average of 6.3 points in 11 games, getting the starting nod in two of them. 

Former Baylor star Perry Jones III saw a little bit of playing time in the regular season. He played in 62 games (making seven starts), averaging 3.5 points per game in 12.3 minutes. Jones was barely heard from in the playoffs, averaging just five minutes a night. 

To round out the group, Ryan Gomes and Reggie Williams made a couple of cameos. Gomes appeared in five games, while Williams played in three. Neither player managed to do anything worth mentioning. 

Still, Durant’s performance alone is good enough to earn this unit a gold star. Even with his gaudy offensive numbers, his own coach thought he could do more.

Let’s face it: If he wanted to score a bunch of points or more than he’s scoring now, he really could do that,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks told reporters in March. “His assist level has gone up, he impacts the game. Defensively, he impacts the game. He can guard 1 through 5. So a lot of things that he does [are] all about the team.”

As a testament to Durant’s selflessness, the former Texas star actually believed he should be taking fewer shots. He told Mayberry in January that he’s “not doing enough to help” his teammates and that he’s “shooting too much”:

I think now I’m just flat out shooting too much. I have to find a way to get my teammates easier shots. I’ve been thinking these last few games in order for us to get it going I have to do it all offensively. But, nah, we have to do it together. It’s a great learning experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve really been in that type of position. But I just have to get everybody involved. I may have to pass up a few to find a better shot.

The debate over whether he’s shooting too much or not enough aside, Durant’s ability to fill a stat sheet carried over to the postseason. He led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 29.6 points and 8.9 boards in 11 playoff games. He added 1.3 blocks and a steal per contest as well. 

Durant also played 42.9 minutes per game. That, combined with the 38.5 minutes he averaged in the regular season (including a combined 130 minutes in the final three games, when the team had its playoff spot locked up), is why he was gasping for air this summer. 

That’s no fault of Durant’s. He put the team on his back and carried them as far as he could. In the end, the team came a couple wins short of making it to the NBA Finals. With Durant’s MVP season and Butler’s contributions, small forward was arguably the team’s strongest position last year.

Grade: A-

 

What’s In Flux This Season

While small forward will remain one of the team’s strong suits as long as Durant is healthy, depth is a concern for the Thunder this season. Butler is now a Detroit Piston and, in the wake of his departure, all that’s left are a group of unproven guys behind the team’s franchise player. 

Perry Jones would appear to be the most logical candidate to spell Durant. At 6’11″ with a decent outside shooting touch, Jones has a little bit of Lamar Odom to his game. However, his skills aren’t as polished as Odom’s were even in LO’s early days. Part of that is due to a lack of playing time. 

In two seasons, Jones has averaged 10.5 minutes per game. Brooks has traditionally preferred playing veterans over his young guys, as evidenced by the Butler signing last season. 

The other option for backup minutes is perimeter defender Andre Roberson. With former chief defender Thabo Sefolosha now with the Atlanta Hawks, Roberson is the most likely candidate to fill his shoes. At 6’7″, he has the size to play some small forward, but Mayberry suggests he could be in the running to start at shooting guard as well:

Roberson is made in the same mold as Sefolosha, long, athletic, gritty and defensive-minded. Since the Thunder acquired Sefolosha midway through the 2008-09 season, the team has preferred to keep a lockdown-defender type at the starting shooting guard spot. It alleviates pressure from Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant defensively and allows the two stars to focus on offense.

The Thunder also used the No. 29 overall pick in this past June’s draft on Stanford small forward Josh Huestis. Like Roberson, Huestis is another long, rangy defender who could play the Sefolosha role for Oklahoma City. 

This is what Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com had to say about Huestis:

The best thing that Huestis brings to the table, and the key attribute that makes him an NBA prospect, is his defense. His size, length and athleticism gives him the ability to guard multiple positions at the college level and beyond, and he shows terrific smarts and intensity locking down opponents.

NBADraft.net added that Huestis is a “tough on-ball defender” and has “good timing as a shot-blocker.” Huestis has yet to sign to sign with the Thunder, opting for a D-League contract instead. He had a ho-hum performance during the Orlando summer league, averaging eight points a game in 19.8 minutes and shooting 12.5 percent from three.

He could be a factor for the team down the road, but he’s still another year or two away. Naturally, that doesn’t help the Thunder this season. With concerns over Durant’s workload, someone needs to step up to give the reigning MVP a breather. 

That person could be on this roster or could be added midseason like Butler last season. 

 

What To Expect This Season

Scott Brooks finds himself in a precarious position. If he continues to overuse Durant and the team’s star player breaks down, the Thunder faithful will be at his door with torches and pitchforks (figuratively, not literally…..at least, I hope not literally). 

If he scales back Durant’s minutes and the team falters, his time in Oklahoma City could be coming to an end. The Thunder have been among the NBA’s elite for some time now, but they have one Finals appearance and no championship rings to speak of. That’s why this is a pivotal year for Brooks. 

It’s also a big year in terms of Durant’s future in Oklahoma City. While free agency for KD is still two years away, every season in which the Thunder comes up short gives him more to consider as he mulls loyalty over more immediate success. 

With LeBron James returning to Cleveland with two championship rings on his hand, the focus shifts to Durant and the inevitable “Can he win The Big One?” questions. It’s a storyline that will no doubt be run into the ground until Durant hits the market after the 2015-16 season. 

The Thunder can’t worry about two years from now, though. They have to hope that either one of their young players will develop into a decent reserve behind Durant or that there’s a veteran who can be a stopgap option until the kids are ready. 

The name that is the most intriguing is Mickael Pietrus, who recently worked out for the Sacramento Kings, according to Shams Charania of RealGM.com. Despite being in the NBA seemingly forever, Pietrus is still only 32 years old. He’s a solid defender and a career 35.5 percent three-point shooter.

In other words, he’s the kind of sneaky free-agent acquisition that should interest general manager Sam Presti

Assuming the roster stays as-is, the pecking order behind Durant should be Jones, Roberson and Huestis. Roberson’s defense could propel him ahead of Jones in Brooks’ rotation, but the Thunder need to find out what they have in both players. 

The Thunder’s outlook at small forward for 2014-15 will be like it has been in recent years: Durant will get the bulk of the minutes and use his plethora of otherworldly basketball gifts to carry the team. Depth will be an issue until someone emerges, but Durant’s presence makes this a strong unit. 

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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