Breaking Down NY Knicks’ Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The New York Knicks are in an in-between phase of Phil Jackson’s franchise rejuvenation, and it’s apparent throughout the roster. The team’s new president administered as much roster overhaul as he could over his first summer in charge, and there are several new pieces for Derek Fisher to work into his rotation. 

At the same time, expensive, intrusive leftovers from the prior regime remain on the roster and will impede New York’s ability to prepare for the future. The presence of these holdovers—Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire, namely—will have a direct impact on how Fisher handles minutes at the small forward position this season. 

Carmelo Anthony, a natural small forward over the course of his career, has enjoyed tremendous success at the power forward slot these past two seasons thanks to the matchup nightmares he presents against traditional 4s. With Stoudemire and Bargnani in the fold for 2014-15, Anthony may be bumped back down to the position for extended minutes. 

The small forward minutes will generally be taken up by the same crowd as last season—Anthony, Shumpert and J.R. Smith are all returning—while rookie Cleanthony Early will attempt to earn a role at the position as well. Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw, who were acquired from the Sacramento Kings in August, could figure into the rotation as well. 

This year is all about transition for the Knicks, as they await to make a free-agency splash in 2015. But let’s take a look back and a look forward on the small forward position’s status in the meantime.

 

Grading Last Year’s Performance

Position Grade: B

 

Last season wasn’t pretty for the Knicks in most aspects, but they did get positive production out of their small forward spot. Much of that had to do with Anthony, but there were bright spots from Shumpert and Smith at the position also. 

Let’s start with Anthony, though. It’s clear now that ‘Melo is better suited at the 4, and he has posted better numbers there over the last two seasons, but he is still one of the league’s best offensive talents at small forward. 

According to Basketball-Reference, Anthony logged 38 percent of his total minutes at the 3 last season, and according to 82games.com, he posted a 22 player efficiency rating and 30.2 points per 48 minutes while playing there. The bulk of those minutes came early in the season before Bargnani’s season-ending injury in January, when Mike Woodson insisted on including the two players in a bigger lineup. 

After Bargnani went down, Anthony bumped back up to the power forward position for the most part, which opened up a slot for another guard in the starting lineup. More guards with shooting range around Anthony in the lineup led to more space for him to operate, and him being matched up against 4s led to more panicky help defense by opponents, which led to more open teammates for Anthony to utilize. 

J.R. Smith, according to Basketball-Reference, played the vast majority, 72 percent, of his minutes at the 3. And while his overall numbers infer a putrid all-around season, Smith was a very solid option for the Knicks after shaking off a brutal two-month stretch to begin the year. 

After Jan. 10, Smith shot 45 percent from the field and and 43 percent from three-point range, averaging 16.5 points, four rebounds and three assists a game. 

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert rounded out the small forward rotation, and two of the youngest Knicks could not have gone through more different experiences. 

Hardaway, in his rookie campaign, impressed with his scoring ability but struggled in every other facet of the game, and the Knicks were a worse team with him on the floor. Shumpert went through a season-long scoring slump, posting a shooting line of .378/.333/.746, but gave the Knicks a boost in other key areas and posted the team’s best net rating aside from Anthony. 

As was the case with the rest of the team, though, there was never enough consistency beside Anthony to string together a meaningful run. The 3-slot was solid enough to keep the Knicks above water, but considering all else, that just wasn’t enough. 

 

What’s Left to Settle?

The biggest question the Knicks face heading into the year features two of their three highest-paid players. How much will Stoudemire and Bargnani factor into the rotation?

In theory, both players can help a team score in limited roles. But with both being natural 4s, unable to protect the rim and unable to coexist in the same lineup on either end of the floor, both are simply expensive nightmares for a rebuilding Knicks team.

Last season, New York was 8.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Stoudemire on the floor. Bargnani’s number was 8.1 points worse.

Here’s the conundrum the Knicks face: Carmelo is a better weapon at the 4. If Anthony is at the 4 and STAT or Bargs figure into the rotation, one will need to play the center position, effectively destroying the team’s chances on defense. If one—or God forbid both—of Stoudemire and Bargnani are playing with ‘Melo, it bumps him back down to the 3, ruining space and taking minutes away from the younger wings.

This is a dilemma that’s easy to spot, even months before the season. The way Jackson is constructing the Knicks, and with their hopes of landing a prime free agent next summer, these two players will not be a part of the future. The only thing left to settle is when Fisher will cut them out of the present.

 

The New Rotation

At least at the onset of 2014-15, it’s reasonable to assume the small forward rotation will resemble last year’s, with Anthony logging some minutes there to accommodate Stoudemire and/or Bargnani.

When Anthony is resting, two of Smith, Shumpert and Hardaway will accompany him on the wings. Over time, Early could work into the rotation at the 3 as well, but at least in the season’s early stages, Travis Outlaw may get the nod over the rookie for those spot minutes.

According to general manager Steve Mills after the Knicks traded for Outlaw and Quincy Acy (via Ian Begley of ESPN New York), Outlaw is “a mobile big that can play the 4 and the 5. He’s got a great mid-range shot. I think he’ll fit within sort of the triangle. He’s got good hands, he can space the floor and he’s got great size.”

Outlaw has averaged under 15 minutes per game over the last three seasons and will likely only be capable of spot minutes if Fisher opts not to overwork Anthony in the season’s early going. After impressing in the summer league, though, and after more practice time with Fisher’s triangle offense, it’s easy to see Early earning a role behind Anthony and the other wings. 

Acy is another player who adds depth at the position but probably won’t make all that much of an impact. He’s been an energy guy throughout his brief NBA career and by all accounts a likable teammate. He’s averaged 13 minutes per game over his two pro seasons, and judging by the talent the Knicks have at the 3, that number may decrease by the time this season is over. 

How the complete rotation at small forward ends up largely depends on Fisher’s plans for Anthony and what position he sees him fitting best in the triangle. Talent-wise, though, like last season, the position projects to be a strength for New York.

 

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Breaking Down Miami Heat’s Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

LeBron James is out, Luol Deng is in, and the Miami Heat are facing a major change at the small forward position. But it isn‘t as simple as that.

James didn’t play 48 minutes at small forward. Also contributing to the Heat at the 3 last season were Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, James Jones and Michael Beasley in varying degrees. Even Ray Allen was used in three-guard lineups with Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers.

Of all positions, small forward is the one in which Miami faces the biggest change, giving the position a new identity and role in the team’s scheme for the 2014-15 season.

 

Grading Last Year’s Performance

Few teams have been in a better situation at small forward than the Heat were last season—like, in the history of the NBA. James is the most versatile, singularly dominant small forward the game has ever seen, and he was in his prime during his last season in Miami. 

James is listed as a small forward, but he often played power forward in Erik Spoelstra‘s positionless approach. According to basketball-reference.com, James played power forward 82 percent of the time. Battier, Lewis, Beasley and Jones would all be seen playing a small forward-like position at times, too. However, either forward spot’s distinction was nominal in nature. The 3 and the 4 were interchangeable in Spoelstra‘s scheme, depending on the matchup. 

As for the other small forwards on the roster, Battier looked like a guy who should have retired after the Heat won the Finals in 2013. He couldn’t close out on defense, defend 4s anymore or hit his three-pointers (just 34.8 percent last season).

That led to Spoelstra yanking him from the starting lineup in favor of Lewis, who had a nice stretch in the playoffs but couldn’t make it last into the NBA Finals. The Heat signed Beasley before the season as a low-risk, high-reward guy. He never panned out, coming in and scoring in spurts but overall being unreliable to fulfill his assignments within the scheme.

Still, with James in the fold, few teams could have asked for a better situation. When Battier was playing top-notch defense, though, the Heat as a team were also. In 2013, I would have given the 3 spot an “A+,” but I’ll settle on an “A” given the lack of depth last season.

 

What’s New?

In a word? Everything.

James, Battier, Lewis and Jones are all gone. In comes Deng, Danny Granger and James Ennis.

Deng comes over from the Cleveland Cavaliers and ensures that the small forward spot isn‘t a weakness in Miami despite the departure of James. The Heat also signed Granger, who is coming off a few leg injuries, and brought last year’s second-round pick Ennis back from Australia. Both are guard-forward tweeners with specific skill sets.

Still, going from historically excellent to above average at a position is quite the drop-off. It’s like if you replaced Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” with John Travolta.

 

What Will the Position Look Like This Season?

The only true small forward on the roster, Deng should get the lion’s share of the minutes here. In his last three seasons in Chicago, he averaged more than 38 minutes per game. Miami will probably give him a similar work load, especially if Granger has to miss time and assuming Ennis takes a while to adjust to the NBA.

It’s no secret that James mailed it in at times on defense last season. With the scoring load firmly set on his shoulders, it’s hard to blame him. Deng won’t face nearly the same demand on offense, which will allow him to do what he does best. He’ll play the best perimeter defense on the team, hustle for loose balls and rebounds while letting the game come to him on offense. He isn’t a particularly dangerous offensive player, but knows his limits.

Check out his efficiency shot chart, via NylonCalculus.com. Shot efficiency measures a player’s points per shot compared to the rest of the league, measuring not only a player’s field-goal percentage from a particular location but also the volume at which that player shot from that location. 34 percent of Deng’s attempts came near the basket, while no more than five percent of his attempts came from any other location.

Granger, then, can come in and bring the scoring punch. Looking at his efficiency chart, Granger shot better than 44 percent from four different spots beyond the arc with 13 percent of his attempts coming from the corners.

For a comparison of what the 3 spot will look like, think of the Dallas Mavericks small-forward rotation the last few years with Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. Marion was the reliable starter, playing plus defense and shooting threes. Then Carter would come in to add a scoring flare. With those teams, Marion averaged about 30 minutes per game while Carter played about 25.

Because Granger’s injury concerns and Deng being used to playing nearly 40 minutes a game, figure that split to be something closer to 35-20 with Deng in the Marion role and Granger in the Carter role.

As for Ennis, it will depend on how quickly he can get accustomed to NBA action. He is, by far, the most athletic on the three. He can get in the paint and play above the rim. He is very raw and needs to learn the intricacies of the game—playing within Miami’s defense and offense—before he sees a significant playing time. For now, he figures to be seated near the end of Miami’s bench.

When judging the impact of losing James, you have to look further than simply who replaces him at small forward. James did so much for the Heat—from initiating the offense from the perimeter or the post, defending the opponent’s best player, being the scoring leader and bringing the ball up—that it will take a team effort to replace even a percentage of what he brings to the court.

When you really think about it, Miami didn’t have a true small forward for the past three seasons. Even Battier played more of a faux stretch-4. The biggest change between last season and this season will be the fact that the Heat will be playing with a true small forward for the first time since James joined the team in 2010.

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Who Should Start for Chicago Bulls at Small Forward?

The Chicago Bulls have an interesting problem to deal with heading into the season. As opposed to the situation in years prior, the Bulls actually have plenty of legitimate depth that could start for multiple other teams.

The additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and prized rookie Doug McDermott could make an impact on the starting lineup, and Taj Gibson’s role could potentially change as well.

The biggest difference from last season to this upcoming year, however, is who starts at the small forward position.

Here’s Kelly Scaletta for Bleacher Report:

[Jimmy] Butler will get the nod at shooting guard and was named to the All-Defensive second team. The Bulls are hoping his offense bounces back this year after his field-goal percentage dropped below 40 percent last year, but he’ll log minutes regardless because he’s one of the best wing stoppers in the league.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. stepped into Deng’s spot after he was traded on Jan. 7. There’s a good chance he moves back to the bench at some point in the season, if not to begin it.

That means McDermott starting alongside Butler is a viable option. He’s not projected to be an elite defender, but he doesn’t need to be. In fact, he can survive as a below average one.

As a rookie, he will have a learning curve, but in this case that’s actually the reason it makes more sense to start him. And that’s also one of the keys to getting sufficient minutes to all the rotation players, counterintuitive as it may seem.

Butler can play and cover either the 2 or 3, which makes him a good fit with just about anyone on the wing. While the Bulls lack some ball-handling and distributing ability with Butler in there, he’ll defend his tail off and protect Derrick Rose at point.

Really, it’s a question of who would mesh better with the rest of the starters.

Is it Mike Dunleavy, a dangerous spot-up shooter and underrated rebounder and defender? Or is it McDermott, a player who should be more capable of creating his own shots and scoring at a higher rate?

It would seem, at least initially, that Dunleavy should be considered the heavy favorite to start opening day. He’s the veteran who understands head coach Tom Thibodeau‘s defensive schemes, and his proven track record of being a great perimeter shooter is something the Bulls should want in the starting lineup.

The flip side of that argument, though, is that Dunleavy was much better last season coming off the bench than he was with the starters. In 21 games off the bench, Dunleavy connected on 42.3 percent of his threes compared to just 36.8 percent in 61 games as a starter. That makes sense, as it’s almost always easier to score against second-unit defenses as opposed to the first string.

That may be a bit of a small sample size, though, and Rose returning to the starting lineup should impact things quite a bit.

It’s still something to be considered, though, especially if McDermott is effective in training camp and preseason. 

Thibodeau hasn’t relied heavily on rookies in general over the years, although he’s never had a rookie as highly regarded as McDermott. The full college career and proven track record probably mean McDermott is a little more capable to contribute offensively as a rookie than someone like Tony Snell was last year.

Speaking of Snell, he’s a dark horse to contend for some minutes as well. After a strong Summer League showing, his athleticism could be a luxury if his shooting range is extended and consistent. Remember, given Butler’s offensive struggles last year, the Bulls will need someone who can at least be a threat on the wing.

There’s also the chance that Thibodeau reaches for his security blanket and tosses Kirk Hinrich some minutes at the 2 next to Rose in order to lessen his responsibilities. Again, Butler can easily play the 3, so Thibodeau has options. 

Here’s Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

The strategic wheels are already in motion for Thibodeau, who singled out Chicago’s decision to re-sign Kirk Hinrich as key in allowing Rose to spend some extra time off of the ball. Thibodeau seemed ready to welcome back a player who was still capable of displaying elite athleticism but who also has added a richer comprehension of the action.

Ultimately, it would be a surprise if Dunleavy wasn’t tabbed as the starter. He helped keep the Bulls afloat after the Luol Deng trade last year, and he’s a smart veteran player who will be able to find his role rather quickly, something that might not happen with McDermott right off the bat.

Here’s what Dunleavy told Sam Smith at Bulls.com about last season:

‘Ultimately I came here for the core beliefs and culture and the way this organization went,’ said Dunleavy. ‘They could have guys come and go and be injured and those things stayed the same. They did and that’s why we were able to have a successful season.

‘Sure, when Derrick went down and Lu was traded everyone was questioning everything,’ Dunleavy acknowledged. ‘But we stuck with it and this has been the most rewarding season I’ve had as a pro by far.’

In a sense, Thibodeau might want to reward Dunleavy with the chance to start. Even though Dunleavy has spent plenty of time in his 12-year career coming off the bench, the lack of an established player to replace him probably won’t push him there quite yet.

McDermott and Snell have to prove to Thibodeau that they’re ready for the responsibility of playing in a demanding defensive system, but Dunleavy already passed his initial test. If this is about trust more than it’s about potential, Dunleavy should get the nod.

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Breaking Down Charlotte Hornets’ Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The Charlotte Hornets are poised for a stellar 2014-15 NBA season behind a deep roster full of youth, athleticism and defensive prowess. Head coach Steve Clifford turned this team into an elite club on the less glamorous end of the floor last season by establishing a strong foundation of fundamental, unselfish basketball.

In order to make a leap this coming year, Charlotte will need a big uptick in production from one particular spot on the floor.

Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker will lock down the backcourt and the center spot with ease. At power forward, Charlotte has newcomer Marvin Williams as well as two incredibly talented top-10 draft picks in Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller.

Small forward is a very different story.

 

Last Year’s Performance

It would be tough to make a case against small forward being Charlotte’s weakest position last year. The front office tried to mitigate some of the shortcomings by offering a king’s random for Gordon Hayward in the offseason (four years, $63 million), but the Utah Jazz ultimately matched the contract and retained their restricted free agent.

Charlotte is left with much of the same. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is still the starter with two years of experience under his belt. He took a step back offensively in year two, struggling to find his place with Al Jefferson in town and Josh McRoberts breaking out.

However, he thrived in Clifford’s new defensive scheme by posting a defensive rating of 103. Night in and night out, he locked onto the opposing team’s best perimeter player and wreaked havoc.

The main problem is that he is a liability on offense, continuously getting lost on that end of the floor and having almost no impact. He shot a good percentage from the floor at 47 percent last season, but he doesn’t expand his game whatsoever. In order to live up to his lofty draft status as a No. 2 pick, he has to add to his repertoire.

Behind him, things got even murkier. He is really the only prototypical NBA 3 on the roster. Jeff Taylor played just 26 games before succumbing to a ruptured Achilles, and he was mostly ineffective during his time.

Anthony Tolliver delivered some great outside shooting in his absence, and that was just about it. This wasn’t a deep position for Charlotte last season whatsoever.

In fact, Charlotte had the least productive small forward corps in the entire NBA last year, according to HoopsStats.com, posting 14.9 points, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals a night. All were worst in the league.

Overall Grade: C-

 

What Is In Flux This Offseason

From a roster standpoint, what has changed is that Tolliver is gone and Marvin Williams is in. The only problem is that Williams has played mostly power forward in recent years and should fill that role in the starting lineup, replacing McRoberts. Chris Douglas-Roberts also appears to be nearing a deal with the Clippers.

Charlotte selected P.J. Hairston in the first round, but he projected as much more of a typical shooting guard. Lance Stephenson was brought in, sliding Gerald Henderson to the bench. Neither of them have ideal size to play small forward at all. 

That leaves MKG and Taylor as the two who absolutely have to get it done. Charlotte can clearly succeed with MKG scoring seven points a game, but an improvement on his part could very well separate this team from the rest of the pack of middling playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

All this means that the main thing in flux is MKG‘s jumper. He shot 61 percent in the paint last season but under 31 percent everywhere else.

Charlotte needs him to improve offensively in order to improve the production from that position. His defensive ability is paramount to the team’s success, but a lot hinges on his ability to take the next step. This is especially true with little else on the roster in terms of small forward talent. Taylor has been cleared for practice after his injury, but he has limited upside.

 

What It Should Look Like Next Season

It is unreasonable to expect MKG to turn into an offensive threat overnight. Getting 10-12 points a night from him next year would be a big improvement. Clifford needs to get him out in the open court and have him more involved in the flow of the offense; otherwise, his growth will never come. Avoiding the growing pains will not give him the satisfaction of overcoming them.

The most beneficial scenario to employ in the present time would be to go with smaller lineups when MKG isn’t on the floor. Henderson, Hairston and Stephenson are all a few inches and a couple pounds short of being able to play extended minutes at small forward, but all make up for it with athleticism.

The NBA is trending toward smaller lineups in general, and Stephenson is more than capable of guarding players with size on him. MKG should continue to improve and see an uptick in minutes, but there will still be a small amount of time when neither he nor Taylor is on the floor and Charlotte has to make do.

The size up front gives Clifford plenty of options with his backcourt. The additions of Vonleh and Williams inject some added size into the frontcourt in order to free up some other spots.

With the way this roster is situated, Charlotte is banking a lot on MKG. He will continue to wow people on defense, but Stephenson’s presence will take an immense amount of pressure off of him. An exceptional defender in his own right, the triple-double machine will have no problem covering guys like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony for brief stretches.

This team needs to play to its strengths. Clifford’s defensive system runs plenty deep enough to accommodate a small lineup from time to time. Expect to see Walker, Henderson and Stephenson all on the court together with some regularity, because the matchup problems that backcourt would create should cancel out any slight defensive handicaps.

Clifford should have more fun with this roster since he can mix and match. Henderson, Taylor, Hairston and Gary Neal all off the bench will be a potent second unit, something Charlotte severely lacked last season.

Charlotte cannot really mess up this situation. The issue last year pertained more to the lack of overall talent and not so much the lack of small forward depth. Having MKG and arguably Jeff Taylor as the only traditional small forwards should not hold this roster back at all due to the bevy of shooting guards.

 

Follow Justin on Twitter @Hussington 

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Breaking Down Orlando Magic’s Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The Orlando Magic have question marks all over heading into the 2014-15 season, and the small forward position is no exception. The departure of Arron Afflalo is bound to have an impact. Can the additions of Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon make up for it?

Do they actually need to?

Each team adjusts its playing style according to the personnel available. In this case, losing Afflalo and signing Channing Frye implies a paradigm shift. Orlando now has Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and the aforementioned Frye. All are able—and expected—to play a substantial part on offense, which suggests the small forwards will take a step back.

However, that will be a tiny, even minuscule step.

Players like Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris possess too much talent to lock them away behind a rigid system focused on two or three players to provide points.

To understand the importance of the Magic’s wing position, it’s probably a good idea to first take a look back at last year.

 

Grading Orlando’s Small Forwards for 2013-14

Obviously, Afflalo was the most efficient offensive player the Orlando Magic had at the 3, where he spent 50 percent of his minutes. Frankly, he was their best weapon regardless of position, period.

The veteran shot an impressive 42.7 percent from downtown and averaged 18.2 points per game in 35 minutes. Not only that, but his 3.4 assists per outing were good enough to place him third on his team in that category.

He was arguably the most important player for Orlando.

Harkless played 24.4 minutes per game and was a more defensive-minded option at small forward. He might not have been a prolific scorer with 7.4 points per game, but that was a direct result of not being used as a main weapon on attack.

In his second year at the pro level, the former No. 15 pick displayed solid shooting, connecting on 38.3 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Sadly, his free-throw shooting lacked in quality with a meager 59.4 percent success rate.

Harris, while officially playing as power forward for the majority of his time on court, was also a big contributor from the 3. His aggressive style of play led to 4.7 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes, of which he converted a solid 80.7 percent.

Overall, the Orlando Magic definitely had an above-average rotation at small forward in 2013-14.

 

Changes During the Offseason

The most important change was sending Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets for Fournier and the No. 56 pick, Roy Devyn Marble.

Orlando lost its high-scoring veteran and will now rely on others to step up. Frye’s addition means more firepower from the 4, but who can fill in at the 3?

Harkless and Harris are the first who come to mind.

They are used to head coach Jacque Vaughn’s system and showed a lot of potential last season. Both are still very young and will continue to improve with consistent minutes.

The Magic’s No. 4 pick, Gordon, will likely see some time at small forward, despite having been a power forward during his collegiate career. His 6’9″, 225-pound frame and athleticism place him somewhere between those positions—he will be a 3.5 if you like.

The team also acquired Fournier, who is nominally a small forward but can bring the ball when needed. He is a good shooter and can spread the floor, but his size and athleticism are not up to par with the other three candidates.

 

Orlando’s Small Forward Position 2014-15

Harkless and Harris seem set to fight for the starting spot at the 3. Both can be efficient small forwards, but they play very different roles. With Victor Oladipo and Channing Frye being the main weapons on offense, Vaughn will likely want to start Harkless for his defensive skills.

The 21-year-old can drain the open shot, but his main focus will be on the other end of the floor.

Harris can play as a small forward or a power forward, and he brings explosive offense with his reckless drives to the basket. Last season, this translated into a team-leading 33 and-1 opportunities, of which he converted 25. He would be perfect as a sixth man, providing lots of energy.

This brings us to the rookie.

Gordon will have a hard time adjusting to the NBA. He was able to dominate the paint as a power forward in college but seems more likely to succeed as a small forward at the pro level, unless he puts on more weight. The No. 4 pick certainly has a tough job ahead of him, getting used to a new position, a new system and a much more intense style of play.

The Orlando Magic will be happy if the 18-year-old manages to become an efficient player off the bench over the course of his first campaign.

Fournier, on the other hand, could turn into a valuable player very quickly.

His versatility and lack of size, however, mean that he will spend more time at the 1 and 2. If Elfrid Payton can’t get into a rhythm early on during his rookie season, the Frenchman may well end up bringing the ball up frequently.

Likewise, if Ben Gordon can’t produce, Fournier will be the main backup behind Oladipo. The 6’6″ athlete provides consistent shooting from three-point land (37.6 percent last season), and his tender age of 21 implies he still has room to develop. If he can improve his athleticism, he will eventually become an important factor for the team, regardless of position.

Despite losing Afflalo, the Orlando Magic have good options at small forward.

Effectively, three players will be able to contribute right away, even if Fournier seems somewhat undersized. Gordon will still need time to develop, but the Magic can afford to wait for him to mature.

One of the main advantages Coach Vaughn has at the 3 is the different style of play each of these three athletes can offer. If he wants aggressive defense, he can bring in Harkless. For the same aggression on the offensive end, Harris is the perfect choice. If in need of a good ball-handler who can spread the floor with his shooting, on comes Fournier.

The small forward position may have lost some punch with Afflalo‘s departure, but Orlando’s fans don’t need to be concerned.

The young guns are ready to take over.

 

All stats and info taken from NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com unless stated otherwise.

You can follow @KurtJonke for more on the NBA in general and the Orlando Magic in particular.

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Breaking Down San Antonio Spurs’ Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

Highlighted by budding superstar Kawhi Leonard, small forward is a solid position for the reigning league champion San Antonio Spurs in 2014-15.

Leonard is the unit’s unquestioned star, while Marco Belinelli was technically his backup due to the backcourt rotation in which he played.

NBA journeyman Austin Daye rounds out the incumbents, but the Spurs added a pass-happy piece to the position during the summer.

Reviewing the performance of the aforementioned trio and factoring offseason changes will help decide what changes, if any, San Antonio needs to make for the upcoming campaign.

 

Grading 2013-14 Performance

Leonard missed 14 regular-season games due to a broken finger, but rumor has it he performed pretty well anyway. The third-year forward was recognized as a NBA All-Defensive second team honoree, the first of what figures to be many such awards.

However, Leonard really did improve after fracturing the metacarpal in his right ring finger against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 22.

And of course, Leonard had a spectacular finish and was named the 2014 NBA Finals MVP following three outstanding performances opposite LeBron James.

Belinelli was on fire to start the season, hovering around 47-50 percent from distance and leading the league in that category for a couple months. The Italian sharpshooter cooled off, but he still posted a career-best 43.0 percent mark behind the arc.

During the playoffs, Belinelli reached double digits just twice in 23 appearances compared to 49 such games through the opening 82.

Some call Daye a small forward, some call him a power forward. But whichever side of the fence you’re on, the midseason acquisition played just 115 total minutes for the Spurs, so it’s not a significant debate, regardless.

Looking back over the entire season, though, San Antonio was largely successful at the position because Leonard picked up Belinelli’s slack when it mattered the most.

Overall Grade: A-

 

What Happened This Offseason?

The Spurs did not lose any small forwards, but they added one in UCLA’s Kyle Anderson with the last selection of the first round of the NBA draft.

Granted, Anderson is basically a 6’8″ point forward because of his superior passing ability. He will be utilized in a variety of ways; spelling Leonard, who often chases the league’s best scorers around the court, is an important responsibility.

Bleacher Report’s Garrett Jochnau believes Anderson’s future with the team is very bright, citing his skill set and organizational fit.

And Anderson needs to be ready immediately, because Leonard has an unpleasant injury history. The San Diego State product has missed 58 games throughout his first three years in the league.

Though he may not necessarily be injury-prone, that label is slowly sneaking up on Leonard. No, it’s not a serious cause for concern at this point, but Anderson certainly helps lessen the impact of a potential absence.

 

Looking Ahead to 2014-15, What to Expect

Leonard is entering the final season of his rookie contract, meaning San Antonio is at least in preliminary internal discussions about an extension. The front office has until Oct. 31 to reach an agreement; otherwise the 23-year-old will be a restricted free agent next offseason.

However, the rising star isn’t worried about that. ”I’m just playing,” Leonard said, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. “The Spurs are a great organization. I’m leaving that to my agent, and I’m sure they’ll come out with a great understanding and a deal. I’m not focused on that at all.”

Belinelli is on the back end of a two-year deal, and Daye‘s contract expires after 2014-15 as well. Ultimately, San Antonio does not need to sign a small forward for its 15th and final roster opening.

As is always the case with Gregg Popovich, playing time will be a fluid situation throughout the entire season. Behind Leonard as the 30-minute-per-night starter, the Spurs’ second unit is a question due to Patty Mills’ shoulder injury and subsequent surgery.

Pop has likely been contemplating ways to replace the team’s 2013-14 breakout performer until his return, and small forward is an important part of that. With that being said, Daye won’t be a major factor and will only receive some scattered minutes.

Cory Joseph can be inserted for Mills, leaving Manu Ginobili and Belinelli in the same roles they occupied last year. This would be a well-rounded group; Joseph provides the defensive spark, Ginobili is the offensive creator and Belinelli shoots threes at a productive rate.

Or, Pop could slide Ginobili to point guard and use Belinelli and Anderson at the 2 and 3, essentially interchangeably. Defense might be a struggle since Belinelli and the rookie are below average on that end, but using Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter would help offset the weakness.

From an offensive standpoint, though, the trio could form one of the league’s best reserve units. San Antonio is known for its rapid offensive movement, and Anderson fits in seamlessly.

It wouldn’t be surprising to watch Popovich employ a few more strategies at the beginning of the year to find the most effective or efficient backcourt, whichever the mastermind prefers on a given night.

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Projecting NBA’s Top 10 Small Forwards Heading into 2014-15 Season

In today’s NBA, the small forward position represents star power. 

With five of the last six MVP awards, the last five scoring titles and the last three NBA Finals MVP awards, players at the 3 have shown that their position might be the most talent-filled spot in the league.

So let’s take a stab at who will populate the list of the NBA’s top 10 small forwards in the upcoming season. Naturally, players presumed to be out for the year due to injury, such as Paul George, are not eligible for ranking. 

We’ll also look at what each player’s statistics could look like in 2014-15. Better statistics will help a player’s ranking, but stats don’t tell the whole story. A player’s defensive ability isn’t always accurately quantified by stats, and a player’s role within his team may skew his numbers one way or the other. 

And, to clarify, ESPN.com’s player profiles will have the final say on a player’s position. For example, Carmelo Anthony plays a lot of his minutes at the power forward position, but ESPN still lists him as a small forward. 

Which 3s will rule the NBA hardwood in 2014-15? Flip to the next slide to find out.

 

Honorable mentions: Luol Deng, Danilo Gallinari, Josh Smith, Jeff Green, Nick Young

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Begin Slideshow

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Going small leads to Rockets’ big finish against Blazers

When the Rockets needed to get something going offensively late in Sunday’s game, coach Kevin McHale decided to throw something different at Trail Blazers.

Much like he did early in the season, McHale looked to his guards.

Midway through the third quarter and throughout the rest of the game, McHale played guards Pat Beverley, Jeremy Lin and James Harden together with Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard.

The smaller lineup gave the Rockets the spark they needed en route to a 118-113 overtime win over Portland.

The Rockets trailed by as many 16 points in the game and were down 12 headed to the fourth quarter.

“We had a kind of malaise going,” McHale said. “It just didn’t seem like we could generate anything. So I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go small.’”

The tactic worked as the Rockets outscored the Trail Blazers 33-21 in the final quarter — Harden had 17 of those, and Lin had nine.

“I think it is nice to be at the point where we can diversify our lineups,” said Lin, who finished wit

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Dwight Howard Leaves Lakers Looking Small, but He’s Still Got Growing to Do

LOS ANGELES—As sad as this season has been for Los Angeles Lakers fans, here is the latest shame:

The silver lining in the great free agent’s epic departure was he would forevermore serve the role of villain for a franchise that sure knows how to make the most of its rivalries.

But when Dwight Howard makes his return against the Lakers at Staples Center on Wednesday night, he has every reason to smile.

Howard arrives on a seven-game winning streak, the longest going in the NBA today; the Lakers are riding a seven-game home losing streak for the first time in franchise history. The 36-17 Houston Rockets are carrying nearly the inverse record of the 18-35 Lakers.

As if the Lakers’ desperate “STAY D12” free-agent campaign wasn’t pathetic enough—has anyone ever not looked desperate when begging someone else to “stay” in a relationship?—the old, broken-down Lakers have now reached a new level of pathetic.

Perhaps the ill will toward Howard runs deep enough that Lakers fans might—might—actually want the Lakers to win Wednesday night. So determined are so many fans to avoid dealing with the current reality that the basic plan is to think drafting some college freshman over some college sophomore will give Kobe Bryant a chance at a championship next season.

The post-Lakers Howard didn’t generate enough votes to be a Western Conference All-Star starter, but he was good enough to be chosen by the coaches for the team.

And there is a clear sense that Howard actually hasn’t played his best basketball of the season yet considering he didn’t score much early in deference to James Harden and Howard’s 1.8 blocks per game this season would stand as his worst defensive output in eight years.

No, Howard has not been totally dominant, and maybe at 28 and after back surgery he is not ascending anymore as a physical marvel, but he has been plenty strong in Houston. There have not been any reports of serious friction or discord, even though there’s little doubt Harden isn’t the easiest partner for anyone.

Harden’s quotes from his All-Star media session do read as a bit curious: “We’re doing something special in Houston. It’s going to take some time, but people are starting to recognize now that me and Dwight are the leaders. … We’re just trying to make it work. Something’s got to give. So we work with each other to make it work—somehow, some way.”

This was Howard’s take from All-Star weekend on his new partnership, with an undercurrent of his usual immodesty: “It’s going great. We’re going to continue to get better. We’re still learning ways that we can make each other better. And once we do that, it’s going to be easier for the rest of the team.

“We talk a lot; we watch film together. And the second half of the season, we will be working out together, just me and him. So we’re looking forward to doing that kind of stuff. It’s been great. He’s getting better every day.”

The truth is that wherever Howard decided to go—even if he chose to re-sign with the Lakers—he was going to give a better overall effort there. He was going to be more invested in his new path after choosing it for himself, and that has been the case in Houston.

The gist of the issue has never been about how much Howard likes to joke or have fun—Nick Young has proved this season that you can do all that while showing undeniable passion for the team, same as Ron Artest/Metta World Peace did in his first years as a Laker. Howard’s flaw is not being able to see the world from others’ perspectives and appreciate those perspectives.

Howard’s total inability to make Bryant and Steve Nash feel like he respected how much they wanted to win the 2013 NBA championship undermined the entire premise on which last season’s Lakers group was built.

Howard having that blind spot about putting himself in other people’s shoes makes it absolutely fascinating that he’s as worried as he is about what other people’s eyes see from him.

What went into his decision to post an old photo to his Instagram account of himself dunking on Bryant and the Lakers right before seeing Bryant during All-Star weekend and facing the Lakers afterward? Most likely Howard was just oblivious and liked how defined his muscles looked in the photo.

What was up with Howard mocking Harden’s lack of patch honors on his All-Star jacket? That kind of thing is right in line with the sort of self-absorption and tone deafness that makes Howard a teammate you have to accept as opposed to a teammate who accepts you.

But any Harden-Howard implosion naturally won’t happen until Howard’s goes off his post-signing best behavior and expectations actually become unmet.

Overall, Howard has few stresses as he gets ready to face the Lakers on Wednesday night. This is how he likes it; the record clearly shows he prefers to take the easy way out.

Without Howard, the Lakers loved their early-season chemistry and did steal that one game in Houston in the second week of the season on Steve Blake’s last-second shot, but it has all gone bad for them since then.

Howard’s decision to leave Bryant and Nash has been validated by their inability to stay healthy in what was supposed to be a bounce-back season for both. All realistic hope for the near future rests with Howard.

Of course Howard defaults to the role of the bigger man now.

These days the Lakers could hardly feel smaller.

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Is Small Ball the Reason Behind Brooklyn Nets’ Turnaround?

Even after a rough loss to the Toronto Raptors last night, the Brooklyn Nets are 10-2 in the year 2014. While they’ve taken out some easy opponents like the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic, they’ve also knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks (twice) and Miami Heat in that span, so it’s not as though they’ve just been beating up on a weak portion of their schedule. 

Much of the coverage of their recent rise has focused on Brooklyn’s new-found small-ball identity (though The Brooklyn Game’s Devin Kharpertian rightly points out that it’s really more like long ball), and with good reason. The five-man unit of Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has started 10 of those 12 games, appeared in all 12, and in 111 minutes of floor time, outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to a per-possession scoring output that would rate as the best mark in the league, according to NBA.com

As Kharpertian pointed out, Brooklyn’s small lineup doesn’t exactly share many of the traits you usually associate with other teams’ small-ball lineups.

Quickness, especially in the form of increased pace, is one of the hallmarks of small lineups, but the Nets’ unit is playing at a glacially slow pace of 88.18 possessions per 48 minutes, which would rank as the slowest in the league. Brooklyn’s next most used lineup on the season (the original starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez) played more than eight possessions per 48 minutes faster. 

Teams also tend to go small to goose their offenseadding more perimeter-oriented players to the floor aids spacing and provides wider driving lanes as well as more room for shooters. But Brooklyn’s offensive output with the new starting lineup has actually been significantly lower than their season-long mark. Again, it’s the defense that’s taken off. Through January 1, the Nets had the second-worst defensive efficiency in the NBA. Since January 2, they’ve had the fourth-best mark. 

Because the primary lineup they’ve been using essentially features four wing playersLivingston, Anderson, Johnson and Piercealong with Garnett, the Nets have been able to seamlessly switch screens whenever they want, without leading to a true mismatch. Livingston is the only one of the four players who doesn’t have the requisite bulk to deal with larger players, and even he is able to make up for it with a massive wingspan. 

A switch like the one executed by Johnson and Anderson at the bottom of the screen here, one that doesn’t even have a direct impact on the play, is the type of thing that helps the Nets in multiple ways. For one, it doesn’t create a mismatch for the opposition. And second, not having to fight through every single screen saves energy.

Johnson is 32 years old with nearly 35,000 minutes under his legs. Pierce is 36 and has over 40,000 minutes on his odometer. Anderson is 31, and while Livingston is “only” 28, he’s also got a gruesome injury in his past, and saving him the trouble of fighting through everything no doubt eases the burden on his knee. 

A switch like this one is obviously more noticeable, but it accomplishes the same goals. Anderson and Pierce are spared the burden of fighting through the screen, and the Nets are able to force a miss by Salmons because Pierce seamlessly picks him up off the dribble and is able to stay with him every step of the way before he releases the jumper. Only Johnson’s poor box out allows the Raptors to score on the rebound. 

The freedom to switch when they want (as opposed to when their guards just can’t manage to fight through screens, like some other teams) has helped the Nets keep their opponents on the perimeter. Since January 2, their opponents have taken only 23.7 shots in the restricted area per game, third fewest in the league, per NBA.com. Their opponents have also made only 56.3 percent of those shots, also third best over that time span. 

Much of that low conversion rate can be attributed to Garnett, who has picked up his defense after a slow start to the season. Among the 82 players challenging at least four shots per game at the rim, Garnett has allowed opponents the 19th-lowest field-goal percentage, according to SportVU data released by the NBA and STATS LLC

On the season, Brooklyn’s opponents are making more shots per game in the restricted area with Garnett off the floor than they attempt with Garnett on the floor, despite him playing nearly half the game every night, per NBA.com

Maybe the biggest key for the Nets over this 12-game stretch, though, has been a new-found ability to force turnovers. Through January 1, only seven teams forced fewer turnovers as a percentage of their opponents’ possessions than Brooklyn did. Since January 2, though, only Atlanta has been able to do that better than the Nets, and the Nets’ rate would rank second in the league over the course of a full season, per NBA.com

All those turnovers have made up for the fact that the Nets have still been one of the most foul-prone teams in the league, even after the lineup switch. They were the fourth most foul-prone team prior to the new look, and they’ve been the fifth most foul-prone team since

By playing smaller, but putting their own spin on the usual trademarks of small-ball teams (i.e. playing slow rather than fast, using small ball to fuel the defense rather than the offense), the Nets have been able to forge a new identity in the wake of some injuries that originally looked as though they might wreck their season.

Nearly everyone thought the Nets would be able to craft a top-flight defense after trading for Garnett and Pierce, but nobody would have thought it’d come like this. 

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