NBA Position Battles: Which Bigs Should be Starting for These Eastern Conference Squads?
Last week, we took a look at three young teams with decisions to make in the backcourt. Each of them have a player coming back from injury, and each need to act in the best interest of a promising future, rather than the present.
Today, in the pursuit of fairness, we're going to look at three frontlines experiencing their own kinds of crowding. One has four players deserving of minutes at two positions, another three and another with two looking to lock down the starting power forward spot. For two of the teams, the future is of some concern, but for the other, not so much -- the future is now.
There are admittedly many factors to consider for both the long term and the here and now, but it's safe to say that the numbers are key. They show us the areas in which these players effective and ineffective -- in addition to things like chemistry and style of play.
Primarily using lineup data and on/off splits from NBA.com, let's uncover which combinations have been most effective and most worthy of a starting gig?
For the Miami Heat, we know that Hassan Whiteside is the primary focus down low. Per Spotrac, his nearly $23.8 million cap hit is -- by far -- the largest on the team and constitutes 23.3% of the team's cap. When healthy, he's going to start over Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo -- and rightfully so. Despite missing 18 games and being limited to 25.8 minutes a game, the seven-footer's 19.5 points, 16.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes lead all Heat players this season. And, believe it or not, that's actually an improvement on last year's production. In 77 games and 32.6 minutes a year ago, Whiteside put up 18.8 points, 15.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on a 36-minute basis.
Individually, Whiteside is the only Miami player capable of this type of elite production. But the advanced numbers bear out his importance, too. Although the Heat are a net -0.5 with him on the floor, they're a -1.4 without the presence of Whiteside and his team-leading .197 win shares per 48. Olynyk and Adebayo -- the other two players with center experience -- own on-court ratings of +0.6 and -5.4, respectively, with the Heat losing ground with Olynyk off and gaining it with Adebayo on the sideline.
Even with Olynyk's effectiveness, Whiteside is going to start at center when he's healthy, but that doesn't mean Olynyk can't stretch the floor from the four-spot. According to Basketball Reference, he's actually played 33% of his minutes at power forward. Has he been good alongside Whiteside, though? Or has Adebayo or James Johnson been a better fit at power forward?
|Lineup||Minutes||Off Rating||Def Rating||Net Rating|
By the numbers, Olynyk hasn't been a very good complement to Whiteside. You'd expect his three-point shooting (1.3 makes per game) to open up the paint for Whiteside, but their lack of defensive versatility appears to limit their overall effectiveness. Both Adebayo and Johnson combine to form a good defensive presence, but Johnson brings more offense than Adebayo -- although, Adebayo's numbers have come in a limited sample size.
Coach Erik Spoelstra likes to bring Johnson off the bench, but of the players with a good sample size, the numbers say he should be playing the most with Whiteside. And, in case you thought that would limit what the second team does, think again. Together, Adebayo and Olynyk are a positive, with Johnson and Olynyk pushing the Heat to a net of +2.8 in more than 400 minutes this season. It would be smart to mix Adebayo with Whiteside and Johnson with Olynyk as the game progresses. It should keep the Heat ahead or in the game so long as the backcourt holds up its half of the deal.
The Indiana Pacers are in a similar situation as the Heat. They might not have a promising rookie or four players competing for two spots, but they do have three guys for two spots, including two up-and-coming players in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis .
Over 36 minutes, Turner and Sabonis have actually had similar numbers. While Turner averages 17.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, Sabonis -- who was acquired in the Paul George trade -- has put up 18.2 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists over that same span of playing time. Turner's the better inside presence on defense, but Sabonis has the edge with his passing skills and ability to board.
A further look tells us that, if it comes down to Turner or Sabonis, Turner's still the better player despite dealing with injury after injury this season. His net rating of +3.0 is superior to Sabonis' +0.8, with Turner helping the team to a slightly better defensive rating as well as an offensive rating 2.0 points better over 100 possessions. In fact, with Sabonis off, the Pacers have had an overall better offense with the defense giving up more than a point with Turner's shot-blocking on the bench. At center, Turner's starting spot is safe.
At power forward, today's NBA would tell you that two 6'11" guys can't start side-by-side, so Thaddeus Young would be the obvious choice, as he has been. Lineup data doesn't tell us anything different. either. In 736 minutes, the Young/Turner combination has been better than their opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, Sabonis and Turner are a -0.9 and see a substantial drop off offensively, though their passing and rebounding percentages are higher.
Indiana coach Nate McMillan can stick to what he's been doing. After all, the Pacers have exceeded expectations to this point.
The streaking Heat and over-performing Pacers are fourth and eighth, respectively, in the East. As for the Boston Celtics, they're right where a lot of people expected them to be. It's surprising that they're doing what they are without Gordon Hayward, but at 34-10, coach Brad Stevens' crew is first in the East, with a three-game lead on the Toronto Raptors and a seven-game advantage over the slumping Cleveland Cavaliers.
All in all, you know what you're getting from the Celtics. They're set at four of their positions (including Al Horford at center), but the power forward slot is getting interesting. Play-by-play has Horford as the power forward with Aron Baynes playing 100% of his minutes at center -- and that makes sense -- but the decision here is between Baynes and Marcus Morris.
With Morris heading into the year with a knee issue, Baynes has been called upon to make 32 starts and play an average of 18.4 minutes (19 in starts) per game through 44 contests. Lately, though, Morris has played in more games, seen an increase in minutes and started when he has played. Should Morris be the permanent starter when healthy?
While Baynes has averaged a double-double -- 11.7 points and 10.4 rebounds -- per-36 minutes, Morris is contributing 17.6 points (second on the team) and 8.0 rebounds per-36, along with two three-pointers on 35.4% shooting from deep. Alongside Horford, both have been effective. Over 437 minutes, Baynes and Horford are a net +15.3, with the Morris/Horford combo at a +9.5 net rating in nearly 200 fewer minutes this season. It's almost needless to say, but the Baynes lineup is better defensively, and the Morris lineup is far better on the offensive end.
For rotational purposes, there's really no way for Boston to go wrong. Morris has a net rating of at least +9.5 with both Baynes and Horford. Playing style might lead to more starts and minutes for Morris, but it wouldn't be surprising if the Celtics opted to play the matchups throughout the remainder of the season. It's worked out so far.