Who will get the minutes? It’s a simple question that rarely has a simple answer.
Coaches are constantly tinkering and toying with their rotations. Sometimes it has to with injuries and in other instances, it’s a result of ineffective play from a certain player. The impact this has on minutes played and thus statistical production is where we come in.
Every Tuesday for the rest of the season, I’ll explore a certain aspect of half the league’s rotations while attempting to get inside coaches’ heads. The idea isn’t to tell you what Kevin Love and LeBron James are going to do -- it’s to decipher how much burn fringe players are going to get.
Here’s last week’s look at the East. Let’s kick this week off in Hollywood, where an all-time great is currently staving off a decline.
Position: Shooting guard
Obviously, there is no position battle here. The question is if Kobe Bryant can sustain his current usage.
For any mere mortal, the answer is an emphatic no. And even for Kobe, the safe bet is no. He is 33, is in his 16th NBA season and underwent offseason surgery on his right knee. He gets pregame injections in his right (shooting) wrist and no one knows how long his German experimental procedure will last. We’re all aware of the condensed schedule due to the lockout.
Still, coach Mike Brown is burning up Kobe. He’s playing 38.2 minutes per game, up from 33.9 a year ago. Kobe is taking 24.8 shots per game, the most he’s jacked since the 2005-06 season. He’s going to the foul line 8.1 times per game, his highest rate since the 2006-07 season. In other words, Kobe’s career arc and usage is bumping back up despite his age and physical issues. It’s just not sustainable. Look for some games off and a reduction in minutes out of pure necessity later in the season.
Position: Small forward
Nicolas Batum has to be among the most underutilized players in the NBA. His per-36 minute numbers this season are 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 treys, and 1.1 blocks. He’s also a plus defender.
Batum’s minutes are tied to Marcus Camby’s health. When Camby is out, LaMarcus Aldridge can kick to the center spot and Gerald Wallace can move up to power forward. Batum logged 41 minutes and then 32 minutes in two games that Camby missed last week.
Usually, it’s a poor strategy to hold a player while waiting for an injury. But in this case, it’s a strong play. Camby is injured so much -- he went down with a groin strain Monday night -- that Batum is going to get plenty of chances. His blocks/3-pointers combo is unique enough to hold.
Position: Sixth man
Mo Williams has proven that he is a fantasy must-start anytime Chris Paul (hamstring) is out. In the last three games, Williams is averaging 25.6 points, 3.6 assists, 2.6 3-pointers and 1.3 steals in 31.0 minutes per game. Paul appears headed for a game-time call on Wednesday.
It’s another story, however, when Williams, Paul, Chauncey Billups and Randy Foye are all healthy. When that has been the case this season, Williams is averaging just 23.8 minutes per game. Barring a trade, Williams will just be a roster stash/deep-league option once Paul gets back in action. Williams is a plus-NBA player, but there just aren’t enough minutes to go around.
Position: Power forward
I was right about Marreese Speights coming to Memphis and immediately running away with the starting job. Speights has started eight straight games and averaged 24.0 minutes per. The problem is that he’s a jump-shooting big that doesn’t block. For a fringe talent, that’s really hard to succeed with.
Speights is averaging just 8.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 0.3 blocks while shooting 43.9 percent. He’ll get hot with his jumper every five games or so, but that’s not enough to trust on a nightly basis. We can move on, especially with Zach Randolph (knee) due back in a few weeks.
Position: Power forward
Despite the mess at the “four,” Emeka Okafor has held solid at the “five.” He’s started all 17 games and played at least 25 minutes in 13 of those. That leaves precious few minutes to split up between starter Jason Smith, Chris Kaman, Carl Landry and even Gustavo Ayon.
Smith is not a starting-caliber NBA talent, but he’s an energy guy that brings it every night. When Kaman gets going, he’s among the better raw scorers for 7-footers in the league. And Landry has shown an ability to be among the better sixth men around when given an opportunity. So, the only thing that makes sense for coach Monty Williams here is simple game flow.
Whoever gets hot is going to stay on the floor. That’s led to wildly unpredictable minutes between all four of his power forwards on a night-to-night basis. It’s a headache fantasy owners should simply avoid.
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Position: Point guard
Devin Harris’ fall from grace is ugly and confusing. He was a bona fide All-Star for the Nets in 2008-09, averaging 21.3 points, 6.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. Now, just three years later, Harris is in a position battle with journeyman Earl Watson.
Over the last five games, Harris is averaging 7.0 points and 4.4 assists in 24.2 minutes. During that same span, Watson is averaging 5.2 points and 6.0 assists in 22.6 minutes. The main reason is that Harris is a scoring point guard that has lost all confidence in his ability to score.
The Jazz have now reportedly “made it known” that Harris is available in a trade. They have no long-term commitment to him and therefore no reason to play someone that doesn’t give them the best chance to win. Deep-leaguers can roster Watson as a timeshare emerges.
Position: Small forward
John Salmons has started 17 games for the Kings this year. He’s averaging 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 34.5 percent shooting. The team is 6-11 in those games. Something has to give.
Coach Keith Smart made an interesting move on Monday night, starting Donte Greene at small forward thanks to Marcus Thornton’s thigh injury. I don’t think that will stick. Greene has been with the Kings for four years now and has never averaged more than 21.5 minutes in a season. He’s started 76 career games, but averaged just 9.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and shot 41.0 percent in those chances. Terrible production for a guy that stands 6’11.
There’s also no reason to think the Kings will roll with Francisco Garcia as a starter. Now 30, Garcia has had countless opportunities on bad Kings teams to establish himself as a must-start player for the franchise. He’s never been able to do it.
So where does that leave us? Perhaps Tyreke Evans at the “three” is the answer. Maybe Smart will eventually roll with a lineup of playmaking rookie point guard Isaiah Thomas, Thornton, Evans, Chuck Hayes and DeMarcus Cousins. Salmons, Garcia, Jimmer Fredette and Greene would all be bench players. It’s food for thought -- note that Thomas has played 20 minutes or more in six of his last eight games.
The injuries to Dirk Nowitzki (knee, rest) and Vince Carter (foot) have made a mess of this rotation. Once they both get healthy, guys like Lamar Odom and Delonte West will go back to really weak fantasy plays. But the epic battle between Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi will rage on.
Over the last five games, Haywood is averaging 5.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 24.6 minutes. Mahinmi is at 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 22.4 minutes. While Mahinmi is clearly the more explosive player, he’s still really raw at age 25. Coach Rick Carlisle isn’t just going to demote a veteran like Haywood that has been with the Mavs for three years.
The best play for fantasy owners is just to ignore the intermittent tantalizing lines Mahinmi puts up off the bench. This is a true timeshare that isn’t going anywhere.