Adam Levitan

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On the Defensive

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

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 West. Let’s kick this week off in Toronto, where a defensive stopper is earning trust.

Position: Small forward
The eventual return of Andrea Bargnani (calf) is going to really cramp things for a lot of people here. Bargnani was emerging as one of the better players in the league and will push for 35-37 minutes once 100 percent.

However, James Johnson is one player that should be safe. Since getting promoted into the starting five on Jan. 18, Johnson has started 19 straight games. During two of those games, Bargnani was active -- yet Johnson still played 36.9 minutes per night.

Coach Dwane Casey loves defense, loves guys that work hard and therefore loves Johnson. He recently said Johnson was “close” to becoming a part of his core.

“He’s getting there. He has developed more trust,” Casey said. “The first part of the year he was trying to discover America with the ball, but he has done a much better job of simplifying his game and playing much more under control.”

Over those last 19 games, Johnson is playing 27.1 minutes. That’s a sustainable number, and so are the 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals that come with it.

Position: Center
Am I crazy, or are the 4-28 Bobcats about to have a pretty talented roster now that they‘re healthy? D.J. Augustin, Gerald Henderson, Corey Maggette, Boris Diaw and Bismack Biyombo are all very legit NBA players. A bench that includes Kemba Walker, Reggie Williams, Byron Mullens and Tyrus Thomas isn’t too shabby either.

When we see a depth chart that has 8-9 players with similar talent levels, it usually spells trouble. Since shifting to a reserve role three games ago, Walker has averaged 28.2 minutes per game. Now that Henderson (groin) is back, there’s an even tighter short-term ceiling on the explosive rookie. Williams was getting 31.0 minutes per game as a starter. He’s going to dip to 20. Thomas isn’t good at basketball and coach Paul Silas said as much, meaning he’ll need a trade to regain any upside.

The point is that the backcourt and wing spots are suddenly very crowded. The center spot, however, is wide open. Biyombo has started nine straight games, averaging 26.8 minutes during that span. The Bobcats’ sudden health won’t affect his position and Silas is on the record saying part of his job in the second half is to develop the young talent. No one needs game experience more than the ridiculously raw Biyombo. Those 2.3 blocks and 8.0 boards over the last nine are here to stay.

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Position: Power forward
The question marks here aren’t really question marks. Andrew Bogut (ankle) is out at least another month and probably more. Stephen Jackson is a strong bet to get traded by March 15 and is unusable in the meantime. Drew Gooden is going to play through his wrist injury a la Kobe Bryant and Luol Deng.

And slowly but surely, we’re getting one less question mark. Ersanity has taken over. First of all, we need to look at Ersan Ilyasova’s talent level. His per-36 extrapolations this season are 14.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 0.9 3-pointers. That’s bordering on something special for the 24-year-old Turkish product, and coach Scott Skiles knows it.

Over the last 12 games, Ilyasova is earning 30.3 minutes per game. That’s the key with Skiles -- you have to earn it every night on the court, or you’re coming out. Ilyasova has the talent to sustain Skiles’ trust and thus hover around the 30-minute mark the rest of the way.

Position: Center
In the final game before the break, Semih Erden was benched due a lack of effort. Coach Byron Scott admitted that he was thinking about tweaking his starting five, leading to speculation that Tristan Thompson could finally get his break. Nope.

Erden will start at center in Tuesday’s game against the Celtics, but the situation will be evaluated on a game-to-game basis.

At some point before Anderson Varejao (wrist) returns, Scott is going to have to make a move. Even if Thompson doesn’t start, he’s earned significant burn. Check out these numbers for the No. 4 overall pick since Varejao went down: 6.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 21.6 minutes. Thompson can’t be trusted to top 20-24 minutes yet, but he’s a stash with upside while we wait for Erden and Ryan Hollins to officially faceplant.  

Bonus: Shooting guard
Anthony Parker (back) is healthy and back in the starting five, meaning we can safely move on from Daniel Gibson. In 16 games off the bench this year, Boobie is playing just 24.5 minutes and getting 7.1 points per night.

Position: Center
The Celtics went into the All-Star break at 15-17. No changes in terms of rotation or deadline moves can be ruled out.

The most obvious move is at center, where Chris Wilcox’s per-minute production has been far greater than Jermaine O’Neal’s. In four starts this year, Wilcox is averaging 11.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. O’Neal is at 5.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his 24 starts.

Making a switch would allow O’Neal to preserve his body off the bench while also keeping Brandon Bass (knee, day-to-day) in a position to spell both big man spots for heavy minutes. If Wilcox (abductor, day-to-day) can get healthy, it’s a situation for deep leaguers to monitor. The Celtics can’t afford to stand pat, even if coach Doc Rivers loves to rely on declining veterans like O’Neal.

Update: O’Neal is visiting a wrist specialist in Boston Tuesday. This could be more than a simple sprain.

Position: Point guard
The Hawks seem likely to make a trade at the March 15 deadline. They have Kirk Hinrich’s expiring contract and an allegedly disgruntled Marvin Williams to dangle. A big man should be the target -- Zaza Pachulia is logging 30.6 minutes per game over the last 12 and the Hawks are 4-8 over that span.

A Hinrich trade would certainly be a boost to Jeff Teague. In the first 18 games of the year, Teague averaged 35.0 minutes per game. Since Hinrich debuted, he’s topped 30 minutes in just three of 16 games.

Still, it’s not just the minutes that should have Teague owners concerned. He’s started at point guard and played 28.1 minutes over the last 12 games, yet is averaging just 2.8 assists during that span. It’s a sign that there isn’t special talent here.

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Adam Levitan is in his sixth season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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