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 do with injuries and in other instances, it’s a result of ineffective play or outstanding 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 some of the league’s most interesting rotations while attempting to get inside coaches’ heads. The idea isn’t to tell you what LeBron James and Kevin Durant are going to do – it’s to decipher how much burn fringe players are going to get.
Last week, we hit the East. This week, the focus is on the Western Conference. We’ll start in Utah, where a young big continues to press his head against a ceiling.
Position: Power forward
Last week, I led this column with an extremely athletic, efficient and springy power forward that isn’t getting enough minutes. That description of Pistons’ beast Andre Drummond also applies to Utah’s Derrick Favors.
The biggest difference between the two is that while Drummond is a 19-year-old rookie, Favors is relative “veteran” in his third NBA season. The signs of progress are there. This season, Favors has posted career-highs in points (9.0), free-throw percentage (69.3), free-throw attempts (3.5), blocks (1.5) and steals (0.9) -- even though his minutes have essentially been the same in each of last three seasons.
It’s key to take into account the organizational differences between Favors and Drummond. Favors is on a playoff-contending team and has two legit All-Stars (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap) in front of him. The “three-big” lineup has been tried and been scrapped. We can safely say that if Big Al and The Sapper are in Utah, Favors will be left with his standard 21.6 minutes. But what if they aren’t?
Both Jefferson and Millsap are in the final year of their respective contracts. It would make a ton of sense for the Jazz to sign one of them and trade the other for assets. Here is ESPN Insider Chad Ford on the situation as we begin preparations for the Feb. 21 trade deadline: “Virtually every GM in the league believes the Jazz are moving one of their two big men." Ford suspects it will be Jefferson.
It makes it even easier for the Jazz to trade Big Al knowing they have Favors – and to a lesser extent, Turkish prospect Enes Kanter. Here are Favors’ per-36 minute projections this season: 15.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.5 steals. After the trade deadline there’s a good chance he’ll be pushing for 30-33 minutes nightly. Stash him.
Position: Small forward
It would be a mistake to brush Al-Farouq Aminu’s recent play off as a flash in the pan for a few reasons.
A) Aminu is a more talented player than people give him credit for. The 2010 No. 8 overall pick just turned 22 in September. He’s still growing into his NBA game.
B) His backup is Lance Thomas.
C) Coach Monty Williams isn’t brushing it off.
Back in late-December, Williams sat Aminu down for four games – four straight DNP-CDs.
"It wasn't a punishment,” Williams said. “We weren't getting the production from that spot. So you try to find somebody else who can, knowing that Al-Farouq is the guy we want to do it, and can do it. We don't have a doghouse. I just felt like he had to sit for a while to do some soul-searching and understand what I wanted from him at that position."
Aminu took the lesson to heart. Since rejoining the rotation 10 games ago, he’s averaging 9.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks while playing 30.9 minutes per game. He’s the kind of glue guy that wins owners fantasy championships.
Position: Shooting guard
Marcus Thornton is stuck in a tough place. He’s a pure streak shooter locked in as a reserve behind Tyreke Evans. Coach Keith Smart is on the record saying he wants to “tighten” his expansive rotation – implying that studs like Evans and DeMarcus Cousins will be getting heavier burn. All this is going to lead to some serious inconsistency out of Thornton.
Over the last seven games, Thornton has played 10 minutes or less three times. He’s played 26 minutes or more twice. And been between 19 and 21 minutes twice. It’s just wild unpredictably based on how hot Thornton’s hand is on a given night. It’s no way to build a rotation or give players confidence – but Smart has never been accused of being a brilliant coach.
Meanwhile, Evans is averaging 31.4 minutes since rejoining the starting lineup five games ago. I wouldn’t blame anyone in shallower formats from moving on from Thornton.
Position: Power forward
Well, at least coach Mike D’Antoni is clear. He wants to play small, and he’s not going to let anyone stand in his way. Perennial All-Star Pau Gasol will come off the bench behind Earl Clark for the foreseeable future.
“He's going to come in off the bench at the five primarily and if we can sneak some minutes in with (Gasol and Dwight Howard) both together, good. If we can't, we can't. But, we just have to do that as a team,” D’Antoni said Monday night.
To be clear, Dwight Howard plays 35.6 minutes per game and is the key to the Lakers’ crumbling defense. He’s not going to see his minutes reduced. So D’Antoni is essentially saying that Gasol is going to be a bit player, a backup to Howard that will be lucky to get more than 25 minutes a night.
“Right now, we're better when we're small," D'Antoni said. "So, it's hard during a game to say, 'OK, now we're better when we're big.' It's hard to do that. You have to have an identity.”
To me, this makes Gasol a prime candidate to be traded by the deadline – if not sooner. He doesn’t want to come off the bench and the Lakers are wasting a premier asset. Owners can try to sell Gasol if their opponents haven’t followed this sage – but don’t sell too low when a real-life trade would yield big dividends.
OK, so what about Earl Clark? Well, his averages as a starter are 9.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.8 blocks. It’s hard to expect much more as the fifth option in the starting lineup.
Eyebrows were raised on Sunday when Elton Brand – not Chris Kaman – started the second half at center. And they should be.
Coach Rick Carlisle has admitted that he’s considered making the switch to start games also. Although Brand can no long jump, get his own shots or do anything athletic, he’s still an excellent post defender. And when you have defensive liability Dirk Nowitzki starting at power forward, you need a complement.
Even if Brand doesn’t steal that starting gig from Kaman, it’s clear he’s firmly in the good graces of Carlisle. Over his last five games (all off the bench), he’s averaging 26.8 minutes. That’s led to 13.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 0.6 steals. It’s a reasonable expectation going forward.
I was pretty high on JaVale McGee in the preseason. I thought it would be insane for the Nuggets to give McGee a four-year, $44 million contract if coach George Karl wasn’t going to be completely on board with everything that comes with this kid.
Well, we’re 43 games into the year and Karl isn’t on board. McGee is averaging just 18.9 minutes per game and things aren’t getting any better. Over the last seven games, he is averaging just 17.1 minutes.
"He's got to understand that lazy and crazy isn't going to make it work," Karl told the Denver Post. "We want solid and we want fundamental, and we want spectacular but only when it happens, not forcing the action where sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't."
The Nuggets’ front office, headed by GM Masai Ujiri, isn’t putting any pressure on Karl and preaching “patience” with their investment. They still think they have a star on their hands – eventually. But this season? It’s the Kosta Koufos show. While McGee’s minutes have wanted, Koufos’ are actually on the rise:
Koufos November minutes: 20.7
Koufos December minutes: 24.0
Koufos January minutes: 25.0
Simultaneously, the Nuggets are playing better ball. They’re 7-2 in their last nine games – including Saturday’s impressive win over the Thunder. So what’s our ceiling for McGee?
"I think right now we'd like to get him to be a 25-minute per game player. And I think that's feasible,” Karl said.
So there you have it. For their $44 million, the Nuggets are hoping to squeeze out 25 minutes off the bench. The more likely scenario has things remaining status quo: 17-19 minutes for McGee vs. 24-26 for the underrated Koufos. No need to bang our preseason projections against the wall – things aren’t changing.
Position: Point guard
I’m a little confused by all the hand-wringing over Jeremy Lin. Let’s take a step back for one minute and forget that wildly terrific one-month span from last season when Lin captivated the minds of the world. We need to accept the notion that Lin is just an average NBA player.
Spontaneous coach Kevin McHale knows this, which is at least partially why Lin was benched to start the second half on Saturday and played just 24 minutes on Monday. But no one can complain about the opportunity McHale has given Lin. He’s started every game this year and is averaging a very healthy 33.2 minutes. Lin can only blame himself that he’s turned that into a mere 12.2/6.1/3.9 line.
Owners shouldn’t be worried. Lin’s backups are Patrick Beverley/Toney Douglas. The minutes will be there.
Position: Point guard
The widely held assumption is that Alvin Gentry’s firing is good news for Goran Dragic. I wouldn’t be so sure.
As beat writer Paul Coro notes in this excellent breakdown of how the change affects the roster, Dragic “chose to return to Phoenix mainly because of Gentry.” Meanwhile, new coach Lindsay Hunter – the former player-development coordinator – apparently likes first-round rookie Kendall Marshall. Coro says Marshall “might get playing time Gentry didn’t offer.”
So even if Hunter choose to dump Sebastian Telfair, Marshall will be right there. Dragic is a poor bet to get a bump on his current 32.2 minutes.