When evaluating the prospects of NBA teams, the focus is so often on their top-end talent. Rightly so, considering the impossibility of winning without it. But another often overlooked variable is the number of actively bad players getting rotation minutes.
With the rise of plus/minus based metrics, we can see more than ever the impact of subpar players on good teams’ bottom lines. For squads with rotational black holes like these, the addition of even a competent NBA rotation player can have an enormous stabilizing effect.
Keep in mind that you won’t see a team like, say, Cleveland on this list. They really need a starting big who can protect the rim, and that’s a much bigger piece than we are talking about here. The idea here is teams that could make a minor deal and improve by adding a competent cog to keep replacement-level players out of the lineup.
Chicago Bulls Wing
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has taken his share of heat for extending his players for too many regular season minutes. The last two years’ poster child for the Thibs meat grinder is Jimmy Butler, who leads the league in minutes per game at 40.1 and routinely logs 43 minutes or more in the course of playing entire second halves. The criticisms of Butler’s minutes have merit, both in the short-term (he can look exhausted in the fourth quarter) and the long-term, as he may get worn down by the end of the season.*
However, Thibodeau would feel much better about sitting Butler if the Bulls could find a competent third wing. Tony Snell has failed in that role and is now all but out of the rotation after failing to score a point in December. Kirk Hinrich is a player beloved by his coaches, and the little things he does like ball denials, defensive execution and running the offense have value. However, his 47.8 True Shooting Percentage and 35 percent field goal shooting on twos have a lot more negative value. He is barely a rotation player at this point, especially not at shooting guard where his inability to create leads to precious time bleeding off the shot clock whenever he receives the ball in the clutch. The Bulls have taken to playing E’Twaun Moore in Hinrich’s absence with a hamstring injury, and while he is a bit more confident creating off the dribble, his numbers overall are as ugly as Hinrich’s.
Miami HEAT Big
Despite the fact it did not impress LeBron James, the signing of Josh McRoberts in the offseason was an excellent value since they landed him on a four-year contract worth $22.6 million. And when McRoberts has played, he has been exactly what the HEAT need. Sadly for Miami, he effectively missed the first couple weeks with toe issues and is now out for the season after a meniscus repair. That leaves the big rotation behind Chris Bosh as Shawne Williams, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, Hassan Whiteside and Justin Hamilton. Andersen is effective, but can only reliably play about 20 minutes per game at age 36. Haslem still executes on D, but can’t protect the rim and Miami couldn’t score with him on the floor even when it had James. Williams has a surprising 61.1 True Shooting Percentage, but the HEAT can’t really hope to stop anyone with both he and Bosh on the floor. Whiteside is unproven, while Hamilton has proven himself as more of an end-of-the-bench quality player. If Miami is to maintain a playoff spot, it will need a better performance out of the non-Bosh bigs, especially on defense.
Clippers Backup Point Guard
Oh, you thought it was going to be a wing? Yes, they absolutely could use another one. Maybe they can trade another first-round pick to get back Jared Dudley, who has been excellent as a bench wing and small-ball four for Milwaukee. Snark aside, it must be noted that Los Angeles’ righting of the ship after an early-season swoon has coincided with the revival of Matt Barnes, who now has a 59.9 True Shooting Percentage while taking 56 percent of his shots from downtown.*
Instead, the bigger problem has been backup point guard. While Doc Rivers surely hopes to reduce 29-year-old Chris Paul’s minutes, the Clippers have been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. Jordan Farmar, who was signed to replace Darren Collison with the Bi-Annual Exception, has been a disappointment. While he has made standstill threes at a decent rate, he has been completely unable to create for others. Overall, he has managed a mere 8.4 PER. Farmar has missed significant time with hamstring issues that have plagued him much of his career, and is a good bet to miss more time this year given his history. Behind him, unproven Jared Cunningham has a 5.6 PER and 42.0 True Shooting Percentage in limited minutes. He has not shown he is much of a distributor even if he can get his own offense going.
With the Clippers precariously near the apron, few expendable trade assets on the roster and major problems trading future first-rounders (they already owe one to the Celtics for Doc Rivers and one to the Bucks for dumping Dudley over the summer), they may just have to hope Farmar returns to the form he flashed last year for the Lakers.
Mavs Backup Big
The Mavericks’ loss of Brandan Wright in the Rajon Rondo deal was a major one. Sans Wright, the Mavs are relying on Greg Smith and Charlie Villanueva behind Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. Dallas has been totally unable to score with Smith on the floor. His floor-bound game as a beefy, undersized center has not provided the same threat as Wright’s alley-oop finishing for the second unit. All told, the Mavs have been outscored by 4.3 points/100 in his court time, which is telling for a team with a positive 7.3 net rating. Villanueva has shot well, but provides little resistance on defense even at his natural power forward slot.
Incidentally, for those who have blamed Rondo for the Mavs’ perceived poor performance since the trade, note that the Mavs are outscoring teams by 10.7 points/100 with him on the court. The loss of Wright has hurt, but that isn’t Rondo’s fault. While the tables may turn, to this point it’s hard to say the team is performing poorly because of Rondo. Dallas has been linked to some free agent centers, such as Jermaine O’Neal, who may be able to help.
New Orleans Pelicans Smalls
Pelicans smalls might be the worst position group in the entire league among potential playoff contenders. Check out this list of luminaries: John Salmons, Luke Babbitt, Jimmer Fredette, Dante Cunningham and Austin Rivers. The Pelicans are now playing Cunningham the most of that group at the three; although he is a natural power forward, he is still better on the wing than the rest. Even if Eric Gordon comes back in relatively short order, there will still be a massive need on the wing and at backup point guard.
Like the Clippers, New Orleans has few tradeable assets after trading away what will likely be three consecutive first-rounders (two for Jrue Holiday and one for Omer Asik). With wings in short supply around the league, they likely do not have the assets to pick up a starter-level player at the three. But with the Knicks’ season continuing its descent into the maelstrom, Jose Calderon might be available as Phil Jackson turns to using his 2015 cap space and (potentially) maximizing his 2015 draft pick. Calderon would be a great fit for the Pelicans as a competent backup point guard who shoots the lights out and can pass (a skill in short supply in New Orleans). Calderon can also play with Jrue Holiday, who would guard twos and help alleviate the lack of decent wings. The downside of Calderon is his contract, which runs for another two seasons after this one at an average of $7.5 million per year. However, New Orleans has little chance of cap space in those years and his deal would not be immovable if needed as it nears its conclusion.
Would the Knicks be willing to offload Calderon for, say, a second-round pick, Rivers, Salmons and any other flotsam totaling only the minimum 66.7 percent of Calderon’s salary (and whomever else New York might want to trade), reducing their luxury tax bill in the process? It is difficult to imagine another team topping that offer, since Calderon’s contract and age probably make him a slightly negative asset. But for a front office under pressure with little way to improve, taking on Calderon makes sense.
Teams can sign free agents until the end of the regular season and make trades until the deadline on Feb. 19.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.