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Which Teams Need to Upgrade Their Rotation?

Which teams are being dragged down by dead weight? Nate Duncan examines some teams that need a change.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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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.*

*It should be noted that no study that I am aware of in the public domain has truly shown that players’ performance declines with more minutes. The theory makes intuitive sense, and it may well be true, but we should be wary of treating it as gospel until it is actually proven.

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.*

*It’s amazing how much a good or bad few weeks at the start of the season can skew our perception of players. So often we assume when a player starts a season hot or cold that the intervening offseason has caused this “new” level of performance. So it was with Barnes, who started the year cold and torpedoed the Clips’ offense as teams helped off him with impunity. That has not been the case since the first few weeks of the year.

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.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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