Phan: 5 NBA Position Battles to Watch

Phan: 5 NBA Position Battles to Watch article feature image

Photos via USAToday Sports. Pictured: Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball

  • With NBA training camps starting and the beginning of preseason just a few days away, position battles are starting to heat up around the league.
  • In this piece I break down five situations I'll be monitoring this season, including Rajon Rondo vs. Lonzo Ball and P.J. Tucker vs. Carmelo Anthony.

With NBA training camps tipping off and the beginning of preseason just a few days away, position battles are starting to heat up around the league. Here’s a look at five of the biggest ones we’ll be keeping an eye on.

Hawks PG: Jeremy Lin vs. Trae Young

The Hawks are fully expected to hand the keys over to Young this season, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen from the outset. Lin is expected to participate in training camp and has been fully cleared after missing all but one game last season due to a ruptured patellar tendon.

Regardless of who starts, expect Lin and Young to play significant minutes together. Lin has plenty of experience playing off guard, logging 63% of his minutes there during the 2015-16 season, per Cleaning the Glass.

It’s worth noting that Lin’s per-minute stats have fallen off significantly when playing at the 2. Despite being a career 35% shooter from beyond the arc, he’s struggled in spot-up situations. From 2015-17, he ranked in the 35th percentile in those play types with an effective field goal rate of just 44.6%.

The early returns from Young haven’t been great either, as he had a bad habit of standing and watching when the ball wasn’t in his hands during Summer League. According to Synergy Sports, just 3.7% of Young’s offensive plays in college came off cuts or off ball screens. That number barely budged during Summer League (4.9%).

This seems like Lin’s job to lose initially, and considering Young’s summer struggles, it makes sense to ease him in initially and let him gain some confidence playing against second units.

Rockets PF: P.J. Tucker vs. Carmelo Anthony

Put two and two together and it appears that the writing is already on the wall. Head coach Mike D’Antoni may have gone slightly overboard with his praise of Tucker, but his point stands — Tucker is far more valuable to the Rockets than Melo could ever be, especially when you consider the offseason departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.

The Rockets defense ranked ninth in efficiency (104.8) over the first 52 games of last season. Over the final 30 games when Tucker became a starter, Houston improved to third (101.9) in that category. Tucker’s presence also improved the Rockets offense, as Houston was regularly able to play him at center in lineups that maximized its spacing.

Aside from D’Antoni’s effusive praise of Tucker, Daryl Morey has talked about Melo’s value as an isolation scorer with all the switches opposing defenses make these days. Bringing Melo off the bench would maximize his ability in that respect, as he wouldn’t be sharing the floor as much with James Harden and Chris Paul. And pairing him with James Ennis is also in line with what D’Antoni has said about having a plan in place to maximize his impact.

The Rockets torched opposing defenses when Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon were on the court together last season to the tune of 134.7 (!!) points per 100 possessions. It was their third-most effective three-man combination (min. 140 minutes) with a +28.9 Net Rating. Look for D’Antoni to continue to stagger their minutes to keep at least two of them on the floor as much as possible.

Lakers PG: Rajon Rondo vs. Lonzo Ball

Ball continues to work his way back from the left knee scope he had in July, and even though he’s been medically cleared, he’s still being eased into contact drills and 5-on-5 work. Whether Ball is initially able to win the starting job appears to be entirely tied to his health and how quickly he’s able to progress over the next week or two.

The Lakers don’t seem to be in any particular rush here, and Rondo has said he’s happy to play whatever role Luke Walton asks of him. This is a position battle that will more than likely carry over well into the regular season and could force Walton to make some tough decisions.

It’s reasonable to expect that Ball will struggle out of the gate considering he’s just getting back to 100% and heads into the season without the benefit of a full camp. Eight of the Lakers’ first 11 games are against playoff teams from last season, but what happens if Rondo wins the starting job, plays well and the Lakers perform better than expected? How will Walton balance Ball’s development with winning now, particularly if he’s struggling?

This is the can of worms that signing Rondo this summer had the potential to open, and it’s now become a legitimate concern with Ball starting behind the eight ball due to injury.

Suns PG: Shaq Harrison vs. Elie Okobo vs. Isaiah Canaan vs. De’Anthony Melton

From “5 NBA Media Day Takeaways: Fast Hornets, Point Booker, More“:

“Between talk of Josh Jackson’s defensive versatility allowing him to play the 2 and how playing TJ Warren at the 4 would give the Suns four ballhandlers, Igor Kokoskov dropped all sorts of hints that Devin Booker will see a lot of time at the point this season. And it makes sense given they’re down to just Shaq Harrison, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton and Isaiah Canaan after trading Brandon Knight.

Kokoskov said it will be an open competition at training camp for the starting job, though it’s hard to see Okobo and Melton cracking the starting five right away given their inexperience. Harrison appears to be the front-runner for now with Canaan still recovering from a gruesome ankle injury.

Though we got only small doses of Point Booker last season, it’s worth noting that the Suns had a far better Net Rating with Booker at the point, and he was generally more productive as well.

With the Suns’ logjam at both forward spots, it makes far too much sense for Kokoskov to eventually start Booker at the point and open up as much playing time as possible for the likes of Jackson and Mikal Bridges on the wing.”

Whether it’s Harrison, Okobo, Canaan or Melton who ultimately wins the starting job, Kokoskov suggested those point guards may rotate more frequently so they could play with more intensity in those shorter bursts of minutes. Booker is expected to serve as the Suns’ primary playmaker and initiator either way, and whoever he’s paired with will be put into more of a caretaker role. They’ll likely be asked to just limit mistakes and pressure the ball on defense.

Another wrinkle here is the Suns’ possible involvement in the Jimmy Butler trade. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that they’re interested in both Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones. If they were able to land either, this position battle would come to an end.

Bulls C: Robin Lopez vs. Wendell Carter Jr.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg went on to talk about how Lopez is a 30-year-old vet going into his 11th season who has a ton of experience as a starter. This may be an “open competition,” but early indications are that Lopez will get the starting nod initially and give way to Carter at some point during the season.

Lopez played the part of the good soldier last season during the Bulls’ tankathon, sitting out 18 of the final 25 games as a healthy scratch and playing only a quarter in a handful of others. He’ll likely be asked to do the same this year as a mentor to his eventual replacement.

Carter Jr. looked every bit the part during Summer League and proved why he’s the most well-rounded big man in this draft. He may not have the athleticism of his contemporaries, but he makes up for it by being good at literally everything. And that’s invaluable for a Bulls team that will feature a pair of ball-dominant turnstiles in Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker.

Therein lies the rub, though — Carter Jr. will be so busy cleaning up his teammates’ messes on both ends of the floor that he won’t often be looking to get his. Whether he’s on the first unit with LaVine and Parker or on the second unit with Bobby Portis, it’s hard to see him being featured in his rookie season.

Others to Watch

Cavs SG: JR Smith vs. Collin Sexton
Clippers C: Marcin Gortat vs. Montrezl Harrell
Grizzlies PF: JaMychal Green vs. Jaren Jackson Jr.
Hornets SG: Jeremy Lamb vs. Malik Monk
Kings PF/C: Marvin Bagley vs. Willie Cauley-Stein vs. Harry Giles
Knicks PG: Trey Burke vs. Frank Ntilikina
Magic SG: Evan Fournier vs. Terrence Ross
Magic SF: Jonathan Isaac vs. Jonathon Simmons
Mavs 5th starter: Wesley Matthews vs. Dirk Nowitzki
Pelicans PF: Nikola Mirotic vs. Julius Randle
Raptors SG: Danny Green vs. OG Anunoby
Thunder PF: Patrick Patterson vs. Jerami Grant
Warriors C: Jordan Bell vs. Kevon Looney vs. Damian Jones