In the NBA’s offseason, coaches are just like fantasy owners: Tinkering with their roster at home like kids would arrange and re-arrange battalions of plastic Army toys, to the point where some already have a rotation in place by the time training camp begins.
Brand-new Golden State Warriors coach Keith Smart, for example, said he has his lineup in place less than a week into camp: Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, David Lee and Andris Biedrins. Meanwhile, other coaches will use camp to let players compete for jobs. Whether it’s a Lottery squad in rebuilding mode (Minnesota) or a reigning conference champion not satisfied with second-best (Boston), some coaches won’t determine their lineups so easily.
With tip-off for the regular season less than a month away, here are the Top 10 NBA position battles:
D.J. Augustin vs. Shaun Livingston (Bobcats, PG)
Not too long ago Augustin was the obvious pick to succeed Ray Felton as Charlotte’s starting point guard. But when Felton left in free agency over the summer, Augustin still hadn’t to make a convincing enough case for himself. Coach Larry Brown was clearly less enamored with D.J. last year than he was in the Texas product’s rookie year, as his minutes, points, shooting percentages and assists all dropped significantly in Year Two. Now he’s in a competition with Livingston, who was signed over the summer after a promising late-season stretch with the Wizards. Livingston is notorious for his injury issues, but when he’s healthy he brings size and good passing instincts to the PG spot.
Projected winner: Augustin
Evan Turner vs. Thaddeus Young (76ers, SG/SF)
The hype surrounding Turner all but vanished when he struggled in the Vegas Summer League. Andre Iguodala was among those who defended Turner — noting that Philly’s squad in Vegas was pretty stacked by summer league standards — but the effects seem to have lingered. When he was drafted No. 2 overall, Turner was projected to step right into a featured role in the 76ers’ offense. But early in camp he’s been coming off the bench while Young starts at small forward and Iguodala plays the two.
Projected winner: Turner
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Jermaine O’Neal (Celtics, C)
As covered yesterday. And it will get even more interesting when Kendrick Perkins returns from injury in a few months.
Projected winner: Shaq
Jawad Williams vs. Joey Graham vs. Jamario Moon (Cavaliers, SF)
Only interesting because it determines who will officially replace LeBron James. The winner becomes the next Pete Myers. The losers? Anybody who gets stuck watching the Cavs on League Pass.
Projected winner: Moon
Shawn Marion vs. Caron Butler (Mavericks, SG/SF)
This one is unique because the players are so different. Having Butler on the floor gives Dallas a solid No. 2 scorer behind Dirk Nowitzki, but Marion allows Dirk to work on the perimeter because he can defend power forwards and rebound like a four. However coach Rick Carlisle chooses to play it, Dallas will have one of the best benches in the League.
Projected winner: Marion
Tayshaun Prince vs. Tracy McGrady (Pistons, SF)
He’s been saying the right things to the media, but please believe T-Mac still thinks he can be a starter and a star in Detroit. We’ve seen how Rip Hamilton reacts when he gets benched, so T-Mac’s best bet is to attempt to snatch Prince’s job at small forward. Tayshaun is the rock of the Pistons, although he’s not the lock-down defender he used to be. McGrady outshines him as an offensive playmaker, but still doesn’t have anyone’s trust that he can hold up for an entire season.
Projected winner: Prince
Joel Anthony vs. Udonis Haslem vs. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Heat, C)
“Other Guy” status is on the line. Because D-Wade or LeBron can initiate the offense average 9-10 assists per game easily, it’s not so important who wins the PG battle (between Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo), but more crucial who is left standing as Miami’s starting center. Defense wins championships, and especially in the East, where even Miami’s star trio will have to go through Dwight Howard and Boston’s group of bigs. Anthony is the most athletic and best shot-blocker of Miami’s center candidates, Big Z has the best offensive and rebounding instincts, and Haslem is the Miami mainstay with whom D-Wade is most comfortable.
Projected winner: Anthony
Martell Webster vs. Wesley Johnson vs. Corey Brewer (Wolves, SG)
Early indications are that Michael Beasley will start at small forward, leaving the two-guard spot open for a trio of players who might all be natural threes. Webster is the best shooter and an improving defender, Brewer is the best defender and best athlete, and Johnson is the most versatile with the most potential. Johnson was also the No. 4 pick in the Draft, and teams usually like to showcase their shiny new toys.
Projected winner: Brewer
Wes Matthews vs. Nic Batum (Blazers, SF)
Although Matthews is the newcomer in Portland and just in his second year as a pro, he’s actually the more steady option next to Batum. Matthews is two years older, he’s built stronger, and he doesn’t have a history of injuries like Batum. He was also given a fat free agent contract by Portland after shining as an undrafted rookie in Utah. But the Blazers see loads of potential in Batum, who helps make their offense go with his speed and hops. Plus he’s a natural three.
Projected winner: Batum
Jeff Teague vs. Mike Bibby (Hawks, PG)
For a young team looking to take the next step up in championship contention, it doesn’t sound smart to replace a 32-year-old with proven playoff stripes (80 postseason games) and big-shot nerves with a 22-year-old still wet behind the ears. But Bibby’s defensive deficiencies and decreasing speed have opened the door for Teague, who has been new head coach Larry Drew’s pet project.
Projected winner: Bibby