Divining Meaning in PreseasonDarius Washington going off for a team-high 18 points against the Warriors the other night. I know the point guard is caught in a numbers game in San Antonio. There are already 15 guaranteed contracts and three guys ahead of him playing the position. Tony Parker's getting a break from playing this past summer in Europe and Beno Udrih is rehabbing a fractured finger, so there's plenty of time available for guys like Washington to play basketball -- until the last week of October. And I find a lot of the injury news is inconsequential. Sam Cassell's knee injury is just another way of saying he's getting a night off.
Yes, I agree, some of the news and performances during the preseason can be dismissed rather easily. Coaches are trying to establish whether certain player combinations are working, and veterans are routinely rested. But if you search a little deeper, there's information to be had during the preseason. Information that can help you prepare for fantasy draft. There are starting jobs and rotation spots on the line, while some injuries are significant and have playing-time ramifications.
Jason Kidd's back injury has been cause for concern. Kidd strained the back while stretching, then spent the next three days visiting a chiropractor. The Nets are hoping he'll be back next week -- mid-week -- but remain cautious. If Kidd's injury lingers into the regular season, Darrell Armstrong will fill in for him. Armstrong, 39, started in place of Kidd Thursday night against the Knicks, while Eddie Gill started Friday night's game against Boston, which was called off at halftime because of melting ice beneath the floor at the DCU Center in Worcester (Mass.). I can't see Nets head coach Lawrence Frank going with anything less than a veteran like Armstrong to lead this playoff-caliber ball club. Gill and Mateen Cleaves are still on the roster and one of them may stick because of Marcus Williams' injury, but Armstrong is ahead of them.
Cuttino Mobley's strained lower calf became a bit of a concern the longer it went on. He suffered the injury during workouts prior to training camp and has been limited since. Mobley made his preseason debut Saturday in Los Angeles. Although his scoring in two seasons with the Clippers has been down from his career average, Mobley is still a gifted shooter and a good source for 3-pointers and steals. Bigger than Mobley's injury are how the injuries to Shaun Livingston and Elton Brand will affect Mobley's role on the team. Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy is considering bringing Mobley off the bench, with Quinton Ross starting in the backcourt alongside Cassell. Ross is a better fit than Mobley. He's the better defender and with Cassell starting, that will be needed. With Cassell being a shoot-first point guard, Corey Maggette starting at small forward to help cover Brand's offense, and perimeter threat Tim Thomas expected to replace Brand, Mobley's skills are better allocated to the second unit. Being the go-to scorer off the bench may be just the thing for him. It worked for Maggette last season when he was often benched in favor of Ross. Maggette was second on the team in scoring despite being a sub in 44 of 75 games played. And I suspect on several occasions, Dunleavy will employ a small lineup, which will mean Mobley will get starter's minutes despite coming off the bench.
By the way, Brand's injury means rookie Al Thornton's getting a lot of run during the preseason. He played some minutes at the four in Saturday's preseason victory over Phoenix and the four-year college player looks to have a spot in the rotation, according to Dunleavy. After his game-high 23 Saturday night, Thornton leads the Clippers with 17.6 points per game during the preseason. If the Clippers aren't competitive come mid-season, and perhaps trade Maggette, Thornton could emerge as a good second-half fantasy player.
The obvious beneficiary of Washington losing Etan Thomas is Brendan Haywood, but we're seeing two backups making a push for increased playing time. Oleksiy Pecherov and Andray Blatche are each getting minutes at center and may steal playing time from Haywood, who is not a close personal friend of Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. Washington's offense rarely works inside to their bigs, so each player will have to contribute defensively. And working inside the paint is neither's strong suit.
How concerned should we about Peja Stojakovic? Last season's back surgery was deemed successful, but he's been limited all week and missed Friday's game after experiencing some soreness last Sunday. Will he be limited to start the season? It doesn't look he's ready to play starter's minutes out of the gate, so look for Rasual Butler and Julian Wright to get increased minutes early on. New Orleans head coach Byron Scott says Peja's backup is a battle between Butler and Wright, but is that really true? Will the rookie Wright beat out the veteran Butler on a team that is thinking about the playoffs? Wright still has to make better decisions. He has to learn when to shoot, when to drive and when to pass. As a direct replacement for Stojakovic, Butler is the choice. Not only does his veteran-ness apply, but he's also a better shooter than Wright.
Martell Webster appears to be winning the small forward job in Portland. Webster has been lights out during the preseason and gives head coach Nate McMillan a scoring threat needed to take the pressure of the double teams that Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge can expect to see. He's been hitting from the floor (56.8 percent) and the 3-point line (55 percent). "We need that three man to be able to stroke the ball," McMillan said. "Martell can certainly be that guy ... and you know, he's doing it. So that wouldn't be a problem starting him, because it will give us options." Webster's not as good a defender as Travis Outlaw, his main competition for the starting three, but having Joel Przybilla (3.8 blocks per 40 minutes) behind Webster allows McMillan to keep him on the floor. Outlaw will become the go-to scorer on the Blazers' second unit and could see an increase in shots as a result.
Ronnie Brewer has started at shooting guard in five of Utah's six preseason games. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan quipped that he's looking for a "making" guard. He can find guys that can shoot, but can they make the shots. That normally would favor Gordan Giricek, who led the Jazz in 3-point shooting and ill-advised shots last year, but Brewer is giving Sloan a reason to bench Giricek. The second-year guard out of Arkansas with the ugly shooting mechanic is making 59.4 percent of his shots. He's more of a slasher than spot-up shooter and is not a 3-point marksman, but he's the best defender of the bunch competing for the job. C.J. Miles, considered a threat for the job when entering camp, has made just 4-of-23 attempts this preseason after pissing off Sloan in the offseason.
Seattle coach P.J. Carlesimo is determined not to go with Nick Collison as his full-time starting center this year. Collison doesn't have the height or heft to be a full-timer at the position. Robert Swift has started the most games in the preseason, though he's still having trouble returning from knee surgery. He's got the size and now has the bulk after adding some weight during the offseason. Swift's minutes will be limited early on and he probably isn't the full-time answer just yet. Look for Collison and Chris Wilcox to get some minutes playing center.
Damon Stoudamire has started all four of the preseason games he's appeared in and looks to be beating out the rookie Mike Conley and second-year man Kyle Lowry. Stoudamire's best in an open system like Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni is trying to implement, but he typically doesn't share well. Iavaroni wants his point guard to make plays for others first, then look for a shot. Stoudamire may begin the season as the starter, but don't count on him long-term.
We knew Marvin Williams had a starting spot in Atlanta, but weren't sure which forward spot that would be. It looks like he'll begin the season at small forward, with Josh Smith expected to start at the four. Williams, who feels he's better suited to the three than the four he often played last season, enters Year 3 looking to move his game up a notch and that's showing with his preseason work. He's averaging 17.0 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He's not the kind of rebounder we seek at power forward but he'll be adequate in that category as a small forward.
Willie Green and Rodney Carney are still duking it out to become Philadelphia's starting small forward or shooting guard -- whatever position Andre Iguodala isn't playing. Carney has the slight edge based on their preseason numbers, but head coach Maurice Cheeks said the matter won't be resolved until after team's final preseason game Thursday against the Nets. Given the team's offensive shortcomings in the frontcourt, it looks like whichever guy works best with Iguodala will win it. That means not holding on to the rock every time it hits his hands, Willie. That favors Carney.
Now that injuries are forcing Nuggets coach George Karl to open the season with Allen Iverson as his starting point guard, the question becomes who will start at shooting guard. The latest contretemps between the club and J.R. Smith has resulted in a team-imposed three-game suspension and eliminates him from consideration to start the season and probably long term given his rocky relationship with Karl. That leaves second-year player Bobby Jones and three-year veteran Linas Kleiza the most likely candidates. Jones is an unheralded player, but opened some eyes in training camp and helped himself Wednesday, shooting 4-of-5 on three-pointers. Karl told the Rocky Mountain News that Jones has "surprised us" and didn't realize he was "this skilled making shots." Indeed, his offense has not been his calling card, but that's not going to be needed with Iverson and Carmelo Anthony dominating the ball. Karl should be looking for someone who can defend the perimeter and that means Jones. We'll most likely see a rotation of guys based on matchups that particular night or as situations arise during the game. Von Wafer and Yakhouba Diawara are also in the mix.
None of the three players looking to become Toronto's starter at small forward have distinguished themselves during the preseason. Jason Kapono, Joey Graham, and Carlos Delfino have all been given opportunities during the preseason, but no one has separated himself yet. None played well Friday night and the position may become a revolving door based on what Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is looking for on a given night. Starting shooting guard Anthony Parker can score and thrive in an uptempo game like the Raptors run, so a scorer is not the first criteria used to settle the matter. If that were the case, Kapono would win this job hands down. If money were the matter, Kapono wins again. But it's looking like Mitchell needs a glue-guy at the three, and none have provided that. We'll have to continue to track this heading into the final week of preseason games, but don't be surprised if Jorge Garbajosa becomes the default starter.
I'm still trying to determine Orlando's starter at shooting guard. This seemed to be J.J. Redick's job when training camp opened, but has since opened up to include Trevor Ariza and Keith Bogans With the season-ending injury to Tony Battie forcing coach Stan Van Gundy to move Hedo Turkoglu into the starting lineup, a pure scorer, like Redick, isn't necessarily needed. If the Magic don't need Redick's offense, his defensive liabilities render him useless to the starting five. He'll probably make a living as the second team's primary scorer. The defensive-minded Ariza has been hurt by foot tendinitis, missing all three of the team's games in China this past week, but he fears it might be worse after saying he felt a "pop" in the foot last week. That leaves Bogans, who fits somewhere in between Ariza and Redick. He's hitting his shots (18-for-35 FG, 11-for-20 3pt) during the preseason and played relatively good defense against LeBron James in China. Van Gundy wants to get Ariza some playing time in the final week of preseason games, but he'll need to show that he can hit open jump shots, like Bogans.