When the Heat overhauled their roster last summer after coming a game from reaching the Finals, it set the stage for a host of position battles for starting billing. With Shaq's early-season injury and a few more losses than expected, Gary Payton is already making it known he believes he should be starting at point guard over Jason Williams. While Williams has a reputation for being a freelancing gunner, Payton's complaints don't appear to hold much water at this stage of the season, either for the team as a whole or with star Dwyane Wade.
With Williams on court: +76 With Payton: -9
Wade/Williams: +95 in 418 minutes (+11 per 48 min.) Wade/Payton: +39 in 321 minutes (+6 per 48 min.)
While Wade is a veritable superstar, we all know that the Heat ultimately are the Diesel's team, so the on-court time with O'Neal will be the better gauge at that stage.
A team with the worst record in the league is likely to have a fair amount of bitterness brewing among the players. In other words, it's going to be hard to keep anyone happy. The key is to figure out what's best for the long-term interests of the franchise, and in the Raptors case, the answer would seem to be less Jalen Rose (he may have skills, but with a -110 plus/minus, he's not exactly making a difference) and more of the rookies.
The two most used units through 12/06 were:
James/Peterson/Rose/Bosh/Araujo: -10 points in 73 minutes James/Peterson/Rose/Bosh/Villanueva: -10 points in 54 minutes
While some more youth oriented rotations have produced a semblance of more decent results:
James/Calderon/Graham/Bosh/Villanueva: +13 points in 43 minutes (3-1) James/Calderon/Peterson/Bosh/Villanueva: +13 points in 38 minutes (4-3)
The main motive for giving Rose significant playing time may be to improve his trade value, but with the exorbitant contract he carries, that might be a tall order even in the best of circumstances.
While the Nuggets have shown signs of late that they are getting on track, they're certainly not playing like the powerhouse team we saw after George Karl took over about halfway through '04-05. One of the stranger player usage issues -- in the league -- has to be the lack of court time for free-agent signee Earl Watson. A DNP-CD casualty in seven of the first eight games, Watson then played an average of almost 22 minutes per game over the next five, only to be later limited to a one-minute and a seven-minute game.
The funny thing is the Nuggets are +22 in net points in the 159 minutes he's played, which begs the question: Why is Karl benching a guy who helps his team win? It's not as if this is an aberration: in Memphis in both '03-04 and '04-05 Watson was a tremendously positive on-court influence, in no small part due to his excellent defense.
Fan favorite Earl Boykins is a good player, but the numbers suggest Karl needs to give some of those minutes to Watson if he hopes to get optimal performance for the Nuggets.
Los Angeles Lakers
Phil Jackson realizes by now -- if he didn't when he decided to return to the Lakers' bench -- that L.A.'s glamour team is several players away from contending. Kwame Brown and his supposed upside was one of the big offseason acquisitions. But the early results have not been promising: the Lakers were 8.4 points worse per 48 minutes with him on court. Sidelined with an injury, one can always hope he returns a new player, but the Wizards have heard that before and elected to give up on the former No. 1 pick.
It's unusual to see a public battle between co-owners of an NBA team, but the brouhaha over the signing of Joe Johnson foretold a season in which Johnson clearly hasn't produced immediate dividends. With so many young players it's likely we'll see rotations change frequently. Nevertheless, Josh Childress has played 54 percent of the team's minutes so far but produced a team-worst -107 plus/minus, and an 1-15 game by game plus-minus record (the Hawks have been outscored during Childress' on-court time in every single game). It's too soon to give up on Childress but it may be better to let some of the other developing players get first call for the minutes right now.