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Shooting Forward: Who Should Start?

Al-Farouq Aminu is gone, the Pelicans failed to bring in a known quantity and now they must choose among Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Darius Miller and Luke Babbitt.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

"We want to get a look at a number of guys in that position," Williams said after Thursday's practice. "I'm still not sure who we are going to go with at that spot. But we have some different options.

Times Picayune

The Pelican's starting small forward spot is up for grabs and it's rare the competition is this wide open. Honestly, a legitimate case could be made for all participants: the big name who finished last season strong vs. one of the leagues truest veterans vs. the most prototypical option vs. a darkhorse that might fill the role the best considering the makeup of the rest of the starting unit.

Williams said the staff hopes to find the best fit to mesh with his other starters, preferably a good shooter and defender.

"I know there is a theory to put the best players on the floor," Williams said. "But if you look at the World Champs (San Antonio Spurs), they don't always do that. They usually go with the best fit rather than putting the best players on the floor all the time."

This quote, taken from the same linked article above, is telling -- Tyreke Evans, undoubtedly one of the team's best players, was going to start behind the eight ball. This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone though. On plenty of occasions, Monty Williams has reiterated that he doesn't view as Evans as a 3, but rather a shooting guard.

With Eric Gordon entering this season healthy, and reportedly moving as well as he has in quite some time, Evans Sixth Man: Part Deux is looking like a strong possibility. Whether that's right or wrong can be debated some other time, but it's clear Monty doesn't prefer position-less basketball. Thus, for the sake of today's topic, discussing Evans merits would be a fruitless endeavor.

The Wily Veteran

Many are leaning in favor of John Salmons receiving the starting nod on opening day. It's not a misconceived notion. Monty is more of an old school coach who places a good deal of trust in veterans, especially one who has been considered a good defender. Further, the two were once teammates, and their familiarity with one another would likely interest Monty in having an extension of himself on the floor.

However, I'm not buying Salmons as the mainstay starter for two reasons: the purpose of his signing and his recent career performance slide. Back when the Pelicans first signed Salmons, I suggested this:

Monty’s history with Salmons (played on 2002-03 76ers + Salmons admittedly looking up to Monty) played a significant part. Thinking the organization maybe wanted to replace Jason Smith’s voice + perhaps Salmons is looking to familiarize himself with Monty’s system for a coaching job down the road (with us?) In the meantime, he’ll play when our other SF options are struggling by providing some 3’s and leadership on the floor. Serve as 2014 Roger Mason?

Now have a look at the following two quotes from Nakia Hogan's recent piece.

"Obviously John is a guy we brought in to play some minutes there, but he can also play the two (shooting guard) and at times he can play as a big ball handler. That's what these preseason games and camp are about. We want to get a good look. But at the same time, I don't want to be getting a good look and sacrificing the continuity of our team. I feel like we need the guys who are going to play out there on the court together so we can get some rhythm."

"We talked about trying to get him a couple years ago but he was making so much money we couldn't do it at the time. But it just seemed like the appropriate time to bring him in because he can show our guys some things we are trying to teach. And sometimes your best teacher can be another player, especially a seasoned vet."

Sounds like Salmons priority won't be in-game production but rather serving as a mentor. Does anyone remember the following quote from last March after Luke Babbitt suddenly vanished from the rotation?

The Pelicans have 20 games left this season and with an eye towards the future, it would seem that coach Monty Williams would be willing to widen his rotations to get younger players more minutes. But that’s not necessarily the case, he said Sunday. "It’s all feel and circumstance right now. Different guys like Luke (Babbitt) haven’t gotten a chance to play because of the different lineups," Williams said. "He doesn’t understand the wing position and thus we’ve tried to keep him at the four."

John Salmons will be entering his 13th season in the NBA, but arguably coming off his worst campaign where he combined for a PER of 7.8 between his stints with the Kings and Raptors. In fact, by most advanced statistics, Salmons has been a well below average contributor for the last three seasons. However, this isn't news as many have known for some time Salmon's usefulness is long dead and buried. For instance, check out my favorite one by Tom Ziller from a year ago:

and The Totally And Irrevocably Washed-Up John Salmons (just because he's so totally and irrevocably washed-up, it's actually kind of amazing to watch).

The Prototype

The Pelicans desire a 3&D type of wing at shooting forward.

Williams said the staff hopes to find the best fit to mesh with his other starters, preferably a good shooter and defender.

Towards the end of last season, Monty stated this:

''Darius is a guy who just didn’t get an opportunity,’’ Williams said. ''When he gets a chance to play, he’s been able to defend and shoot the ball well. We’re looking for consistency from Darius. He’s a guy that does a really does a good job with the ball for his size. He always seems to have the right attitude and make the right plays.''

Should be an open and shut case right? Well, through three pre-season games, Miller is averaging 4.3 points in 22.7 minutes of action. He is shooting 30% from the floor and has connected on only one three pointer out of ten attempts. That's not how you win a job.

Yet, before we bury Miller after just three pre-season games, let's take a moment to remember the improvement he exhibited last season. His final 12 games showed an uptick in his PER-36 numbers across the board.

Points Threes Steals (PG) FGA % of FGA from three Personal Fouls AST% USG%
January (210 minutes) 9.3 1.8 .8 6.9 59.3% 4.9 7.5% 10.4%
Final 12 games (334 minutes) 12.0 1.2 1.7 9.7 37.3% 3.6 9.9% 14.9%

The Darkhorse

Last season, Luke Babbitt reportedly didn't understand the wing position enough to play the three. Thus far this pre-season, he's been featured exclusively there. After a 15 point, 5 three's, 6 rebound explosion against the Heat, he's vanished the last two exhibition games, a combined 1-10 from the floor.

Babbitt will never be confused with a world-class athlete and the thought of him guarding a few of that ilk has me shuddering from head to toe. However, is it that ludicrous of an idea?

  1. David stated it succinctly -- "No player on the roster had a more positive impact when they were on the court this season than Luke Babbitt. The numbers back it up; +7.2 Net Rating on the court and -8.5 Net Rating off the court.
  2. Al-Farouq Aminu's stellar TRB% now resides in Dallas. Some of that loss will be alleviated by Omer Asik but it won't be enough. If Monty is steadfast in bringing Evans off the bench, the logical choice is Babbitt as his 10.8 TRB% is overwhelming stronger than that of Miller and Salmons.
  3. Considering the makeup of the rest of the starters, the team's abysmal number of 3-point attempts last season and Ryan Anderson already providing a massive boost off the bench, Luke Babbitt's accuracy and propensity of the three ball would make for an excellent fit in the starting lineup.

Final Thoughts

Entering training camp, I fully believed Monty and the staff were leaning towards Darius Miller. However, his mediocre play has warranted the team to question that path. With a slew of practices remaining before the Pelicans next exhibition game, it is imperative he asserts himself.

Otherwise, the team will be forced to look in a different direction and that might not be a bad thing. The combination of Anthony Davis and Asik should be able to help make up for a lot of defensive mistakes. That should give Monty the freedom to consider unconventional choices, say either Tyreke Evans or Luke Babbitt.

Four pre-season games remain before the regular season starts on October 28th. A lot can change. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, a poor start can be overcome by much improved performance. Who will seize the day?