Examining the NBA's "Starters in Name Only"

vince carter chillin

If you follow college basketball in any capacity, you probably read Ken Pomeroy's excellent blog. If you don't, start reading it now and pretend you always did. Professor Pom-Pom (NOTE TO SELF: Never again call him this) recently posted a fun little piece going over two groups of NCAA players: a selection of guys that don't start but play a ton and another selection that start the game but barely play at all, headlined by the fantastically named "Matt Milk." I thought it was an neatway to highlight a segment of the league's players that have made the "starter" designation a lot less meaningful in the NBA's modern era, so much so that I decided to run the numbers for the NBA and find the NBA's closest analogues to the Tre Dempses and the Matt Milks of the world.

Now, I did need to change a few aspects. In the NCAA, there are quite literally thousands of players from which to choose from. At the time I looked up the numbers in this post, 4711 players had registered minutes in the NCAA this season. Only 456 have suited up for the NBA. As a result, outlier cases are a bit harder to wrangle in the NBA, so I had to relax the conditions on Pomeroy's lists a little bit to get a collection of players that felt representative. To wit:

  • For our starters in name only, the cutoff points are players that have started more than 85% of their games played. For good measure, they also have to have played in more than 40 games.
  • For our bench staples who play a ton (or our "starters off the bench", as I'm calling them) the cutoff points are players that haven't started a single game but have played in at least 45. This does eliminate a few players (like Manu Ginobili and Draymond Green), but it leaves enough bench staples for a five player list.

All that said, let's get into our two lists.

THE STARTERS OFF THE BENCH

#5: MARCUS MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
21.9 MPG in 51 games -- 0 starts, 45.4% of PHX minutes played

I'm a big fan of Pomeroy's adherence to "percentage of team minutes played" when looking at playing time, so I'm going to do that for this post. Hence: of all the minutes Phoenix has played basketball this season, 45.4% of those minutes featured Marcus Morris. Like his brother, Marcus has carved out quite a nice role for himself in Phoenix. Role-wise, he serves as the three-point floor spacer to Markieff's rim-rocking stylings. And he's been effective -- the Suns have been marginally less effective with Marcus on the floor than they've been without him, but he's played a role in several aggressive bench-heavy lineups that have done a lot to keep Phoenix afloat during Bledsoe's absence. Fittingly, Marcus' best four-man group is one of such bench-heavy pairings featuring him and his brother together -- the Suns have outscored teams by 24 points per 100 possessions in the 125 minutes they've played with the four man group of Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, and the Morris Twins on the floor together (alongside any of Phoenix's intriguing wing options alongside them).

#4: JEREMY LAMB, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
22.2 MPG in 54 games -- 0 starts, 46.0% of OKC minutes played

Last season, Lamb was less than an afterthought in the rookie of the year race -- he played 147 minutes in the NBA (alongside 689 minutes in the D-League) and did just about jack-all with the opportunity, showing a tentative shooting stroke against more aggressive NBA defenses and an even worse grasp of himself on the defensive end. Although he was young and the Thunder didn't need a ton out of him, the initial returns on the Harden trade looked to be bunk. Guess we spoke too soon. Lamb's play this season has been reasonably excellent, and as a result he's played more minutes at the all-star break than he did in the NBA and D-League seasons combined last year. He'll never be better than Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis, but this year has lent a much more sympathetic eye to the infamously panned Harden trade. His defense is still a bit of a struggle, but he puts in time on that end and does about as well as an mildly undersized guard can do. His real value hasn't been in value added as much as it has a terrific continuity of Oklahoma City's offensive flow -- the Thunder's loss of Kevin Martin turned out to be a blessing, as they've replaced Martin's expensive, waning, and aging contributions for Lamb's time. He produces just about the same excellence as the 2013 Thunder came to expect from Martin -- he just does it cheaper, better, and with more staying power. He's an offensive fulcrum who waxes and wanes with the flow of Oklahoma City's offense, but he's a piece for the future rather than a fragment of the past.

#3: MO WILLIAMS, PORTLAND TRAIL-BLAZERS
24.3 MPG in 49 games -- 0 starts, 46.4% of POR minutes played

This is not Mo Williams' best season. It's a rarity among NBA talent to have a guy's best season cleanly overlap with the only time in their career where they're in a position to make an all-star game. But Mo's a lucky one -- there's exactly one season in Mo's repertoire where he played all-star caliber ball, and it just so happened to be the exact season where an injury opened a spot for him in a weak eastern conference slate. All that said, while it certainly isn't Mo's best season (he's a no-defense player with a PER of 11 -- that's ROUGH), he's taken on his most important season in his post-Cleveland years by accepting and thriving in two separate roles. In most lineups, he serves as a decoy from beyond the arc meant to open up offensive sets inside and keep defenders honest. But in his best lineup, his function is different -- the Blazers are the first team in quite a while to demand that Mo take on primary ball-handling duty for long stretches of games and have it NOT blow up in their face. The Blazers have outscored teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in Mo's most-common lineup (104 minutes played). It features Mo at point, Matthews and Batum at the wings, and Lopez/Aldridge at the bigs -- their starting lineup minus Lillard, essentially. This lineup has not succeeded with much help from Mo's shooting -- without Lillard to set him up, Mo puts up a borderline-disgusting 35% TS% in that lineup. It's successful because everyone else on the floor works incredibly well together, and Mo and Batum combine to assist on nearly half the made shots this lineup produces. Good on Mo -- and the Blazers -- for finding one of Mo's first post-LeBron lineups where his passing is actually effective.

#2: VINCE CARTER, DALLAS MAVERICKS
24.1 MPG in 53 games -- 0 starts, 49.1% of DAL minutes played

Although making fun of Vince Carter is something akin to a Canadian national pastime, at some point you have to admit that his longevity is pretty impressive. We've only got 15 players left who were drafted in 1998 or earlier, and few of them play any time at all. In fact, only five of them have played over a thousand minutes in the 2014 season. To wit, these five:

  1. DIRK NOWITZKI -- 52 games, 52 starts, 1675 MP at the age of 35
  2. TIM DUNCAN -- 49 games, 49 starts, 1448 MP at the age of 37
  3. PAUL PIERCE -- 45 games, 38 starts, 1303 MP at the age of 36
  4. VINCE CARTER -- 52 games, 0 starts, 1276 MP at the age of 37
  5. RAY ALLEN -- 47 games, 9 starts, 1246 MP at the age of 38

Nobody else among the oldies is contributing much at all, with Kobe representing the single player out of the remaining 10 who might ever return to a contributing form at all. Isn't that sort of impressive? I've never been a big fan of Carter's case for the NBA's hall of fame, but his late career renaissance in Dallas is starting to make the prospect a bit less absurd to me. If you'd told me a few years back that Vince Carter would be toiling at the age of 37 for a marginal playoff team, coming off the bench and working his ass off for barely any return or glory, I'd have thought you mad. But there he is.

He's fallen off, obviously, and he's not an amazing asset anymore... but he's a productive three point shooter with more dependable pressure defense than most of the young guns in Carlisle's wheelhouse, and he still shows flashes of his stat-stuffing wunderkind days long past. I mean, really -- he averages 17-5-4 per 36 minutes, which is hardly far removed from his 19-5-4 he put up in 2010 when he helped Orlando make the Eastern Conference Finals. He's not a massive factor, obviously. Nor is he particularly important. But I can't help appreciating the fact that the player who supposedly never gave a damn is -- somehow -- still putting up a strong facsimile of his old play at age 37 , as the 8th oldest player in the entire league.

#1: MARKIEFF MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
25.0 MPG in 50 games -- 0 starts, 50.9% of PHX minutes played

Ah, the other Morris! Although Markieff has played in fewer games than Marcus, he's played quite a few more minutes and had a bit more time to shine. Mostly because he's better. One of the somewhat-hilarious dangers of Phoenix's connective reliance on the Morris twins is that it makes it all the less likely that either of them win any sixth man of the year hardware. If I had to choose, Markieff would be the obvious one to pick -- he's played more efficient offense, more effective defense, and has been a lot more important to Phoenix's overall attack. Like Marcus, he's a true sixth man -- he does good work with elements of Phoenix's starting unit, but he's a member of the Suns' bench mob through-and-through. While Marcus essentially spots out beyond the arc and opens the floor for his teammates, Markieff functions as his team's primary rebounder when he's on the floor. In previous years, this would bea death knell for the Suns. Although Markieff has always been a good individual rebounder, he didn't used to very aggressive in boxing out and contesting rebounds. That's changed this year, and his newfound aggression is paying dividends -- it allows Phoenix to play wonky bench lineups with Markieff playing the nominal center, which gives the Suns a ton of weird lineup advantages on the offensive end. And when you combine his excellent rebounding with his quick trigger passes off offensive rebounds and his crafty layups, you have one of the NBA's strongest contenders for this year's 6MOTY honors. (Provided Marcus doesn't steal his votes, of course!)

Photo by Joshua Lott for The New York Times.

STARTERS IN NAME ONLY

#5: JASON THOMPSON, SACRAMENTO KINGS
25.7 MPG in 53 games -- 47 starts, 53.0% of SAC minutes played

Thompson's an interesting case -- theoretically, given his relatively young age and longtime experience with the franchise, he'd make a good building-to-the-future pairing next to DeMarcus Cousins and would be considered a strong piece for Sacramento's future. This season has been a bit disappointing, though, and Kings fans are left wondering a bit if Thompson is going to pan out as the permanent Cousins-flanking option the franchise hoped he'd be. With Mike Malone's new system chaining Cousins deep in the post on offense (which, let's be fair, has been absolutely incredible for Cousins and unleashed a dominant side of their star that had been seen in little more than glimpses in seasons prior), it stands that whoever is next to Cousins is going to need to operate a lot more outside the paint. Just think of the Duncan/Splitter conundrum in San Antonio or the Asik/Howard conundrum in Houston. Hence, Thompson has to step out and shoot outside the paint.

The issue? He's not great at it. He's not BAD, but he isn't exactly a spacing threat, which harms Sacramento's overall spacing and creates offensive duplication. He's entirely dependent on other players to get him the shots he lives on when he's shooting outside the post -- to wit, of Thompson's 42 made shots outside of 10 feet, 38 of them were assisted. Thompson is a very good post player when he's assertive with the ball and goes up strong -- unfortunately, he's been a bit off this season, and with Cousins taking up so much room in the post in Sacramento's offensive scheme, it's been a bit difficult to get Thompson the possessions needed to work through his struggles. Defensively, he's been fine -- at least against smaller players. Thompson is good at covering smaller power forwards and decent at stepping out to contest shots, but he doesn't function nearly as well when he's switched onto larger centers. Luckily, at 6'11", there aren't exactly a ton of NBA centers dwarfing him in size. Unluckily, if you're a good offense, running plays that switch Thompson onto a larger center isn't THAT hard, and Sacramento doesn't have anywhere near the defensive discipline to accommodate it.

Anyway. All that said, the fact that Thompson -- a player who's played 53% of Sacramento's possible minutes on the season and does represent a reasonably important piece for Sacramento's future -- is showing up on a "starters-in-name-only" list probably says more than any criticisms that could be made to explain his slightly waning role. While the NCAA has a lot of coaches who play with the starter designation and give spot starts to players that aren't huge players, there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who ACTUALLY fit that role. Those handful are the four players below, and nobody else really qualifies.

#4: KENNETH FARIED, DENVER NUGGETS
24.8 MPG in 48 games -- 45 starts, 49.6% of DEN minutes played

Out of all the players on this list, Faried is by far the most confusing. Unlike Thompson, he's actually played less than 50% of Denver's minutes this season, despite Denver's odd depth situation and despite the fact that Denver's strange new management decided to clear out their big men in an effort to free up more minutes for Faried and Mozgov. Outside of Ty Lawson, Faried is the only other player on Denver's roster that really qualifies as a young talent, and he's not supremely injured -- he's battled some ankle trouble, but nothing to write home about. Denver also has one of the most unenviable cap situations in the NBA, featuring dead weight salary on players that don't figure to play a part in their future and very little flexibility over the next 2 years, despite a team that looks the part of a perennial noncontender. So, I say it again -- why isn't Faried playing more?

His defense is as it always has been -- awful. But they knew that going in. He's shooting essentially exactly as well as he did last year from the floor, and his finishing has been the same as it's always been. His rebounding is excellent, as usual, and he's only been in foul trouble once this season (a January 15th win against the Warriors where he played 17 minutes with five fouls.) The Nuggets have denied all season that Faried is on the trading block, reaffirming that he's a big piece of their future. Sure. Then why not play him? If I had to venture a guess, I'd probably think this is their odd management coming to a head with new head coach Brian Shaw. Shaw came to Denver directly from Indiana, a team where everyone defended like their lives depended on it and every player put in a lot of effort. Faried, for all his energy, is not a good defensive player nor does he put in more than a cursory effort on that end. Shaw's minutes restrictions for Faried -- while frustrating -- are probably his attempts to impose discipline on Faried in an effort to whip him into shape defensively. Doubt it's a good idea, but that'd be my guess.

#3: KEVIN GARNETT, BROOKLYN NETS
21.5 MPG in 43 games -- 43 starts, 38.9% of BRO minutes played

Now the doctor came in, stinking of gin,
And proceeded to lie on the table.
He said, "Rocky, you met your match".
And Rocky said, "Doc, it's only a scratch.
And I'll be better, I'll be better, Doc, as soon as I am able".

Every time I watch Kevin Garnett play this season, I get "Rocky Raccoon" stuck in my head. Not the whole song, just an echo of it. At first. Then it gets louder and louder as I watch him fumble around with Brooklyn's awful entry passes and tokenizing attempts at getting him offense. Then it isn't an echo anymore. I watch as the Nets thrive in their odd "longball" configuration where Garnett is reduced to a husk of the player he once was. And you can see him calling for the ball, and begging, and trying to do the things he used to do. He's this defiant man, struck down in ignominy and trying to play out the string for a team that barely deserves the echos they got of him. And it's sad, because he just can't do what he used to. But there's this glimmer of defiance and anger and fury, and occasionally the echo of Kevin Garnett crystallizes into a cry, and he uncorks a perfect post move or a furious rebound or a crisp game-deciding jumpshot. And then the song starts up again. And then it stops, because it's only an echo that can fool you every now and again. That's what it's like to watch Kevin Garnett play this season.

It hurts me.

#2: SHANE BATTIER, MIAMI HEAT
20.9 MPG in 43 games -- 39 starts, 37.6% of MIA minutes played

One of the long-running subplots of the LeBron/Bosh/Wade Heat that I've been most interested in is their reliance on essentially over-the-hill veterans. The Heat have been an amazing team during the dynasty. But outside of their big three, they've mainly done so on the backs of some unfathomable throwback performances by once-star players on the very last legs of their career. Don't get me wrong -- that's the way to do it. If you rely on young guns with talent and guile around your young and highly-paid stars, the role players will inevitably price themselves out of your range and leave the organization before you're ready for them to do it, a la Lance Stephenson in the coming summer or James Harden for the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Or you'll overpay them to keep them, clogging up cap space and eliminating future flexibility in the name of roleplayer retention.) Relying on over-the-hill veterans does a lot to fix this problem, because few teams are going to field competitive offers for a 35-year-old vet that didn't even star on a title team. They have enough money in the bank to be focused on winning rings, and they have enough NBA experience that it's easier for them to pick up your system. Best of all worlds, except when it comes to upside.

Still, there's also an inherent risk in putting so many of your eggs in the "old and creaky" basket. That's the risk they'll fall off for good. And I'm afraid that time might have finally come for Shane Battier. He's still been moderately effective in a few ways, but his defense has fallen to the point where he takes the "D" out of "3-and-D". Which is sort of sad. Battier essentially can't hope to cover larger players any more without constantly fouling and hoping the refs don't notice, and he isn't really quick enough to shade smaller players either. His offense is one-note to the verge of stark absurdity -- he's taken 35 two-point-shots and 144 threes this season. He's made only 10 unassisted shots all season (to put it another way: Battier creates his own shot once every 4 games) and his percentages are down across the board despite his reliance on Miami's offensive system. His offensive ineptitude hasn't harmed Miami that much, as teams still respect his three point shot, and Miami's offense has been better with Battier on the court than it has been with Battier off. But one wonders if taking advantage of Battier's eroding game could be the crucial matchup advantage that a team like Indiana uses to finally oust the Heat this year.

#1: KENDRICK PERKINS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
20.1 MPG in 52 games -- 52 starts, 40.0% of OKC minutes played

Okay, let's be honest. You knew this was coming, right? Who else could possibly lead the list? Perkins is widely maligned as the NBA's worst starter, and that's not a particularly hard argument to make. His defense has fallen off badly in the years since his huge extension, and he's actively made Oklahoma City worse on both ends this season. That's partly because Steven Adams replicates Perk's positives without any of his negatives, and it's partly because Brooks doesn't really utilize him effectively. But let's be fair -- how the hell DO you utilize Perkins effectively at this stage of his career? He's effectively immobile in the post, and I feel like I've seen him cause OKC three second violations (a stat tracked by NBAWowy -- he has seven, meaning he gets one once every six games or so) in every few games I've watched this year, and he commits uncalled violations of the type in every game. He currently has 83 turnovers to 74 field goals on the season. He has 150 personal fouls to 27 blocked shots. His field goal percentage is at a career low, and he has a PER of 6.2.

Despite all this, he has started every single game he's played. The only positive you can really find with Perkins is that he's the least-played regular starter in the NBA (on an MPG basis), and that Brooks has only played him 40% of the minutes he possibly could. If the playoffs come and Perkins is still playing 40% of OKC's minutes, I'd be somewhat surprised. As a Spurs fan, I'd be happy, because that gives my guys (and the Warriors, and the Clippers, and the Rockets, and the Blazers) a fighting chance. Of course, I'd also be deeply depressed as an NBA fan, because it would be the equivalent of the 2001 Lakers limiting Shaq to 20 minutes a night to see if they could win with a handicap. Perhaps they could, but I mean... why? There's little reason for historically dominant teams to play with a handicap. Oklahoma City, at their best, is that kind of a team. And Kendrick Perkins is exactly that handicap, moreso than Fisher or Thabo or any of the other players that fans complain about when it comes to Scott Brooks.

Still, I'm a Spurs fan. Can Perk can go 48 minutes, Scottie? Let's find out!

sadperk

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