I’ve never been a firm believer in starter versus reserve controversies. When TJ Ford and Jose Calderon battled for point guard supremacy here in Toronto, I wrote about it because I felt obligated, not because I truly cared. I understand that, to players and some fans, starting is of the utmost importance; you are first string, you are the team’s representative at that position, you are, for lack of anything more clever, the starter.
To me, what matters more than who starts the game is who ends it in close games. More so, total minutes matter as well. I think the NBA, as a whole, focuses too narrowly on the starter versus reserve question. I believe identifying players as this role in every situation can lead to suboptimal decision making and limits a coach’s strategic options.
Of course, this is not universal. Chris Paul is a starting point guard. Dwight Howard is a starting center. Marcus Banks is a 15th man. Chris Bosh is a Third Banana. Some players just fit roles without question, at either end of the spectrum. But my distaste for the over-focus on who starts and who comes off the bench is one that exists at the margins, where position battles are closer, less obvious, and should/could be more strategic.
I understand why a player would want to start at all costs. It means you’re the man, it lets you get into the game while still warm, and you get to play with and against the best players in the game (and of course, the money factor). For a team, I understand the draw of defined roles as well. It makes things easier, gives practice a more clear direction, and creates a certainty about the lineup.
Still, this is suboptimal at the margins. In baseball, only superstars play every day. Players at the fringe of the starting lineup are often platooned or split time. Likewise in football, number two receivers and even running backs split workloads based on opponent match-ups and game situations. It’s why you see a player like Jonny Gomes over-perform in a limited role his whole career and then regress to the mean when forced into an everyday role that doesn’t fit his skill set. It’s why Jamaal Charles drives fantasy owners crazy by averaging a ridiculous 6.3 yards per carry, but only receiving 15 carries a game.
It’s taking me a while to get to my point, so I’ll oblige. Jerryd Bayless should be given the reigns as the starting point guard of the Toronto Raptors, and it’s not because he’s a better point guard than Jose Calderon.
I believe that Jerryd Bayless is going to develop into a very dynamic and exciting point guard, one who is starting-caliber in this league. He does a great job pushing the pace, creating space with penetration, getting to the line, and starting the transition offense. I also believe that Jose Calderon is the better point guard at this time, one who is starting-caliber in this league as well. He does a great job taking care of the ball, trying to get everyone involved equally, and running the pick-and-roll.
So this is not a throwback to the Forderon days. I’m not debating the better point guard. They’re both good, and that’s not my issue. I also realize that Bayless is new to the team (despite being familiar with DeRozan, Triano, and Carlisemo) and that Calderon makes more money. Likewise, I see the draw in letting Jose start to increase his trade value, and I see the risk in “benching” a starting player, because it’s always difficult to yank an incumbent, no matter the reason.
With all that said, starting Bayless is the right basketball move.
Foremost, Bayless was acquired to be a piece of the future, so it makes sense for him to play the bulk of his minutes with the other players the team views as a part of its future. Additionally, Bayless is a superior defender to Jose, which matters a good deal at the start of the game against elite point guards. Bayless isn’t the league’s best defender, but he’s quicker and more aggressive than Jose; this can get him into trouble, but it also gives the Raptors a much better chance of staying in games early. Furthermore, Bayless’ offensive style fits better with the styles of Sonny Weems and Demar DeRozan (as well as Amir Johnson, who I’d argue should be starting with Reggie Evans out). Bayless can push the pace in transition, an area where Weems and DeRozan thrive, and seem to struggle without. Bayless is also a capable creator and penetrator, which can lead to early free throws and foul trouble for other teams. Overall, Bayless fits better with the starting unit in its current incarnation, and him starting would allow Jose an easier task on the defensive end.
In addition, Jose’s skill set is better suited to the reserves on this team anyway. Calderon has always thrived with three-point shooters on the floor, something the starting unit is fairly devoid of, save for Andrea Bargnani (I’ll get there). Peja Stojakovic is one of the best shooters of this generation. Linas Kleiza can stroke the three, and also meshes well with Jose in a pick-and-roll game as a spacing-big in a smaller lineup (which the bench is). Leandro Barbosa played his best basketball alongside Steve Nash, a pass-first point guard who looks to three-point shooters first. Jose has even played better with this unit in the small sample since Stojakovic came over, dropping 10 fourth quarter dimes with the reserve unit Friday night against Boston. Yes, small sample size alert, but Jose has always seemed to play better with long range shooters instead of athletic up-tempo types.
I’m not really sure where Andrea fits here. The franchise more or less has to start him, which is fine, as he’s no better a fit with the starters or the bench and has probably been the team’s best player. His rebounding deficiencies won’t be hidden by either unit with Reggie Evans out, but it seems his shooting would be redundant with the reserves anyway. Thus far, he’s played well offensively with any guard, and his inconsistency has been a fault of his own, not his point guard’s. His Field Goals Assisted On rate has decreased by 14.1% (Thanks, Liston), so he may lack chemistry with Jose, or he may just be creating for himself more.
Jay Triano reportedly started Joey Dorsey at power forward on Sunday against Atlanta so rotations weren’t disrupted, but this is a team that has struggled other than the four-game winning streak from last week. Amir Johnson should probably be given the chance to start alongside Bargnani, but my focus here is at the point, and how the guards mesh with the constants (Weems/DeRozan v. Barbosa/Kleiza/Stojakovic). We haven’t yet witnessed how this trade will shakeout, but the eye-test and rotation logic makes me think Bayless is a better fit with the starters, and Jose with the reserves. This is not a matter of replacing one with the other, but rather maximizing the contributions of both.
Jose can play more minutes overall, and close out games, if that’s what Jay Triano feels gives the team the best chance to win. I’m okay with that, but it doesn’t mean Jose has to start. If Bayless is playing less minutes and plays best with the starters, it should be easy to work the rotation so that most of his minutes are alongside the starters, which would allow Jose time with both units. Again, it’s not about promoting one and demoting the other, but about maximizing both of their output when on the floor, which to me would mean that Jose plays whenever the reserves are in, Bayless plays his minutes with the starters, and any gaps/overlaps are filled via game-by-game strategy, dictation by the game situation, or any other goals of the rotation (e.g. increasing Jose’s trade value).
I’m not sure how this idea will be received. I know most are committed to the idea of starter versus reserve, and I may be in the minority suggesting Bayless start for the reasons I’ve given (though some may agree for other reasons). Still, a team at the margins, like the Raptors, needs to get the most out of its players in every way possible. The Raptors have been outscored in the first quarter 13 times in 17 games, and sit at 6-11. Bad starts mean teams have to play catch-up, a daunting task if you can’t out-skill most opponents. If a small rotation tweak like this can get even slightly more efficiency out of both units, it’s an idea well worth exploring.
(And of course, this is all moot if Weems plays his way to a demotion, removing the obvious dichotomy the two units currently show.)