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May 9, 2011
Weakest Links
The NBA's Worst Positions

by Kevin Pelton

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With the majority of NBA teams shifting into offseason mode--a group that now includes the Los Angeles Lakers--a common theme is improving on weaknesses. For some teams, that requires difficult assessments. In other cases, it was all too obvious all season long. We're interested in the latter group, the positions that were the biggest trouble spots for their teams.

To evaluate the weakest positions in the league, we were guided by a handful of statistics. 82games.com tracks team production by position, as measured by John Hollinger's PER. The best measure is net PER, which includes a measure of individual defense in addition to offensive performance. Those stats were supplemented by using Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) metric by position and a dose of common sense to come up with the following rankings--with the now-eliminated Lakers sitting smack in the middle of them.

1. New Jersey Nets: Small forwards (-7.6 Net PER, -9.5 WARP)
When the Nets signed Travis Outlaw as a free agent, last summer, it made sense on the surface. Outlaw had been considered one of the league's best reserves and, at 26, was just entering his prime. What the Nets failed to realize was that Outlaw's best play with the Portland Trail Blazers came as an undersized power forward, not at small forward. During 2008-09, for example, Outlaw had a PER of 14.0 when playing the three but an impressive 23.0 PER as a four-man. As it turned out, Outlaw could not even match his previous performance as a small forward when his three-point percentage cratered, leaving him as one of the league's most inefficient scorers (Outlaw's True Shooting Percentage was just 46.9 percent).

Rookie Damion James had his moments, but a broken foot limited him to just eight games after Dec. 9. A week after James went down, the Nets traded enigmatic Terrence Williams to the Houston Rockets. That left them supplementing Outlaw with a variety of cast-offs, including Stephen Graham, Quinton Ross and briefly D-League callup Mario West. None of the players even rated as better than replacement level, and incredibly the sextet was a combined 9.5 wins below replacement level. Even getting a halfway-decent option at small forward via free agency could allow the Nets to improve rapidly next season--especially if it moves Outlaw to a reserve role at power forward.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Wings (SG: -5.1 Net PER, -3.4 WARP; SF: -6.6 Net PER, -1.1 WARP)
The departure of LeBron James left an enormous crater in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers tried to replace James with a variety of players like Anthony Parker. Unfortunately, those players were coveted for their ability to play alongside the superstar, not mimic him. To make matters worse, the Cavaliers veterans who did play well were often sidelined by injury. Daniel Gibson, who was the most effective of Cleveland's options at shooting guard and small forward, missed 15 games and was forced to play the point when Mo Williams and Baron Davis were out of the lineup. Parker missed another 10 games.

When they were out, the Cavaliers' options were strictly replacement level or worse. With veterans Joey Graham and Jawad Williams proving inadequate, Byron Scott went with former D-Leaguer Alonzo Gee, undrafted rookie Manny Harris and 21-year-old Christian Eyenga. The athletic Eyenga may develop into a solid contributor, but he looked overmatched making the move to the NBA after limited action at the highest level of Spanish basketball. Since both wing positions rated among the league's 10 worst in terms of net PER, they must be a high priority for Cleveland with its pair of lottery picks. Unfortunately, unless you project Arizona's Derrick Williams as an NBA small forward, this draft lacks top-tier wing prospects.

3. Los Angeles Lakers: Point guards (-8.6 Net PER, -2.5 WARP)
For the most part, positions that rate as significant weaknesses on playoff teams either have already been filled by trades (Atlanta point guards, Oklahoma City centers) or reflect injury (Boston centers). Lakers point guards are a different story, as Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have been healthy nearly all season and remained the Lakers' rotation entering the playoffs. In fairness, the nature of the triangle tends to undermine the assist numbers Blake and Fisher can post, but that doesn't entirely explain them finishing with the worst PER (8.8) and net PER (-8.6) of any position in the league.

The triangle also creates open threes, and Blake and Fisher hit them at a decent rate, but neither could convert inside the arc. Blake made 32.7 percent of his two-point attempts, worst of any player in the league who saw at least 1,000 minutes. Fisher was third from the bottom at 38.6 percent. Meanwhile, as has been on display in the postseason, both players struggled defending quick point guards. With Fisher aging, the expectation was Blake would eventually step into a starting role. Since he's under contract for three more years, the Lakers have to hope Blake's performance this year was a fluke.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves: Shooting guards (-7.9 Net PER, -1.5 WARP)
In a tight race, the Timberwolves' shooting guards outdistanced the team's point guards as the weakest position in the Minnesota backcourt. Wesley Johnson, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 draft, spent his rookie year largely playing out of position. That can't entirely explain why he made so little impact. Johnson's size should have been an asset on the glass, but he was actually a weaker rebounder than the average shooting guard. Johnson also made just 42.7 percent of his two-point attempts. That was better than one-dimensional backup Wayne Ellington, who was barely more accurate on twos (40.6 percent) than threes (39.7 percent). Veteran Martell Webster, who split time between the two wing positions when healthy, was the Timberwolves' only effective option at shooting guard.

Like the Cavaliers, Minnesota's options for upgrading the position in the draft are highly limited. Unless the Timberwolves can swing a trade for a young two-guard, they will likely bring back the same cast of characters and hope to get more minutes out of Webster and development from Johnson. Though it's far too early to write off Johnson's chances as a pro, he's already 23--in fact, he's only seven months younger than Webster, who just completed his sixth NBA season after entering the league out of high school.

5. Utah Jazz: Shooting guards (-4.6 Net PER, -2.0 WARP)
The Jazz's losses to trades and free agency finally became too much to bear this season, nowhere more so than at shooting guard. Utah traded Ronnie Brewer to Memphis at last year's trade deadline in a move motivated by the luxury tax. Brewer's replacement, Wesley Matthews, got a fat contract from the Portland Trail Blazers as a free agent the Jazz chose not to match. Shopping from the bargain aisle, Utah signed veteran Raja Bell to go with holdover C.J. Miles. Bell was a major disappointment and Miles was inconsistent, a key reason the Jazz slipped out of the playoff race and eventually traded Deron Williams.

The biggest shortcoming of the Jazz's shooting guard rotation (which also included Ronnie Price as part of a small second-team lineup with Earl Watson) was inaccurate shooting. Despite attempting a combined 7.3 three-pointers a night, the three players shot just 32.8 percent from beyond the arc, well below league average (35.8 percent). Since Bell--under contract through 2012-13--isn't getting any younger, Utah will likely exercise the team option on Miles' deal and hope he can grow into a starting position.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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