Ontology and Possibility: On the nature of Zach LaVine’s position
A week and a half into the season, the Wolves are 3-2, and could easily be 4-1 if a few controversial calls in the final minute of last week’s Blazers game had gone the other way. Things are mostly good; everyone is still healthy (save Nikola Pekovic, of course, who is still recovering from achilles surgery), Karl-Anthony Towns looks like the real deal, the teams is getting to the line at a positively absurd rate, and their crunch-time defense has been especially stout.
The main source of consternation has been Sam Mitchell’s rotations, specifically the employment of Zach LaVine as the team’s primary backup point guard. After being named Minnesota’s starting 2-guard early in training camp, LaVine lost that job, and was demoted to point guard of the second unit, a move that has garnered much scrutiny.
Many people believe if LaVine is going to maximize his potential, it’ll be at shooting guard. Those folks were given all kinds of ammunition once the numbers from Saturday night’s road victory over the Bulls came in; during the 10 minutes (and 22 possessions) LaVine spent on the floor with Ricky Rubio (and thus playing off the ball), the Wolves scored 1.445 points per possession, sank 14 of 19 field goal attempts and outscored Chicago 32-to-14.
Until Saturday, however, Rubio and LaVine hadn’t shared the floor. For the season, when the two are separated, Minnesota has outscored opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions when Ricky Rubio is on the floor and Zach LaVine is on the bench. When the spots are flipped (Zach on, Ricky off), the team is outscored by 18.1 points per 100 possessions. When Nemanja Bjelica and Kevin Martin play with Rubio, their True Shooting percentages are 60.6% and 66.7%, respectively. When Bjelica and Martin play with LaVine, those numbers plummet to 48.4% and 59.4%. The samples sizes are small, but the numbers from 2015-16 seem to show that players perform much better when Ricky is running point:
Those who are upset that LaVine is spending so much time at the 1 lament the fact that he “is” not a point guard. Therefore, playing him there is either a waste of time (at best) or harming the development of his fellow second teamers (at worst). They might still believe in the young man’s overall potential, so they absolve or greatly minimize LaVine’s part in his own uneven play because he plays outside of his “natural” position.
That all presupposes something: what, exactly, Zach LaVine is.
What is the nature of a position, exactly? They’re dictated by a mixture of objective factors such as height, weight, build, and wingspan, along with subjective factors such as “feel for the game,” “toughness,” or “basketball IQ.” It’s a curious question no matter what sport you’re analyzing. Are there intrinsic traits point guards ought to possess? How about cornerbacks in football, or defensemen in hockey, or goalkeepers in soccer, or catchers in baseball? Who decides, and when, what a certain player “is”? If it’s at all ambiguous, why not keep an open mind about an athlete changing positions? If the player in question is young enough (and raw enough), why not explore that in earnest? It’d be a mistake to conclude from the numbers above (and last season’s dreadful showing) that LaVine is hopeless as a point guard.
When it comes to LaVine’s situation, it’s important to remember that his ultimate spot doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. It’s possible LaVine ends up a playmaking combo guard who you would never want as a full-time point, which can still be a very useful player (a la Jamal Crawford). LaVine’s age should also be considered (he can’t even legally drink until March), as well as his inexperience with quality talent around him (he played 900 collegiate minutes, plus 1900 minutes on a 16-win team his rookie season in the NBA). He is, by many accounts, a tireless worker. A point guard who can hold his own for stretches in two guard lineups is worth a bit more to a team than a two guard who teases with shooting ability and raw athleticism. If there’s any chance he can become the former, why give up on it to pigeonhole him as the latter? Especially on a team that should only win around 30 or so games, and should (justifiably) use this season as a learning experience?
That’s the philosophical side of things, but there are pragmatic reasons why LaVine as the second unit point guard makes sense for the time being. First, he’s still wire thin. He gets cleaned out on screens, which is what everyone notices about him on the defensive end, but bumping him up to face larger players at the 2 probably isn’t the answer to those woes. Where the Wolves can get away with it is when opponents employ two point guard lineups, as the Bulls did on Saturday (mixing Derrick Rose, E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks in the backcourt of much of the game).
Secondly, Minnesota has to find minutes for a bunch of wings; Andrew Wiggins, Tayshaun Prince, Shabazz Muhammad, and Kevin Martin all deserve to get time. Bumping LaVine to point guard eases the logjam. If Andre Miller were to play the 15-18 minutes Rubio sits, there’d be far fewer minutes to go around. It’s no coincidence that we saw LaVine’s first extended time off the ball on a night when one of those wings (Kevin Martin) was out (for personal reasons – he is expected back for tonight’s game in Atlanta). It’s possible a trade or injury will take the minutes problem off of the coaching staff’s hands, and they won’t even have to decide how long to ride out the Zach LaVine point guard experiment, but until then, it’s perfectly pragmatic to keep him there.
Rather than criticizing how he’s been handled, perhaps it’s time to look at it another way. LaVine has been asked to learn to play point guard, and he’s still bad at it. His feel for running the pick and roll, decision-making, and timing on passes don’t appear to have improved much since he came into the league. It makes sense to be patient with him, but at some point, he must improve at what he’s being asked to do. The fear that he could harm the development of his fellow second-teamers (Bazzy, Bjelica, and Gorgui) is a valid one, but such a thing is difficult to tell a mere five games into an 82 game season.
There will come a time to fish or cut bait on the idea of LaVine as a point guard, but that time isn’t now. That isn’t to say he has been a good point guard; he hasn’t. As the Wolves get better and better, minutes will have to be earned. Either LaVine will rise to the occasion and improve, or he will not. That’s up to him. We still have time for Zach LaVine to show us what he is, rather than making final judgments on his position already.