We've spent a lot of time in the last week or two discussing what the news that the Orlando Magic plan to shift power forward Rashard Lewis to small forward more frequently this season means for Lewis, and for the team's identity. But we've neglected to properly address what impact that change could have on Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass, Lewis' backups. Until now, anyway.
Neither Anderson nor Bass played extensively last season, but that's not an indictment of their abilities. Of the 42 players last season who made at least 50 appearances but failed to average more than 15 minutes per game, Anderson and Bass rank second and third, respectively, in Player Efficiency Rating. If you prefer Win Shares per 48 minutes, those figures change to second and fourth, with backup center Marcin Gortat ranking third, coincidentally. It's obvious that both young men are quite talented. It also became obvious last season that they have some holes they need to fix in order to become rotation regulars in the years ahead.
Anderson's big problem is consistency. He excelled in his six starts during Lewis' season-opening suspension, connecting on 43.6 percent of his three-pointers and averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds. But when Lewis returned, Anderson's playing time cut nearly in half, and his productivity suffered as a result. With a few more minutes available at power forward every night, Anderson could become a staple in the rotation and, in theory, a better contributor.
But he can't get there without making some adjustments, so it's encouraging to learn he put some work in over the summer. The two-year vet improved his body in the offseason, and strength-and-conditioning coach Joe Rogowski told the team's website Anderson's body has changed "dramatically" as a result. Coach Stan Van Gundy agrees, saying Anderson's "an entirely different player than he was a year ago" with regard to his body. Which is good news, because Anderson's individual defense, particularly in the low post, needs work. If he's added the requisite muscle without compromising his shooting touch, he'll be even more of an asset.
Shot selection is the final hurdle for Anderson to clear. He ought to be the bench's go-to scores--well, he or J.J. Redick--so part of his job entails his ending a high number of possessions. But he does need to exercise more discretion with the ball. Though not turnover-prone, Anderson too often lets fly from deep before reading the defense; he doesn't have the proverbial "green light" just yet, which means he should try being more patient. And if we're talking about reading the defense, we should mention that Anderson needs to become more comfortable feeding the post, as his entry passes were too often off the mark last year.
Bass is a different animal. His lack of playing time last year underscored the team's need to space the floor for Dwight Howard inside, while his team defensive instincts proved poor, although Magic television color analyst Matt Guokas believes talk of Bass' deficiencies in that area is overblown. We also heard word early in the season from a person involved with the team that Bass didn't exactly know the Magic's playbook.
But no one need doubt Bass now. He's impressed Van Gundy and the coaching staff with his willingness to break down film after practice this summer. Bass himself told the Orlando Sentinel "I'm feeling better than I did last season at this time," and I think that attitude showed at Media Day. While Bass never comes across as particularly unhappy, he rarely seems enthusiastic, either; he's quiet and laid-back by nature. At Media Day, though, he was constantly smiling, laughing, and kidding around. One of the more memorable moments for me came when a photographer asked Bass to look mean and intense as Bass struggled to hide his smile.
In Sunday's paper, Brian Schmitz wrote a mini-feature on Bass which I haven't managed to find on the Sentinel's website, so I can't link it for you. But I distinctly remember Bass himself saying he needs to improve his per-minute rebounding. This assessment is fair, and shows a commendable level of self-awareness. Despite his long arms, athleticism, and frequent proximity to the basket, Bass ranks below positional average with regard to defensive rebounding and total rebounding. On last year's Magic, he tied shooting guard Vince Carter for fifth in per-minute rebounding, grabbing one defensive board per every 8.9 minutes played; the average, among power forwards to make 40 appearances and average at least 10 minutes per game, is one defensive rebound every 5.7 minutes.
I'd also contend he needs to become a better passer. While we're not asking him to post Steve Nash-like assist numbers, it's reasonable to ask a rotation-caliber NBA player to record more than 19 assists in 648 minutes, isn't it? To his credit, he only committed 27 turnovers the whole year, so he's not exactly coughing the ball up. The issue is that when he gets the ball, he's too often looking to score. Like Anderson, he needs to address his reluctance to pass. In no way do I intend to imply either player is selfish. Please don't misunderstand me there.
On the team level, playing Anderson at power forward and Lewis at small forward keeps the floor spread for Howard, and as such doesn't abandon the team's offensive philosophy. Lewis would likely get far more touches, especially in the low post, with Howard hanging out on the weakside in rebounding position and Anderson stationed on either wing for a kickout. Which means Anderson wouldn't be quite as involved, sure, but that's to be expected when sharing the floor with a player of Lewis' caliber.
It's less obvious what to expect from a Bass/Lewis forward pairing, since in fact they never shared the floor at those positions last year. More post-ups for Lewis, sure--at 6-foot-10 with a soft stroke, he can punish smaller defenders on the block, which is a key reason why the Magic like him there--but where to put Bass? The weak-side baseline could be a possibility. Given his fondness for the elbow-extended jumper, though, and the fact that putting him there gives him a head start with regard to getting back on defense, it's more likely that we'd see him linger here than on the baseline. Either way, playing Bass shrinks the floor, and Orlando becomes "traditional" insofar as it'd only have three ranged shooters on the court. It would not be "traditional" with regard to having two plus rebounders and defenders, however, due to Bass' aforementioned difficulties in those areas. Difficulties which he's working to fix.
The issue with either Anderson or Bass sharing the court with Lewis is that it'd force Lewis to cover smaller, faster players at the other end. More broadly, it means Orlando wouldn't have a plus defender at either perimeter position. Sacrificing defense for offense's sake doesn't sound like a Van Gundy tactic, but as John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com explained, there's a lingering feeling in Magic HQ that playing Lewis at small forward in the Eastern Conference Finals could have put Orlando over the top against the Boston Celtics. The thinking, then, appears to be that Lewis' ability to score in more ways from the three-spot is more important than putting a "true" power forward in the lineup.
Regardless of the reason for the move, it's clear that it's something with which the Magic intend to experiment this season, starting with the exhibition schedule. I'm excited to see how it plays out.