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20 Days, 20 Questions: Who Starts At Small Forward?

Are you for real or just a gimmick?
Are you for real or just a gimmick?

Perhaps the most important questions that the Wizards need to resolve this preseason is not whether John Wall and Gilbert Arenas can coexist, the state of Arenas' psyche, or JaVale McGee's NBA2K 11 ranking, but one that is simple meat and potatoes basketball, who gets the start at small forward for the Wizards?

I attempted to first answer this piece for SBN D.C. pointing to the fact that Josh Howard is the prohibitive favorite to start at the position when he return from injury, but Al Thornton could make a case for a starting role with rookie Trevor Booker, and veterans Nick Young and Kirk Hinrich as dark horses in the competition:

Booker showed flashes of his defensive ability and toughness in summer league, and will it be interesting to see whether coach Flip Saunders prefers the defensive mentality of Booker. Young and Hinrich are long shots to start at the position, as they would be moving away from their natural guard roles, but Young at least had the height and athleticism to be considered for spot starts at the position.

And then Flip Saunders has to go and prove that I'm not a great prognosticator.

Instead of being a dark horse, Hinrich has been inserted into the starting small forward role to begin preseason play. By going with his "three little guys lineup" Saunders is adding more basketball IQ and outside shooting to the starting lineup with the insertion of Hinrich. Hinrich brings better ball movement, greater passing and a headier defensive presence to the role of small forward. Arguably, by starting the trio of guards, Saunders is sticking to the mantra of "you play your best" players, regardless of the situation.

Unfortunately, the problem with starting Hinrich is three-fold.

The first issue with the lineup is that it is a gimmick. Starting three guards might confuse opposing teams for a bit, but eventually they are going to adjust and begin to take advantage of Hinrich's lack of athleticism and height at the position. Now, there could be hope that the league will remain fooled until Howard returns from injury as his recovery is proceeding ahead of schedule. If this is the case, then it's a risky gambit, but one that may ultimately pay dividends as John Wall gets to spend time on the floor with the best possible combination of players, rather than those that are simply slotted into assumed roles.

Another problem with starting Hinrich at small forward is that the burden of defensive stopper falls heavily on the shoulders of JaVale McGee and to a lesser extent Andray Blatche. McGee will have to take a huge step forward defensively and improve his defensive switching in order to prevent Hinrich from being exploited in the post. Blatche will have to labor more at the defensive end of the court, which is not the ideal situation for your secondary scoring option.

Perhaps this is a brilliant stratagem on Saunders' part, basically telling McGee that the defense is "on you" and expecting McGee to harness his remarkable athletic ability to play in a controlled manner. If so, kudos for the motivational method, but it has the strong change to spectacularly backfire. Last night, against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that didn't start it's two best players, the Wizards were thoroughly out rebounded and broke down several times defensively when employing the "three little guys" lineup. Rebounding is already a noted concern for this team, and the implementation of this particular lineup would seem to exacerbate this particular weakness.

Finally, there is the issue of Al Thornton. Thornton showed up for camp 25 pounds lighter and motivated to make his case for the starting role. As noted by Steve Perrin of Clip's Nation when Thornton was acquired, he is a player that performs better when he knows what his minutes are going to be and prefers a starting role:

When the Clippers added Rasual Butler this summer, Al found himself fighting for his starting job and it clearly affected him. He started the season in a miserable slump - bounced back when he made it back into the starting lineup alongside Butler while Eric Gordon was hurt - continued to play well for awhile after running to the sixth man role - and then went back into the slump the last month. Whether he tailed off because he was losing minutes or he lost minutes because he tailed off is a tough one to answer. But clearly in was in a negative feedback loop.

Now Thornton finds himself behind a combo guard and a guy coming off serious injury in the race for the starting position. All this after he put in the effort to come to camp hungry and motivated.

The future answer to who starts at small forward is probably "none of the above." Young, Thornton, and Howard all have uncertain futures on the team, Booker needs to demonstrate the quickness to defend small forwards, and it would probably be preferred if Hinrich returned to his usual role at the guard position. The Wizards were reportedly in the hunt this summer for Josh Childress and it is likely that their future plans lie elsewhere at the position. The coming off season brings a paucity of small forwards on the open market, with the noted exception of Carmelo Anthony whom the Wizards can't afford, and Caron Butler who is unlikely to return to the DMV.

As for this season, I think the most likely scenario is that you are going to see a starting roulette scenario, much like we did with the shooting guard position over the past couple of years. Look for Hinrich to start against smaller teams like New York and Golden State with Thornton inserted into the lineup against the beefier Boston and Orlando's of the NBA. When Josh Howard comes back the situation will hopefully solidify, but my expectations are that you will see a variety of different names in the game threads this season