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Why Shabazz Muhammad doesn't start

Shabazz Muhammad has played well in the month of December, but that doesn't mean he should be given a spot in the starting lineup.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves' roster has already been destroyed by injuries.

Flip Saunders only has a handful of players while Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic -- three of the opening day starters -- aren't expected to return for at least a month. Ronnie Turiaf has been virtually invisible, Mo Williams is aging and unable to carry a full workload and the Wolves have yet to catch momentum, in terms of good health, thus far this year.

The plethora of casualties subsequently ensures that the Wolves are in the midst of a rebuilding season, which is fine. This means they aren't flirting with any postseason aspirations and can focus on player development. Saunders has no choice but to play rookies Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, along with second year players Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Bennett in each game, because there aren't many other viable options.

Even though the Wolves are destined for another losing season there have been reasons to be optimistic about the future; Wiggins recorded his first double-double of the season in an unexpected victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, LaVine scored 28 in a road-win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Dieng averages more points, rebounds and assists per game than he did last season and the same is true for Bennett, who spent his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Saunders has really done all he can -- especially if you consider what he has to work with -- and these are encouraging performances, but it's hard to measure development using statistics. This is perhaps why Muhammad has really been one of the more positive storylines this season. It's not that he's averaging 11 points in 18 minutes per game, but the way he seems to hustle at both ends of the floor, and on each possession, that has been so damn impressive.

And Muhammad has played especially well recently. He averaged 13.8 points in 22 minutes per game over the Wolves' previous five matchups, showing energy the very moment he steps onto the court. It's really a refreshing sight to see.

Having seen the production and relentlessness brought on what appears to be a pretty regular basis, some are asking why Muhammad isn't in the starting lineup. And it's a fair question to ask. However, the answer (at least my answer) doesn't get behind the idea in question.

There is a common misconception that starting lineups consist of the best five players on a team.

There is no true formula or equation that determines which players should and shouldn't start. It's ultimately the head coach that makes the decision of which five players are on the court at tip-off. Take the Golden State Warriors, for example.

Last season, under Mark Jackson, Andre Iguodala started at small forward in each of his 62 appearances with the Warriors.

Collectively, Iguodala, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut was Jackson's most-used lineup throughout the year, recording 819 minutes on the floor together over 44-game span. These five finished last season as the Warriors' only group to average a positive plus-minus rating (+5.8) on a per game basis. Per game, Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Bogut averaged a better +/- rating than any of the 250 most-used lineups in the NBA last season.

Shortly after being eliminated from the postseason Mark Jackson was fired and replaced by Steve Kerr.

A member of arguably the best lineup in the league last year, Iguodala has yet to start for the Warriors this season. Even though Kerr admitted Iguodala was at times the Warriors' best player during training camp, it's third year player Harrison Barnes that has started in each of his 22 appearances.

So far, the starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Draymond Green (Lee has yet to play this season and is recovering from injury) and Bogut has recorded a per game plus-minus average of +7.5. Although they don't rank atop the league in this category, Kerr and the Warriors' starters currently own the NBA's best record.

Meanwhile, Barnes is having what could be considered his best year as a pro. "The Resurgence of Harrison Barnes" was written by Warriors beat writer Marcus Thompson, who explains how and why Barnes has flourished since the arrival of Kerr.

As for Iguodala, well, how could someone possibly complain about being part of a roster that's off to a 19-2 start?

Unless Shabazz Muhammad can play point guard, his presence in the starting lineup doesn't make any sense.

The Wolves' roster contains an inordinate amount of wing players; LaVine, Martin, Wiggins, Brewer, Muhammad, Chase Budinger, Robbie Hummel and Glenn Robinson III. The problems and benefits that coincide with having an abundance of wings have been presented and discussed in multiple columns published on this website. Some of the concerns with the Wolves' roster started coming to fruition after Rubio was sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Williams has missed time with his own injury problems, which is why LaVine has started at point guard in the Wolves' previous four games. There is a substantial population within the Canis Hoopus community who believe he isn't a point guard but rather a shooting guard, which is fine. However, there is no denying that LaVine must become a better ball handler, regardless of his "true" position.

Outside of Williams and LaVine, Saunders' only other option at point guard is Brewer. Essentially, the Wolves are without a secondary ball handler no matter which five players are on the court. Here are the starting lineups used through six games in December.

  1. LaVine, Wiggins, Brewer, Young and Dieng.
  2. Williams, Wiggins, Brewer, Young and Dieng.
Getting back to the subject at hand; if we're trying to find a place for Muhammad amidst the starters, who would he replace?

Until Pekovic returns, Dieng will continue to start at center while Young is undoubtedly the best power forward on the roster. Those two have those positions locked up.

Brewer's presence is important because he's the secondary ball handler in each of the above lineups. Wiggins doesn't have the best handles, to put it nicely, so, if opponents can successfully deny LaVine or Williams the ball, there aren't many others who could help the Wolves avoid either an 8, or 5- second violation. Being the only capable ball handler is a lot of pressure to put on LaVine, which is something he doesn't need any additional of at this point in his young career.

It's best to keep Brewer out there, because he's really the only thing the Wolves have that resembles a shooting guard. He has shown he is capable of playing point guard in this dire time of need, too. Brewer's been pretty valuable in those regards.

Saunders and the coaching staff often express how important it is for Wiggins to remain engaged throughout the entirety of each game. Having him start on the bench would be counterproductive. Wiggins is unquestionably the best one-on-one defender on the roster, and could very well be the Wolves' best player while Rubio is on the sideline. Muhammad doesn't fit either of those descriptions.

For comparisons sake...

Denver Nuggets' forward and sometimes 6th man Kenneth Faried is averaging 7.8 points in the paint and 3.3 second chance points per game this season. He averages 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in 25.4 minutes per game in this his fourth NBA season, and was a big contributor with Team USA on a roster that won Gold at the FIBA World Cup this summer.

Faried's figures are slightly higher than Muhammad's season averages of 6.4 points in the paint and 2.3 second chance points per game, which is understandable. One the plus side, the Wolves are getting this production from second year player, whereas the Nuggets' recently signed Faried to a four-year, $50 million dollar deal. Muhammad will make slightly under $2 million dollars in 2014-15.

Muhammad could make a stronger case to be in the starting lineup by sharpening some skills at the defensive end.
Often drifting away from his man, Muhammad has shown he is prone to leaving opponents open at the three point line while searching for additional rebounds, steals, and things as such. Lateral quickness, foot-speed and post-defense are all areas where he has room to improve.

Fortunately, unlike the aforementioned Harrison Barnes, Muhammad doesn't need better players around him in order to flourish. Muhammad is averaging 8.7 points in the paint and 2.5 second chance points per game since December 1st. In that span, he's account for ~18% of the Wolves' total points in the paint and second chance points. Knowing most of his production is generated by hustle, it's not farfetched to think Muhammad can sustain this level of effectiveness for at least the remainder of the year.

Muhammad's been one of the most refreshing storylines and has started to fulfill an often-vacant 6th man role. He brings scoring, rebounding and hustle upon entering each game. Amidst a roster that has been depleted with injuries, Muhammad's presence off-the-bench has been vital to the few successes the Wolves have had this season.

Flip Saunders has preached that, if nothing else, he wants his team to play hard. That's what Shabazz Muhammad does on a nightly basis. It's something Wolves fans can count on. But they'll have to count on him doing it in appearances off the bench until it's decided otherwise.