Adam Levitan

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Isaiah Thomas 2.0

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Who will get the minutes? It’s a simple question that rarely has a simple answer.

Coaches are constantly tinkering and toying with their rotations. Sometimes it has to with injuries and in other instances, it’s a result of ineffective play from a certain player. The impact this has on minutes played and thus statistical production is where we come in.

Every Tuesday for the rest of the season, I’ll explore a certain aspect of half the league’s rotations while attempting to get inside coaches’ heads. The idea isn’t to tell you what Kevin Love and LeBron James are going to do -- it’s to decipher how much burn fringe players are going to get.

Here’s last week’s look at the East. Let’s kick this week off in SacTown, where a mini-me has taken over.

Position: Point guard
Two weeks ago in this space, I mentioned that John Salmons was in trouble for two reasons: Tyreke Evans’ ability to play the small forward spot and Salmons' inept offensive ability. Since then, the Kings have turned those fears into fruition.

The Kings are 0-2 since inserting rookie Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup at point guard, thus kicking Evans to the “three.” However, both losses have been narrow defeats and the offense has averaged 100.0 points per game. In the 29 other games, the Kings have averaged 92.5 points per game. You can be sure that coach Keith Smart has noticed the effect that Thomas has had on his offense.

“We're moving the ball very well and the point of attack has been a little more secure with him playing there. I needed a director on the floor and he's been that,” Smart said. “Two games of doing this, we've been close in both games and so the progress for him is very, very well for him and I'm proud of what he's doing. And he's given me what I needed, a lead guy on the floor to kind of direct and put people in the right spots but also be a vocal guy."

To me, that sounds like a guy willing to give a 5’9/185 second-round pick (Thomas) a long leash. Evans is not a real point guard and Salmons’ 36.1 shooting percentage is unacceptable. In his two starts, Thomas has averaged 18.0 points, 7.5 assists and 2.0 3-pointers while playing 33.1 minutes. There’s a lot of upside here.

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Position: Guards
The Blazers have lost nine of their last 15 games, leading to major indigestion among fans, coaches and media over the rotation. Only one thing is clear: Nicolas Batum is one of the most talented players in the NBA.

That’s right, the 23-year-old Frenchman will be an All-Star one day very soon. And thanks to his recent promotion into the starting five, he’s going to be a fantasy All-Star right now.  Since replacing Wesley Matthews as the starting shooting guard five games ago, Batum is averaging 37.6 minutes. All he’s done with that time is get 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.6 3-pointers, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals. Guess how many guys are averaging at least two 3-pointers, one block and one steal on the season? Zero.

To top it off, he’s the Blazers’ best perimeter defender and one of the best young “stoppers” in the league. Now locked into 33-38 minutes, Batum has legit top-10 fantasy upside.

But all is not well in Portland. If the Blazers had any real backup behind Raymond Felton, he’d have been benched by now. It’s not just the 37.1 percent shooting that has Felton in the doghouse. It’s high-school kind of turnovers and a sudden inability to make plays via penetration.

That’s led Nate McMillan to try Jamal Crawford at the point for extended periods, an experiment that can‘t work. You can’t ask a gunner to change his stripes. So the most likely result here is Felton’s leash continuing to extend as long as it possibly can. He’s still getting 31.0 minutes per game over the last 11 simply because McMillan doesn’t have any other options.

Position: Center
DeAndre Jordan is a tremendous defensive talent. He’s also 23 years old and has a raw basketball IQ. That’s seems to be why coach Vinny Del Negro has turned to newly acquired veteran Kenyon Martin in crunch time of late, thus capping Jordan’s minutes.

In the first 22 games of the year, Jordan was averaging about 30.8 minutes per game. In the eight games since Martin has joined the scene, he’s at 23.7. It’s a drastic and striking decline, one that owners must take note of. Yes, Martin is an “old” 34 and there’s a chance he’ll run out of gas as the season moves along. But we still need to knock Jordan down a peg or two.

Position: Power forward
It’s extremely difficult to explain what’s gotten into Marreese Speights over the last 12 days. It’s easy to explain what will happen in about two weeks: He’s going to the bench.

That’s because Zach Randolph (knee) remains on target to return for approximately the final 30 games of the season. So even though Speights has finally earned starter’s minutes with a renewed commitment to rebounding and shot selection, he’s only a short-term add. The ex-Sixers’ 31.3 minutes over the last eight games will drop to 15-20 once Z-Bo is up to speed.

Position: Point guard
Greivis Vasquez has proven that he can play point guard at the NBA level. In his eight starts, the Hornets are 3-5 despite having one of the worst rosters in the league.

The problem is that Jarrett Jack is also a very legit NBA point guard and has the respect of coach Monty Williams as a seven-year veteran. Once Jack is up to speed, he’ll likely reemerge as the starter. However, that doesn’t mean Vasquez’s value is shot.

Williams has shown a willingness to play the two together, thus sending bench-caliber gunner Marco Belinelli to the bench. On Monday night, Vasquez played 29 minutes, Jack played 30 and Belinelli saw just 22 despite starting. With Eric Gordon (knee) likely done for the year, Vasquez is a decent bet to hover around 25-29 minutes the rest of the way -- even if Jack sustains health.

Position: Point guard
We’ve talked plenty about Devin Harris’ drastic drop-off in play this season. Now that we’re 30 games into the year, there’s no reason to expect a turnaround.

So what we’re left with is a simple hot-hand, game-flow kind of platoon between Harris and veteran backup Earl Watson. Over the last 11 games, Harris is playing 25.5 minutes. Watson is at 22.5. Yes, that adds up to 48.0 minutes, also known as the length of an NBA game. Harris certainly has the talent edge, but he’s proven that random big games are just a mirage before he heads back into this timeshare.

Position: Small forward
Metta World Peace aka Ron has started 12 straight games at small forward. The Lakers are 8-4 in that span. Barring a much-needed roster addition, MWP projects to stay in that starting role. The problem is that he’s averaging 4.0 points and shooting 33.3 percent as a starter even though he’s playing 25.3 minutes. Again, we can safely ignore everyone on the Lakers except their “Big 3.”

Position: Point guard
The Mavs are not going to push Jason Kidd no matter what. Even though they were playing without Roddy Beaubois (personal), Delonte West (finger) and Jason Terry for much of the last week, Kidd is averaging a mere 26.6 minutes per night over the last seven games.

Coach Rick Carlisle is on the record saying he wants to limit Kidd to around 25 minutes per night. That seems unreasonable considering how much the other Mavs love playing with the future Hall of Famer, but Carlisle is close to sticking to that goal. Owners need to take the assists, steals and treys and not expect a lot of upside.

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Adam Levitan is in his sixth season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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