NBA head coaches have 240 minutes per game to spread between their starters and reserves, and every year dozens of promising fantasy options are stifled by a lack of playing time. The following is a brief survey of glaring position battles which fantasy owners should monitor during training camp and the preseason. Where appropriate, I’ve included educated guesses about potential ‘winners’. Enjoy.
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Hawks PGs: Jeff Teague vs. Devin Harris
Teague is the incumbent starting PG, having started all 66 games last season, and he remains the odds-on favorite to hang onto the job. He averaged 12.6 points, 2.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals last year, with just 2.0 turnovers, and could become a top-tier fantasy PG if he increases his 3-point totals (0.8 per game last year). Harris, a one-time All-Star, is clearly on the downside of his career, and won't be worth owning while he's relegated to backup duties.
Celtics SGs: Courtney Lee vs. Avery Bradley
Lee will begin the season as the starting SG in Boston, but Doc Rivers will give Bradley a chance to compete for the job once he's recovered from shoulder surgeries. Bradley could return in December, giving Lee just a month or two to make his case. I'd avoid both players on account of the inherent uncertainty in their roles, as well as the pesky presence of Sixth-Man Jason Terry.
Bobcats PGs: Kemba Walker vs. Ramon Sessions
Charlotte hired coach Mike Dunlap this summer and has doubled-down on player development, which bodes well for Walker. The Charlotte Observer has even declared Walker "the starter," and all signs point to him holding off Sessions, the veteran who has never been able to find a reliable starting PG job. In 25 starts as a rookie, Kemba averaged 14.7 points, 1.4 three-pointers, 5.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.0 steals. Unfortunately, he shot just 36.6 percent from the field last season and needs to vastly improve his jump shot to avoid being a categorical killer in fantasy leagues.
Cavaliers SGs: Dion Waiters vs. C.J. Miles
Dion Waiters is the current favorite to start at SG, but C.J. Miles could give him a run for his money. Byron Scott won't start Waiters if he's not ready – he was out of shape during Summer League but has reportedly been working hard ever since, and he's someone to watch very closely during training camp. If Waiters wins the starting job, he'll be an interesting flier pick thanks to his potential for points, 3-pointers and steals. Daniel Gibson, to be honest, seems like a career backup at this point.
Warriors SFs: Brandon Rush vs. Harrison Barnes
Rush re-signed with Golden State this summer for $8 million over two years, and he's already said he plans to be the starting SF. He started just one game during the 2011-12 season, however, and Barnes will be a thorn in his side all season. My guess is that Rush begins the season as a starter but eventually yields to Barnes -- with Richard Jefferson also part of the rotation, the Warriors' SF spot should go untouched until the final rounds of fantasy drafts.
Rockets PFs: Royce White vs. Patrick Patterson vs. Marcus Morris
Luis Scola's departure leaves a huge question mark at the PF spot in Houston. Projecting Kevin McHale's rotations is a sure way to look stupid, but I'll put on the dunce cap and guess that Patterson will begin the season as the Rockets' starting PF. He quietly averaged 23 minutes per game last year, starting one game at center, and should be a reliable and stabilizing element of Houston's neophyte rotation this year. White is undoubtedly the most explosive option at PF for McHale, and could force his way into the starting job, but I'm also inclined to think that his playmaking and energy will be desperately needed on the second unit – Houston's depth chart isn't exactly brimming with talent.
Rockets SFs: Carlos Delfino vs. Chandler Parsons
The Rockets' SG position is equally uncertain, as Kevin Martin could eventually be traded or shelved in favor of rookie Jeremy Lamb. Without the benefit of training camp, or even some cryptic McHale quotes to parse, I'm forced to take an educated guess – KevMart will start at SG, if only to improve his trade value and give Lamb time to adjust to the NBA, while Chandler Parsons will start at SF. Why Parsons? He's 6'9" and is a superior defender compared to Delfino. He also started 57 games at SF last season, proof that mercurial McHale is comfortable with him. Delfino can play SG just as easily as SF, making him more versatile in a backup position, and he'd also have a green-light offensively with the second unit. In spite of those assumptions, I'd rather draft Delfino (and his volume 3-point shooting) as a flier than Parsons.
Grizzlies SGs: Tony Allen vs. Wayne Ellington vs. Jerryd Bayless
I'm not convinced that this position battle will materialize, but it's worth considering. Allen is the incumbent starter and he's obviously a superior defender. He's coming off knee surgery, but resumed practicing in September and has vowed to be ready for opening night. The only reason to suspect a changing of the guards, so to speak, is that both Ellington and Bayless bring different dimensions offensively -- it's a longshot, but if Lionel Hollins feels the Grizzlies' offense is stagnating he could decide to shake things up. Either way, Allen is the guy to target in the final rounds of fantasy drafts -- he can provide eighth-round fantasy value in less than 30 minutes per game.
Nets backup PF/Cs: Andray Blatche vs. Mirza Teletovic vs. Reggie Evans
I was intrigued by Teletovic as soon as the Nets signed him, since they lacked frontcourt depth and were obviously sold on his abilities – they plunked down $9 million over three years to get him. He's an impressive scorer with 3-point range (he averaged 23.6 points during this summer's EuroBasket qualifiers), but he now seems like a fantasy afterthought as long as Kris Humphries is healthy. Both Blatche and Evans can play PF or C, depending upon Avery Johnson's rotations, and there's simply too much competition to rely on any of these guys in fantasy leagues. If you're in a deep league, however, I'd watch Blatche very closely. We know what he can do when healthy, even at 60 percent effort, and Brook Lopez is coming off a disastrous, injury-plagued season.
Bucks SFs: Mike Dunleavy vs. Tobias Harris vs. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Tobias Harris excelled during Summer League and could be poised to make the jump into Scott Skiles' starting rotation, though he self-admittedly needs to improve his defense. The second-year player started nine games last season but averaged less than 20 minutes in those games, so don't get too excited even if he does land the job. Meanwhile, Skiles seems to like Mike Dunleavy's ball-movement and shooting prowess in the second unit, giving the low-scoring Bucks' bench some offensive flow, while Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is panning out as a situational defensive specialist. Dunleavy has easily the most fantasy potential of this group, but that's not saying much.
Thunder SGs: Thabo Sefolosha vs. James Harden
This isn't as much a 'battle' as the continuation of three years of trench warfare – Scott Brooks has dug in behind Sefolosha (and his stellar defense) in the starting lineup, allowing James Harden to thrive as a playmaker in the second unit. It's hard to argue with OKC's wins and losses under Brooks, but fantasy owners should watch for any signs that Harden could finally start this year. The biggest reason for optimism is Harden's impending free agency – he wants to be paid max money, so he can't possibly view himself as a sixth-man. Will Brooks finally relent, if only to appease him?
Magic SGs: Arron Afflalo vs. J.J. Redick
Redick is in a contract year (he'll be an unrestricted FA next summer) and he's done an admirable job of improving his defense since being drafted by Orlando in 2006, but he simply can't compete with Afflalo, one of the better wing defenders in the league. Redick may have a slight edge offensively, but Afflalo is no slouch, having averaged 15.2 points, 1.4 three-pointers, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists with Denver last year. My assumption is that Afflalo will start at SG and return mid-round value with an increased role in Orlando's offense, while Redick flirts with fantasy value in a backup combo guard role. Ish Smith is currently the only PG behind Jameer Nelson, making Redick more valuable as a reserve.
Magic PFs/Cs: Nikola Vucevic vs. Gustavo Ayon vs. Glen Davis vs. Andrew Nicholson vs. Josh McRoberts vs. Al Harrington
There's no telling what will happen with Orlando's rotations this season, but you can pencil Glen Davis in as either the starting PF or C. I see him as a potential value pick in the ninth round, thanks to the Magic's decimated roster, but be aware that he simply doesn't block shots. I've mentioned Gustavo Ayon's impressive per-minute stats elsewhere, and he could be a sneaky source of rebounds, steals and blocks this season -- he's proficient at both PF and C, and (aside from Big Baby) he faces watered-down competition for minutes. Al Harrington is now the elder statesman on the team, and should fill a reserve SF/PF role with minimal fantasy upside. Complicated matters even more, the Magic are committed to developing their young guys even if it means losing more games, which gives Andrew Nicholson and Nikola Vucevic better odds of carving out significant playing time. Throw in a rookie head coach in Jacque Vaughn, and it all adds up to a messy situation that fantasy owners should avoid.
76ers SGs: Nick Young vs. Jason Richardson
Jason Richardson intends to compete for the starting SG job, but there's no reason to think the veteran will actually get his wish. Assuming Evan Turner slides over to SF, backed up by Dorell Wright, it stands to reason that newcomer Nick Young is the most likely starting SG in Philly. I wouldn't target either Young or J-Rich in fantasy drafts, personally, except as a final-round flier. Richardson is coming off a career-low 11.6 ppg with Orlando last year, and Young's occasional scoring outbursts mask his fantasy futility -- he's a career 42.9 percent shooter who contributes precious little across the board, and he still faces major competition for minutes.
Blazers Cs: J.J. Hickson vs. Meyers Leonard
Hickson is just 6'9", but he and LaMarcus Aldridge would be tough for any team to defend, and history suggests that he could handle starting at center for the Blazers. In 32 starts at center for the Cavaliers in 2010-11, he averaged 15.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 0.6 steals and 1.2 blocks in 32 minutes per game. Just don't expect to see those numbers duplicated. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has already confirmed that Leonard will start at center once he's "ready," which could be as soon as opening night, and Hickson also makes plenty of sense as a backup PF/C. Personally, I'd take a wait-and-see approach toward both players, though Hickson is an intriguing flier pick.
Kings PGs: Isaiah Thomas vs. Aaron Brooks vs. Jimmer Fredette
Thomas did more than enough to earn the PG job last season, averaging 14.8 points (47 percent FGs, 40.6 percent 3-pointers, 84.1 percent FTs), with 3.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.0 steals in 32 minutes per game. He also plays pesky, hard-nosed defense for a guy who's listed at a generous 5'9". The Kings may simply have signed Brooks to be a backup PG behind Thomas, which would indicate that they have reservations about Jimmer's ceiling as a PG (his future with the team may also be endangered). Unfortunately, logic doesn't control the Kings' rotations -- Keith Smart does. Some Kings observers feel that Brooks will at least compete for the starting job, right or wrong, but most find that scenario unlikely (e.g. here and here). Either way, we could see a nasty minute-share develop throughout the season. It’s a situation to monitor very closely leading up to fantasy drafts.
Kings PFs: Jason Thompson vs. Thomas Robinson
Chuck Hayes can play PF in a pinch, but he’s better suited to backup C behind DeMarcus Cousins, so I view this is a two-man race between Thompson and Robinson. Thompson started 47 games for the Kings last season, and there’s no reason to think the rookie will somehow overtake him during training camp. Unfortunately, this could be yet another season-long position battle, as Robinson eats away at the veteran’s role to the detriment of both players’ fantasy value. I’m avoiding both guys for the time being, especially in light of Thompson’s underwhelming stats as a starter last year – 10.0 points (53.5 percent FGs, 64.8 percent FTs), 8.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks.
Jazz PFs: Derrick Favors vs. Paul Millsap
Favors has all of the momentum in this position battle. He excelled when given the opportunity last year, by all accounts he’s had a tremendous offseason, he’s stated his desire to earn a bigger role, and he’s under contract through 2014-15, whereas Millsap is entering his final guaranteed year. Jazz writers from the trustworthy Deseret News have speculated that he’ll start at PF ahead of Millsap, and he should average 30+ minutes regardless of where he begins games. He’s capable of backing up Al Jefferson at center, but that role is already occupied by last year’s overall No. 3 pick, Enes Kanter. Millsap’s outlook isn’t as promising, but he’s capable of playing SF for stretches and fantasy owners absolutely shouldn’t undervalue him – in a mere 32.8 minutes per game last year, he ranked as the No. 7 fantasy player in nine-cat leagues (No. 9 in eight-cat), while missing just two games. Even in a somewhat smaller role, he can return third-round value with ease.
Wizards SGs: Jordan Crawford vs. Bradley Beal
Crawford has the initial momentum in this battle, thanks to his relatively ‘veteran’ status, but the Wizards’ decision to draft Beal indicates that they’re looking for more at the SG position. Crawford’s inefficient volume shooting (career 39.4 percent) also damages his value in fantasy leagues. Beal has tons of promise, but the rookie may also struggle to be efficient, especially in light of his mediocre 3-point shooting with Florida. I wouldn’t touch either guy in fantasy leagues.
Wizards PFs: Jan Vesely vs. Trevor Booker
This discussion begins with a worrisome thought -- it’s conceivable that Nene and Emeka Okafor could start alongside one another in the Wizards’ frontcourt. Both of those guys come into the season with injury concerns (Nene’s plantar fasciitis and Okafor’s knee). Booker has proven to be a sneaky fantasy asset when he’s getting enough playing time, but after looking at Washington’s depth chart, there’s no reason to suspect he’ll approach the 30-minute mark.
That will do it for this column, but an ocean of information and insights can be found in Rotoworld’s 2012 NBA Draft Guide. Buy it in combination with the RW Season Pass, and you’ll have a start-to-finish edge on the competition.