This is the second of a two-part examination of the NBA’s most prominent position battles, following the Eastern Conference last week. Though not all-encompassing, and focused mainly on starting jobs, I’ve tried to discuss all fantasy-relevant position battles.
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Jeremy Lin is the Rockets’ starting PG, but his position ahead of Patrick Beverley isn’t iron-clad. Kevin McHale caused some waves last year when he began benching Lin toward the end of games, preferring Beverley’s tenacious full-court defense. A similar scenario will almost assuredly play out this year. I’m not convinced that Beverley will overtake Lin for the starting PG job, but random games with diminished playing time will frustrate Lin’s owners to no end, and must be factored into his fantasy outlook. The good news is that Lin is totally healthy this year, whereas last season he was returning from knee surgery to start the year. Lin has been working out with Dwight Howard to develop pick-and-roll chemistry, but it’s worth reciting a few numbers from Synergy Sports.
The Rockets offense in 2012-13 was 13.4 percent pick-and-rolls:
James Harden controlled 28.7 percent of Houston’s pick-and-rolls, averaging an extraordinary 1.2 points per possession.
Patrick Beverley controlled 16.1 percent, averaging an excellent 0.93 points per possession.
Jeremy Lin controlled 6.9 percent, averaging a mediocre 0.67 points per possession (coincidentally, the same exact PPP that Aaron Brooks averaged, but Brooks was used more often than Lin in pick-and-rolls).
The arrival of Dwight Howard will fundamentally alter those numbers, but the bottom line is that Lin is nowhere near being Kevin McHale’s go-to option for pick-and-rolls. Lin also accounted for a shockingly low 4.3 percent of Houston’s total plays in transition. In the face of such information, it’s easy to forget that Lin still had a productive season. He missed zero games during the regular season, averaging 13.4 points on 44.1 percent shooting (a career-best 33.9 percent from deep), 3.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.6 steals in 32 minutes per game. Shave off a few minutes per game, to be safe, and Lin still projects as a decent late-round PG.
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Greg Smith is the early favorite to start at PF, beating out second-year PF Donatas Motiejunas. The Rockets will reportedly experiment with a Dwight Howard/Omer Asik frontcourt during the preseason, but don’t let the inevitable speculation carry you away – it’s highly doubtful that both centers will play together more than a few minutes at a time during the regular season (likely during offense/defense substitutions late in games). Smith and Motiejunas both started some games last year, so I’ll end with a quick recitation of their splits as starters:
Greg Smith (10 starts): 8.8 points on 57.6 percent FGs and 69.0 percent FTs, 5.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.0 blocks, in 23 minutes per game.
Donatas Motiejunas (14 starts): 9.3 points on 45.5 percent FGs and 59.1 percent FTs, 1.1 three-pointers, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.3 blocks, in 21 minutes per game.
Although Smith projects as the starter, there’s some cause for uncertainty. He was a fearsome roll-man last year but he may not be asked to fill that role while Dwight Howard is on the court. On the other hand, Motiejunas’ perimeter-oriented game would clear space for pick-and-rolls or post-ups featuring Dwight, and Motie’s lack of rim-protection would be far less noticeable. I’m avoiding both guys in fantasy drafts, but if one of them begins dominating the PF minutes I wouldn’t hesitate to pick them off the waiver wire.
New coach Brian Shaw said in early September that Randy Foye is the favorite to start at SG in Denver. Foye may face competition from second-year guard Evan Fournier, who only appeared in 38 games as a rookie but showed his potential in April, averaging 11.5 points, 0.9 threes, 2.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals in a mere 23 minutes per game. If nothing else, he has more upside than Foye, whose value is limited to points (10.8 last year) and especially 3-pointers (2.2).
I’ve excluded Nate Robinson from the equation because a starting backcourt of Ty Lawson and Nate-Rob would simply be too small to succeed long-term. It’s also possible that Andre Miller will be paired with Lawson or Robinson at times, and Jordan Hamilton is an outside consideration at SG, which muddles the picture enough that I’d shun both Foye and Fournier as anything more than flier picks.
Kenneth Faried is the favorite to start at PF but he faces a legitimate challenge from newcomers J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur. Here’s what coach Brian Shaw had to say in mid-September – “Faried, with his energy, has earned a shot to start, but there's competition. Darrell Arthur's a solid player. J.J. Hickson is a solid player that can play the 4 and 5.” The good news is that Faried has already shown he can produce with limited playing time. He averaged 28 minutes per game last year and had 11.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks, while shooting 55.2 percent from the field (and a caveat-worthy 61.3 percent from the FT line). With such fierce competition at PF, I plan to avoid the Manimal until after the middle rounds.
Nuggets SF (and backup PF/C)
This isn’t a position battle, I simply wanted to reiterate that Wilson Chandler will begin the season as the starting SF with Danilo Gallinari (knee surgery) out until December at the absolute earliest. The original timetable had Gallo out through February, and until I see him on the court I’m using a February return as the basis for my projections. Chandler has a history of thriving with extended playing time, including his career-best play for the Knicks in 2010-11, when he posted 16.4 points, 1.7 triples, 5.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.4 blocks in 34 minutes per game. He’ll be a serviceable fantasy option even when he’s coming off the bench behind a healthy Gallinari, so don’t be shy about grabbing him in the late rounds. The Nuggets also have a group of guys scrambling for backup PF/C minutes, with J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur, Anthony Randolph and Timofey Mozgov, but none of them make me think twice about drafting JaVale McGee.
Trail Blazers SG
Wesley Matthews is the incumbent starting SG and there’s no reason to think he’ll be overtaken by rookie C.J. McCollum. Matthews’ proven perimeter shooting (career 39.5 percent from downtown) is a great court-spacing fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and the Blazers are aiming to make the playoffs, not to coast along while developing rookies. Matthews is also better equipped to defend the SG position at 6’5”, 215 pounds, compared to McCollum at 6’3”, 200 pounds. McCollum should earn solid minutes as a backup guard, but with Mo Williams controlling the second unit I don’t see much fantasy upside for the Blazers’ promising rookie. (For more on McCollum and every other fantasy-relevant rookie, check out my Rookie Preview column in the RW Draft Guide.)
This isn’t a true position battle since the job is Samuel Dalembert’s to lose – even Brandan Wright expects Sammy to start. From a fantasy perspective, however, I’d prefer to draft backup big man Brandan Wright. The Mavs love his chemistry with Dirk Nowitzki, and his averages in just 18 minutes last season are worth remembering – 8.5 points on 59.7 percent FGs, 4.1 rebounds, 0.4 steals and 1.2 blocks. With more playing time, another year of familiarity with the Mavs’ system, and a backcourt unlikely to keep defenders out of the paint, Wright should emerge with low-end fantasy value. Dalembert has a similar outlook, offering a handful of high-percentage points, rebounds and blocks, but he lacks any semblance of ‘upside’.
This isn’t much of a position battle. Ever since Andre Iguodala signed with Golden State, Harrison Barnes has embraced coming off the bench, despite the fact that he started all 81 games he played in last season (averaging 9.2 points, 0.6 threes, 4.1 rebounds and 0.6 steals in 25 minutes per game). It would be shocking if he overtook Andre “Don’t call me Iggy” Iguodala for the SF spot, and even if his playing time jumps into the low 30s I wouldn’t touch Barnes until the final rounds. Iguodala will slide into his natural facilitator role alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, where he has a good chance to at least equal last year’s 13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game, with solid defensive stats.
Matt Barnes is the likely starter ahead of Jared Dudley, but it’s a situation worth monitoring during the preseason. Dudley is a superior 3-point shooter (39.1 percent last year, vs. Barnes’ 34.2 percent), but Barnes is a more well-rounded fantasy option. Both guys could share the court if Doc Rivers deploys small-ball lineups during the season, but the prospect of a true minute-share at SF makes me view Barnes and Dudley askance. They’re worth a look in the final rounds, but I’m more comfortable scooping them off the waiver wire once Doc Rivers’ regular-season rotations are revealed.
This isn’t a true position battle, since newly re-signed Tony Allen will start at SG ahead of Mike Miller. Allen was in every single one of the Grizzlies’ 20 most efficient lineups last year, per 82games.com, and while he was on the court Memphis allowed 6.7 fewer points per 48 minutes, while scoring just 1.1 fewer points. That’s partly attributable to a shaky second unit, however, which has since been bolstered by the addition of Miller, Nick Calathes, Ed Davis (last year) and Kosta Koufos.
The bad news is that Allen’s value has always rested upon stellar steals totals, and his 26.7 minutes per game last season were a career high, so Miller’s arrival could reduce him to a late-round specialist. The Grizzlies averaged 4.7 three-pointers per game last year, dead last in the NBA, and Miller will have a green light to shoot whenever he’s on the court.
Monty Williams said on Sept. 30 that he plans to bring Tyreke Evans off the bench in a sixth-man role, ceding the starting SF job to Al-Farouq Aminu. A starting lineup featuring Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon would dribble the air out of the ball, whereas shifting Tyreke to the bench should give New Orleans a versatile and dangerous second unit (especially if Ryan Anderson also comes off the bench), so the move is understandable. Evans will reportedly play some minutes at PG, SG and SF, and he should easily average the 31 minutes per game he played last season in Sacramento, which was enough for him to post sixth-round value in nine-cat leagues. On the other hand, Aminu averaged only 28.4 minutes per game in his 71 starts last season and his playing time is bound to drop further with Evans in town, making him a dubious-at-best source of anything beyond rebounds and steals.
The Pelicans will undoubtedly deploy small lineups often throughout the season, but there’s reason to believe that either Jason Smith or Greg Stiemsma will start at center alongside Anthony Davis. To explain why, I’ll quote a RW blurb I wrote earlier in September: “A starting job isn't totally out of the question for Stiemsma. Former starting C Robin Lopez was traded away this summer, and stats from 82games.com reveal that Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson didn't play together in any of the Hornets' five most frequent lineups last season (they appear together twice in the top 20). Fantasy owners should keep an eye on the Pelicans rotations during the preseason – if nothing else, Stiemsma's career 3.2 blocks per 36 minutes give him a bit of upside.”
Unfortunately for Stiemsma, Jason Smith (shoulder surgery) has been fully cleared to participate in training camp and the preseason, and rookie Jeff Withey may also crack the rotation at center. There are no minutes available at PF, thanks to Davis and Ryan Anderson, and New Orleans’ centers are best avoided on draft day.
Thunder SG and C
There probably should be competition for both of these positions, but OKC’s roster barely changed this summer and Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins remain the incumbent starters. Thabo was a sneaky top-80 value in nine-cat last year, on the strength of 1.3 threes, 1.3 steals, excellent FG and FT percentages, and infrequent turnovers. He took a steep drop to top-115 in eight-cat leagues, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t produce similar numbers in 28+ minutes this season. Perkins, meanwhile, came nowhere near usefulness in any typical fantasy league, and his minutes should slowly be eroded by backups Hasheem Thabeet, Steven Adams and/or Daniel Orton.
Michael Beasley is gone, mercifully, and P.J. Tucker’s familiarity with the Suns may give him a slight edge over newcomer Gerald Green. Marcus Morris may also slide over and play spot minutes at SF, but I anticipate a pretty even minute-share between Tucker and Green. Neither guy is a strong fantasy asset in the best of circumstances. Green has promise if his 3-point shot starts falling, but he’s coming off a very rough season in which he shot 36.6 percent overall from the field. Tucker’s lack of fantasy intrigue is explained by his numbers in 45 starts last year – 7.9 points, 0.4 threes, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes per game.
Markieff Morris projects as the starting PF and had been projecting as a fantasy sleeper thanks to his unique combination of 3-pointers, rebounds, steals and blocks. In 32 starts last year, 'Kieff averaged 10.5 points, 0.8 threes, 6.0 boards, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks in a mere 27 minutes per game. His outlook has since been clouded by the potential impact of Channing Frye, who has been medically cleared to play after missing the entire 2012-13 season. The Suns aren’t likely to rush Frye into a big role off the bench, but he and Marcus Morris could prove a season-long irritant to any fantasy owners relying on Markieff for a breakout year.
I’ve been projecting Robin Lopez as the starting center since Portland acquired him, and everything continues to point in that direction. He’s a better rebounder and defender than Meyers Leonard, whom the Blazers have apparently encouraged to work on his outside shooting (Leonard confirmed during media day that he won’t shy away from 3-pointers this season). Leonard can safely be avoided on draft day, while RoLo makes a decent low-end C pick in the final rounds. Lopez played in all 82 games for the Hornets last year, a significant feat in fantasy leagues, and he averaged 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
Kings PG, SG, SF and PF
Isaiah Thomas did yeoman’s work with a dysfunctional Kings team for the past two seasons, and ideally he’ll be featured more consistently in Mike Malone’s rotations. Whether he’ll start at PG on opening night is another question, but it helps that Greivis Vasquez (ankle) may not be healthy enough to battle for the job in training camp. Malone is eager to inject Vasquez’s unselfish playmaking into the rotation and he feels Vasquez is big enough to play multiple positions, none of which clarifies the situation. This is a position battle worth particular scrutiny during the preseason.
The SG job is contested between rookie Ben McLemore and veteran Marcus Thornton, the SF spot is up for grabs between Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Salmons and possibly Travis Outlaw, and the PF spot features three potential starters in Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and Patrick Patterson. I won’t pretend to have insights into Sacramento’s likely lineups – we’re dealing with a new coach and at least three new viable starters (Vasquez, McLemore and Landry). In general I’d be happy landing Vasquez, IT2 or Thornton in the late rounds, but wouldn’t touch any of the Kings’ SFs or PFs. Who knew that newly-extended DeMarcus Cousins would look like a model of stability for Sacramento?
Alec Burks should start at SG on opening night, but Brandon Rush poses a legitimate challenge to his playing time. Rush had ACL surgery early last year but he’s been medically cleared to play and is expected to be fully healthy during training camp, making this an under-the-radar position battle worth watching.
Lakers SG, SF and PF
PG – Steve Nash isn’t entirely recovered from the leg and hamstring issues that caused him to miss 32 games last year. The Lakers are already talking about limiting his playing time and giving him precautionary DNPs, but he should at least be healthy enough to start at PG on opening night. Whenever Nash is rested (assuming it happens), Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar will pick up the slack at PG.
SG/SF – This summer’s optimism notwithstanding, there’s no clear return date for Kobe Bryant (Achilles). Until he’s ready to take the court, the Lakers have a few options. They can start Nick Young at SG and Wes Johnson at SF. Or they could start Steve Blake at SG and either Johnson, Jodie Meeks or (more likely) Young at SF. Or D'Antoni could use another combination entirely. Blake only played about one-fifth of his minutes at SG for L.A. last season, but necessity is the mother of invention. If he does wind up with a temporary starting SG job, he should be a useful short-term fantasy option – in 13 starts (at PG) last year, he notched 10.0 points, 2.2 triples, 4.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
As a fantasy owner, I’ve never been a fan of Nick Young. During his best season, 2010-11 with the Wizards, he scored 17.4 points per game, knocking down 1.6 triples with solid FG and FT percentages. Unfortunately, he only added 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks, which made him a 10th-round value overall (per-game, eight-cat). He may match those numbers on a Lakers’ team in need of scorers, at least while Kobe recuperates and gets up to speed, but I see no reason to draft Young before the final rounds. Wes Johnson and Meeks, meanwhile, project as a 3-point specialisst even if they luck into a starting job, and owners should be wary of Johnson's career 40.0 percent shooting.
PF – The Lakers may start either Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman at PF. Hill said in August that his surgically-repaired hip “is never going to be completely 100 percent,” but he’s healthy enough to participate fully in training camp and the preseason, and could beat out Kaman for the starting gig. Mike D’Antoni has emphasized that Hill needs to improve his jump shot to play heavy minutes this year, which is concerning since Hill made just 33.3 percent of his jumpers in 2012-13. Kaman, on the other hand, had an effective FG percentage of 46.3 percent of his jumpers last year. The biggest qualm is whether he’s defensively equipped to play alongside Pau Gasol for long stretches, but as long as Kaman stays healthy (which is far from certain) he should be a decent C-eligible pick in the late rounds.
C – Pau Gasol’s knee therapy reportedly did the trick this summer, relieving his knee tendinosis and preparing him for a big 2013-14 campaign. Mike D’Antoni has repeatedly said that Pau will be featured in all aspects of L.A.’s offense this season, and a bounce-back season can be expected after he averaged career-lows of 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting last year. I don’t expect him to recapture his stats from year’s past, however, and his knees are a lingering concern, so I won’t be drafting him before the fourth round.
Chase Budinger had a setback with his surgically-repaired left knee, suffering cartilage damage, and he’ll soon have exploratory arthroscopic surgery to determine the extent of the damage. It’s a horrible start to training camp for the Wolves, who just inked Budinger to a hefty three-year, $16 million contract this summer. Until he’s ready to retake the court, Rick Adelman said that Corey Brewer will probably start at SF. Derrick Williams is another possibility, but past experiments with him at SF have failed and Brewer is a more natural fit at the position. What should fantasy owners expect from Brewer during his stint as a starter? His per-36-minute stats from last season provide a decent estimate (though they’re probably an exaggeration, as they came with an up-tempo Nuggets’ second unit) – 17.8 points, 1.6 threes, 4.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 steals per game, on 42.5 percent FGs and 69.0 percent FTs.