Ryan Knaus

The Numbers Game

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NBA Position Battles: East

Monday, August 18, 2014

A starting role in the NBA can make or break a player's fantasy value. Only nine of last season's top-100 fantasy options started less than 90 percent of their games, according to BasketballMonster.com (eight-cat, per game). Those players, by descending value, were Isaiah Thomas, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green, Jamal Crawford, Victor Oladipo, Manu Ginobili, Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris and Tyreke Evans. Of that group, only Thomas and Anderson made the top-50.


With those sobering statistics in mind, this week's column looks at key position battles around the Eastern Conference. I asked my Twitter followers which matchups they'd like to see discussed and many of the replies were about Western Conference teams...today's column runs long already, but I'll be sure to touch on all of those requests next week. If you have a Western matchup request, send me a note on Twitter. I know that it's foolhardy to predict coaches' decisions in mid-August, but that doesn't prevent me from guessing each team's opening-night lineup.


Eastern Conference teams with relatively clear-cut starting lineups include:


Cavaliers - Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao

Hawks - Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford

Heat - Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Chris Bosh

Wizards - John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, Marcin Gortat


Nets' SG, SF and PF


Deron Williams will start at PG and Brook Lopez will start at C for the Nets next season, assuming they stay healthy. Beyond that, new head coach Lionel Hollins can go in a dizzying number of directions.


Jarrett Jack could start alongside Deron Williams in Brooklyn's backcourt, with Joe Johnson at SF, but that's far from guaranteed. The Nets have a variety of options at small forward despite Paul Pierce's departure in free agency, with a group that includes Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev, and Mirza Teletovic. Starting Johnson at SG and making Jack a reserve guard would give a huge boost to Brooklyn's second unit, which is otherwise a mish-mash of young guards like Marquis Teague, Jorge Gutierrez and Markel Brown.


Jack is comfortable and familiar with the SG position, which is where he spent half of his minutes with the Cavs last season, and the bulk of his minutes with the Warriors in 2012-13. He is a poor defender, however, posting a 105.2 defensive rating last season, and suggested during his introductory press conference that he may come off the bench: "I can relieve Deron of the ball handling responsibilities and create opportunities for myself and my teammates."


Added to which, Joe Johnson has done well to shed his 'Iso-Joe' persona and seek higher-percentage shots by posting up smaller players -- he posted up on 19.6 percent of his offensive possessions last season, and ranked 26th in the NBA at 0.97 points per possession. Those are stellar numbers which would be sacrificed, to a large extent, by starting Johnson against the league's SFs (he spent only 10 percent of his time at SF last year). To sum up, I think Johnson should and will start at SG with Jack serving as a combo guard off the bench. That leaves Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko or possibly Mirza Teletovic as the starting SF.


The Nets' PF position also demands attention. Kevin Garnett hasn't officially decided if he'll play in 2014-15, but all signs point to him returning (and earning a guaranteed $12 million). If KG does return and is healthy, he might again start at PF and play 15-20 minutes per game, with Mason Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic serving as more-than-capable backups. Plumlee is a rising talent who has earned universal praise while trying out for Team USA this summer, however, and he said outright that he wants to be a starter in 2014-15. His defense and rebounding would be a welcome addition alongside Brook Lopez, and his per-36-minute stats as a rookie are worth recalling -- 14.7 points on 65.9 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks. Teletovic is also a legitimate option to start at PF (with KG and Plumlee backing up PF and C off the bench), and he shouldn’t be ruled out until we’ve seen what coach Hollins does during the preseason.


Theoretical starting lineup: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson, Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez

Key reserves: Jarrett Jack, Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Garnett



Celtics PF and C


The Celtics' backcourt is clear-cut. Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley will start, supported by Marcus Smart, Marcus Thornton and Phil Pressey. Jeff Green is the default starting SF and the favorite to lead Boston in scoring, with newly-acquired Evan Turner projecting as a backup SG/SF. Gerald Wallace's versatility will also be a useful tool off coach Brad Stevens' bench -- he can play SF or PF, and a reserve role should help keep him healthy for at least 61 games (his average throughout 13 NBA seasons).


I had a request to discuss Evan Turner's role, so I'll expand upon the notion that he should backup both SG and SF. Turner's success in Philadelphia is regarded by everyone but Turner's agent as a result of the team's system, which enabled him to launch high-volume shots without regard for their efficiency (i.e. too many low-percentage mid-range jumpers). He was getting tons of minutes by default and his lousy individual defense didn't stand out because the Sixers entire team couldn't defend a coffee table. Those weaknesses were duly exposed once Turner was asked to come off the Pacers' bench last year, and he comes to Boston as a young reclamation project. I'm particularly averse to him in fantasy leagues, where even during his best years he's returned only late-round value in standard formats. With the Celtics' roster as crowded as it is (they still need to cut a player), I can't see more than 20-25 minutes available for Turner off the bench.


The PF and C spots are less definitive. Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass are both viable options at PF, and Kelly Olynyk will compete with Sullinger and newly-acquired Tyler Zeller for the starting C job. Sullinger started 44 games last year but only nine of those were at PF, his more natural position, because the Celtics were desperately thin at C. The presence of Olynyk, Zeller and perhaps Vitor Faverani (knee) should allow Sullinger to assume the starting PF job ahead of Bass, who started 77 games at PF for Boston last season. Bass has an expiring contract and may be traded this year, or leave in free agency next summer, so the Celtics have extra incentive to develop Sullinger as their PF of the future.


At center, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk are both competitive options to start ahead of Sullinger, Vitor Faverani or Joel Anthony. Olynyk plays more like a PF and he struggled with foul trouble and inconsistency as a rookie, but after the All-Star break he averaged 11.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists while knocking down 42.6 percent of his 3-pointers (fantasy owners should note, as the Celtics' decision-makers surely have, that Olynyk rarely gets steals or blocks).


Tyler Zeller seems like Boston's most likely starting center, a role he filled for Cleveland throughout his rookie season in 2012-13. He has impressive speed, which is a major plus with Rajon Rondo pacing the team, and at 7'0", 253 pounds he has enough size to give Boston a better defensive presence than Sullinger/Olynyk can provide. 


Projected starting lineup: Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller

Key reserves: Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk, Evan Turner, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Smart


If you agree with a point, disagree, have a question, or anything else is on your mind, you can find me on Twitter @Knaus_RW.


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Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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