This is the second part of my league-wide survey of position battles, following last week's look at the Eastern Conference. As I noted then, a starting job is of quantifiable importance for a player's fantasy value -- according to BasketballMonster.com, only nine of last season's top-100 fantasy options started less than 90 percent of their games (eight-cat, per game).
The starting lineups and key reserves listed are not always the players/lineups I think should be deployed on opening night, merely what I think will be deployed in light of each team's personnel, coaches, and other circumstances. Projecting lineups months in advance is not a science. For teams with the same head coach, I usually lean toward incumbent starters. Although not as difficult to dislodge as an incumbent U.S. Representative, most NBA starters tend to keep their jobs when challenged by rookies and second-year players, at least to begin the season.
Teams with relatively clear-cut starting lineups include:
Rockets: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard
Spurs: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter
Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez…RoLo’s 2013-14 campaign leaves no doubt that he’ll hold off newcomer Chris Kaman
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Dallas lost sixth-man Vince Carter in free agency, but they've become a more dangerous team by signing Chandler Parsons and trading for Tyson Chandler. They acquired Raymond Felton in the deal for Chandler, while sending Jose Calderon to New York, so initially it appeared that Felton would start at PG on opening night. The Mavs are reasonably skeptical about Felton's self-proclaimed bounce-back year, so they also picked up Jameer Nelson in free agency.
The battle at PG will play out between Felton and Nelson during training camp, with Monta Ellis locked in at SG and Devin Harris serving as a combo guard off the bench. One thing is certain -- Felton won't start at PG to begin the season due to a four-game suspension for pleading guilty to weapons-possession charges. That gives Nelson immediate traction, and both players per-36-minute stats from last year make Jameer seem like a more productive option:
Raymond Felton: 11.2 points, 1.1 threes, 3.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.3 turnovers
Jameer Nelson: 13.5 points, 2.2 threes, 3.8 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.7 turnovers
Nelson shot better from beyond the arc and at the FT line, posted a superior true shooting percentage, and assisted 35.1 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the court (vs. 28.1 percent for Felton). In fairness to Felton, it should be noted that New York played with the second-slowest pace in the NBA last year, relying heavily on isolation plays that precluded assists, and that Orlando's offensive efficiency (99.3 points per 100 possessions) was 29th in the league.
I expect Nelson to keep the starting job once he claims it on opening night, giving Dallas more playmaking and perimeter shooting than Felton can provide. Dallas' backcourt defense might suffer with 6'0" Nelson next to Monta Ellis, but Felton is no better, and the Mavs are at least accustomed to the problem with Jose Calderon at PG last year.
Projected starting lineup: Jameer Nelson, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler
Key reserves: Raymond Felton, Devin Harris, Brandan Wright, Al-Farouq Aminu
Nuggets' SG, SF and C
JaVale McGee missed all but five games last season after fracturing his fibula, and he enters the 2014-15 season in a position battle with Timofey Mozgov. "I told JaVale even before he had season-ending surgery, ‘Timo’s coming for you,'" said coach Brian Shaw. "It’s not a given that anything is going to be handed to you when you come back." McGee will earn a guaranteed $23.3 million over the next two seasons and at just 26 years old he has plenty of potential, but to lock up a starting job he'll need to prove that he's healthy and productive in training camp. "He's got to show us what he can do, and certainly he's a huge part of what we hope to be next year," said GM Tim Connelly. "He brings a defensive component that we struggled with at times last year."
Mozgov is no slouch defensively, of course, and he held opponents to just 46.9 percent shooting at the rim last season -- that's slightly higher than Taj Gibson, John Henson and Joakim Noah, and slightly lower than Josh Smith, Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. Moreover, Mozgov proved surprisingly adept in transition and finished with a career-high 9.4 points per game on 52.3 percent FGs and 75.4 percent FTs.
The Nuggets could eventually trade Mozgov or McGee, and as long as they're on the same roster (and healthy) it'll be hard for either to thrive in fantasy leagues no matter who starts the game. McGee's outsized salary and sheer potential may persuade Shaw to start him at center, but if he has a lousy training camp he may quickly find himself coming off the bench behind the unheralded Mozgov. Until we've at least seen him producing on the court, I'm sticking with Timofey.
The SG position is contested between Arron Afflalo and Randy Foye, with Nate Robinson chipping in at both guard spots as a reserve. Foye was upset with Denver's decision to trade for Afflalo and he's vowed to fight to keep his starting role, a reasonable stance from an eight-year veteran coming off perhaps his best NBA season -- he averaged 13.2 points, 2.3 three-pointers, 2.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 0.8 steals, with only one DNP all year.
Arron Afflalo was no slouch in Orlando last year, scoring a career-high 18.2 points with 1.8 three-pointers per game, and he did it for a team with a putrid offensive efficiency of 99.3 (ranking 29th in the NBA). He's a solid defender who would give Denver a bit more size and length at SG, and he's a more dynamic offensive player than Foye, who only stands out as a 3-point shooter. Neither player was particularly effective in transition last season -- Afflalo averaged a mere 1.07 points per possession, while Foye was marginally better at 1.15 points per possession. Foye is the incumbent at SG, but I expect to see Afflalo overtake him during training camp.
At SF, the only real question is whether Danilo Gallinari (ACL surgery) will be healthy enough to start on opening night. Wilson Chandler is a viable option for coach Brian Shaw, but the Nuggets are relying on a big season from Gallo to make the leap into playoff contention. Gallinari has been moving without restrictions since May and he's on pace to participate in training camp, so I'm penciling him in as a starter.
Projected starting lineup: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov
Key reserves: JaVale McGee, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson/Darrell Arthur