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:
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.
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.
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.
Hornets' SF and PF
With Lance Stephenson locked into the Hornets' starting SG spot alongside Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson may have to seek his playing time at SF. Henderson is 6'5" and he's only spent one-fifth of his playing time at SF during his five-year career, so he doesn't seem like an ideal fit. Former No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist started all 66 games he played in last season, and even Jeff Taylor could compete for the SF job once he's fully recovered from his ruptured Achilles.
MKG's struggle to score outside of the paint isn't likely to vanish -- he shot just 25.7 percent outside of the restricted area last year. That gives Henderson a definite edge, but I lean toward him as a sixth-man. MKG's offensive struggles can be masked by the Hornets' dynamic first unit, and Henderson's ball-handling and scoring will give much-needed punch to a second unit which includes guys like Brian Roberts, Gary Neal, P.J. Hairston, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo.
The PF spot is also up for grabs between Marvin Williams, Noah Vonleh, and the incumbent, last year's No. 4 pick, Cody Zeller. Charlotte's decisions to draft Vonleh and sign Williams in free agency (for a hefty $14 million over two years) confirms their lack of confidence in Zeller as a starter. Although Vonleh will likely start before long, I expect the veteran Williams to assume the job on opening night. The Hornets are eager to build on last year's playoff appearance, so wins won't likely be sacrificed for player development, and Williams' shooting provides valuable court-space for Al Jefferson's dominant post game (and a reliable target for passes out of double-teams). Vonleh also has terrific range, knocking down 48.5 percent of his triples with Indiana last year, and he's a superior rebounder and defender, so if he develops quickly he shouldn't have trouble overtaking Williams.
Bulls' SF and PF
Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah are locked into the Bulls' starting lineup, but there are valid position battles at both forward positions. At small forward, incumbent Mike Dunleavy faces a challenge from rookie Doug McDermott. Tom Thibodeau confirmed in August that McDermott is "going to shoot" for the Bulls this year, and his shooting prowess is a gift for the Bulls, who ranked 30th in the NBA in FG percentage last season (43.2 percent) and 26th in 3-pointers made. Thibs doesn't seem likely to promote a rookie over a tried-and-true veteran by opening night, however, so I'm still projecting Dunleavy as the starting SF.
The PF position is also contested. Pau Gasol seems like the self-evident starter but he has not been guaranteed the job, and Thibs loves the defensive pairing of Taj Gibson with Joakim Noah. Keep in mind that a backup role didn't prevent Gibson from averaging career-highs across the board last year (13.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 29 minutes). Gasol has spent most of his NBA career at center but he's still versatile enough to play PF at age 34, and could also serve as backup C in a staggered frontcourt rotation.
Pistons' SG, SF and PF
Head coach/president Stan Van Gundy said that there will be a "great competition" for the starting SG job, but I fully expect to see Jodie Meeks in the starting five. I can't imagine Detroit lavishing a three-year, $19.5 million contract on Meeks to bring him off the bench behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shot 39.6 percent as a rookie.
The SF and PF jobs are much more opaque because Van Gundy is reasonably averse to using Smoove, Monroe and Drummond at the same time. To complicate matters, Detroit went out of their way to add depth at SF this summer, signing Caron Butler and Cartier Martin, and they still have Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko coming off the bench.
The clear answer is to trade Smith or Monroe, and I'll be surprised if both guys are on the roster when the trade deadline passes -- Detroit's obvious need to deal one of them has encouraged low-ball offers, but ultimately something will get done. The Pistons will be fascinating to watch during the preseason, but for now I'm assuming they'll deploy a flawed starting lineup featuring Smith/Monroe/Drummond. Another possibility is to start Butler, Singler or Martin at SF, shift Josh Smith to PF, and ask Greg Monroe to swallow his pride and serve as a sixth-man. We'll just have to wait and see what happens in the 2+ months before opening night.
George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, David West and Roy Hibbert are a solid starting core, but Paul George's broken leg leaves a vacuum at the SF position. Solomon Hill and C.J. Miles are the most likely options to step into the starting lineup, and my best guess is that Miles will earn the nod on opening night. Hill only appeared in 28 games as a rookie, averaging 1.7 points on 42.5 percent shooting in eight garbage-time minutes per game. Frank Vogel and Larry Bird have both heaped praise on Hill this offseason, focusing on his potential, but as long as the Pacers aren't tanking they'll stick with the more reliable veteran in Miles. His 3-point prowess is also valuable with Stuckey penciled in at SG, since Stuckey isn't a reliable threat from the perimeter. It's worth mentioning both Chris Copeland and rookie Damjan Rudez as longshot options at SF, and the Pacers' failed pursuit of Shawn Marion confirms that they're not enamored with any of their current options.
Bucks' PG, SG, SF and PF
Larry Sanders will start for Milwaukee, but coach Jason Kidd has plenty of decisions to make elsewhere. The PF position seems like Ersan Ilyasova's to lose, though Milwaukee likely wouldn't hesitate to trade him if they find the right deal. John Henson has bulked up this summer and should be ready to claim the PF job if Ersan is traded, or even if he struggles as badly as he did last season (shooting 40.9 percent, including just 28.2 percent from downtown). Henson is capable of backing up both PF and C as a reserve, but he may have to seek his fortunes almost exclusively at PF due to the Bucks' solid depth at C (Larry Sanders, Zaza Pachulia, Miroslav Raduljica, Johnny O'Bryant).
No. 2 draft pick Jabari Parker may also earn a few minutes at PF, but he's more likely to start at SF ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and (if he's even healthy) Carlos Delfino. Parker struggled at times during Summer League, averaging 15.6 points on 41.9 percent shooting, with 5.0 turnovers per game, but Kidd isn't likely to bench a guy with uncanny offensive potential. If we operate under the assumption that Parker will start at SF, that leaves the SG job up for grabs between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless and even Nate Wolters, who spent more than half of his playing time at SG as a rookie.
The Greek Freak stands out as a tantalizing choice for Kidd, who experimented with Antetokounmpo as a PG during Summer League in a possible prelude to sticking him in the backcourt (he barely logged any minutes at SG under coach Larry Drew last year). Wolters and Bayless are better suited as a pair of combo guards off the bench, and at this point it's hard to imagine O.J. Mayo playing well enough to justify a starting gig. Mayo shot 40.7 percent last season, while notching career-lows in free throws attempted, total rebound percentage and steals -- the result (partly attributable to the Bucks' team-wide woes) was Mayo's worst ever Offensive Rating (98) and Defensive Rating (115). His abysmal year, combined with the $16 million he's still owed over the next two seasons, prompted Bucks fans to rank Mayo as the team's least valuable asset in a recent poll on BrewHoop.com.
There's also a chance that Brandon Knight could spend considerable time at SG, or even start there with Kendall Marshall taking over as a pass-first PG under Kidd. For now I'm sticking with B-Knight as the Bucks' lead guard, but my RW colleague Mike Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) is leaning toward Marshall as the starter and it wouldn't surprise me if he does earn the job -- he ranked 4th in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio last year, among qualifying PGs, whereas B-Knight ranked 42nd. Knight is also far more proficient off the ball than Marshall, whose playmaking is his forte, so there are more than a few possibilities for Kidd to mull in the backcourt.
Knicks' SG, PF and C
At the moment, New York's starting frontcourt appears to be Samuel Dalembert and Andrea Bargnani, whose strengths and weaknesses should (at least on paper) somewhat balance each other out. Amare Stoudemire's medically-limited playing time makes him suited for a backup PF/C role, which he filled capably last season. Dalembert's starting C job isn't guaranteed, however, as Cole Aldrich is an intriguing threat and Jason Smith could also usurp the job if he finally stays healthy.
Another position battle is brewing at SG. New York successfully traded away Wayne Ellington this summer, somewhat alleviating their logjam, but J.R. Smith still faces a tough challenge from Iman Shumpert and second-year guard Tim Hardaway Jr. This could evaporate if the Knicks end up trading Smith, who admitted that last season he "was playing like a person who didn’t want to be there [and] not looking as focused as a person should be in that situation." He also wrote on Twitter in June, "No more bench for me," so it's hard to imagine his attitude improving if coach Derek Fisher does give the job to Shump or Hardaway Jr. This position battle has a young gun vs. an established veteran, the possibility of one or more trades, and an explosive personality in Smith, so it'll be one of the more intriguing battles of the preseason. Fisher could also mix things up by starting Melo at PF in a small-ball lineup, in which case all bets are off.
Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris both spent time as reserves and starters last season, but Harris was primarily used as PF while Harkless was almost exclusively at SF. Something has to give this season, as the PF job now belongs to Channing Frye with capable backups in Andrew Nicholson and No. 4 pick Aaron Gordon.
The most likely outcome is that Harkless fills a reserve role behind Harris, who will embrace the SF position he played during his first two NBA seasons with Milwaukee. It's not ideal for Harkless, who may be lucky to match last season's 24.4 minutes per game, but Harris shouldn't have much trouble exceeding the 30.3 minutes he averaged last year. Harris has missed an average of 24 games per season in his three-year career, so durability is a serious concern, but if he stays healthy his versatile production and a probable starting job make him an intriguing upside pick at the end of the middle rounds.
76ers SG, SF, PF
Before we begin, let's sum things up...the 76ers' roster is a mess. Owner Josh Harris and GM Sam Hinkie are rebuilding the team with dogged patience and an opportunistic approach to acquiring young talent, but the short-term results are brutal. Fantasy owners should once again expect a revolving door of D-League call-ups, inconsistent play from most guys on the roster, and a fast-paced style that yields few victories. Michael Carter-Williams will reprise his role as Philly's starting PG, looking to build on his Rookie of the Year campaign by limiting his turnovers, improving his defense and jump shot, and adding strength to finish better in the lane. MCW shot a lousy 33.5 percent outside of the restricted area last season, but even his 51.7 percent shooting within the restricted area was far below the league average.
Nerlens Noel is locked into the starting C job with Joel Embiid (fractured foot) on the shelf indefinitely, but the rest of Philly's starting lineup is up in the air. The PF position would belong to Thaddeus Young, but he's expected to be dealt to the Timberwolves for a package that includes Anthony Bennett.
Assuming that happens, the rebuilding Sixers would have all the incentive necessary to start Bennett at PF, for better or worse. His competition isn't exactly esteemed, featuring guys like Jarvis Varnado, Jerami Grant and Brandon Davies. Last year's No. 1 pick looked fit and rejuvenated during Summer League, and things can only improve after his rookie season in Cleveland, where he had a dreadful PER of 6.9 with an unbelievable effective FG% of 38.4 percent. Even if he plays unchallenged minutes as the starting PF, he doesn't belong on fantasy rosters.
Last season the SF spot landed in the lap of Hollis Thompson, whom the Sixers locked up for a minimum-salary, four-year contract last September. The 23-year-old out of Georgetown started 41 games as a rookie, during which he averaged 6.7 points, 1.1 three-pointers (41.4 percent from deep), 3.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 0.6 steals in 27 minutes per game. Those numbers gave him marginal fantasy appeal for deep-league owners, but even as a starter he wasn't a viable option in standard leagues.
The Sixers used the No. 32 pick in this year's draft to take Clemson swingman K.J. McDaniels, whose defensive proficiency is an anomaly on Philly's roster. McDaniels is guaranteed big minutes and he may start at SF ahead of Thompson on opening night. Unlike Thompson, however, McDaniels could be a sneaky fantasy option with sufficient playing time. His offensive game doesn't stand out (he shot 30.4 percent from downtown last year) but he can get to the FT line (and make his shots), he's a demon in transition (a huge plus in Philly's offense), and he averaged 1.1 steals and a whopping 2.8 blocks in 34 minutes per game last season (24th in Div I NCAA).
The SG spot is just as uncertain. There's a good chance that Thompson and KJD will both start, with one or the other filling a not-quite-natural SG role. Thompson stands 6'8" and McDaniels is 6'5" so the temptation is to fill the rookie in at SG, though I'm not convinced that KJD has enough offensive punch to be an NBA shooting guard. Tony Wroten is a compelling option to start at SG, but he's a lousy fantasy player due to poor 3-point range and FT shooting. His ball-dominant style is also better suited to the second unit, which will need all of the offensive production it can get. Philly's starting lineup is one of the most tumultuous and uncertain units in the league, and fantasy owners should simply keep an eye on Rotoworld's player news page for updates during the preseason.
Raptors' SF and PF
The Raptors' SF and PF positions were inquired about, and I expect those jobs to go to Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson, respectively. Newly returned James Johnson may put up a fight at SF (and his per-minute fantasy upside is tantalizing), but there's no reason to think he'll earn the starting job. In 61 games as a starting SF last year, Ross averaged 12.2 points, 2.3 triples (40.2 percent from downtown), 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks. He also blew up for a 51-point game along the way, and shot 39.5 percent from downtown (an antidote to DeMar DeRozan's sub-par perimeter game). I should at least mention how awful Ross was in the Raptors' seven-game series vs. the Nets, during which he averaged only 5.0 points on 29.8 percent shooting. He shot 4-of-24 from downtown and finished the series with a total of 14 rebounds, two assists, six steals, eight turnovers and 19 personal fouls.
Those playoff struggles won't prevent Ross from locking down the SF job once again, and I also expect Amir Johnson to retain the PF job ahead of Patrick Patterson (whom the Raptors retained with a three-year, $18 million deal this summer). Head coach Dwane Casey was extremely reluctant to use Johnson at center last year, preferring to backup Jonas Valanciunas with Tyler Hansbrough, who was almost exclusively used as a backup center. Even Patterson spent 30 percent of his time at center, and his superior shooting seems like a better fit with the second unit, which should lean heavily on PP, Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez for offense.
That concludes this round of Eastern Conference position battles! Check back next week for my takes on the West’s starting lineups, position battles, and much more.