Fantasy Football:

Hoops Lab: Maximizing strengths

By Andre' Snellings

Rotowire.com

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On Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, Gary Sherman (@gsherman5) tweeted me (@ProfessorDrz) a couple of questions about whether he should pick up Avery Bradley. Bradley was just about ready to return to the court after offseason surgeries on both shoulders, and as a young player that had shown some promise at the end of last season, before his injuries sidelined him, he was worth a bit of interest. I considered putting Bradley in my New Additions section, as he's got a chance to be a double-digit scorer with three-point range and good steal numbers. And at only 22 years old there's still the chance he could get much better, but I decided against it because the Celtics just have so many contributors at Bradley's position that I wasn't sure he'd produce. I figured I'd wait and see for a bit before touting him.

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Avery Bradley takes Boston's defense to the next level. (USAT)

And it's good that I held off because, as you might expect, Bradley was rusty when he got back on the court. He was his usual ball-hawking self on defense, but on offense, he couldn't hit a jumper to save his life for the first few games. Over Bradley's last couple of games he's started finding his range a bit, knocking down a couple of treys on his way to 10-for-20 shooting from the field. In fact, he's starting to look a lot like he did at the end of last season, which makes him a fringe roto prospect. Bradley is someone to keep an eye on in case he gets hot, but it's not looking likely that he'll explode onto the roto landscape very soon.

So, why write about him here? I'm glad you ask.

Because as Bradley has returned and started looking like himself from the end of last season, suddenly the Celtics' team is starting to look similar to the team that ended last season on a big run and made a "surprising" run to Game 7 of the conference finals. The Celtics have won four straight games, including three straight over Eastern Conference playoff squads that are all ahead of them in the standings at the moment. Of course four games is a small sample and could be a fluke, but in the very recent past (read: late last season) we have solid corroborating evidence that the unit of Rajon Rondo, Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, and Kevin Garnett was a great unit. By minutes it was the second most popular unit for the Celtics last season, just behind the Rondo/Ray Allen/Pierce/Bass/Garnett unit. The only personnel difference in those two units is the swap of Allen for Bradley, so let's take a look at how that translated to the court according to offensive rating (points scored/100 possessions) and defensive rating (points allowed/100 possessions) and compare those with the same metrics for this year's Celtics.

Unit featuring Allen: ORtg = 104.03 pts/100 poss., DRtg = 102.04 pts/100 poss.; Net = +1.99

Unit featuring Bradley: ORtg = 112.54 pts/100 poss., DRtg = 92.96 pts/100 poss.; Net = +19.58

This year's Celtics: ORtg = 102.6 pts/100 poss., DRtg = 103.8 pts/100 poss., Net – 1.2

Anyone that reads this article regularly knows that I'm big on the plus/minus stats, so if replacing a good player like Allen with Bradley led to an almost 20-point improvement for the unit, that must mean that Bradley is a superstar, right? Not so fast, because if you look at Bradley's plus/minus on the whole, it was only a pedestrian plus-1.7. That's still positive, but only sixth on the team and well behind team leader Garnett's plus-10.4.

So, Bradley's not a superstar himself. What he is, is a man with a particular set of skills that makes him a nightmare when placed in specific lineups. Bradley isn't the best defensive player on the Celtics … that would be Garnett, whose defensive xRAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus) value of plus-5.5 touts him as the most impactful defensive player in the entire NBA this season. On offense, Bradley's handle is too limited and his jump shot off the dribble too weak for him to be an impact player.

But.

When you put Bradley's on-ball-defensive-pressure (a skill where he is arguably the best in the league) next to Garnett's dominant help defense and Rondo's high-risk/high-reward style, the Celtics' defense goes from great to impregnable. And a dominant team defense leads to easier team offense, with more opportunities for transition looks and lower pressure shooting as a whole. Individually, Bradley knows his offensive strengths and weaknesses keenly, so he maximizes his strengths (cutting off the ball, athletic finishes near the hoop, the Bruce-Bowen-corner-trey) and pretty much never does his weaknesses. The end result is a player that synergizes perfectly with Rondo, Garnett, and Pierce. He scores consistently off the looks they create and pressures defenses to account for his whereabouts at all times which in-turn opens up the court for his more talented teammates. In other words, on both offense and defense, Bradley is an essential glue guy that helps the unit maximize its potential without being the star himself.

If the starting unit featuring Bradley has an offensive rating about 10 points higher than the team without Bradley, but Bradley's own numbers remain pedestrian, that argues that there will be more points and assists spread out amongst Rondo, Pierce, and Garnett and at higher shooting efficiencies to boot. Likewise, if the defense is giving up 10 fewer points/100 possessions that means more rebounds and turnovers (read steals and blocks) are being racked up by the team, and Bradley isn't the one accumulating them. Again, the roto benefits are reaped by the other players on that unit. And throw in Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger as potential beneficiaries as well, as both often replace Bass alongside the other starters (and eventually I think Sullinger replaces Bass as the default starter, see New Additions).

So, how does a glue guy affect fantasy? Think of him as the little brother to the offensive anchor that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. He's a roto kingmaker for his teammates, improving their roto potential even as his own value remains ordinary. So while you may or may not want to hustle out and pick up Bradley, his return could mark a good time to try to trade for some of his teammates.

Around the League

Love out 8-10 weeks: Last week as I was writing the Lab, just at the point when I was touting Kevin Love over Blake Griffin, I looked in on the Timberwolves game and heard that he'd left the game after re-injuring his shooting hand. A week later, the prognosis is a re-fractured hand with an 8-10 week absence. Travis Martin (@SouthsideTsauce) tweeted me today to ask if I would suggest dropping Love, and the answer is … yes, in certain circumstances. As I said on the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today XM/Sirius radio show Thursday, if I'm in a roto league with a shallow bench and/or daily transactions then yeah, I think Love is cuttable. On the other hand, in a head-to-head league I don't cut Love because he could potentially return just in time for the playoffs, and if you sneak in as a wild card, Love could be the type of wild card that brings you to a title.

Varejao out 6-8 weeks: Anderson Varejao, like Love, was well into the top-15 of the RotoWire Cheat Sheet before his injury. Varejao's knee surgery also comes with a prognosis that could put him out for two months, but his timetable is 6- 8 weeks instead of 8-10. That opens up a bit more possibility that he will be able to return to the court in time to make an impact on even a roto team. I would still entertain the possibility of cutting Varejao if I absolutely needed the roster spot, but the chance that he's back in six weeks (and thus in February near the All Star Break) is enough that I'd want to hold onto him.

Lakers frontcourt crumble … give Peace a chance?: Last week in this space I planned to have a bullet point called "Give World Peace a chance" to give Metta World Peace some credit for how well he had been playing of late. I didn't end up including the point for the sake of space, but a week later the-artist-formerly-known-as-Ron-Artest is even more worthy of mention. With Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol both on the shelf this week due to injury, World Peace has moved to the starting power forward slot in a small-ball lineup that has been working great for him. Remember, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni took Shawn Marion from a good player to a rotisserie MVP by letting him play as an undersized power forward. I thought that D'Antoni's penchant for small ball would bode well for Antawn Jamison's fortunes this year, but Jamison seems to be in D'Antoni's doghouse and isn't getting much run even with the top three bigs on the Lakers hurt. Instead, it is World Peace that is tearing it up right now and projects as a better-than-expected prospect moving forward if he keeps getting time at the four.

KG and Carmelo: On Monday, the Celtics and Knicks played one of the most entertaining games that I've seen this year. Both teams came at it with playoff intensity, something that you don't see a lot of in January, and both squads played at a high level. A rivalry game often leads to bad blood and chippiness, and on this night, that came out in Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony. Melo and KG went at it physically throughout the second half, with lots of elbows and shoves on both sides, and enough trash talk that each got assessed a technical foul. It seemed like good hard-nosed fun until the postgame, when the Twitterverse sparked up with unconfirmed reports that Melo tried to go after KG in the Celtics' locker room. Then, a couple hours later, we had video proof of Melo confronting Garnett again outside at the team bus. All of this eventually led to Anthony being suspended for Thursday's game. The story has lots of potential entertainment value (even TMZ covered it), but from a fantasy perspective the main question is: is this a trend? And the answer, to me, looks like no. Anthony hasn't made a habit out of brawling, which is likely why he only got one game off for this. And while Garnett has made a habit of irritating opponents to the point that it affects their game, he seems to know how to do that without getting himself out of whack. So enjoy the game (and the TMZ footage, if that's your thing) for what it is, and if anything, circle the upcoming rematch between the two teams on the calendar because it could be must-see TV.

Cousins balling and getting kicked out: On the opposite side of the coin, I've regularly been on the record that Cousins' behavior is potentially a big problem for his owners. He's a ticking time bomb that could easily go off right in the middle of your fantasy playoffs. Cousins just had another incident this week, as he committed a flagrant-2 foul that got him kicked out of the game. Normally I wouldn't worry about a flagrant 2, but when you've already been suspended three times for behavior previously, and we still aren't even halfway through the season … yeah, it's a problem. But with that said, Cousins is balling right now. He's notched at least 28 points and nine boards in three of his last four games, and before that he was still notching some silly teen-teen double-doubles with great defensive numbers as well. Cousins is like lightning right now. The brightness of his talent draws the eye, even as the danger of him exploding at any time pushes me away. His behavior makes me nervous, but his talent is so overwhelming right now that I can no longer say I wouldn't want him. In a perfect world, I'd already have Cousins on my team so that I could immediately put him on the block for top dollar after his next 30-10 detonation, and hopefully before his next suspension.

Rondo's suspensions a problem?: While we're in the hothead category, it might just be time to add Rajon Rondo to that list after he served another one-game suspension this week for bumping a referee. This was the fourth suspension for Rondo in the last calendar year, and the second one for bumping a referee. He's not quite as volatile as someone like Cousins, but his attempts to play right at the edge like his teammate Kevin Garnett haven't been quite as successful and are in danger of giving him a reputation. One more suspension for young "Swag" and I may have to start holding that against his roto value as well.

Ball like Wall: John Wall hasn't played at all this season as he recovers from injury, but it sounds as though he could be back on the court within the next week. I don't know what to expect from Wall, as he's been solid as a pro but still hasn't lived up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick of a few years ago. That said, the stage is set for Wall to put up big numbers this year. His team is bad, and young, and he'll have the ball in his hands constantly. Plus, though the team itself is bad, it is still better talent-wise than it was a year ago, and there's actually some young talent around him that might make his life a bit easier. Regardless, if you've held him on your bench for the first three months of the season, you have to be excited to see whether your investment was worth it. And if worse comes to worst, there's always the John Wall dance to cheer you up.

New Addition

Ben Gordon: Gordon is a scorer. That's it. He's streaky and undersized for his position, but if the offense lets him touch the ball enough times, he's going to rack up points and treys. The Bobcats have been getting him shots, and he's responded with a stretch averaging over 20 points and more than two treys. He won't maintain that every week, but he has that potential on any given week.

Derrick Williams: This is essentially Williams' last chance in my book, and maybe his last chance in Minnesota as well. The recent No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has underwhelmed in the pros. Some of that was supposed to be due to other players on the squad taking his minutes, but with Kevin Love on the shelf and Michael Beasley playing in Phoenix, there's no excuse for Williams not to produce this time. He still hasn't started getting starter's minutes, but he had an excellent game earlier this week in which he scored 13 fourth quarter points to help lead the Wolves late. I'm still not convinced that Williams will pan out, but I have him on one of my teams and I'm looking at him hard right now. In the next couple of weeks I'll either have picked him up in more leagues, or I'll have dropped him in the league that I have him.

Tiago Splitter: Splitter has been a feature on my prospects list since I started reading his pre-draft hype about five years ago. It took him a long time to come to the NBA, and since getting here he's taken awhile to start making any kind of impact, but it certainly looks like he's right on the verge of being the kind of double-double threat I always expected. He's getting more and more playing time as the season moves along, especially as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rests veteran superstar Tim Duncan. I like Splitter as a solid second half prospect.

Jared Sullinger: As I mentioned above, the rookie has shown every sign that he's going to eventually overtake Brandon Bass as the starting power forward for the Celtics. Sullinger has all of Bass's strengths (a good midrange jumper) but puts that with very good passing skills and a potential dominance on the glass that Bass sorely lacks. Considering the Celtics' huge need for rebounding, Sullinger's ability to gobble the glass (like the 16 boards that he grabbed on Wednesday) should soon earn him enough playing time to become a nightly double-double threat.

Keeping up with the Professor

If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.

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