This is the first of a two-part examination of the NBA’s most prominent position battles, with the Western Conference to follow next week. Though not all-encompassing, and focused mainly on starting jobs, I’ve tried to discuss all fantasy-relevant position battles. Enjoy!
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Lou Williams is “progressing well” in his recovery from ACL surgery, but his status for training camp remains uncertain. Even once he’s fully healthy, USA Today’s Lang Greene reports that the Hawks plan to use Williams in a sixth-man role. That seemingly leaves the starting SG job up for grabs, with John Jenkins the early favorite to beat out Jared Cunningham for the job. Kyle Korver may also earn SG minutes, but he’s penciled in as the team’s starting SF.
Fantasy owners should approach this situation warily. During the 2011-12 season, when Lou Williams was healthy and averaged 26 minutes per game, he failed to crack the top-100 in nine-cat leagues on a per-game basis (15 points, 1.3 threes, 3.5 assists, 0.8 steals). John Jenkins’ greatest fantasy upside is his 3-point shooting. He made 0.9 threes per game on 38.4 percent shooting beyond the arc as a rookie, despite playing under 15 minutes per game. Keep him in mind if you’re looking for a cheap source of triples late in the draft.
The Nets don’t have any true position battles in their starting lineup, which projects as Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez. Andrei Kirilenko is expected to start whenever Pierce or KG don’t play, leading to a chaotic fantasy outlook which most owners would do well to avoid on draft day. Of the other reserves, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche and Jason Terry could all surface with value if the starter ahead of them gets injured, but none are worth drafting in standard leagues.
Courtney Lee is the most likely starting SG for Boston, but he’ll face competition from Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks. I’ve long been a fan of Lee’s per-minute production. He shoots high FG and FT percentages while averaging 1.4 threes and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes, and could emerge as a solid veteran option on a rebuilding team this year. I wouldn’t bother with him before the final rounds, however, due to the aforementioned competition at SG and the sheer uncertainty engulfing the Celtics this year (rotations? Brad Stevens’ game-plan? Rajon Rondo’s health?). Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that until Rondo is fully healthy Avery Bradley (despite his lousy 1.27 assist-to-turnover ratio last year) is the most likely fill-in starting PG, backed up by 5’11” rookie Phil Pressey.
Brandon Bass is the most likely starting PF for Boston, with Jared Sullinger, Vitor Faverani and Kris Humphries as the most likely backups. New coach Brad Stevens could opt to use Jeff Green or Gerald Wallace in small lineups, however, and the competition at PF is simply overwhelming. Humphries is probably Boston’s best rebounder (career Total Rebound Rate of 18.1 percent) and he’s a candidate to start at C, where he’s battling rookie Kelly Olynyk for the job. Unfortunately, Hump stands just 6’9”, it’s possible that Faverani will edge into the picture at C, and there’s not an above-average shot-blocker in the bunch. All of Boston’s big men scream to be avoided in fantasy drafts.
Gerald Wallace will presumably earn most of his minutes as a backup SF, making him equally unpalatable in fantasy leagues. The 12-year veteran suffered through an awful 2012-13 season, averaging 7.7 points on 39.7 percent FGs and 63.7 percent FTs. To his credit he did add 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks in 30 minutes per game, but overall he wasn’t worth owning for the majority of the year. It’s well known that he dislikes PF and prefers to play SF, where Jeff Green is entrenched as the starter, and fantasy owners should draft him with a low-risk flier pick, if at all.
Cody Zeller seems like the obvious choice for rookie coach Steve Clifford, but the PF spot remains up for grabs – on Sept. 20 Clifford said the starting job would go to whichever player “fits in best.” Zeller, the No. 4 draft pick, has two years of NCAA experience and he’s a legitimate 7’0” big man with enough speed and athleticism to thrive in the open court with Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
I’m not convinced that Zeller is a better option than Josh McRoberts, however, who is also a solid athlete but possesses much more experience and is a better rebounder and passer. In late September, Clifford simultaneously praised Zeller’s potential while downplaying expectations, saying, “He has a lot of physical ability, his basketball IQ is through the roof, he has great intangibles and he’s young. I don’t want to limit him in any way, but I want him to progress at his own rate … For us to be good, he’s got to be a really big part of it. But he’s a young guy and I don’t think he needs undue demands.”
Assuming Zeller does win the PF job in training camp, I’d still be leery of his fantasy outlook. He’s playing alongside Al Jefferson, who soaks up low-post touches but is a reluctant passer. More importantly, Zeller was an infrequent jump shooter in college who made zero 3-pointers in two years with Indiana (his scoring relied heavily on transition buckets), and his 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game were decent but unspectacular for a college player with his natural abilities and size. I view him as a pick-and-pray option in the final rounds.
Injuries. Crowded positions. Fluctuating roles. The Cavaliers’ frontcourt has it all, and it will be under our microscope throughout the preseason. Mike Brown intends to use Earl Clark at SF, where his quickness and length should enable him to defend smaller players. That alone relegates Alonzo Gee, whose 2012-13 season was a disappointment, to the fantasy scrap heap. Tristan Thompson (now shooting with his right hand) currently projects as the starting PF, backed up by Anthony Bennett. That leaves Anderson Varejao (who declared himself ’70 percent’ healthy) starting at C, since Andrew Bynum (knees) will reportedly miss all of training camp. Bynum will be eased into the rotation whenever he’s healthy, but eventually he may start at C and bump Varejao to PF, in which case both Bennett and Thompson will come off the bench.
To that gumbo of uncertainty, we can add a few more ingredients: 1) Earl Clark may not pan out as the starting SF, in which case Cleveland might accelerate Anthony Bennett’s development and move him to SF. 2) Anderson Varejao may be traded, in which case either Andrew Bynum or (if Bynum isn’t healthy) Tristan Thompson will start at C, backed up by Tyler Zeller. 3) The Cavs may quickly promote their No. 1 pick, Bennett, to the starting PF job, which would shove Thompson into a backup PF/C role. With so many moving pieces, and a head coach known for stagnant, unimaginative offenses, I’m leery of the entire Cavs’ frontcourt. (One asterisk is that Varejao could be a potential steal, depending how far he falls in drafts. He was phenomenal in 25 appearances last year, averaging 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks before injuries knocked him out for the season.)
Otto Porter, Trevor Ariza and possibly Martell Webster are all two candidates for the SF job in Washington. While it seems logical for the Wizards to plug Porter in alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal, daring teams to match their speed and athleticism, Wizards writer J. Michael suggested in mid-September that Porter was “unlikely” to earn the starting gig on opening night. He was awful during Summer League and battled a hamstring injury throughout August, and Washington may look to ease him into the action. I’ll conclude with the heart of J. Michael’s take on the situation, excerpted from CSN Washington: "Porter is regarded as more of a 'glue' player. While [a limited role] will lead to plenty of questions from the outside about what's wrong with Porter, it fits the bigger picture that [coach Randy Wittman] appears to have in mind. The front office, as well as Porter, seem to be on board with that plan."
76ers SG, SF, PF, C
Philly’s C position is easiest to project. Nerlens Noel isn’t expected on the court until December at the absolute earliest, which leaves the starting job to Spencer Hawes (making him a nice sleeper option if you need a C-eligible player in the late rounds). Arnett Moultrie is the favorite to start at PF ahead of Lavoy Allen and Tim Ohlbrecht (draft pick Arsalan Kazemi may play overseas, and Royce White won’t be in the mix at PF until he’s capable of boarding an airplane). Unfortunately, it’s hard to recommend Moultrie as anything more than a pick-and-pray option in the final rounds – as a rookie he played 47 games, all as a reserve, and averaged 3.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.4 blocks in 12 minutes per game.
On the plus side, Thaddeus Young should have a massive 2013-14 campaign as the Sixers’ starting SF. He should lead the team in scoring (14.8 points per game last year, on a mere 12.6 FG attempts per game) while also leading in rebounds for the second straight year. There are bound to be flashier players on the board, but I’d be thrilled to land Thad in the fourth round this season. If the lineup I’ve projected thus far holds true, Evan Turner will start alongside rookie PG Michael Carter-Williams in the backcourt. My goal isn’t to project values for every player I mention in this column, so for more info on Turner and MCW, check out RW’s phenomenally detailed and deep Draft Guide.
Magic PG, SG, SF, PF
Nikola Vucevic will start at center for the Magic. That’s all we know for sure. I imagine Orlando will begin the year with a starting five of Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris and Vucevic. It shouldn’t take long for Victor Oladipo to overtake Nelson or Afflalo, however, which boosts the rookie’s fantasy outlook (and Rookie of the Year odds) while presenting a conundrum for anyone considering Jameer or Afflalo in the later rounds. If you have safer options, take them and let another owner fret over Jacque Vaughn’s backcourt rotations.
Moe Harkless is the probable starting SF, though he could shift to a reserve SG/SF role if Tobias Harris shifts down to accommodate Andrew Nicholson or Glen Davis at PF (Big Baby is still recovering from foot surgery and his status for the season opener remains uncertain). Tobias has the most upside of the bunch. He was excellent over the final two months of the 2012-13 season, averaging 17.3 points, 1.0 threes, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He should be safe to target in the late-middle rounds, and Harkless is worth a flier pick, but Nicholson and Big Baby should be left on the waiver wire.
There will be no SG position battle to begin the season – with J.R. Smith suspended five games due to a third-strike violation of the league’s drug policy for marijuana, the starting SG job belongs to Iman Shumpert. Smith is also still recovering from left knee surgery and his suspension won’t start until he’s medically cleared to play, so it’s far from certain that we’ll see him in uniform vs. the Spurs on Nov. 10 (the Knicks sixth game of the year). Smith was a solid mid-round value in 33 minutes per game last season, averaging 18.1 points, 1.9 threes and 1.3 steals on his way to Sixth-Man of the Year honors. Those numbers all seem like best-case scenarios for the upcoming season, and Smith’s combo knee surgery/suspension mean I don’t plan to touch him before the seventh round.
Iman Shumpert played 59 games as a rookie and just 45 games in 2012-13, as ACL surgery kept him sidelined until mid-January. An optimist could point to his career per-36-minute averages of 11.6 points, 1.3 threes, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals, and the fact that he made 40.2 percent of his 3-pointers last year. Unfortunately, his sub-40 percent FG shooting is a major drag on his value and it’s doubtful that he’ll log 32+ minutes per game once J.R. Smith is healthy and back on the court. If you draft Shumpert in the late rounds, consider trading him early in the season while his numbers are inflated by J.R.’s absence.
This is simply a reminder that Amare Stoudemire is a bench player for New York. Andrea Bargnani will start at PF and Amare will give the Knicks whatever he can in limited minutes off the bench. The Knicks have suggested keeping STAT on a 20-minute limit, which is ample reason to avoid him in fantasy leagues.
Caron Butler may have walked into the starting job for Milwaukee thanks to Carlos Delfino’s unexpected right foot surgery this summer, which will likely keep him sidelined on opening night. GM John Hammond said that the Bucks “project [Butler] to be our starting small forward, project him to play a lot of minutes for our team, project him to help us win games.” In other words, the job may be Butler’s lose even when Delfino is 100 percent healthy.
At this point in his career, Butler is most effective as a spot-up shooter. He’s lost the athleticism that once allowed him to beat defenders one-on-one. He knocked down 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers last year, averaging 1.6 makes per game, but that was his designated role on a team with solid spacing and Chris Paul at PG. Things will get more adventurous with Brandon Knight at the helm of the Bucks’ offense, and I’d avoid Butler unless you need a cheap SF and/or a handful of 3-pointers in the final rounds.
Carlos Delfino had a terrific year from the perimeter in 2012-13, making a whopping 2.4 triples per game on 37.5 percent shooting. Unfortunately, he also missed 15 games last year and has averaged 20 DNPs over the past three seasons. He’ll begin the season recovering from surgery and battling for minutes at SF, which makes him a tough sell before the final round in any fantasy league. Another wildcard is Khris Middleton, acquired from the Pistons in the deal for Brandon Knight. It’s entirely possible that Middleton will crack the rotation, and thus further obscure the outlooks of both Butler and Delfino.
The starting PF job belongs to Ersan Ilyasova, so this isn’t a true position battle. It’s worth noting, however, that the Bucks are eager to find minutes for John Henson, who posted terrific numbers when given sufficient playing time last season (including five games with 15+ rebounds). The bad news is that Zaza Pachulia should gobble up any available backup C minutes and the Bucks seem resistant to using Ersan Ilyasova at SF, which leaves Henson scraping for backup minutes. If one of the Bucks’ frontcourt players gets injured, however, owners shouldn’t think twice about snatching Henson off the waiver wire.
There isn’t much to say here. Danny Granger (knee) is expected to start at SG if he’s healthy, but that’s nowhere near certain. He has progressed to on-court workouts and scrimmages, but won’t address his status for the regular season until the Pacers’ media day on Sept. 27. Lance Stephenson will start at SG if Granger isn’t ready to go, otherwise Stephenson will serve as a sixth-man off the bench (a role he’s already said he’s fine with). Granger is an exceedingly risky option whose name-brand may inspire owners to gamble on him in the late-middle rounds, but I plan to avoid him and the inevitable drama that will follow.
Rodney Stuckey is the favorite to start at SG, but he’ll face competition from rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope throughout training camp and the regular season. KCP’s superior outside shooting (2.6 triples per game with Georgia last year) seems like a natural fit to spread the court for Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, whereas Stuckey’s slash-and-pass game would encourage defenses to pack the paint with defenders and thereby eliminate interior seams and spacing. Until KCP is starting, however, fantasy owners should be wary of the SG position. Chauncey Billups and Will Bynum are both threats to steal playing time, and Stuckey’s value is limited by his career 42.1 percent FG shooting, including a paltry 28.8 percent from downtown.
Check back next week for Part 2, detailing position battles in the Western Conference.