By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With nearly a week of preseason games in the books, Nick Whalen takes a look at the most impactful position battles around the league.
Philadelphia 76ers: Shooting Guard
Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick
Coming into the preseason, this wasn’t expected to be much of a battle. Given all that happened around Fultz as a rookie, the expectation was that Redick would step back into his spot alongside Ben Simmons in the backcourt. That could very well be the case, but Brett Brown has started Fultz at the two-spot in each of the Sixers exhibition contests.
It could simply be a means of boosting Fultz’s confidence, but given that Fultz looks much more comfortable as a shooter, pairing him with Simmons is more feasible now than it was six months ago. Regardless of how it shakes out, Fultz will be in line for a significantly increased role as the de facto No. 2 point guard who can also play off-ball — just as the Sixers envisioned when they took him first overall.
Charlotte Hornets: Frontcourt
Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez
Before the preseason, new head coach James Borrego told the media that every starting spot would be up for grabs. While that’s clearly not the case at the guard spots, minutes in the frontcourt will be available. Obviously, the loss of Dwight Howard frees up roughly 30 minutes at the center spot, but Borrego appears open to switching things up at the four as well.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — who’s started all but four games since entering the league in 2012 — came off the bench in two of the Hornets’ three preseason games. While Kidd-Gilchrist is among the best defenders in the league at his position, he’s shown virtually no improvement on offense over the last six years. That’s particularly problematic for a team that ranked 22nd in three-point attempt rate and 25th in effective field goal percentage last season. If Borrego goes with Williams — who’s started twice and rested once during the preseason — it’ll be a give and take. He’s a markedly better floor-spacer but a markedly worse, albeit not terrible, defender.
Zeller looks to be in the driver’s seat at center. He’s started both preseason games in which he’s played and has a better track record than both Kaminsky and Hernangomez. The latter is a name to keep an eye on, though. Lost in the shuffle for most of last season, Hernangomez has looked good in limited preseason action. He had 14 points in 18 minutes Sunday against Boston and followed up with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in 17 minutes against the Heat on Tuesday.
As has been the case for the last three seasons, Kaminsky will likely shuffle between center and power forward, filling gaps as necessary. Charlotte also has Bismack Biyombo at its disposal, but at this point it’s looking like he’ll have trouble seeing the floor on a regular basis. The 26-year-old has already been a DNP-CD in two preseason games.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Point Guard
George Hill, Collin Sexton
The prevailing expectation is that Hill will open the season as the starter and that was reflected in Tuesday’s preseason opener. Unlike last time LeBron James left town, the Cavs are set on fielding a competitive team, and while Sexton is the future at point guard, Hill is safer near-term option. Even if Hill does start for most of the year, Sexton will be a key fixture for a team with shallow guard depth. A career 38.3% three-point shooter, Hill can also play off-ball, so the pair seeing the floor together is likely something Ty Lue will experiment with as the season goes on.
Golden State Warriors: Center
Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, DeMarcus Cousins
The Warriors could trot out current-day Mikki Moore at center and be just fine, but it doesn’t appear as though that’s the route they’ll take. Until DeMarcus Cousins returns from injury (probably sometime around Christmas) Steve Kerr will have a trio of options. While Bell is the flashiest name, Jones, who Steve Kerr called a “physical force of nature,” got the start in the preseason opener. Looney played the most total minutes of the three last season.
It’s very possible that Kerr will rotate his centers based on matchups, and in terms of fantasy value there’s not a ton to be had here. Given his per-minute passing and shot-blocking numbers as a rookie, Bell easily has the highest upside, but whether he earns enough minutes to be consistently relevant in standard leagues remains to be seen. Once Cousins returns, that’ll be an even more difficult task.
Los Angeles Clippers: Center
Marcin Gortat, Montrezl Harrell
The Clippers bid farewell to DeAndre Jordan over the summer and shipped Austin Rivers across the country to nab Jordan’s replacement. While he’s past his prime at age 34, Gortat looks to be the favorite to start — that’s been the case through two preseason games. He finds himself in a timeshare with Harrell though, who’s steadily improved in each of his three NBA seasons.
Gortat’s playing time sunk to 25.3 minutes per game in Washington last season and while the Clippers don’t have a ton of depth up front, it’s hard to imagine that figure rising much. He’s still a capable defender and one of the best screen-setters in the league, but Harrell is a more efficient finisher and offers more upside, even if he gives up some size on the defensive end.
Los Angeles Lakers: Backcourt
Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, Josh Hart, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Svi Mykhailiuk
With Ball in the final stages of his recovery from offseason knee surgery, Rondo has worked with the starters through the Lakers’ first two preseason games. While there’s reason to believe Rondo could begin the regular season as a starter, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers bringing a fully healthy Ball off the bench for more than a few weeks. Either way, how the veteran and the 20-year-old split time will be a persistent narrative this season.
Rondo has shown some improvement as a shooter, but we have a decade-plus of evidence that suggests he’s a marginal three-point threat at best. Ball’s shooting was a rollercoaster for most of his rookie season and until he proves capable of hitting threes consistently, it’ll be difficult for the pair to play together. Given his pedigree, upside, and the Lakers’ investment, Ball is the much safer fantasy commodity but the Lakers didn’t bring Rondo just to leave him on the bench.
At shooting guard, the incumbent, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will battle Josh Hart and, to a lesser degree, Lance Stephenson for minutes. Caldwell-Pope is the best defender of the three, but he’s devolved into the Western Conference version of J.R. Smith on offense. Meanwhile, Hart — who started over Caldwell-Pope in the Lakers’ second preseason game — continues to build momentum coming off a strong rookie season and an even stronger showing at the Las Vegas Summer League.
Expect Caldwell-Pope to begin the year as the starter, but don’t be shocked if Hart eventually usurps him. Stephenson will play but his upside is a tier or two lower. Mykhailiuk will likely function as a three-point specialist when he sees the floor.
Memphis Grizzlies: Forwards
Kyle Anderson, JaMychal Green, Chandler Parsons, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson, Jr.
After falling victim to injuries a season ago, the Grizzlies made adding depth a priority. Anderson, Temple and Jackson are all new faces and all three will be factors in the rotation. Parsons started over Anderson in the preseason opener, and while that’s not the most encouraging development, it probably doesn’t mean much in the long-term. The Grizzlies still have a sizable investment in Parsons, but at this point he’s far too injured to trust in nearly any fantasy format, even if he’s the nominal starter on the wing.
Parsons aside, there’s also reason to believe Memphis will entrust Anderson with more primary ball-handling opportunities than he had in San Antonio in an effort to unlock the playmaking ability he showed while functionally playing point guard at UCLA. Considering the Grizzlies made Anderson their top priority in free agency, there’s little reason to worry about his regular season workload.
Things get a bit more complicated at power forward, where Green will attempt to hold off the No. 4 overall pick. Jackson’s long-term future may be at center, but with Marc Gasol penciled in for 30-plus minutes on most nights, Jackson will likely play alongside Gasol in certain lineups while also backing him up at the five. Even if Green begins the year as the starter, Jackson is the player to own. If the minutes are there, he could provide rare three-pointers and block-production from a rookie big man.
New Orleans Pelicans: Power Forward
Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle
Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins (first to injury, then to free agency) the Pelicans enter 2018-19 in relatively good shape. Mirotic, who the Pels acquired as Cousins’ mid-season replacement, is back, while Randle arrives from Los Angeles as one of the league’s more popular breakout candidates. One of the two has to start — thus far it’s been Randle, while Mirotic nurses an Achilles injury — but the minutes breakdown figures to be relatively even. Each offers a different skill set to complement Anthony Davis. Mirotic can get as hot as anyone in the league from three, while Randle can play-make and Mike Alstott-(that’s a verb)-his way to the rim in the halfcourt.
New York Knicks: Point Guard
Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay
The Knicks are not going to be a good team, but there’s still plenty of value to be had, particularly in the backcourt. Ntilikina is who New York hopes can take hold of the starting point guard job, but he’ll face competition from Mudiay and Burke — the latter, in particular.
After falling out of the league following stints with Utah and Washington, Burke was reborn (oddly, as an Allen Iverson clone) in New York last season. Burke averaged 12.8 points and 4.7 assists in less than 22 minutes per game while shooting better than 36 percent from three and 50 percent from the field. After the All-Star break, those numbers jumped to 15.9 points and 5.8 assists per game. It’ll now be on Burke to prove that production is sustainable.
As players, Burke and Ntilikina are polar opposites. Despite his offensive struggles, Ntilikina was already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league last season. Burke posted the second-worst defensive rating on the team. The most likely scenario is they split time at point guard evenly. Burke is probably the safer fantasy commodity, but Ntilikina can offer hard-to-find steals contributions, and his size enables him to fit more seamlessly off the ball.
As for Mudiay? New coach David Fizdale appears open to the idea of giving the former lottery pick a second chance, but there’s little reason, at least statistically, to believe he can be an above-average point guard.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Power Forward
Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson
The failed Carmelo Anthony experiment leaves the Thunder with a void at power forward. Neither Grant nor Patterson can match the offensive output of this current version of Melo, but both are far superior defenders who are comfortable as secondary options.
The Thunder paid up to keep Grant so he’s the better long-term option, but it was Patterson who got the start in Wednesday’s preseason opener. Patterson had seven points and five boards in 21 minutes, while Grant finished with seven points on 1-of-9 shooting along with five rebounds in 27 minutes. Assuming they split minutes evenly, there’s likely not a ton of fantasy value to be had in standard-sized leagues.
Phoenix Suns: Backcourt
Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, Shaquille Harrison
Phoenix traded away its presumed starting point guard in Brandon Knight and is yet to find a replacement. The regular season is less than two weeks away. The Suns appear to be waiting to snare a veteran as the third team in a potential Jimmy Butler trade, but if that doesn’t work out, they’ll likely turn to Devin Booker as they did for parts of last season.
Booker is far from a natural point guard, but when the other options are Shaquille Harrison, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo, he’ll do. Even in that scenario, Phoenix still has question marks on the wing. Trevor Ariza can be penciled in at the three, but that leaves one spot for Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, and T.J. Warren.
Jackson got the nod in the preseason opener — Harrison started at point guard with Booker (hand) out — and played a team-high 33 minutes while Warren and Bridges saw 26 and 12 minutes, respectively, off the bench. Of the three, Warren is the best pure scorer but he doesn’t offer much else and doesn’t shoot threes. Jackson struggled shooting the ball as a rookie, but he’s a rangy defender and underrated playmaker. Bridges was one of the more NBA-ready players in the 2018 draft class, but he looks to be on the outside looking in.
Sacramento Kings: Frontcourt
Marvin Bagley, Nemanja Bjelica, Harry Giles, Zach Randolph, Skal Labissiere, Kosta Koufos
In terms of pure unpredictability, the Kings’ rotation has been unrivaled in recent years. With an influx of young talent, the hope is that Randolph and Koufos will take a backseat as development becomes the top priority. Willie Cauley-Stein looks like a lock to start at center, as he should, but the power forward spot could be up for grabs.
Labissiere got the start in the preseason opener with Bagley and Giles splitting minutes off the bench. Both Labissiere and Giles can play the five in certain lineups, and while Bagley is a pure four, the Kings have experimented with running him at the three and even *gulp* at shooting guard.
While that’s probably misguided, they speak to Bagley’s perceived versatility which should help him stay on the court as a rookie. The No. 2 overall pick projects as primarily a points/rebounds contributor while Labissiere and Giles are wild cards until proven otherwise.
A former top recruit, Giles carries plenty of intrigue after sitting out all of last season, and he showed some encouraging flashes in his preseason debut, finishing with 14 points (5-12 FG, 1-2 3PT, 3-6 FT), six rebounds and three assists before fouling out in 23 minutes.