We're drifting through a quiet period on the NBA calendar, Paul George's devastating injury excepted, and today's column will take a nuanced look at a handful of player outlooks for the upcoming season. Unlike my recent 'Numbers Game' columns, which were centered around specific data sets, today's numbers are drawn from all over the place, including:
The Rockets moved Jones out of their starting lineup during their ill-fated playoff series with the Trail Blazers, as Jones was routinely torched by LaMarcus Aldridge defensively. That won't make coach Kevin McHale hesitate to use Jones as an every-day starting PF this season, however, especially with Omer Asik gone and Donatas Motiejunas likely to spend more time as a backup center. (To defend Jones, he and Asik had an identical defensive rating of 113 during their series vs. the Blazers, yet Jones' phenomenal offensive rating of 126 was way beyond Asik's 101.)
Asik's departure shouldn't be underestimated. T-Jones played a total of 293 minutes alongside Asik last season. That represents only 13 percent of his playing time, during which he had a usage rate of 19.8 and an effective field goal percentage of 49.5 percent. The other 87 percent of Jones' playing time, which occurred with Asik off the court, resulted in a usage rate of 18.5 and a much-improved effective field goal percentage of 57.2 percent.
Beyond Motiejunas and Jones, Houston's group of PFs is uninspiring -- Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, Clint Capela, and (if they keep him) Josh Powell. Jones' fantasy appeal was obvious if somewhat inconsistent throughout the 2013-14 regular season, but he solidified his value in the final month by averaging 13.9 points on 54.1 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks in only 26 minutes per game.
If he could have maintained his offensive clip over 36 minutes per game last year, he'd have been one of five qualifying players to average at least 16.0 points on 54 percent shooting -- the others were LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Nikola Pekovic and Dwyane Wade (none of whom averaged at least 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game). Jones even knocked down the occasional 3-pointer and his lousy 60.5 percent FT shooting was forgivable in light of his versatile contributions. A reliable starting job and more playing time should make him a lock for early-middle round value, and I'll be happy to draft such a versatile option anywhere outside the top-40.
I'm generally avoiding rookies in this column, since they've been dealt with elsewhere and will be the topic of future columns, but Orlando's backcourt of Payton and Oladipo is too intriguing to pass up. Payton is coming off an excellent Summer League in which he averaged 9.2 points on 59.3 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals in only 26 minutes per game. Those numbers should be written in disappearing ink, however, since they don't mean very much in the context of an entire NBA season, and rookie PGs typically struggle with low FG percentages and high turnovers. As I noted in a column in June (Rookie Ranks: 2005 to Present), only 12 rookie PGs have cracked top-170 value over the past nine years, and only four have cracked the top-100.
Payton has the advantage of having played three seasons with Louisiana-Lafayette before entering the NBA, and according to DraftExpress.com he ranked 3rd among all PG prospects in usage last season (20.9 possessions per game). He was particularly effective in transition, which is sweet relief for a Magic team that ranked 22nd in fastbreak efficiency last season.
Two of Elfrid's biggest problem areas are 3-point shooting (25.9 percent last season) and turnovers (3.8 per game), which is unfortunately a major concern at the NBA level. His 1.66 assist-to-turnover ratio would have ranked dead last among qualifying NBA point guards last season, slightly behind Jeremy Lin and Michael Carter-Williams. His lack of 3-point shooting may be just as important, as teams will make a habit of slacking off him on the perimeter, diving under screens, and forcing him to beat them from the outside. If he can't do it, he'll face layers of defenders when attacking the basket and some of his best attributes (athleticism, penetration and crafty playmaking) will be somewhat neutralized.
Elfrid's defensive prowess should result in copious steals, which are fantasy gold, but I must temper that positive with another negative -- he shot 59.0 percent from the FT line last season, on a whopping 8.8 attempts per game. Low FT percentages compounded by high-volume attempts are deadly for fantasy purposes, particularly in roto leagues, and Elfrid's game is predicated upon his ability to cause havoc with penetration and transition opportunities. It's also worth noting that Orlando is packing their backcourt with veterans to ease Payton's burden even while they mentor him on and off the court -- guys like Luke Ridnour, Willie Green, Peyton Siva and Ben Gordon are all capable of handling the ball. The caveats above shouldn't obscure Payton's tremendous upside -- I'm only arguing that his fantasy value may not catch up to his real-world appeal during his rookie season.
Victor Oladipo displayed many of the same weaknesses as Payton during his rookie season (3.2 turnovers, 32.7 percent 3-point shooting), but he's poised for a big season as Orlando's starting SG ahead of Evan Fournier, Ben Gordon and Devyn Marble. Oladipo maintained sixth-round value in eight-cat leagues thanks to 13.8 points, 0.9 threes, 4.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game, and he only missed two games all year. He plummeted toward 12th-round value once turnovers were included, however, a caveat which should be kept in mind on draft day. In light of his durability, I'll be targeting him as early as the fourth round in eight-cat leagues this season.
The Magic are clearly in development mode, but it's worth questioning how their offense will operate with a starting backcourt that (at least on paper) will turn the ball over frequently while struggling from the 3-point line. Moe Harkless flashed some 3-point range last year but Tobias Harris shot just 25 percent from that range, all of which helps to explain why the Magic dumped $41 million to acquire Channing Frye and Ben Gordon this summer.
Jeff Teague said this summer that he'll "probably need to get stronger" to take his game to another level in 2014-15, but I anticipate a big season even if he doesn't bulk up. The Hawks' PG has increased his scoring in each of his five NBA seasons and he credited coach Mike Budenholzer for giving him the ball last year, and trusting him to make the right plays. Although Teague averaged a relatively low 32.2 minutes per game, he returned fifth-round fantasy value (eight-cat) on the strength of 16.5 points, 0.9 triples, 2.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
His fantasy value was a few rounds lower in nine-cat leagues, as his 2.9 turnovers per game took a severe toll -- he averaged the seventh-most turnovers per game among point guards, trailing only Isaiah Thomas, Ty Lawson, Michael Carter-Williams, John Wall, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. He could also improve his FG percentage, which has slipped from 47.6 percent (2011-12) to 45.1 percent (2012-13) to just 43.8 percent (last season). More than half of his shot attempts came within eight feet of the hoop last year, so a bit more muscle mass should enable him to improve his FG percentage in a hurry.
With another year of familiarity under coach Budenholzer, better chemistry with new teammates like Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap, and the re-introduction of Al Horford's versatile presence, Teague is already poised for a solid year in reality and in fantasy leagues. His ability to stay healthy is another compelling reason to target him on draft day -- he's missed a total of five games over the past three seasons, and finished as a top-40 value on a cumulative basis last season.
Mirza Teletovic and Mason Plumlee
All signs point to Kevin Garnett returning for another season with the Nets, but KG is doubtful to log more than the 20.5 minutes he averaged last year (while missing 28 games). The Nets may use Andrei Kirilenko at the four-spot for stretches, and rookie Cory Jefferson could provide spot minutes as a defensive specialist, but Mirza Teletovic stands out as the clear-cut favorite to dominate minutes at PF.
The 28-year-old Teletovic does the bulk of his damage from beyond the 3-point arc, where 64 percent of his shot attempts came last season (only 21 percent were within eight feet). On a per-36-minute basis he averaged 16.0 points and a whopping 3.5 triples last season, yet his terrific specialist appeal shouldn't persuade fantasy owners to reach for him until the middle rounds are winding down. For one thing, his 3-point barrage results in a poor FG percentage (40.9 percent for his career) and he's a mediocre FT shooter (72.6 percent) and rebounder. Most damning is his lack of defensive stats -- with just 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks last season (per-36-minutes) he was reduced to a two-category asset in most fantasy formats.
Mason Plumlee's sheer fantasy upside is much greater, due in great measure to the uncertainty surrounding Brook Lopez's surgically-repaired feet and ankles. Lopez said on Monday that he's been "fully cleared" to play, only five months removed from his most recent surgery, but his injury history provides more than enough cause for skepticism. Last year alone, surgeons repaired a torn tendon in his left foot, cleaned out his left ankle, and shifted bones around in his right foot to lower his arch, redistribute his weight and avoid future injuries.
Even if Lopez stays healthy all year, the Nets will likely limit his playing time as a precaution. That opens the door for Plumlee to average at least 20 minutes per game, and he's already shown the damage he can cause with limited playing time -- in the final month of the 2013-14 season, he averaged 10.4 points on 71.4 percent shooting (!), 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks in only 23.6 minutes per game. Plumlee's addition to the Team USA squad should help to expand his game, even if he doesn't make the final roster, and fantasy owners in need of a center shouldn't hesitate to draft him in the late rounds.
Someone has to assume the minutes left vacant by Paul George, and Miles stands out as the most likely candidate. The Pacers plunked down $18 million over four years to sign Miles as a free agent this summer, and his perimeter shooting (39.3 percent from deep last year) makes him a solid weapon for a team that ranked near the bottom in 3-pointers made last season.
Unfortunately, a lack of versatility should prevent him from returning more than borderline value, which is where he's been stuck throughout his nine NBA seasons with the Jazz and Cavaliers. There's also the possibility that Indiana will bring him off the bench behind a starting SF they add prior to the season -- a report on Tuesday suggests that they're making a "strong push" to sign free agent Shawn Marion.
The prospect of Marion signing with the Pacers also casts a pall over Solomon Hill, whose limited NBA experience makes it hard to gauge what he'll contribute this season. The 6'7" forward only averaged 8.1 minutes in 28 appearances last year, showing a knack for rebounding while leaving open questions about his shooting range (30.4 percent from deep). Fantasy owners should avoid Hill until we've at least seen him in action during the preseason, at which point Indy's rotations will be somewhat clearer.
To make Miles' fantasy outlook even more suspect, the Pacers also have 3-point specialists Chris Copeland and Damjan Rudez on their roster. Rudez lit up the competition in Europe and is universally regarded as a knock-down perimeter shooter, but he appears to be a redundant option with Copeland (a 3-point specialist who can't defend) already lurking on the depth chart. With so much uncertainty surrounding the Pacers' rotation, fantasy owners should avoid all of these guys.
I've yet to mention Rodney Stuckey, the Pacers' presumptive starting SG, but he also earns my 'avoid' tag thanks to a career-long inability to knock down 3-pointers. Stuckey peaked in 2010-11 when he earned late-middle round fantasy value with averages of 15.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Paul George's absence should ensure that C.J. Miles primarily plays SF, freeing up more minutes for Stuckey at SG, but the seven-year veteran's fantasy value is hampered by career 28.6 percent shooting from downtown, a middling 0.9 steals per game, and a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. Indiana ranked 22nd for offensive efficiency last season and they played with the 10th-slowest pace, so there's not much to like about Stuckey's fantasy outlook.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey was reluctant to give JV big minutes last year, to the everlasting frustration of fantasy owners. Casey said that it was a season of development for Toronto's prized 22-year-old center, but he did loosen the reins toward the end of the regular season -- given a decent 30.6 minutes per game in April, Valanciunas averaged a season-best 16.8 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 11.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.9 blocks. Those numbers include a career-high 21 rebounds in mid-April, and he went on to set a Raptors' postseason record with 18 rebounds in a first-round game vs. the Nets.
Valanciunas had faced DUI charges but they have since been dropped, so he shouldn't face any suspensions from the NBA to start the season. His stellar 53.1 percent shooting ranked 15th-best in the league, with more than half of his shot attempts coming within the restricted area. Although he finished outside the top-100 fantasy players overall last year, he catapulted into the top-40 during the final month. With more minutes and touches coming his way this year, fantasy owners should view him as a high-upside pick anywhere after the fourth round.
Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green
I railed against Barnes' fantasy value prior to last season, despite his excellent play during the 2012-13 postseason, a stance which earned me some scorn on Twitter (this was during the 'debate' as to whether Barnes or Klay Thompson would serve as sixth-man). Barnes did come off the bench, of course, averaging a mere 9.5 points on 39.9 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists on his way to the fantasy dustbin.
I want Barnes to succeed but from a fantasy perspective I remain a skeptic. He had a golden opportunity with Andre Iguodala injured last season, but in 24 starts he averaged only 12.2 points on 41.2 percent shooting, 0.9 triples, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks. The 22-year-old is still developing and he's far from reaching his potential, but I'll be avoiding him at all costs in fantasy leagues while Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are on the Warriors' roster.
Draymond Green is a much more intriguing fantasy option, and he's almost guaranteed a bigger role after his playoff success last year. Green was a borderline value in only 21.9 minutes per game last season, and his per-36-minute averages deserve close attention: 10.2 points on 40.7 percent shooting, 1.1 threes, 8.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks.
There was only one player in the NBA who averaged at least one 3-pointer, steal and block last year -- Paul Millsap. Take another look at the numbers above, and you'll see that Green is a legitimate candidate to join the club, even if he gets somewhere around 30 minutes per game. (He shot only 33.3 percent from downtown, but 3-pointers accounted for more than a third of his attempts.) Green's versatility will allow coach Steve Kerr to use him in a variety of ways, and fantasy owners shouldn't overlook him as an upside pick toward the end of drafts.