With just one month remaining before the start of the season and training camps set to begin, there are still a ton of unanswered questions around the league. While some teams will look almost identical as the previous year, others have new coaches, new schemes and added competition for minutes. That being said, I’ll be taking a close look at which players in the Eastern Conference (I’ll do a column for the Western Conference in October) will be battling for a starting spot over the course of the next month.
This position battle is as murky as they come, and it doesn’t help that Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall are both recovering from torn ACLs and could miss the beginning of the season. This means that we could see a lot of Isaiah Canaan or Pierre Jackson early on, but I’m not too excited about their long-term roles with the club.
Marshall had some impressive performances for the Lakers during the 2013-14 season in which he averaged 8.0 points, 8.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.3 treys per game, so we know what he can do when he is given a fair chance. On the other hand, Wroten can put up some serious numbers as evidenced by his averages of 16.9 points, 5.2 assists, 2.9 boards, 1.6 steals and 1.2 3-pointers before his injury last season, but he was also one of the most inefficient players in the league. Wroten shot just 40.3 percent from the field, 26.1 percent from deep and 66.7 percent from the charity stripe all while turning the ball over 3.8 times per game, and that made him worthless in 9-cat leagues.
While it’s still too early to know for sure, I’m giving the edge to Marshall to win the starting gig over Wroten, and given the fact that he should be available towards the end of drafts, he could be a sneaky source of assists and treys. As for Wroten, you should probably avoid him unless you are in a points league.
The departure of DeMarre Carroll has left a serious void on the wings for Atlanta, and it will now be up to Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to pick up the slack. Sefolosha was recently cleared for basketball activity after undergoing ankle surgery back in April, and it sounds like he should be ready for the start of the season.
I think the Hawks will go with Sefolosha in the early going because he has more experience and is a nasty defender, but Bazemore isn’t a slouch on defense either. I’m quietly rooting for Bazemore to win this battle because his ability to stretch the floor will be crucial to Atlanta’s high-octane offense, as Sefolosha struggled from 3-point range last season (32.1 percent) while Bazemore improved significantly (36.4 percent). Bazemore also shined in 10 starts with averages of 10.9 points, 4.8 boards, 1.8 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.4 steals and 1.1 3-pointers. Sefolosha’s game doesn’t translate to fantasy very well because he is more of a defensive specialist, so I’d recommend staying away from him if you can. If you are in a deep league, it’s not a bad idea to take a flier on Bazemore for his upside.
I’m still convinced that Marcus Smart is the point guard of the future in Boston, but Isaiah Thomas is clearly the better player right now. Thomas has been pretty vocal about his desire to start this season, but head coach Brad Stevens seems to prefer him as the team’s sixth man. Thomas played just 26.0 minutes per game for the Celtics last season in a bench role, but that didn’t stop him from averaging 19.0 points, 5.4 assists and 2.4 3-pointers per game. Smart had some bright moments as a rookie (particularly on the defensive end), but his averages of 7.8 points, 3.3 boards, 3.1 assist, 1.5 steals and 1.4 3-pointers on 36.7 percent shooting from the filed made him a low-end asset in standard leagues.
I’m hopeful that we will see a lot of two-PG lineups because I’m not a fan of Avery Bradley at the two, but Smart and Thomas will limit each other’s upside while the Celtics are at full strength. Expect Smart to open the season as the starter and feel free to spend a late-round pick on him, while I still won’t shy away from Thomas in the middle rounds even if he does come off the bench.
Talk about a logjam, the Celtics have arguably the most crowded frontcourt in the league, and they have been quiet so far about their plans for the upcoming season. The Celtics committed a lot of money to Amir Johnson this summer and they need his defense and toughness, so I believe that the center spot is his to lose. This would mean that Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk will have to battle each other for limited minutes off the bench, and that would take them off the radar in standard leagues. Johnson shouldn’t be touched until the later rounds, and his owners shouldn’t be expecting him to see a lot of minutes.
As for the power forward spot, David Lee is the favorite to start after rotting on the Golden State bench last season, and he will have plenty of motivation since he will be playing for a new contract. The Celtics will likely be a playoff team again this season, so Lee should be relied upon pretty heavily. Don’t forget that this dude was an All-Star before Draymond Green stole all the glory. However, Jared Sullinger has reportedly lost a lot of weight this summer and Danny Ainge said that he expects him to have a “terrific year”, so we could be looking at a potential timeshare here. I’d rather spend a late-round pick on Lee in the hope that he could become a nightly double-double threat again, but my opinion could change if Sullinger looks strong during the preseason.
The Hornets turned down four first-round picks in order to select Frank Kaminsky on draft night, and that to me was a sign that Cody Zeller’s days are numbered. The Hornets have done nothing but praise the rookie this summer, and the fact that he played all four years at Wisconsin means he should have an easier time adjusting to the NBA compared to other rookies. Frank the Tank can hit the 3-point shot which head coach Steve Clifford is looking for, so he has a serious edge over Zeller in that aspect.
Zeller averaged just 7.6 points, 5.8 boards and 1.6 assists last season and couldn’t hold off Marvin Williams, and it’s no secret that Charlotte tested the trade waters with him this summer. If Kaminsky has a strong training camp, I don’t see how the Hornets can keep him out of the starting unit. Frank the Tank is a solid pick in the later rounds while owners can safely pass on Zeller.
With new head coach Fred Hoiberg at the helm, there is a strong possibility that some changes are in store for the Bulls. There has been a lot of talk that Joakim Noah’s spot in the starting lineup is in jeopardy, while Pau Gasol also admitted that he is unsure of his role for the upcoming season. To be clear, I still believe that Gasol’s spot in the first unit is safe, but his minutes could trend down in his age-35 season due to all of the competition for minutes in Chicago.
Noah looked like a shell of himself last season and was on a minutes cap in order to keep him healthy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a similar approach by the Bulls this season. Nikola Mirotic is a massive threat to Noah’s role and he is a much better fit next to Gasol because he is a lot more athletic and can space the floor. Mirotic posted averages of 16.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks and 1.7 treys after the All-Star break last season, and he is going to be one of my favorite targets in the middle rounds of drafts this season. It appears that Taj Gibson could be the odd man out in Chicago, but I’m still convinced that the Bulls will look to trade him, especially with impressive rookie Bobby Portis on his heels.
Detroit brought in Marcus Morris to give them some perimeter shooting, but how long can he hold off Stanley Johnson? Johnson has the potential to become an elite defender and his jump shot was better than advertised during the summer league, so I think that this is a battle that he will eventually win. Morris averaged just 10.4 points, 4.8 boards and 1.4 3-pointers for the Suns last season, and I highly doubt that the Pistons view him as a long-term starter.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy hasn’t revealed his plans just yet, but he did hint that Johnson could play multiple positions which enhances his outlook. I don’t normally target rookies too aggressively in fantasy, but Johnson will find his way onto my target list if he wins the starting job in training camp.
I can’t get over how bad Channing Frye was last season. The dude averaged just 7.3 points on 39.2 percent shooting from the field right after signing a four-year, $32 million deal. That is easily one of the worst contracts in the NBA, and the only good news is that he will have a fresh start with new head coach Scott Skiles. However, Aaron Gordon was a stud during the summer league and the Magic aren’t in a real hurry to win games, so I think they have to give Gordon a serious look in the first unit.
Summer league stats can be deceptive sometimes, but Gordon’s averages of 21.7 points, 11.7 boards, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.7 blocks and 2.0 treys on 50.0 percent shooting from the field are too good to ignore. I won’t be saving a roster spot for Frye in any leagues even if he does open the season as the starter, but I will be more than happy to take a flier on Gordon.
Amir Johnson is now in Boston, so the starting power forward spot is Patrick Patterson’s to lose. The Raptors also brought in Luis Scola and Anthony Bennett, but I’d be shocked if either player made a serious push for the starting gig. Patterson isn’t the most exciting player by any means, but he was quietly effective last season with averages of 8.0 points, 5.3 boards, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.3 3-pointers per game. If you find yourself needing a power forward in the later rounds, you could do much worse than Patterson.
It’s possible that Carmelo Anthony could spend a lot of time at power forward this season, but I think it will likely come down to a battle between Kyle O’Quinn and Kristaps Porzingis. O’Quinn was a disaster in Orlando last season with averages of 5.8 points and 3.9 boards in 16.2 minutes per game, and he eventually fell completely out of the rotation. However, that didn’t stop the Knicks from signing him to a four-year deal, and they plan on giving him minutes at both the four and five.
Porzingis has the kind of upside that general managers drool over, but he needs to add a lot of muscle and the learning curve will be steep for the rookie. I think the Knicks will go with O’Quinn to start the season, but Porzingis should chip away at his minutes as the year progresses. To be clear, I’d much rather gamble on Porzingis than O’Quinn. The Knicks also brought in Derrick Williams this summer, but he isn’t a threat to either player in my opinion.
The Pacers made some headlines this week when head coach Frank Vogel revealed that he was leaning towards starting Paul George at power forward and Ian Mahinmi at center. Mahinmi did make six starts last season with averages of 7.5 points, 7.5 boards and 1.0 blocks per game, but it’s a little puzzling that the Pacers aren’t leaning towards promising rookie Myles Turner or even Jordan Hill.
Even If Mahinmi does win the starting job in Indiana, I still won’t look his way unless it’s in a deep league. Larry Bird has already said that Turner will play a key role this season, so maybe they just want to bring him along slowly. Things could obviously change in training camp, but Turner is still the big you will want to target in the later rounds over the likes of Mahinmi, Hill and Lavoy Allen.
Be sure to check back in October for Part two in which I examine the key position battles in the Western Conference, and make sure to follow me on Twitter for fantasy advice and any questions you need answered!