If You're Hardcore: Early position battles
Raptors, Warriors, Knicks, Thunder have fantasy-relevant battles
I hope you all had a restful fantasy offseason. For me, thanks to all of the player movement, it was the offseason that wasn't. Oh, there might have been a week or two in mid-August when things calmed down a bit, but for the most part the fantasy basketball season never really ended.
Not that I'm complaining. Thanks to the unprecedented amount of player movement (in addition to the draft), there's almost a midseason amount of intensity accompanying this opening week's games.
For me, the first week is all about minutes. Preseason playing time can be all over the place, thus wildly inflating and deflating fantasy expectations; so it's nice to see the actual rotations come opening night. Let's take a look at several preseason playing time battles that bear watching in the early stages of the season.
Toronto Raptors (Jarrett Jack versus Jose Calderon)
This was one of last season's more annoying timeshares, but it seems like Jack is finally gaining the upper hand over the preternaturally brittle Calderon. Jack started the Raptors' opener against the New York Knicks, responding with 16 points, 6 assists and 3 steals. Toronto came close to dealing Calderon in the offseason, but it looks like he'll be stuck backing up Jack for the near future. If Jack can stay above 28 minutes per game, he'll be a fine No. 2 PG in deeper leagues.
Atlanta Hawks (Mike Bibby versus Jeff Teague)
The Fantasyland buzzards spent all preseason circling over Bibby's numerical prospects. Conversely, Teague assumed a (I thought too-hot) trendy sleeper status. It's supposed to just be a matter of time before Bibby yields to Teague, but I learned a long time ago to never discount Bibby from a fantasy perspective. The veteran point guard seemed to have a firm grip on the starting role in the opener, responding with a decent line (19 points, 4 3s, 4 assists). He'll make for a nice fantasy bench guy until he finally switches rotation spots with Teague.
New York Knicks (Landry Fields versus Wilson Chandler)
The battle for the Knicks' starting shooting guard gig was one of the most closely watched fantasy situations of the preseason. Chandler fizzled, opening the door for the unheralded Fields to go from real-life NBA waiver-wire fodder to starting NBA shooting guard. There could be other players (Bill Walker, Toney Douglas) in the mix, but I still like Chandler to regain his starting job, and he made a strong case in the Knicks' opener, hitting 10 of 18 shots on his way to 22 points. Fields had a sneaky-nice line (11 points, 3 3-pointers), but it's hard to see him hanging onto 30 minutes a night for the duration.
Oklahoma City Thunder (Thabo Sefolosha versus James Harden)
The Thunder might be a trendy pick in NBA circles, but remain something of a buzzkill in fantasy. Their lack of pace and emphasis on things like defense make it hard for players outside of their big three (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green) to make much of a statistical dent. Sefolosha is the perfect Thunder role player, the kind of guy who does the little things that don't show up in a box score, which means he's useless to fantasy owners. The upside lies with Harden, who still has the cachet of being a top-5 draft pick. Harden looked lost at times last year but made some strides this preseason and made for a trendy endgame pick. Unfortunately, coach Scott Brooks has officially named Sefolosha the starter, meaning Harden will probably end up on the waiver wire in most leagues by Halloween.
Golden State Warriors (Dorell Wright versus Reggie Williams)
This had the makings of a timeshare, but it's increasingly looking like Wright (36 minutes, 15 points) is going to get the lion's share of minutes under new coach Keith Smart. Wright has long been an underrated fantasy specialist in the 3-pointer category and has shown some potential to add steals and blocks. If Smart keeps up this Don Nelson-esque pace, Wright is going to be a steal for owners who bought low.
Milwaukee Bucks (Carlos Delfino versus Corey Maggette)
Delfino was one of my favorite fantasy finds of last season, coming off the waiver wire to offer a primo mix of points, 3s, rebounds and steals. So I was less than excited this summer when the Bucks bolstered their already-crowded swingman rotation with Maggette. Maggette is a nice percentage booster, but doesn't have Delfino's numerical diversity and upside. Thankfully, Delfino still ended up as the starter against the New Orleans Hornets, logging an impressive 39 minutes (and scoring 19 points to go with five 3-pointers and three steals). Maggette (16 points in 19 minutes) historically is the kind of player who can excel as a sixth man, adding to the hope that he can carve out a productive role off the bench.
Cleveland Cavaliers (J.J. Hickson versus Antawn Jamison)
I'm hoping this is a textbook example on how not to read too much into opening night. After hearing all preseason about Hickson's refusal to pick up the Cavaliers' new-look offense, he looked like the picture of efficiency (21 points, 6 rebounds) against the Celtics. Jamison was supposedly just lying in wait all preseason, waiting to dish out an automatic 18 points and 8 rebounds a night. Instead, he reverted to his disappointing playoff form, posting an anemic 4 points and 4 boards in just 21 minutes. If Jamison stays mired in the 20-minutes-per-game range, we will be looking at one of the biggest fantasy busts of 2010-11.
Toronto Raptors (Reggie Evans versus Amir Johnson)
In 2010-11, who's going to lose playing time to Evans; who hasn't been a fantasy factor since the early years of the Bush administration? If he weren't starting in Toronto, he'd be somewhere in Russia backing up Popeye Jones.
The rebuilding/reloading Raptors are going to be an intriguing fantasy story all season, but the sight of Evans getting 33 minutes, 16 rebounds and 0 points was almost too painful to watch. I'm not dropping Johnson just yet, because I'd like to think at some point the Raptors will come to their senses and start the player with actual upside. Or maybe they just want to make Chris Bosh's defection as painful as possible for their fan base.
New York Knicks (Timofey Mozgov versus Ronny Turiaf)
This was supposed to be Anthony Randolph's job, but Randolph struggled all preseason before bowing out with an ankle injury. While the remaining names didn't exactly leap out at fantasy owners during this year's drafts, we are still talking about a starting gig in a Mike D'Antoni system. That means it's a situation worth watching, especially at a wafer-thin center position. Turiaf (8 points, 4 blocks) looked like he was getting the upper hand on Mozgov (0 points in 7 minutes) before leaving in the fourth quarter with an injury. If Turiaf remains healthy, he could be a nice stopgap add until Randolph returns.
Houston Rockets (Yao Ming versus Chuck Hayes/Brad Miller/Jordan Hill)
This promises to be one of the most uniquely frustrating timeshares of 2010-11. We all know that Yao is being held out of back-to-back games. Even on the nights Yao plays, his minutes will still be limited as the Rockets attempt to keep him ambulatory for a full season. The story here will be whether another Rockets big man can turn an opportunity at a part-time starting gig into night-in, night-out production, at least enough to make him worth owning. The Rockets are very deep, which means they're going to be tough to peg from a fantasy perspective, especially at part-time center, where they have two young players with upside (Hayes, Hill) to go along with a crafty veteran (Miller). It was nice to see Hayes have a solid opening night (16 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists). Maybe it will reduce the confusion at the position, but this will probably end up being a mess for the length of the season.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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