This is the second part of my league-wide survey of position battles, following last week's look at the Eastern Conference. As I noted then, a starting job is of quantifiable importance for a player's fantasy value -- according to BasketballMonster.com, only nine of last season's top-100 fantasy options started less than 90 percent of their games (eight-cat, per game).
The starting lineups and key reserves listed are not always the players/lineups I think should be deployed on opening night, merely what I think will be deployed in light of each team's personnel, coaches, and other circumstances. Projecting lineups months in advance is not a science. For teams with the same head coach, I usually lean toward incumbent starters. Although not as difficult to dislodge as an incumbent U.S. Representative, most NBA starters tend to keep their jobs when challenged by rookies and second-year players, at least to begin the season.
Teams with relatively clear-cut starting lineups include:
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Dallas lost sixth-man Vince Carter in free agency, but they've become a more dangerous team by signing Chandler Parsons and trading for Tyson Chandler. They acquired Raymond Felton in the deal for Chandler, while sending Jose Calderon to New York, so initially it appeared that Felton would start at PG on opening night. The Mavs are reasonably skeptical about Felton's self-proclaimed bounce-back year, so they also picked up Jameer Nelson in free agency.
The battle at PG will play out between Felton and Nelson during training camp, with Monta Ellis locked in at SG and Devin Harris serving as a combo guard off the bench. One thing is certain -- Felton won't start at PG to begin the season due to a four-game suspension for pleading guilty to weapons-possession charges. That gives Nelson immediate traction, and both players per-36-minute stats from last year make Jameer seem like a more productive option:
Raymond Felton: 11.2 points, 1.1 threes, 3.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.3 turnovers
Jameer Nelson: 13.5 points, 2.2 threes, 3.8 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.7 turnovers
Nelson shot better from beyond the arc and at the FT line, posted a superior true shooting percentage, and assisted 35.1 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the court (vs. 28.1 percent for Felton). In fairness to Felton, it should be noted that New York played with the second-slowest pace in the NBA last year, relying heavily on isolation plays that precluded assists, and that Orlando's offensive efficiency (99.3 points per 100 possessions) was 29th in the league.
I expect Nelson to keep the starting job once he claims it on opening night, giving Dallas more playmaking and perimeter shooting than Felton can provide. Dallas' backcourt defense might suffer with 6'0" Nelson next to Monta Ellis, but Felton is no better, and the Mavs are at least accustomed to the problem with Jose Calderon at PG last year.
Nuggets' SG, SF and C
JaVale McGee missed all but five games last season after fracturing his fibula, and he enters the 2014-15 season in a position battle with Timofey Mozgov. "I told JaVale even before he had season-ending surgery, ‘Timo’s coming for you,'" said coach Brian Shaw. "It’s not a given that anything is going to be handed to you when you come back." McGee will earn a guaranteed $23.3 million over the next two seasons and at just 26 years old he has plenty of potential, but to lock up a starting job he'll need to prove that he's healthy and productive in training camp. "He's got to show us what he can do, and certainly he's a huge part of what we hope to be next year," said GM Tim Connelly. "He brings a defensive component that we struggled with at times last year."
Mozgov is no slouch defensively, of course, and he held opponents to just 46.9 percent shooting at the rim last season -- that's slightly higher than Taj Gibson, John Henson and Joakim Noah, and slightly lower than Josh Smith, Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. Moreover, Mozgov proved surprisingly adept in transition and finished with a career-high 9.4 points per game on 52.3 percent FGs and 75.4 percent FTs.
The Nuggets could eventually trade Mozgov or McGee, and as long as they're on the same roster (and healthy) it'll be hard for either to thrive in fantasy leagues no matter who starts the game. McGee's outsized salary and sheer potential may persuade Shaw to start him at center, but if he has a lousy training camp he may quickly find himself coming off the bench behind the unheralded Mozgov. Until we've at least seen him producing on the court, I'm sticking with Timofey.
The SG position is contested between Arron Afflalo and Randy Foye, with Nate Robinson chipping in at both guard spots as a reserve. Foye was upset with Denver's decision to trade for Afflalo and he's vowed to fight to keep his starting role, a reasonable stance from an eight-year veteran coming off perhaps his best NBA season -- he averaged 13.2 points, 2.3 three-pointers, 2.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 0.8 steals, with only one DNP all year.
Arron Afflalo was no slouch in Orlando last year, scoring a career-high 18.2 points with 1.8 three-pointers per game, and he did it for a team with a putrid offensive efficiency of 99.3 (ranking 29th in the NBA). He's a solid defender who would give Denver a bit more size and length at SG, and he's a more dynamic offensive player than Foye, who only stands out as a 3-point shooter. Neither player was particularly effective in transition last season -- Afflalo averaged a mere 1.07 points per possession, while Foye was marginally better at 1.15 points per possession. Foye is the incumbent at SG, but I expect to see Afflalo overtake him during training camp.
At SF, the only real question is whether Danilo Gallinari (ACL surgery) will be healthy enough to start on opening night. Wilson Chandler is a viable option for coach Brian Shaw, but the Nuggets are relying on a big season from Gallo to make the leap into playoff contention. Gallinari has been moving without restrictions since May and he's on pace to participate in training camp, so I'm penciling him in as a starter.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr didn't waste much time highlighting a position battle on his team. "Andre [Iguodala] started last year, which he probably will [again], but there's a lot of options that we have because we've got really good players in Harrison [Barnes] and Draymond [Green]," Kerr said. "But most of it usually comes down to ... how do the pieces of the puzzle fit?"
It's worth noting that Kerr seems to have implicitly ruled out shifting David Lee to the bench, despite his glaringly poor defense vs. the league's starting PFs. Green is a great defender with admirable size at 6'7", 230 pounds, and Andrew Bogut said Green was part of the Warriors' "killer lineup" last season while D-Lee was sidelined. On the other hand, sandwiching Lee between Bogut and Green could mask some of his deficiencies, and it has the added bonus of giving Andre Iguodala a bigger role with the second unit.
Iguodala has always been a sneaky playmaker in the NBA, but he took a backseat to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson last year. Among other things, he generated the fewest FT attempts of his 10-year career, had a career-low rebound rate and his lowest assist rate since 2005-06, and his usage plummeted to just 13.3 percent (the lowest since his rookie season). Coach Steve Kerr has already stated that he doesn't want Iguodala "standing in the corner" offensively because "that's where he gets lost a little bit." The easiest way to engage Iguodala more on offense might be to pair him with Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes in the second unit, giving Golden State a rather formidable bench.
Clippers' SF and C
The center position isn't actually a battle but I had a request to talk about how DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Hawes will co-exist in the frontcourt. Hawes and Glen Davis give L.A. a reliable pair of big men to ease the drop-off from the starting lineup, and it wouldn't shock me if Hawes averages north of 25 minutes per game. If he does get sufficient playing time, Hawes could still return late-round fantasy value on the strength of his 3-point shooting, rebounding and shot-blocking -- he was a top-50 option in just under 31 minutes per game with the Cavs last year. As for Jordan, I don't expect his value to take a sizeable hit. He averaged 35.0 minutes while playing in all 82 games last year, and should return elite value (without FT percentage included...but that's a discussion for another column) even if Hawes' arrival allows coach Doc Rivers to shave off a couple minutes per game.
I love Hawes' move to L.A. in reality. His four-year, $23 million salary may seem steep, but 7'1", 26-year-old centers with starter-level talent are a prized commodity, especially if they're willing to accept a bench role in the pursuit of a championship. At roughly $5.8 million, he'll be earning about as much as Patrick Patterson.
The SF spot is contested between Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley. I view this as a toss-up, as reflected in the fact that Barnes started 40 games last year vs. Dudley's 43 starts. They even shot an identical 43.8 percent from the field. Barnes is a superior defender and rebounder, however, and he pulled away with the job in the postseason -- while Barnes averaged 31 minutes in L.A.'s 13 playoff games, Dudley averaged only six minutes in seven postseason appearances.
Lakers' PG, SF, PF and C
The Lakers' rotations are a bit of a crapshoot. They opted not to use their 'stretch provision' to waive Steve Nash, who is reportedly pain-free after battling nerve damage throughout the 2013-14 season. It's another question entirely whether Nash will be healthy enough to start at PG on opening night, let alone withstand the rigors of an 82-game season. Newly-signed Jeremy Lin is comfortable starting at PG, where he's spent almost 90 percent of his minutes in the NBA. The Lakers could also limit Nash's playing time in a bench role without disrupting their first unit's continuity, and Lin should be able to operate off the ball whenever the offense originates with Kobe Bryant or Nick Young.
That assumes that Nick Young wins the SF job over Wes Johnson and Ryan Kelly. Young re-signed this summer for $21.5 million over four years, while Johnson landed a one-year deal worth $1 million, so the Lakers' valuation of their talent is obvious. I also expect Carlos Boozer to start over rookie Julius Randle. Ed Davis is another frontcourt candidate, and in truth it's very hard to predict what direction coach Byron Scott will go with his big men. Boozer's case is strengthened by the fact that Randle may need a while to adjust to the NBA, particularly on defense.
If Scott does go with Boozer he could pair him with Jordan Hill, giving L.A. a pair of solid rebounders while allowing Hill's interior defense to at least take the edge off Boozer's struggles on that end of the court (and vice versa on offense). Robert Sacre (7'0", 260 lbs.) is also legitimate option at center. He too is limited offensively, and he struggled to defend spot-up shooters, but last season's data from Synergy Sports show that Sacre was highly effective vs. post-ups (allowing a mere 0.69 points per possession, compared to Hill's 1.01), and tops in the NBA vs. roll-men in pick-and-rolls (allowing a ridiculous 0.27 ppp, to Hill's 0.88).
With so much uncertainty, fantasy owners should focus on the fact that none of these guys have much statistical upside. Hill and Boozer could be a solid late-round values with 28-30 minutes, and Randle might emerge with value as the season progresses, but neither Ed Davis nor Sacre are likely to help owners in standard-depth leagues.
Grizzlies' SG and SF
The Grizzlies have three locked-and-loaded starters in Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The SG job is up for grabs between veterans Tony Allen and Courtney Lee, though Lee seems to have the edge after a 2013-14 campaign in which he started 47 games to Allen's 28. Head coach Dave Joerger also laid the groundwork for change late last year, when Allen was openly struggling on both ends of the court. The Grindfather appeared a bit tentative after returning from a left wrist injury -- he initially accepted a bench role to avoid being "disruptive," but as the season wore on he seemed unhappy backing up Lee and Tayshaun Prince.
The Grizzlies aren't giving up on Allen, who is owed a guaranteed $15.4 million over the next three seasons, but his offensive limitations are too glaring to ignore. He averaged 9.0 points and shot 23.4 percent from downtown last year, for a team that (by a wide margin) averaged the fewest 3-pointers per game. Lee, meanwhile, chipped in 0.9 triples on steady 37.1 percent shooting beyond the arc. Lee is also a solid defender and I have him penciled in at SG, though this position battle may be decided in training camp.
Vince Carter has settled into a reserve role in recent years but he'll have a golden opportunity to resurface as a starter in Memphis at age 37. The Grizzlies' incumbent SF, Tayshaun Prince, was tremendously inefficient last season and he ranked No. 215 on my end-of-season fantasy rankings for nine-cat leagues (among qualifying players). He was also dead-last in eight-cat leagues.
The Grizzlies aren't likely to find any takers for Prince's expiring $7.7 million contract, so they may cut their losses by burying him on the bench behind Carter, who can at least provide much-needed scoring. The biggest problem with VC as a starter is that he's unlikely to average more than 25-28 minutes per game during his 17th NBA season. A healthy Quincy Pondexter could also shake up the SF rotation -- his season ended with a stress fracture in his foot, but theoretically he'll be fully recovered for training camp.
Timberwolves SG and SF
The Wolves traded Kevin Love to the Cavaliers as part of a three-team deal with the 76ers, getting back Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young and a $6.3 million trade exception. They also sent Alexey Shved, Luc Mbah a Moute and a 2015 first-round pick to Philly as part of the bargain.
Ricky Rubio will be running the show with Mo Williams as his primary backup, and Kevin Martin should keep the SG job ahead of rookies Wiggins and LaVine. Corey Brewer could start at SF but I expect the Wolves will start Wiggins immediately at SF -- he'll have some growing pains, but he's a more dynamic scorer with intriguing defensive versatility. The SG and SF spots are a bit tenuous, but Thaddeus Young is locked in at PF ahead of Bennett, and Nikola Pekovic will dominate minutes at C despite the presence of Gorgui Dieng, who excelled in Pek's absence late in 2013-14.
The Wolves are a young team rebuilding after the departure of a franchise-caliber talent in Love, but they can still field a team with four veteran starters and tested reserves like Mo Williams, J.J. Barea and Chase Budinger. It's an interesting mix which should be terrific fun to watch on League Pass, even if Wolves fans must suffer through another playoff-free campaign.
Ricky Rubio may be unhappy entering a fresh rebuilding phase, but Saunders did what needed to be done for a small-market team with a disgruntled superstar this summer. It began with the drafting of LaVine, who has fascinating potential, but Saunder's coup is the haul that he brought in for K-Love. He was operating from as weak a position as you can while wielding a franchise-caliber PF as a trade chip, and managed to net a No. 1 pick from a terrifically deep draft (Wiggins), a No. 1 pick with nowhere to go but up (Bennett), and a very productive veteran who fits well with the team's roster (Young). In exchange, he gave up Love, a 2015 first-round pick, and a pair of marginal players on expiring contracts (Shved and Mbah a Moute).
Key reserves: Mo Williams, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, Chase Budinger...Shabazz Muhammad and J.J. Barea may also earn minutes, and coach Flip Saunders' rotations may get really interesting (or frustrating, depending on your outlook) once he fully commits to player development as the season progresses.
Head coach Monty Williams finally gave up on Al-Farouq Aminu last season, and New Orleans watched him sign with Dallas in free agency. They added John Salmons as veteran SF insurance this summer, but Tyreke Evans should start over Salmons, Darius Miller and Luke Babbitt on opening night. Evans started only 22 games last season but spent the bulk of his time at SF for the first time in his career, and GM Dell Demps is confident that Tyreke will earn his minutes at SF. "He's a little undersized there," Demps said, "but with all the intangibles and things he does, I think that will be a bright spot." Evans had minor knee surgery back in May but he's already back on the court.
Eric Gordon (left knee surgery) and Ryan Anderson (spinal surgery) have also recovered from their respective injuries. New Orleans' hopes for a playoff berth are strengthened by the addition of Omer Asik, the development of Anthony Davis, and another year of familiarity with coach Williams (who is known for player development, Aminu notwithstanding). Their second unit needs some work and injuries are a reasonable concern, but the Pelicans are a sneaky playoff pick in the competitive Western Conference.
Thunder SG and C
Scott Brooks has some key decisions to make during training camp. He can choose between Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, or even Andre Roberson as his starting SG, to replace outgoing Thabo Sefolosha. At the C position, it's a three-man race between Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary.
I give a slight advantage to Morrow at SG over Lamb or Jackson, but not because he's the most talented of the three. The Thunder signed Morrow for $10 million over three years for his 3-point proficiency -- he shot 45.1 percent beyond the arc last season and nearly all of his offense came off screens, in transition or as a spot-up shooter. Jackson, by contrast, got 37.6 percent of his offensive possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, a play type in which he ranked 44th in the NBA for points per possession. Jackson has enough versatility to succeed alongside WB and Durant as a full-time starter, but he makes more sense as the go-to scorer for OKC's second unit, and coach Brooks has a history of keeping talented scoring guards in reserve (see: James Harden and Kevin Martin).
Jeremy Lamb is a viable option at SG but he's not the same caliber shooter as Morrow (43.2 percent last year, including 35.6 percent from deep) and he's never played more than 20 minutes per game in two NBA seasons. He could overtake Morrow during the season, but I expect the veteran to be starting on opening night. Perry Jones III seems locked into the backup SF job -- considering Kevin Durant has played more minutes than any other NBA player over the past five seasons, PJ3 isn't a likely source of fantasy value.
Kendrick Perkins' fumbling production should be replaced by Steven Adams at center, as OKC's springy 21-year-old center looks ready to build on a solid rookie season. Keep in mind that Adams is still extremely raw offensively, and his dreadful FT shooting will do fantasy owners no favors. Rookie Mitch McGary is talented enough to challenge both of them for the C job, but he's unlikely to do so until mid-season and coach Brooks is as stubborn as they come. It wouldn't shock me to see Perkins lumber back into the starting lineup vs. the Blazers on opening night, but I'm hoping that Brooks sees the light during training camp. The fact that Perkins' $9.4 million contract is expiring after this season may make it easier for OKC to sweep him to the bench.
Suns' PG, SG, SF and C
The Suns' backcourt is hard to project as long as Eric Bledsoe's status remains in limbo. The restricted free agent rejected a four-year, $48 million offer in the hopes of landing a max-salary contract, but no teams were willing to give it to him given his injury history -- he's averaged 18 DNPs during his four-year career, with a total of 78 starts to his credit.
His relationship with Phoenix has frayed to the point that they reportedly floated an offer to the Wolves, hoping to jostle ahead of the Cavaliers for Kevin Love, but nothing came of the attempt. They're listening to offers for a sign-and-trade and their motivation is clear -- if they let Bledsoe play out the year on one-year qualifying offer, they would likely lose him for nothing next summer. A number of teams would love to install Bledsoe as a starting guard, but at this stage of free agency there aren't many with the assets to get a deal done.
The Suns' decision to sign Isaiah Thomas this summer seems, more than ever, like a signal that Bledsoe is on his way out of Phoenix...if not now, at least before the trade deadline. (It's worth mentioning that Thomas had left wrist surgery this summer, but he's expected to be ready for training camp.) IT2 has proven himself as a starting PG and Goran Dragic could fill in as an undersized starting SG, a position he played for nearly half of his minutes last season (albeit rarely defending starting SGs). Head coach Jeff Hornacek could also use Dragic at PG and 6'8" Gerald Green at SG, in which case Thomas would revert to being a dynamic sixth-man.
It all hinges on Bledsoe's future, and that includes the SF position -- if he stays, Green has a chance to beat P.J. Tucker for the starting SF job. If Bledsoe leaves, Green could move to SG or at least be asked to backup both SG and SF, in which case Tucker would retain the starting job. Tucker did start 81 games last season and the Suns' faith in him was evident in the three-year, $16.5 million contract they gave him this offseason. Just don't expect to see him as a starter on opening night -- Tucker has been suspended three games for driving drunk this summer. T.J. Warren is another wildcard at SF who could challenge for the job if his defense catches up to his impressive scoring ability.
There is, mercifully, much more clarity at the PF position. Markieff Morris came off the bench in all 81 games he played during the 2013-14 season, but with Channing Frye in Orlando, 'Kieff is a safe bet to start at PF on opening night. The only way I see that changing is if Phoenix trades Bledsoe and gets back a starting-caliber PF in return, in which case Markieff and Marcus Morris would both remain backups.
Even the C position is contested for Phoenix, with rookie Alex Len emerging as a threat to Miles Plumlee's starting job. Plumlee held down the job throughout the 2013-14 season and as the incumbent he's favored to start on opening night. Len was the No. 5 draft pick last year but he had left ankle surgery and only appeared in 42 games, averaging 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds in 8.6 minutes. He also broke a pinky finger in July, which sidelined him during Summer League, and he enters the 2014-15 season with plenty to prove.
Sacramento spurned Isaiah Thomas in free agency and wound up adding Darren Collison, who should join a starting lineup that includes Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings should use young guards Ray McCallum and Nik Stauskas as primary backups, while Rudy Gay will be supported at SF by Omri Casspi and, to a lesser extent, Derrick Williams and Wayne Ellington.
McCallum finished last season strong and he was impressive at Summer League, averaging 12.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists in just 28 minutes per game, but those asterisk-worthy accomplishments won't give him the initial edge over Collison. The Kings' decision to draft Nik Stauskas at No. 8 overall doesn't say much about their long-term faith in McLemore, but coach Mike Malone did his best to downplay speculation. "I told [McLemore], ‘Listen, we drafted Nik Stauskas,'" Malone said. "'That’s not any slight on you. We still believe in you. You're still our guy and we still expect great things from you from Year 1 to Year 2.'" Those player-directed platitudes give me confidence that McLemore will at least get a shot at the SG job, but it wouldn't surprise me if Stauskas, a cerebral scorer with superior shooting range, does overtake him before long.
Things are even murkier at PF, where Jason Thompson may cede his starting job to Reggie Evans, Derrick Williams or Carl Landry. The limitations of the three players challenging Thompson are well catalogued. To cite a few caveats...Evans is a physical, elite rebounder with unlimited gaps in his game; Williams is undersized at PF, struggles defensively and has never shot above 43.7 percent in four NBA seasons; Landry is a plus-scorer and mediocre rebounder with glaring defensive faults, and he only played in 18 games last season after tearing the meniscus in his right knee.
Derrick Williams has a legitimate shot to earn the nod at PF, and the Kings probably wouldn't hesitate to trade Thompson if they could find a taker for the guaranteed $15.1 million remaining on his contract (the third year is only partially guaranteed). They're unlikely to find such a deal, however, so I expect Thompson to reprise his underwhelming role -- he averaged 7.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.7 blocks last year, in 25 minutes per game. In case you were wondering, that left him outside the top-200 for eight-cat fantasy value. On a per-36-minute basis he didn't even crack the top-350.
Jazz PF and C
I was asked to assess Utah's frontcourt, where the center position is potentially contested between Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Favors started 45 games at C for ex-coach Ty Corbin last season, but shifted to PF mid-season as Kanter took over at C. New coach Quin Snyder's lineups won't take shape (at least publicly) until training camp, but my assumption is that Favors and Kanter will share the frontcourt once again -- they are the pillars of Utah's future frontcourt and face minimal competition from the likes of Trevor Booker and Rudy Gobert.
Their fantasy values, however, diverge sharply. Kanter averaged 12.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.5 blocks in 27 minutes per game, while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 73.0 percent from the FT line. The stats you should fixate on are 0.4 steals, 0.5 blocks and 49.1 percent shooting, all unacceptable (in fantasy leagues and Utah's roster) for a pure center. He averaged closer to 30 minutes in Utah's final 29 games but still failed to crack 12th-round fantasy value, and I won't be drafting him in the top-100 this season.
For his part, Derrick Favors took his position changes and the arrival of rookie PG Trey Burke in stride. Playing in 73 games, he burst out for career-high averages in points (13.3), rebounds (8.7), assists (1.2) and steals (1.0). He barely missed his previous highs in blocks (1.5) and FG percentage (52.2 percent), and finished with fifth-round fantasy value despite shooting just 66.9 percent at the FT line. And he did it all in 30.2 minutes per game.