Before the season began, I tried to predict what effect the lockout would have on the way that players got out of the gate. I looked back at the lockout from 1999 and noticed that 35-year old Karl Malone was the MVP, 30-year old Darrel Armstrong was the 6th Man of the Year AND the Most Improved player, and that the veteran-laden Spurs went on to win the title that season with six of their seven players that started at least one game in their 30's (average age 32.5 for six starters outside of 22-year old leader Tim Duncan). The point was that in the 1999 lockout, it appeared the vets and workout warriors did a great job keeping themselves in shape through the work stoppage and thus came out and had big years.
That hasn't happened yet this time around.
The first few days of the NBA season can be summed up in a quote from Dirk Nowitzki:
"We look old, slow, and out of shape," 33-year old Dallas Forward Dirk Nowizki said on Monday night.
And this has held true around the league, as the older players all look like they're playing in quick sand right now. From Kobe Bryant not being able to get any separation from Luol Deng on a game-winning shot attempt (that got swatted) to Kevin Garnett looking like he's stuck in glue when he attempts to rebound, the older players have come out of the gate looking their ages to start this season.
Meanwhile, the youngsters look GREAT.
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are flying all over the court on both sides of the ball, Chris Paul is just throwing the ball at the rim and letting DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin take turns dunking it. Rajon Rondo played the whole Knicks game like someone set him to 2x speed on a DVR, and meanwhile Carmelo Anthony looked downright unstoppable. Even Jeremy Evans, a second year player of whom most of you have never heard, has already recorded the highlight of his NBA career with a 2-footed dunk from about 3 feet inside the free throw line OVER Gerald Wallace (this actually happened in the preseason, but it supports my point, and more importantly I just want everyone to watch that dunk again).
The point is, while the vets are looking like they are still in training camp form, the youngsters look like they are pretty close to their peaks. And really, in hindsight this isn't shocking. While the veteran players were busy standing behind Derek Fisher and union chief Billy Hunter looking serious during negotiations, the younger superstars were meeting up to play flag football games. The difference in energy was palpable, as it was the younger players that went overseas to play or tried to set up barnstorming exhibition games while the older players used the extra time to rest and get experimental therapy to rejuvenate.
Because I had thought the vets would start fast, my strategy was to sell them high a week or two in, before the condensed schedule allowed the youngsters to be fresher at the end. Instead, though, early returns suggest it's the old-heads that might end up being undervalued from their starts. I can't imagine that it would be difficult to trade for Tim Duncan (10 points and six rebounds in opener) or Lamar Odom (5.0 points, 5.5 reb through two games) right now, and even a player like Dirk (20.5 points, 44.8% FG, 4.5 reb) could probably be had for less than usual. I may even try to stockpile a few of these vets myself. Because while the schedule will likely hurt them at some point, everyone knows that and is factoring that into their value, so most of their values will never be lower than they are now. The name of the game is "buy low/sell high", and while I'd absolutely love to have my team stocked with LeBron and Durant, there's still value to be had in the 30-something crowd if you can acquire them at bargain basement prices.
(Tweets from) Around the League
As most of you know, I started a Twitter account (@ProfessorDrz) last year at the start of basketball season. I'm back at it again this year, and I've been using it to express some of my first impressions from this season. Let's go through some of them here, and put a little more analytical meat to them.
• KG and Kobe both look old so far. Hoping it's way-too-short-of-a-training-camp rust: This was covered in more depth in the lead above, but it should be noted that after I tweeted that, Kobe has started to look a bit better. His numbers (outside of turnovers) haven't changed drastically since the opener, but his bounce and rhythm were markedly better in Game 3 than in Game 1. This gives credence to the "buy low on vets, they'll eventually look normal" stance I suggest above.
• The Thunder really settled into two mega-scorers in starting line-up, one strong scorer off the bench, and a bunch of role players filling out roster: This has to make you feel good as an owner of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or even James Harden. After two games Durant (31.5 ppg), Westbrook (21.0 ppg) and Harden (17.5 ppg) are the only players on the team averaging more than 6.0 ppg, and the team is 2-0. While the role players (especially Serge Ibaka) will likely start scoring a bit more, I think three-scorers/everyone-else-support model is in place in Oklahoma City which bodes well for the fantasy prospects of those three.
• Rudy Gay is back, there's no longer the inside-centric Griz (Randolph/Gasol 14 total shots vs. Gay's 18 shots), and Tony Allen disappears: Let's do some math. Rudy Gay played his last game on February 15, last season. At the time he led the Grizzlies in field goal attempts (16.1 FGA, 19.8 ppg). In March and April, Zach Randolph (57%), Marc Gasol (56%) and Tony Allen (55%) all drastically raised their FG percentages after having shot "only" 49, 51 and 49 percent, respectively through the first four months. Allen's increase in efficiency came despite almost doubling his scoring average from around 7.0 ppg up to over 13 ppg. The reason: without Gay, the offense shifted from a Gay-led perimeter attack to an inside-out approach that catered to the bigs and slashers like Allen. The Grizz have only played one game this season, but for Gay to get as many field goal attempts as Randolph, Gasol and Allen combined certainly suggests that at the least the offense no longer revolves around the interior players, and at the worst it may go back to revolving around Gay.
• Ginobili starts off this year just like last, as the best player on what looks like a strong Spurs squad...if he/they stay healthy, he's an MVP candidate: Manu Ginobili was on the short list of MVP candidates through the first trimester of last season, especially after his hot start that included 22 ppg on 48 percent FG, five assists, almost four rebounds, two steals, and almost three treys per game through the first month-plus of the season. And at that time, those that read these columns know that I was screaming "sell now!" on Ginobili because he just doesn't have a history of durability. Sure enough, as the season went along he seemed to wear down such that, by the end, he was hardly the same player (15.4 ppg, 43% FG, 1.4 treys over last three months). Based on his history, I'd hope for another brilliant first month and then sell at his peak.
• Kris Humphries is the Man in Jersey...he is Deron Williams' new Carlos Boozer. Continuing his breakout from last year, post Kardashian: Humphries followed up his 21-point/16-rebound explosion in game one with an 11-point/six rebound meh-fest in game two. On the other hand, he still led all Nets starters in points and rebounds in a game in which they got blitzed by almost 40 points. I expect the first game is more revealing of what to expect from Humphries than the second, and despite the chorus of boos he receives every game due to Kim-Gate, Humphries should continue to put up big numbers moving forward.
• Sam Dalembert had 10 points five boards and five combined steals/blocks in 20 minutes... he'll be starting soon. The Rockets signing of Samuel Dalembert was fairly under the radar, and he came off the bench in his season debut. But the Rockets were desperate to upgrade their center position this offseason with attempts made to acquire both Gasol brothers and rumors that they were going after Nene as well. Youngster Jordan Hill got the start in the opener, but he's really a forward and somewhat redundant with lead forward Luis Scola. Dalembert is the only true center on the roster, and he has averaged more than eight boards and almost two blocks per game over his career despite only playing 26 minutes per game. I predict that he will be the starting center for the Rockets very soon, and when he is, he'll be a nightly double-double threat with good blocks once again.
• Thought Jason Richardson would bounce back this season, I think Hedo Turkoglu's time as a fantasy producer will last as long as Dwight Howards's there. Half right so far: Richardson was a consistent upper teens/lower 20s scorer for almost a decade before coming to Orlando, so I was surprised he struggled so badly, scoring only 13.9 ppg (on pace for career low) on 43.3% FG (six-year low) after he got to the Magic last year. I thought he had a bounce-back in him, but through two games he's struggled even more (6.0 ppg, 33.3% FG). Meanwhile, though he's not a sexy name, Turkoglu continues to produce solid numbers as a co-big forward next to Dwight Howard (15.5 points, 4.5 reb, 4.0 ast, 54% FG through two games). Stylistically, this makes sense as Howard's presence allows Hedo to mismatch opposing forwards on offense without paying the price on defense. On the other hand, Richardson's slashing style is hindered in the Magic offense where Howard clogs the paint and everyone else is expected to be a shooter. While Howard is in Orlando, this dynamic likely doesn't change. But if he ever gets traded, expect Richardson to be the player whose numbers go up the most while Hedo's drop the furthest.
• Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough split the 96 big men minutes down the middle. All three had double-doubles. Could this be a trend? David West was the big free agent for the Pacers, but he had the recovering knee, and meanwhile Hansbrough had the big preseason. Plus, Hibbert was still in the mix after his breakout season last year. Who would be the main producers from the Pacers' frontcourt this season? Well, after one game, the answer may be all of the above. Hibbert, West and Hansbrough played all of the big-man minutes, and all three logged double-doubles in the opener. If they continue to divvy up the minutes this way, all three could be fantasy startable.
• Ricky Rubio (64% owned) and Derrick Williams (70% owned) noticeably raise the excitement when they enter the game. They will be playing 30 mpg each in the near future: Rubio has captured the attention of the basketball world with his flashy style for years, and Williams put his flag on the map by dunking Duke players through the goal with the ball in last year's NCAA tournament. Flash and excitement are two things that have been sorely lacking from Minnesota, and with a franchise that has averaged fewer than 20 wins per year since 2007 (and is currently 0-2 this year), I predict that the mandate will come from the front office sooner rather than later that if the team can't win, they might as well field crowd-pleasing and exciting young players. As such, count me as a buyer for the stocks of Rubio and Williams.
New Additions (from Twitter notes)
More Tweets from the week, with more analysis to suggest some players that may be worth adding (or at least keeping an eye on).
• Eric Gordon and Carl Landry (33% owned) look best in Tame 1... Chris Kaman and Emeka Okafor are killing each other's stock...Trevor Ariza over Al Farouk Aminu by a lot, Greivis Vazquez solid off bench: The take home here is that Landry is a good add. He's the starting power forward for the Hornets, and last season he averaged 14.3 points (49% FG) and 5.9 boards in 26 games as a starter. The year before, he averaged 17.8 points (51.7% FG) and 6.5 boards as a starter. He went for 14 and seven on opening night this year. Definitely rosterable (even startable) under most fantasy formats.
• Anderson Varejao comes back looking good. Kyrie Irving struggles out gate. Ramon Sessions (52% owned) still worth watching, if not owning. Tristan Thompson (21% owned) solid in debut: Thompson (20 years old) was the number four overall pick in this season's draft, and in his debut he scored 14 points (67% FG) with five boards in only 17 minutes played. While the Cavs are currently starting Antawn Jamison (15 points, 30% FG in 31 minutes in the opener), Jamison is 35 years old on a team that likely finishes in the lottery and whose franchise player is 19. I'm betting that Thompson is starting by the end of the season, and likely well before that.
• Norris Cole (15% owned) was one of the more impressive rookies I saw in Game 1: I would like the record to show that I wrote this about Cole after watching him in the opener, in which he scored only seven points on 38% FG with four turnovers and zero assists. Despite the weak numbers, from watching it was clear that he was extremely comfortable with the speed of the game and that he had some talent. Cole was a brilliant scorer in college, and it didn't take him long to show it (20 points, 50% FG, four assists, four rebounds, three steals in Game 2). Unless they bring in a bigger-named vet, I expect Cole will be the primary point guard on the Heat before all is said and done.
• Steve Nash looks like he did last season; Robin Lopez and Markieff Morris (5% owned) steal big man thunder off the bench over starter Marcin Gortat: Gortat was a draft-day favorite this year because of the chemistry and production he showed once joining Nash and the Suns last season. Morris was the Suns' top draft pick this season, and he got good reviews out of camp as he challenged for the starting power forward gig. Gortat will continue to be the starting center, but if Morris continues to show the type of defense he hinted at in his debut (nine rebounds, two blocks, two steals in 25 minutes) he will likely be joining Gortat in getting starter's minutes at some point this season.
Best Players in NBA history
I wanted to try something different this year for those that are into basketball as a whole, not just fantasy. This summer I participated in a project to rank the Top 100 players in NBA history. The project began in June, had up to 41 active voters at its peak, and is still on-going (currently ranking player No. 88). The fun of such a project, to me, is never the final ranking - anyone can make a top-100 list and who's to say ours is any better? No, the value of this project is the discussion and facts that come out about some of the great players in history. Everyone knows Michael Jordan was great, but how many can tell me the name of the only player in NBA history to be named Finals MVP on a team that lost? That's the level of discussion from this project, which was great for a basketball nerd like me.
Anyway, in this section of the Lab this year, I decided to pick one of the top players we voted on and highlight some of his career accomplishments - in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week, let's start with reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who was described by Mavs owner Mark Cuban as one of the 10 best players in NBA history. While our project didn't take it that far, we did have him in our top 20 (No. 17 overall). Four facts that stand out to me about Dirk Nowitzki:
1. Nowitzki is currently one of only four players in NBA history to average 25 points and 10 rebounds for their entire postseason careers. The other three are Bob Petit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon (with only Dream and Nowitzki in the post-ABA era).
2. Nowitzki led the NBA in Regularized Adjusted +/- last season, a stat that measures a player's impact on a team's winning without even considering box score stats. The Mavs also outscored their postseason opponents by 17.49 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor as opposed to on the bench during their 2011 championship run. This combo of regular and postseason success puts Nowitzki's 2011 season in the top-5 among team leaders on championship squads since the +/- stats gained use 10 years ago.
3. Nowizki led the entire NBA in Win Shares over the decade from 2001-2010, and is currently third among all active players in that stat.
4. Nowtizki has led the Mavs to 50 or more wins in 11 straight seasons.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.