The Ghosts of Christmas Past
When you look at NBA history, there is a very distinct era between the time that Shaquille O'Neal won the 2000 MVP and LeBron James won the 2009 MVP. That era was dominated by players drafted between 1995 and 1998. In fact, every MVP during that stretch was awarded to Allen Iverson (draft class 1996), Tim Duncan (draft class 1997), Kevin Garnett (1995), Steve Nash (1996), Dirk Nowitzki (1998), or Kobe Bryant (1996). That list of six players also accounts for 11 championships, six Finals MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award, in addition to a laundry list of other accolades. But with all of the events going on this season, one is forced to ask:
Are we at the end of the line for the stars of that era?
Obviously, Iverson has been gone for awhile now, but each of the others have continued to have star moments even up through 2013. Duncan's team played for the 2013 championship, Garnett carried his squad to Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, and Bryant challenged for the NBA scoring title last season. Three of the six were All-Stars last year, and if not for Nowitzki's first-half injury issues, that number might have been four. Coming into this season, it wouldn't have been a huge stretch to suggest that there might be members of this group still maintaining a presence near the top of the game for the next few seasons at least.
But now? Nash looks done-done, and it's in play that he never plays another minute. Kobe just broke his knee, within a couple of weeks of having returned from an Achilles tendon tear in the same leg. Garnett is not only playing some of the worst ball of his career (6.5 ppg on 37.9% FG) but looking old doing it. Even Duncan is flirting with a career low in minutes played and points scored, while turning in the worst shooting percentage (by far) of his career to date. Dirk is the only one of the crew looking reasonably exceptional, but he's also the baby of this crew so perhaps that's to be expected. But for the rest? Actually, let's take a closer look at the three surviving members of this crew, besides Dirk, and their outlooks moving forward this season.
Kobe Bryant: Obviously, Bryant's injury was the main impetus for this article. At this time last month, he was busy signing a contract to be the highest paid player in the NBA for the next two seasons, and now there are a chorus of pundits saying that this is the end of the line. So, should you believe that this is it for Kobe? Well, according to the man himself, "Only an Idiot would," so there's that. To me, I think the answer to that question depends on what you expected from Kobe in the first place. If you thought that he was an elite-level superstar before, then yes, I'd say that those days are behind him. But where I differ is that I think those days had been behind him well before he tore his Achilles. Kobe last measured in the top-10 in the NBA in regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM) in 2010 (No. 4 overall), not coincidentally the last time that the Lakers were an elite team. He was No. 32 in 2011, No. 55 in 2012, and despite his scoring exploits, he was down to No. 84 in 2013. So no, I don't expect Kobe to return to the court as an MVP-caliber player. He just isn't that anymore.
However, I do agree with Mr. Bryant that anyone who doubts his resolve to accomplish his individual goals is an idiot. Kobe is one of the most focused, goal-driven, obsessive competitors that sports have ever seen. Whenever he is publicly challenged by adversity, he uses that as fuel to put up great individual numbers and shut everyone up. While I don't expect Kobe to ever actually BE an MVP-level player again, I fully expect him to return and put up some pretty big scoring numbers in 2014. This Lakers team without him is actually better than people give them credit (11–10 through 21 games), but the impression is that they are nothing without him, so there will be very little resistance to him becoming the offensive focus upon his return. As a fantasy owner, I would buy on Kobe right now. Try to get him for cheap, because I think that he has some nice roto games ahead of him this season.
Tim Duncan: Duncan has been, surprise-surprise, the most consistent of his peer group in recent years. He's had no major injuries; he hasn't had to switch teams; and he's had the same coach for his entire career. He is declining, but it has been a long and stately decline. Duncan is still 7-feet tall with excellent fundamentals and could continue to be fantasy viable for probably another five years if he chose to. However, the signs are there that his slippage could get more pronounced in the near future. I mentioned that his minutes and scoring production is down, but if you look into the advanced stats, even his per-minute numbers are down. He's currently rocking a career low in PER, a career low in true shooting percentage, and his lowest rebound rate in thirteen seasons. Plus, he's a charter member of the "Gregg Popovich I'll-rest-my-star-players-whenever-I-feel-like-it" school that makes it very hard to trust him in weekly transaction leagues. Despite this, Duncan is still a center-eligible player that is currently ranked No. 51 by average in Yahoo! which would have him firmly as one of the more important starters on a given rotisserie team. Thus, as a fantasy owner, I would actually sell on Duncan right now, with the idea that he is unlikely to improve his status as the season moves along, and you should still be able to get good value for him. I'd let someone else worry about him getting a healthy DNP or two during their fantasy playoffs.
Kevin Garnett: KG is playing only 22 minutes per game, shooting atrociously on very low volume, and his plummeting Yahoo! ranking of No. 186 has led to him being dropped in about 1/3 of Yahoo! leagues. So, why would I cautiously buy on Garnett right now? First, because of the Brook Lopez injury that has sidelined Lopez for the season (more on that injury below)…but in a different way than you might think. I don't expect that KG is suddenly going to start playing dramatically more minutes in the short term just because Lopez is out, so I'm not expecting a spike in his production. Instead, I think the difference will show up over time due to a changed mindset. Because, like Kobe, Garnett is also borderline OCD when it comes to the game. But Garnett translates that obsessiveness into trying to do whatever he can to help his team win, and he relies heavily on input from his coaches to decide how best he can do that. There is an old story from Boston about how Doc Rivers once asked Garnett to tone down his famous over-the-top intensity in games, and in Doc's words "it killed him". Garnett tried to do what the coach said, even though playing without his aggression made him a much less effective player, and he continued in this vein until Doc told him that the best thing for the team would be for Garnett to go back to playing his game.
I see parallels to this with the way that Garnett has played in Brooklyn this year. When he and Paul Pierce were brought over this summer, both talked about the importance of being role players and supporting Lopez and Deron Williams as the focal points of the team. Garnett has entirely subsumed his offense, deferring to Lopez in particular, to visible degrees on the court. When KG gets an open shot, you can almost see the wheels turning in his head about whether he should shoot it or kick it to another teammate. His shooting motion looks entirely out of rhythm, as he hitches and hesitates before moving into it. But with Lopez out and Andray Blatche entrenched in his super-sixth man role, Garnett is now in the position to be the primary big man scorer among the Nets' starters. If Blatche moves into the starting lineup my expectations could change, but for now, I expect that you'll start to see Garnett's shooting percentages return to normal as he gets back into a more comfortable role as a scorer. Interestingly, outside of scoring, Garnett has actually been playing well with his highest rebound percentage and some of his best steal/block percentages since his days in Minnesota.
Another data point of note is that Garnett has made slow starts a trend for the last few seasons. In the 2011-12 season, he averaged 10.8 points and 5.8 boards in the attenuated December, but was up to 17.6 points and 9.3 boards in February. In 2012-13, he averaged 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in December then raised that to 15.7 points and 9.5 boards by February. Those numbers will be depressed by the lower minutes in Brooklyn, but if the trend holds, by February you'll be getting reasonable fantasy rotation player numbers from a player that you can currently get off the FA wire in 1/3 of leagues and probably get in a trade for a bag of potato chips in the other 2/3 of leagues.
Around the League
Lopez done for season: As I mentioned above, Brook Lopez is done for the season after breaking his foot again. Lopez is following the unfortunate trend of the huge center with recurring foot problems, last epitomized by Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Cleveland. His injury hit me particularly hard, because as I pointed out in last week's Lab, I had just traded for him in my SiriusXM expert league and was relying on his excellent percentages on high volume to push my team up the rankings. Though I expressed optimism about Garnett's prospects above, the obvious beneficiary of this injury is Andray Blatche. In that same SiriusXM league I bid $50 to pick up Blatche, but I wasn't close to getting him as a different owner max-bid $100 on him. Blatche is a reasonable bet to replace the majority of Lopez's scoring and rebounds, which would make him a strong starting fantasy center moving forward (even if he continues to come off the Nets' bench in real life). Another player of interest to watch is Mirza Teletovic, who moved into the starting lineup the last time that Lopez was out (more on them in New Additions, below).
Davis' early return: Anthony Davis (hand) returned to action last week, weeks ahead of his projected January return. Davis hasn't missed a beat in general, averaging 21.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his first two games back. He has "only" posted five combined steals/blocks in those two games, which is down a bit, but that should bounce back soon enough. The one thing to keep an eye on is his free throw percentage, as he has missed three free throws in each of the two games back. Davis' 80% free throw shooting is very valuable from a center that shoots good volume, so it would be concerning if the hand damage caused something long-term to be off about his jumper. But I suspect that this is just a short-term/rust issue and that he should be back to normal soon.
Rondo out until at least January and likely longer: It was reported this weekend that Rajon Rondo will not be back in the lineup for the Celtics until at least January. Then, on Sunday he was asked if it seemed realistic for him to return even in January, as Celtics' writer Gary Washburn tweeted: