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Hoops Lab: Learning on the Job

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Take your league by the throat

I just started a new job, and I had to start off moving quickly because when I was hired I was told that I needed to be prepared for a conference that was coming up immediately. I had to get up to speed enough in seven days to represent the company at the conference. My required prep included, among other things, reading a couple of hundred journal articles in enough depth to modify our journal database. In addition, I needed to learn all of our products enough to speak intelligently on them to the hundreds of researchers that I might encounter at the conference.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the conference was in New Orleans?

I know what you're thinking ... a trip to New Orleans off the bat, that sounds like a party-rific way to start a new gig. And there is some truth in that ... only, there is another side to the coin. Because while I got to enjoy myself while networking with potential clients on Bourbon Street, I also couldn't mistake the fact that my new employers are watching me closely to see if I'm worth all the fuss.

Tonight, for example, I was hanging out with my supervisor. We had a good dinner and enough ... refreshments ... that the night seemed very merry indeed. But along with the good feeling, the refreshments also brought a lot of honesty to the conversation. And my supervisor essentially told me that he believes that I'm smarter than him and that my new bosses have huge expectations for me ... but on the flip side, if I don't meet those expectations I don't have anybody to blame but myself. Because I can have all the potential in the world, but if I don't do the work that goes with it then the potential is all for naught.

As I was walking back to my hotel room afterwards, I found myself reflecting on how that same line of thought applies to me as a fantasy owner as well. I enter every draft of every season fully confident that I'm the best owner in the league, and that the upcoming season belongs to me. But when I look back now, I find that I don't actually win every league that I'm in. And yeah, sometimes that's due to bad luck or things beyond my control ... but on the other hand, sometimes the fault is all mine. Sometimes I just haven't prepared like I should, haven't kept up with recent events enough, or just flat out make some bad calls.

So with that in mind, what are some things that YOU can do before your leagues start to make sure that your teams can maximize and fulfill their potential this season? Short answer: do the things that you think others in your league won't do to make sure you have the best draft possible. Some suggestions for how to do that ...

1) Spend some time on the RotoWire Fantasy Basketball Cheat Sheet Everyone drafts with cheat sheets, but it's better if you've actually spent some time getting to know some general rankings before the draft even begins. Drafts can move quickly, and it's easy to lose your place when trying to follow along on a list. But if you have a good sense for what players should go where, you don't have to worry about relying too much on the sheet during the draft.
2) Go through and pre-rank your top 150 players before the draft: While looking at the cheat sheet before-hand is good, let's not kid ourselves ... fantasy drafts aren't exactly the same as a final exam, so no one is truly going to memorize a cheat sheet before the draft. Plus, a cheat sheet isn't gospel anyway, it's just an informed take on the general expectations of the main draftable players. If you really want to get a good sense of how YOU value players, pre-ranking the players on your draft site is a great way to do it. It forces you to be an active participant in the ranking process, which is always better for your understanding than just passively reading.
3) Do a practice mock draft before your main draft: Most of you play in leagues with your friends, where either bragging rights or other incentives are placed on the line for the team that you pick. Once you pick that team, you're essentially “stuck” with it for the next six months. Sure, you can trade if your league is active enough, but nothing sucks more than finishing a draft only to realize immediately that your team is already in trouble. (Believe me, I know. More on that in my draft review below.) By doing a mock draft in a public league that you don't care about, you get an even more active feel for not only how YOU value the players, but also the way that other people value them as well. For example, in the RotoWire Cheat Sheet we have Greg Monroe and James Harden graded out as potential first round picks based on our projections. However, it's exceedingly unlikely that either would go in the first round of most fantasy leagues. So, by doing a mock draft you might get an idea of how long you might be able to wait before picking these high-value players, perhaps adding additional top-level players to your squad in the intervening rounds.

And of course, the BEST thing you can do is what you're doing right now ... check out your weekly Hoops Lab, to see if you can find something in here to give you a much needed edge!

Around the League:

• Love's injury: Kevin Love broke two bones on his shooting hand, and is expected to miss the next 5-to-6 weeks. He had a similar injury at a similar time in 2009, and missed 18 games. Love is one of the few players with a legitimate argument as the #1 rotisserie producer in the NBA, as his combination of video game rebounding along with volume scoring and 3-pointers from the center slot kept him near the top of all player raters last season. This injury could take away 20% of his season, though, which makes it difficult to advocate still taking him with a top-3 pick in rotisserie leagues. In head-to-head leagues I still draft him as normal because he should be himself for most of the season including the playoffs, but in roto leagues I'd probably let him slide unless I could get him near the back of the first round.

• Evaluating the new-look Lakers: Last week, I talked about Dwight Howard, focusing on his back and wondering what the uncertainty of his recovery and new team, meant for his value. But what about the team as a whole? Last season, the Lakers' offense was driven by Kobe Bryant as the primary usage player and decision maker in a fairly unimaginative scheme. Kobe looked for his own shot a lot, leading to a multi-year high in shots taken and points scored but a multi-year low in FG% and assists per game. When Kobe couldn't get the shot he'd dump it down low to either Andrew Bynum or Gasol, and they split the next wave of shots fairly evenly. On defense, Bynum (11.8 rpg) and Gasol (10.4 rpg) also split the rebounds fairly evenly.

This year, everything is different. If Steve Nash is really allowed to run the show, you have to assume a much more efficient offense as a whole. The 2012 Lakers finished 10th in the NBA in offensive rating ... in 13 years as a starting point guard on different teams with varying degrees of talent, Nash has NEVER had an offense that didn't finish higher than that in offensive rating. So if he gets the keys, by definition you have to expect Kobe, Gasol, and Howard to see upticks in their scoring efficiency. None of the four main players should be expected to get as many shots as they are used to, but since Kobe has made it so clear that the Lakers are still his team, you have to feel like he's still going to get the biggest piece of the pie when it comes to shots. Kobe still probably gets enough shots to average 25 ppg, but for Howard and Gasol to approach 20 ppg would require them to finish very efficiently based on the amount of shots available. On the flip side, I don't see Howard maintaining his near 15 rpg pace and Gasol also remaining a double-double guy. I think it likely that Howard drops back to closer to the 12 – 13 rpg range with Gasol dipping into the high single-digits. All told, I think the efficiency/volume trade-off potentially hurts Howard's fantasy value the most since he needed the video game production to counter his terrible free throw shooting, whereas I think it actually helps both Kobe and Gasol. I don't expect Nash's value to change dramatically, unless the Lakers limit him by design to let Kobe get more touches ... in which case everyone's numbers probably take a hit.

• Evaluating the new-look Celtics: Last week, in the comments section of the Lab I had someone ask me what I thought of the new Celtics this season ... Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Courtney Lee ... even returnees like Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass are in play as potential roto producers that we don't really know what to expect from in the post-Big-3 Celtics order. But after following them through the offseason, I feel like I can say this pretty confidently: if he doesn't get hurt, Rajon Rondo is going to have the best season of his career. EVERYONE in the Celtics organization is pushing hard for him to make the leap to superstardom. Danny Ainge went out of his way to say that Rondo proved himself to be the Celtics' best player last postseason, despite the fact that in that vary postseason Kevin Garnett set the highest playoff on/off-court +/- value of the last decade for a player whose team made at least the Conference Finals (+35.8 per 100 possessions), while Rondo checked in at only +2.4 per 100 possession. Doc Rivers has repeatedly said that the Celtics are now Rondo's team. Garnett and Paul Pierce have both chimed in that Rondo is the leader. Entering his physical peak at 26 years old, Rondo is practically being begged to become a superstar ... which should bode excellently for his roto stats this year.

After Rondo, I'd say that (health willing ... key disclaimer) Garnett is likely to replicate his numbers from last season as he continues to take advantage of matchups with slower centers, and Pierce is likely to replicate his numbers from two years ago when he showed up in great shape (unlike last year) and shot the best percentages of his career. The main difference for Pierce is that, with Green and the glut of good wings on the team, he's likely to play fewer minutes (maybe 31 mpg) which lowers his volume even if his per-minute numbers remain the same. Of the new guys, I think Terry will be the most valuable with his scoring and threes, but Green (who even James Worthy is admitting is playing like James Worthy) makes a sneaky upside play that could get almost 30 mpg, even coming off the bench, and is a jack-of-all-trades player (often valuable in fantasy). Of the rest, I think Sullinger is the most likely to make a roto impact as he has legitimate double-figure rebound potential on a team that struggles with rebound volume.

• Old guys and the Lewis/Jeter effect: In the previous two sections I covered several players in their mid-to-upper 30s (Bryant, Nash, Garnett, Pierce, Terry), and that's not even including guys like Dirk Nowitzki or Ray Allen. All of these guys have continued to play at a high level despite their advancing ages, and all have the potential to be impact players again this year. However, in the last week we've seen ageless wonders Ray Lewis (torn triceps) and Derek Jeter (broken ankle) go down to serious injuries that ended their seasons early. My dad had an expression that he liked to use whenever I got hurt as a kid: “New meat heals fast.” However, the opposite is true as well. As comedian Sinbad once pointed out, once you pass a certain age “if something breaks ... it just stays broke.” Even before it became official that Nowitzki was destined for knee surgery (out six weeks), some of my co-writers were questioning my offseason projections for Nowitzki as being too optimistic based on his output from last year. My reasoning had been that after he returned from injury last year, Nowitzki finished off the last several months of the season in high form. The problem is, at this stage of the game we can't blindly project the old guys based on their potential without factoring in the inherent risk of age. And the same is true on draft day. Go ahead and bring these players in for the obvious value they can give ... but if you do, make sure you build your team with redundancy just in case age finally catches up with them.

• Billups vs Crawford in LAC: Speaking of old guys, Chauncey Billups moved from star point guard to shooting guard last season to make room for Chris Paul to run the point in LA, only to see his season end abruptly with an Achilles tear. This offseason the Clippers brought in Jamal Crawford to strengthen the position. Though Billups is still nominally at the top of the depth chart, I feel more comfortable that Crawford will end up as the primary SG to own in LAC. Billups is 36 years old, coming off major surgery, and playing out of position. Crawford is inefficient, but he's a scorer and will now be playing next to the best point guard he's ever played with. I'm more comfortable with Crawford's risk/reward than I am with Billups' right now, despite the news that Billups may be ready to return ahead of schedule.

• Is D-Rose draftable?: Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the playoffs last May. It seems exceedingly unlikely to me that he is contributing at anywhere near his normal levels before spring of 2013 at the earliest, and even that is a stretch considering how much of Rose's game is built on his athleticism. Despite that, I see him drafted in every league that I participate in. Perhaps in a head-to-head league with deep benches I could entertain taking Rose ... but outside of that, I am much more inclined to let someone else carry his dead weight for the next four months while constantly debating whether or not to drop him for someone that's actually playing. No thank you to D-Rose for me, this season.

• Lee quietly thriving and Barnes' upside: Without a lot of fan fair, David Lee posted a rounded 20 points, 10 boards and three assists on 50% shooting from the field and almost 80% from the line. He's been having a great preseason, and certainly looks like great value this year. Meanwhile, rookie Harrison Barnes has started the last three preseason games and is in a competition with Brandon Rush for the starting small forward gig. Rush could conceivably beat him out to start the year, but Barnes is the upside play and looks like a good bet to finish the season on the All Rookie team.

• Watch Kirilenko and Roy in ‘Sota: Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams, and Chase Budinger all get a bump in short-term production with Kevin Love out of the line-up for the first month of the season, but these were already young players with reasonable upside to improve this year. Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy, on the other hand, are NBA veterans that were once on top of the league and have missed major time in recent years due to injury. Both were signed to bring a veteran presence to a young Timberwolves squad looking to move from “exciting young lottery squad” into “postseason relevant”. Due to their roles and injury situation, I expected both to have somewhat muted numbers this season. However, with Love and Ricky Rubio both out to start the season, my gut tells me that AK47 and Roy could both step forward with surprisingly great starts to the season. The team desperately wants to win this year, and both vets have a lot to prove and should be as fresh now as they'll be all season. I like them for early season trade bait players.

• Beal doing the John Wall: Bradley Beal has been having a strong preseason, doing his best Wall impression with strong scoring, getting into the lane and finishing, getting fouled, or dishing to teammates. All he needs now is to do the John Wall dance and the team won't even notice that Wall is missing for the next month.

Draft thoughts from mock
What's worse than auto-drafting? Try auto-drafting in an “Expert League”, which is exactly what happened to me this week. Due to the work convention in New Orleans and a series of technical difficulties, I ended up being unable to draft my team in the National Fantasy Basketball Championship (NFBKC) Experts league this week. I had the #1 overall pick, and the league overcompensated against the first pick by making the first 3 rounds of the draft go 1 – 12, 12 – 1, and 12 – 1 before returning to the normal snake there-after. The upshot is that I had the #1 pick, the #24, and then the #36 pick so I really needed to be there to strategize ... yeah, not so much. Anyway, here is how things came out for my team:

1) LeBron James
2) Marc Gasol
3) Marcin Gortat
4) Monta Ellis
5) Gerald Wallace
6) JaVale McGee
7) Kenneth Faried
8) Derrick Favors
9) David West
10) George Hill
11) Wilson Chandler
12) Andre' Miller
13) Antawn Jamison
14) Ramon Sessions
15) Mike Dunleavy
16) Nate Robinson

OK, not what I would have wanted ... but this is my team now, so I have to work with it. I'll definitely have to make some trades. But some thoughts on my raw materials ...

• I like LeBron at #1 overall, even though he is #2 behind Kevin Durant in the RotoWire cheat sheet. I feel like LeBron got a major monkey off his back last year in winning the title, and that will allow him to just relax and be his ridiculous self this season. Plus, he is continuing his inevitable evolution to the PF slot, which means more rebounds and blocks this year. On the flip side, with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis I could see the Heat running more “shooter” lineups out there with no point guard on the court except LeBron ... more assists as well. I'm expecting big things this year.

• In general, I notice that my team is too big man heavy for my tastes. From picks 2–11, only Monta Ellis and George Hill produce perimeter categories. In a head-to-head roto league, my squad might be built to try to just win five categories every week, but in a pure roto league, I won't be able to do that. So I'll have to flip some bigs for perimeter guys.

• I don't know what to expect from Gortat with Nash gone. I'm really hoping that Goran Dragic is able to play point guard at a high level this season to keep Gortat getting the easy shots that he's used to.

• I REALLY need some 3-point shooters on this team.

• I don't love Ellis this season, as there seems to be too much redundancy between him and Brandon Jennings for both to thrive.

• I do like Hill as a late round point guard this year, as he looks to be the man for the Pacers, and he should be solid as both a scorer and a distributor. That's good value in the 10th round. I also like Miller in the 12th, as he's consistent with upside if Ty Lawson gets hurt, and Sessions is a classic put-up-numbers-on-bad-teams type. And, this year, he's in the right city for that.

• I don't expect much from Jamison in LAL this year, and I'm never one to really draft Dunleavy. I do like West and Chandler, though, and both could be solid value.

All told, my synopsis is that I need a trade ... or two ... or three. Ironically, despite needing perimeter play, the most tradeable player on my team is probably Monta Ellis as I'd rather have someone else with a more perimeter bent as my main wing. I'll also probably have to give up a big man or two, but that's reasonable. All told, I've put myself into a hole by missing the draft, so it's time to see how good at this game I really am. If I pull out a win with this starting point, I really will have made a statement this year. Wish me luck.

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.