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Hoops Lab: First Impressions

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.

First Impressions

Welcome back to the Hoops Lab. The first week of the NBA season is one of the most fun times of the year, because everything that we "know" changes. We spend an entire offseason building our narratives, making our projections, believing that we have a handle on what the upcoming season is going to look like. We have our offseason winners and losers, we've decided which teams are going to be in the playoffs and which ones are going to be playing for ping pong balls by February. And for fantasy purposes, we've agreed on the consensus best players to own, on the next wave of breakout stars, on the sleepers and busts, and on those players that just aren't worthy to be drafted.

Then the season tips off, and in the first week all of that goes out the window.

Raise your hands if at this time last week you had Philadelphia and Phoenix starting off the season a combined 6-2, with the Bulls and Nets a combined 3-4. Or how about Trevor Ariza near the top of most fantasy player raters while Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose hang out near the bottom. Anyone? Beuller?

Now, here comes the really fun part: trying to merge what we thought was going to happen with what has been happening thus far to paint a picture of what the rest of the season will look like. After all, there's a reason why Vegas set the over-under on 76ers wins this season at only 16.5, one of the lowest lines ever set. Is one week of hot play enough to completely overrule previous logic?

Obviously not. If we did a re-draft right now, Irving would still be drafted way above Ariza. So we're not ready to completely re-write the book yet. But on the other hand, it's just as obvious that if you had the chance at that 76ers over/under right now you'd be going way over 16.5.

The line between projections and observed data is very blurry right now, and it'll take some time before they converge with full confidence. In the meantime, continue to check out the Rotowire Cheat Sheets for analysis that is more tilted towards the projections and long-term outcomes. But check out this space for more current events and analysis of the data trends. To that end, let's check out some of the more interesting storylines through the first week of the NBA season.

Around the NBA

Westbrook's back: Russell Westbrook plummeted down the fantasy draft boards due to complications from his knee surgery, which was expected to keep him out the first 4-6 weeks of the season. Instead, Westbrook returned to the court 4-6 days after the season tipped off. Westbrook debuted on Sunday with a 21-point, 7-assist effort in 33 minutes of action. Needless to say, Westbrook immediately projects out to a top-10 roto producer from here on out. And if you're like me and grabbed him in the third round or later in your draft, you're feeling pretty good right now.

Heat on Three-Peat Coast? I've been spending a lot of time looking into the Heat of late. I did a radio interview with Heat broadcaster Tommy Tighe last week, talking about the fantasy prospects of this year's Heat. At one point, Tighe asked me if there was any excuse not to draft LeBron James with the No. 1 pick in a fantasy draft. I told him yes, that Kevin Durant was a good reason not to take LeBron No. 1, but that the two of them were on a tier by themselves for the top two players in the league. One week later, though, I wonder if even I might be giving LeBron too much credit this year. He is very clearly the best player in the NBA, but he also is playing on a team that has already made three straight NBA Finals and is hoping to make a fourth and three-peat this season. History has shown us that this is not the recipe for peak roto stats.

In 2000, Shaquille O'Neal scored 2344 points with 1078 rebounds and 239 blocked shots while leading the Lakers to a first title. In 2002, the three-peat season, he scored only 1822 points with 715 rebounds and 137 blocks (lower averages, and also missed 13 more games). Kobe Bryant dropped from then career-highs of 28.5 points and 40.9 minutes per game in 2001 to 25.2 points and 38.3 minutes per game in three-peat year 2002.

Similarly, Michael Jordan dropped from 30.4 ppg on 49.5 percent FG with 2.2 steals in 1996 to 28.7 ppg on 46.5 percent FG with 1.7 steals in three-peat 1998. Scottie Pippen's body broke down during the 1998 three-peat run, allowing him to play in only 44 games.

The Heat have played in more than 100 games in each of the last three years, and they need to make sure they have enough in the tank to potentially play 100 more this season. They play an incredible energy-intensive style of play, and to my eye their energy level through the first week was far below their norm. Dwyane Wade has already sat out the second game of a back-to-back and is expected to do more of that this year, and if Chris Bosh continues at his current rate of 32.8 minutes per game it would mark the fourth straight year of decreased minutes. While I fully expect the Heat to come together and look much better as a team as the year progresses, all of the signs seem to indicate that the Heat are in for a slightly down fantasy season this year, especially among their primary cogs.

Vets missing time already: One of the recurring themes of this first week is that veteran players are off to slower starts compared to their youthful counterparts. While presumably the vets will eventually find their levels, one disturbing trend (for fantasy purposes) is the liberal resting/sitting of these vets on any given night. Wade has already sat out one half of a back-to-back, as has Steve Nash. Tim Duncan sat out with a seemingly minor chest injury. Kevin Garnett played only 14 minutes in a blowout win on Tuesday night, and has been widely speculated to sit out during back-to-backs this season. In daily transaction leagues this tendency to miss games can be a nuisance, but one that you can at least try to stay on top of by checking line-ups before tip-off. But in weekly transaction leagues this can be a killer, which is something that you have to consider when deciding whether to keep or trade for one of these vets. Per-game stats are no longer enough to paint the full picture of their fantasy potential.

Nets – slow start or over-rated? Another presumed championship contender that is off to a slow start is the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets got up to beat the Heat on Friday night, but otherwise looked lethargic and slow in a defeat to the Cavaliers and a shellacking by the youthful Magic. The Nets' starting five has an average age of about 47, so it wouldn't be surprising if as a team they have difficulty with young and athletic squads all season. However, for fantasy purposes, there is still plenty of upside for this unit.

First of all, floor general Deron Williams injured his ankle in the preseason and is obviously playing himself into shape. This has affected the offensive execution of finishers like Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett and even Joe Johnson in addition to Williams. The two Nets that have looked good so far have been Paul Pierce and Brook Lopez. Pierce can set up his own shot and seems to be thriving with all of the defensive attention that his teammates command, while Lopez has clearly been the offensive focal point and has been receiving the lion share of scoring opportunities. Pierce and Lopez both appear poised to have big seasons, but don't give up on the other Net starters making big production improvements once they learn to play with one another.

Should have taken Davis: Somehow I didn't end up with Anthony Davis on any of my teams this year. I think I'm going to end up bitterly regretting that. When I did my initial player projections this year and we ran them through our analyzer, Davis measured out as the No. 6 player overall. As the projections adjusted through the preseason, though, somehow Davis slipped down into the teens on my cheat sheet. Thus, when I had a league draft last week where I was picking late, I ended up passing on Davis in favor of Carmelo Anthony with hopes that Davis would be available with my second round pick. He wasn't. And even before the season started, I was kicking myself because I'm convinced he's going to have a monster year. In fact, I predict that this is the last time for the next five years that Davis isn't a consensus top-5 pick in fantasy drafts.

Loving Love: While I'm kicking myself for not take Davis, I'm feeling more confident in my "controversial" pick of Kevin Love in the Sirius XM fantasy draft last week. I was picking fourth, and my choice was between Love, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. I was 90% sure that I was going to pick Curry, but at the last minute I decided on Love. My logic was that if he was healthy, his combination of heavy scoring, league-leading rebounding, treys and assists was too uniquely potent to pass up. The big question marks were whether he was in fact healthy, and whether he would regain his form from a couple of years ago. Early returns indicate that he is in fact back to the form that made him arguably the fantasy MVP, and despite Paul and Curry's excellence in their own rights, I am happy with Love right now.

Is Griffin now a complete player? On the RotoWire Fantasy Sports radio show last week, Chris Liss asked me whether I thought that Blake Griffin (who I had picked in the third round of the XM Sirius league) was too limited to be an impact player, since his contributions were primarily points and rebounds. I told him that I projected Griffin as a top-25 player, in large part because I expected his production to go up across the board this year with normal minutes played (he averaged only 32.5 minutes last season, after 37 minutes in the two seasons before that). But I also expected Griffin to be a more complete player than just a two category guy with a projected four assists and two combined steals/blocks to go with a good FG percentage as well. Through the first week that prediction looks good, as his known weakness of FT percentage and (lack of) 3-pointers are the only two categories that Griffin isn't ripping up right now. The question is, can it continue? I say yes, as Griffin's per-36 numbers have even been slightly down thus far this season, suggesting that what he is doing isn't unusual for him. He may never block two shots per game like his athleticism suggests he could, but he's in a high-efficiency offense (great for his percentages), he handles the ball a lot, and at age 24 he's starting to approach his physical prime which means he should continue to get better.

Can Cousins complete the leap this year? DeMarcus Cousins is very arguably the most physically talented big man in the NBA. He has an All-World skill set, and last year I projected him to make the leap to become a top-25 fantasy producer. It never quite happened, though, as his well-publicized volatility and maturity issues sabotaged his season. This year Cousins blasted out of the gate with averages of 27 points, 12 boards, 2.5 steals and 2.0 blocks through the first two games and there was talk everywhere that the new coaching regime had Cousins excited and ready to take the mantle as the Kings' franchise player. Over the next two games, though, Cousins seemingly regressed with late game meltdowns that kept him on the bench in the fourth quarter and depressed his numbers. So the question remains: will Cousins finally be able to get out of his own way and let his ridiculous talent reign, or will he continue to tantalize and frustrate his owners. I lean towards the former. Cousins' volatility is akin to a recurring injury issue…something that as an owner you always have to be aware of and try to account for. However, unless it reaches extremes, you have to sometimes take a chance on talent. Those that risked Stephen Curry's balky ankle last season were rewarded with elite production. While that doesn't always happen, the fact that Cousins has similar upside to Curry but at the center position makes him someone that I'd take a calculated chance on this season.

New Additions

Trevor Ariza (69% owned in Yahoo! leagues) and Martell Webster (11% owned): When I started writing this article, Ariza was only owned in about half of Yahoo leagues, and that was already way up from where he began. Today he's up to almost 70% owned, illustrating that he is one of the most added players in the league. The reason for this is obvious, as he has opened the season on fire with averages of almost 18 points, more than 10 rebounds, 3.3 treys, 3.0 assists, and 1.7 steals through the first week. He isn't expected to keep this up, but early in the year is the best time to take a chance on a hot player as a) you never know when someone might make a leap and b) if he slows down, his stats and ranking might look pretty enough to entice a trade.

Webster is the other wing in Washington that is off to a surprising start. While not as flashy as Ariza's numbers, Webster has quietly been knocking down two treys per game on his way to decent contributions in points (10.3 ppg), rebounds (3.7 rpg) and steals (1.3 spg). He's more likely to sustain his numbers, and with the injuries to the Wizards' front line (Nene, Trevor Booker) he could see extra minutes in the short term.

Vitor Faverani (51% owned) and Jared Sullinger (8% owned): The Celtics have a glut of viable big men this season with no clear pecking order, including promising rookie Kelly Olynyk. However, these are the two that are most interesting in the short term and could maintain it through the season. Faverani is the surprise and the one with the most upside if he can show that his unexpected shot blocking isn't a fluke. Faverani has demonstrated nifty moves near the rim which have proven effective at getting buckets or drawing fouls, and as the only player on the team with actual center size, he could carve himself a niche as the Celtics' center of the future. Sullinger got off to a slow start due to a suspension, but he came on last game with 16 points and five boards in only 21 minutes off the bench. That is excellent per-minute production, and even more promising, he has been making good on his intention to start shooting the 3-ball (he went 2-for-3 from downtown in the last game). If he re-earns the starting slot he held last season and adds the trey to his already proven ability to score and rebound, Sullinger could be a valuable player this year.

Samuel Dalembert (48% owned): Dalembert is a serviceable center, capable of approaching a double-double on most nights despite only averaging about 24 minutes per game. He also should start to block more shots as the season goes along, as he generally is a 2.5 blocks/36 minute player and this year he's only averaging 1.1 blocks/36 through the first week.

Tony Allen (46% owned): Allen is never a huge stat stuffer, but he's a reliable defensive role player (currently 3.0 steals/game) who gives you just enough in points, rebounds and assists to be worthy of a roster spot in most leagues.

Zaza Pachulia (22% owned): Pachulia is a low-upside big, but he's in a new location this season and got off to a good start. He was averaging 16.5 points and 10 rebounds through two games, before coming back to earth with a 6-point/3-rebound effort in his third outing. He likely will end up closer to the third game than the first two over the course of the season, but he got a solid contract from the Bucks this offseason and (as I mentioned above) you never really know if a hot start is real. He's worth a flyer if you have the roster space and a need for a center.

C.J. Miles (13% owned): Miles is in an instant offense off the bench role for the Cavs, and so far it seems to suit him. He's already had one game with 22 points, five boards, three steals and three treys and another with 19 points, five boards, three treys, two steals and two blocks despite the fact that he only averages 22 minutes a night.

Andrew Nicholson (12% owned): Nicholson is settling into a groove as a solid points/rebounds option with 3-point range. The second year power forward is averaging 14.3 points, 6.8 boards and a 3-pointer in less than 24 minutes off the bench and is coming off of a 17-point/11-rebound double-double in his last outing.

Francisco Garcia (11% owned): Garcia is a member of the "useful but not exciting" class of free agent pick-up. He's knocked down at least two treys in every game this season, locking him firmly into the class of 3-point role player. With Dwight Howard and James Harden drawing the defensive attention, he should continue to get wide open shots from long-range all season.

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.

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