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Hoops Lab: Blazing the Trail

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.

Blazing the Trail

I keep almost writing about what's going on in Portland this year, then changing my mind. Early on, the hot starts from expected cellar dwellers like Philadelphia and Phoenix were more noteworthy. Then a couple of weeks ago I wanted to wait-and-see whether they would cool off. And then last week I decided to write instead about the ridiculous disparity between the East and the West as opposed to focusing on any one team.

But now, I'm out of excuses. More than one quarter of the way through the season, your Portland Trail Blazers are sitting as the #1 seed in the mighty Western Conference. They're doing it quietly, without a lot of fanfare, and with a bunch of players whose names you only know if you're a real NBA fan and/or a fantasy basketball owner. Damian Lillard could probably walk through any mall in America outside of Portland without getting asked for an autograph, and if LaMarcus Aldridge was a foot shorter he would be just as anonymous. But they're spearheading one of the most fun young teams in the NBA that doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon.

But it's the WAY that the Blazers are winning that makes them worth of discussion in this space. They are a young team, and the coach is riding that youth for all its worth. Portland's five starters are all in their twenties, with an average age of 25.4 years old. They've each started all 25 games, each playing more than 30 minutes per game. Only one other player on the roster is getting more than 15 minutes per game, and that's sixth man Mo Williams. Portland is therefore running one of the thinnest rotations in the NBA, with five players sharing almost all of the stats.

The end result is that all five Blazer starters are heavy rotisserie contributors. Aldridge (ranked #9 by totals in Yahoo! rankings) and Lillard (#12 in Y!) were always going to be roto superstars, but Wesley Matthews (#20 in Y! with 16.3 points, 2.6 treys, 52% FG) and Nicolas Batum (#19 in Y! with 13.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.2 treys) have been almost as valuable. And Robin Lopez (#51 in Y1 with 9.5 points, 8.7 boards, 1.5 blocks, 52% FG, 80% FT) has made himself into a legitimate roto starter at center. Even Williams would be rosterable if he could get back to the 1.5 – 2.0 treys per game threat that has been his career norm instead of the 0.9 treys/game player he's been this year.

Not only does no other team have four players ranked in the top-20…no other team even has more than two. That speaks to level of teamwork and stat concentration in Portland, and how they seem intent on proving that a five-man team can perform at the highest levels.

I saw on TNT this week that none of the hosts of their halftime show really buy the Blazers yet, and that the short rotation is an issue for them. While I admit that the shared-duty teams seem to often have more trouble in the postseason than the superstar-driven squads, and that the risk of injury with such concentrated minutes is also very real, I must admit that I'm pulling for Portland to keep doing well. Their unselfish style of play is refreshing to watch, almost like a college team with NBA talent. And of course any team capable of flooding the top of the roto rankings like they have is alright with me.

Around the League

Gay traded to Kings: Rudy Gay made his debut for the Kings on Friday night after his involvement in the seven-player trade that sent John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes to Toronto with Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy joining Gay in Sacramento. Gay scored 24 points (8-for-12 FG, 8-for-9 FT) with one rebound, one assist, one steal and two blocks in that debut. Meanwhile Vasquez, the biggest new name in Toronto, played only 17 minutes off the bench and scored 12 points (5-for-7 FG) with three boards, two treys, two assists and a steal in his Raptors debut. Let's look at some of the interesting ramifications.

First for Gay, his role doesn't change much on the whole. He'll still be a primary scorer, though now he'll be playing off a great inside player in DeMarcus Cousins as opposed to another wing. This could actually benefit his scoring efficiency which had struggled in Toronto (41.6% FG last season, 39.8% thus far this season) and return it closer to the levels that he used to achieve while playing off of Zach Randolph in Memphis (between 45.3% and 47.1% FG every season between 2008 and 2012). His rebounding may suffer slightly next to a monster like Cousins, but Gay will be playing a lot of stretch 4 in Sacramento so he'll still get plenty of rebound opportunities. You might think Gay's presence would be a negative to Derrick Williams (now moves to the bench) and perhaps to the scoring of Isaiah Thomas (Kings' leading scorer over the past weeks), but Williams still got 30 minutes off the bench and produced his normal numbers in Gay's debut while Thomas still led the Kings with 29 points on the night. Thomas, in fact, may end up a winner in the trade since his competition Greivis was officially shipped out of town.

In Toronto the big winners seem to be DeMar DeRozan (already in the midst of a dream season, now unquestionably the Man north of the border) and Terrence Ross (as a young wing, the most likely to earn Gay's old minutes on a rebuilding team). The Raptors had already been rumored to be shopping Kyle Lowry, and now with his putative replacement in town the Lowry trade machine should kick into high gear. Vasquez isn't worth much in the short term as Lowry's back-up, but if Lowry is shipped then he gets a huge bump in value after having split time with Thomas all year in Sacramento. Amir Johnson technically shouldn't be much affected by this deal, but he's gone nuts for the last two weeks to the tune 21.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg over his last five outings after averaging only 9.0 points and 6.4 boards in November and he has the opportunity to solidify his claim to a larger portion of the offense with Gay gone.

Lopez's ankle (again): Brook Lopez missed Friday's game after spraining his ankle again on Thursday. Lopez missed seven games with the injury earlier this year, but this sprain reportedly isn't as serious and Lopez says that "the plan" is for him to be back in the Nets' starting lineup on Monday. Lopez is a big man with a history of foot surgeries, so any injuries to his lower extremities are very concerning. Nevertheless, it sounds as though he should not be out of the lineup for long with this particular setback.

Walker's shooting percentage: During my interview on the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today show this week, host Chris Liss asked me my opinion about Kemba Walker. Walker broke out last season with a huge sophomore season that earned him a top-20 season ranking on Yahoo! sports, but thus far this season he has regressed a bit with a Y! ranking of #68. The biggest reason for that drop has been his shooting from the field, which has dipped to an icy 38.4% this season. Not only does this make him a category killer, but it also hurts his scoring numbers as it's difficult to be a high-volume scorer if your shot is off. Liss asked if Walker was being asked to do too much as the primary scoring option on such a bad team, but I don't think that's the problem. If anything, he was asked to do more on a worse team last year and handled that well. No, I think the culprit is a good old-fashioned cold spell that struck him in mid-November when he averaged only 12.4 ppg on 25.5% FG (28/110 from field). Outside of that stretch, Walker is averaging 18.8 ppg on 43.4% FG which is much more in-line with his projections. He'll never be a high-efficiency scorer (he's currently 9-for-his-last-32 from the field), but on the whole I expect him to be more of the borderline top-25 that he was last year than the barely top-100 that he's been this year.

George MVP candidate, and what of Granger?: Another of our on-air discussions this week centered around Paul George, who has exploded into the ultra elite this season. Liss even characterized George as a "rich man's James Harden", words that no one would have ever expected when the season started. On the other hand, George's detonation this week didn't exactly come out of left field. Rotowire was one of the few that had George projected as a top-20 player going into LAST season, and I remember calling for George to make a leap when Danny Granger went down in 2012. Now George is in legitimate MVP discussions in both real life and rotisserie, but Granger (calf) is on the verge of a return to the lineup. Is there any reason for George owners to worry that Granger will cut into George's status? I say ‘no'. While George has become a scorer and Granger has been able to score in the past, neither have scoring as the main point of their games. Both are jack-of-all-trades wings who have been compared at times to Scottie Pippen. As such, there shouldn't be much friction at all in their interactions. George will continue to be more of a scoring threat, while Granger is likely to become a 3-point role player on offense. If his return hurts anyone it would be Lance Stephenson, who has been better than expected this season but could lose some minutes if Granger is healthy enough to stay on the court.

What to do with Cleveland Bigs?: The Cavaliers' big man situation has been an enigma wrapped in a mystery ever since they shocked the world by making Anthony Bennett a questionable #1 overall draft pick in June then signing the didn't-play-last-year Andrew Bynum in free agency. The mystery is still going strong almost two months into the season, with Cavs bigs taking turns teasing with production only to disappear again soon after. On Friday night Anderson Varejao notched a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds off the bench while starters Bynum and Tristan Thompson combined for only eight points and nine boards. The previous Friday Bynum (20 points, 13 boards) and Thompson (9 points, 11 boards) had gone off while Varejao notched a measly two points and six boards off the bench. About the only thing reliable about the Cavs frontcourt has been the lack of contribution from Bennett, who is almost never the one producing.

Moving forward, none of the Cavs' bigs are really trustworthy but Thompson comes the closest. He's low upside (no blocks or steals, low shooting percentages) but he is a consistent double-double threat every night. Bynum and Varejao are the ones with the great upside, but their history makes them incredibly difficult to rely upon. Of the two, Bynum has to be the bigger risk. I have Bynum in one league where I took a late-round flyer on him, and his consecutive games last week averaging almost 20 and 10 whet the appetite. But it always felt like an illusion, and his combined five points and 10 boards over the last two games bring the injury fears back to the forefront. His trade value is extremely low, but if Bynum shows any signs of life in the next week or two and/or you're able to find a sucker- er, I mean trade partner, willing to take him off your hands you should make the move. Varejao goes on these 15-rebound binges every season it seems like before inevitably getting hurt, but I'd hold onto him for a bit to see if he can put off his injury for longer than Bynum because if so he can put up very tradeable numbers in a short period.

My trade (Lowry for Lopez): In the Sirius XM Hosts League my team I just made a trade involving some of the players I've already discussed in this Lab. My team is right in the middle of the pack, with strength on the perimeter (starting four PGs) and no reliable true centers on the roster. With that in mind, I just swapped Kyle Lowry to Matt Deutsch's team in exchange for Brook Lopez. I'm taking a bit of a chance on Lopez because he has long-term foot issues and he just re-sprained his ankle on Thursday, but it could pay off for me. My three weakest categories are blocked shots, FG% and FT% and Lopez is strong in all three areas. He's blocking almost two shots a night, and his 57% shooting from the field and 83% from the line, both on good volume, could be difference makers. I like Lowry a lot…more than most, in fact, but his play of late has validated my support. But the trade rumors swirling around him don't make me feel good, especially if he ends up going to a team like Brooklyn that already has a starting point guard. Plus, as I said, point guard was my surplus area so he had to go. We'll see how this pans out moving forward.

New Additions

Amar'e Stoudemire (46% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Stoudemire has had a resurgence over the last week, knocking down more than 70% of his shots from the field on his way to 16 points and 5.3 boards in 27 minutes off the bench. Stoudemire had no expectations coming into the year because of his awful knee issues, and they could take him back out of the lineup at any given time. Plus, Tyson Chandler is expected to return to action soon and could also eat into Stoudemire's minutes. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a short-term scoring center then Stoudemire could be worth a look.

Reggie Jackson (30% owned): Jackson is still backing Russell Westbrook, but he's playing so well that he's started seeing more and more time on the court even when Westbrook is out there. Jackson is averaging 15.3 points (50% FG), 3.9 boards, 3.1 assists and 1.3 treys in more than 27 minutes per game in December.

Andray Blatche (22% owned): Despite his role off the bench, Blatche has shown himself to be the #2 big man in in Brooklyn thus far behind only Brook Lopez. Whenever Lopez is out (like he currently is), Blatche becomes a nightly 20-10 threat (20.5 ppg and 10.5 rpg over last two games). Lopez isn't expected to be out for long with this injury, but he has long-standing health problems and Kevin Garnett is extremely limited by his minutes restriction, making Blatche worth holding onto in most leagues even after Lopez returns.

Terrence Ross (15% owned): As I mentioned above, Ross looks to be one of the beneficiaries of the trade that sent Rudy Gay out of town. Ross scored 24 points (10-for-16 FG) with five boards and four treys in 34 minutes of action on Friday, and has been in double-digits in three straight games with 10 treys over that stretch.

Marvin Williams (11% owned): I keep almost mentioning Williams in this space, only to change my mind at the last minute due to his career of sustained mediocrity. Nevertheless, when he's in the Jazz lineup Williams has shown himself to be a consistent 3-point threat with double-digit scoring output. He has knocked down at least two treys in the last six games he has played in, and nine of his last 10.

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.