RotoWire Partners

Hoops Lab: The Ghosts of Christmas Past

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.

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:

This just has the feel of one of those lingering, every-month-saying-next-month type of return situations similar to what we saw with Derrick Rose last season. While there's nothing official to suggest it, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see Rondo at all this season.

Iguodala and Granger back: Andre Iguodala (hamstring) and Danny Granger (calf/knee) both returned to their lineups as well last week. As expected, both came out of the gate slowly in their first games back. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Granger looked better in his follow-up game (four treys) than Iguodala did. Ultimately, the expectation is that Iguodala will return to the role that he filled in the first month of the season before the injury, which was a jack-of-all-trades that maintained his value with balance (including almost point-guard-like assists) while Granger will settle into a role as a three-point sniper off the bench. Lance Stephenson just posted his third triple-double of the season, effectively staking his claim to the second wing minutes in Indiana.

Millsap's treys: I'm generally high on Paul Millsap, because his efficiency and sneaky defense in addition to his scoring/rebounding tend to make him an underrated rotisserie contributor. However, in the last month, he has added the three-point shot to his repertoire which takes his value to an entirely different level. Millsap has knocked down 18 treys in his last 12 games, and if he continues to shoot them at this rate, it makes him a reasonable man's (better than a poor man's) version of Kevin Love moving forward.

Found money (Burke and Isaiah): Trey Burke and Isaiah Thomas were both players that were downgraded coming into this season due to their circumstances. Burke was coming off of a disastrous Summer League, then suffered a hand injury that was going to keep him out for the first month or two of the season. Thomas, on the other hand, was seemingly behind newly acquired Greivis Vasquez in Sacramento, which was supposed to limit his upside this season. Because of this, I was able to get both of them for cheap in my points-based auction-draft league. I went with the stars-and-studs strategy in that league, so my frontcourt was stacked with stars, but my backcourt was struggling. Up until recently. Now, with Thomas (20.9 points, 7.4 assists, 2.3 treys, and one Vasquez trade) and Burke (13.9 points, 6.0 assists, 3.4 boards, 1.6 treys) both filling it up over the last couple weeks, I suddenly have one of the better backcourts in the league. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

New Additions

Nick Young (50% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Young is a no-brainer upgrade with Kobe Bryant sidelined. In his last four games, he's averaged 21.5 ppg with 3.3 made treys. As long as Kobe is out, Young is a starting caliber roto shooting guard.

Tony Allen (48% owned): Allen is one of those players that could be in this space every week because he is a role player with a skill set (particularly the defensive categories) that has value in rotisserie leagues. Over the last week, though, he has increased his scoring and rebounding to the point that, were he to maintain, he would be an actual impact player and not just a role player (17.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 spg in 33 mpg over the last week). While those numbers are unlikely to continue, they aren't that far outside of scope based on his history (15.5 points per 36 minutes in 2011, 6.2 rebounds per 36 minutes in 2013, 2.3 steals per 36 minutes for his career). The biggest question is if he will continue to get such a large opportunity. Likely not, as Mike Conley Jr. and Tayshaun Prince both missed time last week due to injury, which swelled Allen's role. Nevertheless, Allen makes the best kind of short-term pickup because he actually has the game to produce bigger numbers for longer if called upon, and even his standard role-player numbers are still valuable enough to be rosterable.

Andray Blatche (44% owned), Andrei Kirilenko (30% owned), Mirza Teletovic (7% owned): As mentioned above (and in this space last week, before Lopez's injury), Blatche should be on your team. He's obvious. Teletovic is another name of interest, because he recently stepped into the starting lineup when Lopez has been out. In the last five games when Teletovic has played at least 23 minutes, he has knocked down 18 three-pointers. Kirilenko has been battling injuries all season, but is hopeful to return to the Nets' lineup soon. He has roto starter upside if he can get healthy and play the minutes, but those are two big ‘ifs' which makes him more of a wild card than a definite pickup at this point.

Jared Dudley (38% owned): In my SiriusXM league i,t was Dudley who was cut when the other owner max-bid on Blatche. But while Blatche is worth the pick up, Dudley is carving out a valuable role in his own right at the moment. Dudley has knocked down at least one trey in eight straight games, including 12 in his last four outings. He's a classic rotisserie three-point role player and can move the needle for you in that category.

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.