With the NBA season set to begin two weeks earlier than normal, fantasy owners have less time to research and prepare for drafts.
That means we better dive into each division’s position battles, so you can uncover those sweet sleepers. Let’s start in the Atlantic, where big changes have occurred on every team (except the Raptors -- sorry, C.J. Miles).
It might be easier to list what hasn’t changed in Boston. Only four players remain from last year’s team, which finished the regular season with the best record in the East.
Shooting Guard: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier
To make salary room for Gordon Hayward, and try to get some size, the Celtics dealt Avery Bradley to Detroit for Marcus Morris. That leaves a hole at starting shooting guard, a hole Boston will fill with either point guards (Smart and Rozier) or a small forward (Brown).
Stevens says he only believes in “ball handlers, wings and bigs”, so playing guys out of position doesn’t seem to bother him. Smart, with one more year of seniority, has the early depth chart lead. But remember when Bradley was hurt last year? Stevens started the rookie Brown for 20 games.
For most of this season, I expect Stevens to do the same, starting Brown and leveraging Smart off the bench. Smart is a proven spark off the bench, able to defensively shut down multiple positions and offensively post-up back-up guards. Plus, Smart’s 4.6 assists a game last year makes him a better backup for Kyrie Irving at point guard. Expect Rozier to see time at both guard spots.
Power Forward: Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, Al Horford, Aron Baynes
If you are looking for rebounds, ignore the Celtics’ bigs. Stevens prefers his squad to hustle back on defense versus selling out for offensive rebounds. And, frankly, despite all their off-season moves, Boston didn’t address its poor rebounding (27th in DRB% last season).
Power forward could be a fluid position all year, with Morris the starter almost by default. But expect Stevens to experiment, sometimes going big with Baynes at center and Horford at power forward, his preferred spot. And with Gordon Hayward getting maximum minutes at the three, look for Boston to sometimes experiment with Tatum at the four. The No. 3 overall pick is coming off a strong summer league, and it’ll be very interesting to see how much they trust the rookie throughout the season. Keep in mind that, despite starting 20 games, Brown still only averaged 17 minutes per game as a rookie.
The slow rebuild continues, with the Nets taking a low-risk gamble on the development of D’Angelo Russell. Kudos to Brooklyn for not standing pat. So the Nets will presumably run out a Russell-Jeremy Lin backcourt at some point. But the frontcourt is messy.
Small Forward: Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll
It took the Nets 12 months to get Crabbe after nearly luring him away from Portland with an offer sheet last summer. The Nets, with plenty of salary room, helped out Portland and Toronto this summer, taking on both Crabbe ($57 million, 3 years remaining) and Carroll ($30 million, 2 years remaining). The 25-year-old Crabbe has a considerably higher ceiling than Carroll, who’s seemingly been banged up for three straight years. Crabbe is a legit sleeper who could see his minutes increase to around 30 per game, helping owners in made threes and free throw percentage.
Power Forward: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker
Despite Booker starting 43 games last season, the Nets have indicated that Hollis-Jefferson will begin the 2017-18 campaign as the starting power forward. Interesting. Essentially, the Nets are embracing positionless ball, going small ball right out of the gate. The move could mean decent rebounding production for RHJ if he can prove worthy of 25-plus minutes per game. Booker’s steady, while maybe not inspired, play will be leveraged off the bench, a role with which he’s comfortable.
New York Knicks
No Carmelo means 19 shot attempts per game are available for Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and others. But who will be setting up the shooters?
Point Guard: Ramon Sessions, Frank Ntilikina, Jarrett Jack, Ron Baker
Suddenly, Derrick Rose looks appealing. Sessions and Jack have combined for 21 career years of mediocre point guard play, and the latter is coming off of a torn ACL.
On the other end of the spectrum is 19-year-old rookie Ntilikina, a 6’5”, pass-first Frenchmen with a nice combination of size, speed and mid-range acumen. The Knicks will be wise to bring Ntilikina along slowly, but can Sessions, Jack and Baker play well enough to keep them afloat?
The answer is, most likely, no. No matter how raw Ntilikina might look during October and November, you have to think he’s eventually handed the keys to the offense. Whether that translates to tangible fantasy value, however, remains to be seen. So little is known about Ntilikina’s NBA readiness that it could take a few months to truly gauge his potential.
RW Hoops scribe Alex Barutha would also like to point out that he's excited about Enes Kanter and Porzingus teaming up in the paint, "with Kanter able to bruise most opposing team's stretch-fours in the post and Porzingis able to pull rim protectors out to the perimeter."
The shiny new Sixers backcourt of Markelle Fultz and J.J. Redick have the guard spots nicely solidified. And invariably someone in your league will think Joel Embiid will play 65+ games (I’m not one of them). But the forwards spots are still a bit confusing.
Forwards: Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Amir Johnson
Will Ben Simmons introduce the NBA to the concept of the “point power forward?” Probably. It will be very interesting to see how Fultz and Simmons split the ball-handling duties. For two guys with zero NBA experience, that could get awkward fast
Coach Brett Brown has already implied that Saric will come off the bench, presumably backing up both Simmons and Covington. Sharpshooter Covington has missed 30 games over the past two years, so expect Saric to get his chance to make a handful of spot starts.
RotoWire expects Saric’s playing time to increase roughly 3.5 minutes per game, but I actually envision a slight decline in playing time, barring a few injuries. Amir Johnson brings a much-needed veteran presence on defense and in the locker room. The 30-year-old is about to start his 13th NBA season. If the youth movement stumbles, Brown will lean on Johnson and Redick to steady the ship.
Four of five starting spots for Toronto are etched in stone. Vets Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will continue to lead the backcourt. Big man Jonas Valanciunas will keep clogging the paint at center and Serge Ibaka will see huge minutes at the four. (Remember that Ibaka, DeRozan and Lowry never really got to play together due to Lowry’s end-of-season injury). That leaves the small forward position.
Small Forward: C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby
When DeMarre Carroll was shipped to Brooklyn, Powell immediately became one of the hottest potential sleepers of the season. That lasted for less than 24 hours as Toronto quickly completed a sign-and-trade with Indiana for C.J. Miles.
While Miles has lost a step or two, he adds 40-plus percent three point shooting to a Raptors squad that needs to better spread the floor on offense. Miles has made 2.2 threes per game over each of the last three seasons, and his 41.3% conversion rate last year is much more appealing than Powell’s 32.4%
The concern in Toronto is that Powell’s game is too similar to DeRozan’s, while Miles is more of a complementary piece with the other four starters. This is not a deep team. Powell will see plenty of minutes leading the second unit. RotoWire’s forecast of Powell playing 21 minutes per game during his third season seems a tad low, especially considering Miles’ age. I think 24-25 minutes per game for Powell is more likely, with Miles starting and shouldering a similar workload..
That’s it for job battles in the Atlantic. Next up, the Central Division.