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Fantasy Basketball: Takeaways from NBA free agency, offseason moves

·13 min read
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By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

While the sports landscape is currently dominated by the arrival of NFL football, the 2021-22 NBA season is just over the horizon. With the pandemic pushing back the 2020-21 league calendar by roughly a month, the result is a shorter offseason leading up to Opening Night on October 19.

But even though it was a condensed summer for the NBA, there was no shortage of impactful transactions. The 2021 NBA Draft took place just nine days after the Milwaukee Bucks were crowned champions, and free agency followed just a few days later. While the bulk of the league’s top-tier talent stayed put this offseason, several ascending stars and impactful veterans were on the move.

As was the case a year ago, the vast majority of the league appears to be in win-now mode heading into 2021-22, which promises to be another highly competitive season — and (hopefully) one that brings a return to normalcy. While the pandemic still casts a shadow over the league, the league has taken steps to ensure it’s no longer something that dominates the headlines — or the fantasy news cycle.

To kick off our coverage leading up to Opening Night, let’s take a look at the offseason’s biggest moves and what they’ll mean for fantasy managers this season:

Los Angeles Lakers

  • Traded for Russell Westbrook: Perhaps the single biggest splash of the offseason was the Lakers adding Westbrook as a third star next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While Westbrook’s shortcomings are well-documented, the fact remains that no guard in the league is capable of matching his ability to consistently rack up rebounds, assists, and steals. Fitting in alongside James, in particular, will be a challenge, but at each of his stops, Westbrook has always found a way to be productive. The soon-to-be 33-year-old will likely take a step back in terms of fantasy value, but there’s hope that joining a contending team could help curb some of his bad habits.

  • Signed Carmelo Anthony: While Anthony has been past his prime for several years, he's aged rather gracefully into a score-first forward who shot better than 40 percent from three in Portland last season. Anthony will primarily compete with fellow-veterans Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore for minutes in the frontcourt. He may be of use to fantasy managers in dire need of threes and free-throw percentage help.

  • Signed Kendrick Nunn: The crown jewel of the Lakers’ many role-player additions, Nunn will vie for minutes at both guard spots alongside Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo, and Kent Bazemore. The Illinois product is coming off of averaging 14.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.2 made threes (38.1% 3Pt) per game for the Heat last season.

  • Signed Malik Monk: Over a 16-game stretch from late January to early March last season, Monk averaged 16.9 points and 3.0 three-pointers per game on 46-44-81 shooting splits. His opportunities may be more limited in LA, but he gives the Lakers an intriguing young player to develop behind fellow free-agent addition, Wayne Ellington.

New York Knicks

  • Signed Kemba Walker: In his 99 appearances across the past two seasons, Walker has averaged 19.9 points on 42/37/88 shooting, 4.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in 31.4 minutes. However, that was with a Celtics team that also had Gordon Hayward for one season along with two more All-Star-caliber players in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In New York, Walker won't have as much competition from high-level players for touches, so there's a chance the 31-year-old can manage a statistical bump. However, fantasy managers still need to exercise caution when drafting Walker considering his knee problems, which aren’t likely to get any better as he ages.

  • Signed Evan Fournier: Fournier has been one of the league's more underrated wing options for the last several years. Since the start of 2016-17, he’s averaged 17.0 points on 45.1 percent shooting, 3.2 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in 31.7 minutes per game. While Fournier can be penciled in as the Knicks’ starting shooting guard, he’s part of a sneaky-deep roster that also features Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, and Dwayne Bacon.

  • Re-signed Nerlens Noel: Noel has continued to prove his worth as one of the league's better traditional backup centers, though he only managed to essentially split time with Mitchell Robinson last season. In 24.2 minutes per game, he averaged 5.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 61.4 percent. Fantasy managers in need of typical big man stats can feel relatively safe grabbing Noel in the last rounds of standard drafts.

  • Re-signed Derrick Rose: Over a 20-game stretch to close the regular season, Rose averaged 17.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 made threes in 28.3 minutes per game off the bench. He finished just inside the top-120 per-game value (8-cat) last season and should be set for a similar role as a high-minute sixth man. The question is whether Rose can replicate last year's elite shooting splits (48.7% FG; 41.1% 3PT; 88.3% FT in 35 games with the Knicks).

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 17: Evan Fournier #13 and Kemba Walker #8 of the New York Knicks
Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier are the two biggest additions to the Knicks. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Chicago Bulls

  • Acquired DeMar DeRozan via sign-and-trade: With Lonzo Ball also in the mix, Chicago can roll out a starting five of Ball, Zach LaVine, DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic in what's suddenly one of the most potent lineups in the East. DeRozan is coming off of averaging 21.6 points, 6.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 0.9 steals per game in San Antonio last season. While he shot 49.5 percent from the field and 88.0 percent at the line, DeRozan was just 19-of-74 from three-point range on the year.

All three of DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic will probably take a hit, fantasy-wise, as is the default when three 20-plus-point-per-game scorers join forces. LaVine's value is probably the safest, while DeRozan will have to find his place on a roster where he's no longer the obvious No. 1 scorer.

Given his lack of shooting, DeRozan could be tasked with staying on to lead the second unit when LaVine and Vucevic are out of the game. While his scoring could dip under 20 points per game for the first time since 2012-13, DeRozan should remain an above-average source of assists who helps fantasy managers in field-goal percentage, steals and, especially, free-throw percentage.

  • Acquired Lonzo Ball via sign-and-trade: The Bulls finally snagged an established, pass-first point guard with defensive upside to complement the scoring of LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic. Ball should play a similar role with Chicago as he did over the past two seasons in New Orleans, where he averaged 13.1 points, 6.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals. Ball has also cemented himself as a legitimate three-point threat, hitting 3.1 threes per game last season at a well-above-average 37.8 percent clip. His arrival shouldn't drastically affect any of the Bulls' key players, though Coby White's usage may take a slight dip.

Detroit Pistons: Signed Kelly Olynyk + Drafted Cade Cunningham

The No. 1 overall pick is the Rookie of the Year favorite, and he'll also enter the season as the top fantasy rookie. Whether he finishes in that spot remains to be seen, but Cunningham will be well-positioned as the primary ball-handler for a roster in need of a true No. 1 option. Based on Cunningham's college production, he projects as an uncommonly well-rounded fantasy player from Day 1 — particularly, if he can maintain his three-point shooting (40% 3PT; 5.7 3PA/G) and defensive impact (2.4 steals/blocks per game).

Olynyk played a key depth role in Miami for the last few seasons, but he was able to spread his wings in Houston after coming over midseason as part of the Victor Oladipo trade. Across 27 games in a Rockets uniform, Olynyk averaged 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 three-pointers per contest while putting up a 55-39-84 shooting line. Those numbers likely won't be sustainable, but Olynyk could start at center — or at the very least push Isaiah Stewart for the job.

Miami Heat: Acquired Kyle Lowry via sign-and-trade

The multi-year commitment to a 35-year-old guard is somewhat of a risk for Miami, but the Heat are desperate to re-tool around Jimmy Butler and make another deep postseason run. Lowry steps in as the obvious starter at point guard ahead of Tyler Herro, and his arrival made Kendrick Nunn even more expendable. Miami will likely do what it can to limit Lowry's workload, but the roster is a bit thinner than in years past, so don't expect a major drop-off in minutes.

New Orleans Pelicans: Acquired Devonte’ Graham via sign-and-trade

In New Orleans, Graham will have an opportunity to reach the numbers he put up during his breakout 2019-20 season when he averaged 18.2 points, 7.5 assists, and 3.4 rebounds — while hitting 3.5 threes per game at 37.3 percent. On paper, Graham makes sense as a floor-spacer around Zion Williamson, but he’ll face stiff competition for minutes in the form of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, and Kira Lewis.

Washington Wizards: Signed Spencer Dinwiddie

Coming off of a torn ACL, Dinwiddie has some health concerns, but that didn't stop the Wizards from handing him roughly $20 million annually. At that figure, Dinwiddie is the clear favorite to start at point guard, replacing Russell Westbrook in the backcourt next to Bradley Beal. Washington still has Raul Neto, and it added Aaron Holiday in a draft-night trade, but Dinwiddie is far and away the top option at point guard. He may not reach his numbers from 2019-20 — 20.6 PPG, 6.8 APG — but Dinwiddie is in an advantageous fantasy position.

Philadelphia 76ers: Signed Andre Drummond

Drummond is coming off of an unceremonious finish to the season in Los Angeles, where he never quite found a consistent role and struggled on defense in the Lakers’ Round 1 loss to the Suns. At this point in his career, Drummond's flaws are well-known, but he remains an elite volume rebounder and lob-finisher who's averaged at least 1.0 block and 1.0 steal in each of his nine NBA seasons. In Philly, Drummond will slot in as the primary backup to Joel Embiid, but he has a much higher fantasy floor than Dwight Howard. If/when Embiid misses time, Drummond will become a highly sought-after streamer and DFS play.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Acquired Lauri Markkanen + Drafted Evan Mobley

Where, exactly, Markkanen fits on a Cavs roster that still features Kevin Love remains to be seen, but Cleveland clearly views him as a future piece. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Markkanen should be in a fairly advantageous situation after falling out of favor in Chicago. When at his best, Markkanen is a solid points, rebounds and free-throw percentage contributor who offers north of 2.0 made threes per game. Last season, he hit a career-high 40.2 percent of his threes.

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In Mobley, the Cavs finally have a player with true superstar potential, but he’ll also have to contend with Love, Markkanen, and Jarrett Allen for minutes. While it’s hard to imagine the Cavs not prioritizing the 19-year-old’s development, he could take a backseat early on before working his way into a more significant role. Playing alongside Allen and Love could sap some of Mobley's upside as a rebounder, but he's shown promise as a passer, and his 2.9 blocks per game at USC suggest that it could be his most valuable fantasy stat category.

Boston Celtics: Signed Dennis Schroder and Enes Kanter

While the money may not have been what he was looking for, Schroder projects to slide into the starting point guard role vacated by Kemba Walker. Boston doesn't have a ton of proven depth behind Schroder, so he'll likely be set for a similar workload to last season (32.1 MPG). Of course, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be the focal points of the Celtics' attack, but Schroder will have a good chance to emerge as the No. 3 option ahead of Marcus Smart.

Injuries to Jusuf Nurkic aided Kanter's production in Portland, however, and in Boston, he'll face stiff competition for minutes from Robert Williams and Al Horford. As usual, Kanter will find his way into minutes off the bench, but his role will almost certainly be reduced relative to 2020-21. With that said, if Williams and/or Horford are injured, Kanter would immediately become an elite source of rebounds.

Brooklyn Nets: Signed Patty Mills

Mills will provide much-needed depth and three-point shooting behind Kyrie Irving and James Harden. In San Antonio last season, Mills averaged 10.8 points per game and hit a career-high 2.4 threes per game at a 37.5 percent clip. When Harden and Irving are healthy, the Nets won't ask too much from Mills, but he'll provide high-level insurance when either of the two stars is out of the lineup.

Golden State Warriors: Signed Otto Porter

Porter's stock has taken a major hit since leaving Washington, but make no mistake that landing him on a minimum deal is a huge get for Golden State. Of course, there's a chance that Porter can't stay healthy and doesn't move the needle, but at the very least he should be able to cash in spot-up threes at a much better rate than Kelly Oubre.

Dallas Mavericks: Signed Reggie Bullock

Bullock is coming off one of the best seasons of his career with the Knicks. In 30.0 minutes per game, he averaged 2.5 made threes at a 41.0 percent clip, fueling his 10.9 points per game scoring average. He'll provide the Mavericks with better floor spacing and could end up starting alongside Tim Hardaway. Bullock ranked 162nd in fantasy last season on a per-game basis, as he's essentially a single-category specialist.

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