Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With one of the NBA’s most memorable offseasons in the books, some teams have an excess of talent while many others are still searching for hope. Some starting fives still have yet to be sorted out, making things tough for fantasy players with the regular seasons rapidly approaching.
Let’s take a look at a handful of the most intriguing position battles that will play out ahead of the season.
Boston Celtics: Shooting Guard (Marcus Smart vs. Jaylen Brown)
Smart was often a fill-in when Avery Bradley was hurt last season. While he’s an excellent defender, Smart is a wildly inconsistent scorer, making just 35.9 percent of his shots from the field and 28.3 percent of his shots from deep last year. That inconsistency may matter less now that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are in town, but most defenses can just ignore Smart when he’s off-ball, clogging the lane for potential drives and making things more difficult for Boston’s playmakers.
Brown, on the other hand, flashed plenty of upside as a scorer. Over his 20 starts as a rookie, Brown averaged 10.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from deep. He’s not quite the passer or defender that Smart is, but clearly provides a threat from beyond the arc that Smart cannot.
There are reasons to give either guy the nod, but Smart’s ability to play two positions and rack up assists and steals will probably make him a more valuable fantasy player. That said, Brown’s expanded role could make him a steal in the later rounds of drafts.
Denver Nuggets: Point Guard (Jamal Murray vs. Emmanuel Mudiay)
Mudiay is more of a traditional playmaking point guard than Murray, who was touted as a combo guard coming out of Kentucky and still fits that mold. Per 100 possessions, Mudiay handed out 7.5 assists compared to Murray’s 4.7 last season. Ultimately, Mudiay’s role with the team this season will likely be correlated to how polished his jumper is, as the team is largely perimeter oriented, and he shot just 31.5 percent from deep last year, a season in which he appeared to regress across the board.
With Nikola Jokic handling a large share of the team’s passing duties, having more of a combo-guard/scorer at the point could be a better fit – that’s where Murray comes in. While he didn’t shoot the lights out as a rookie, he was dealing with a sports hernia for almost the entire season, which likely hampered his effectiveness.
As it stands, this seems like Murray’s job to lose. But, coach Mike Malone is insisting it’s an open competition — and that’s been the case thus far — so I’m going to have to trust him on that.
Los Angeles Clippers: Point Guard (Milos Teodosic vs. Patrick Beverley)
Teodosic performed as advertised during the team’s first preseason game, handing out eight assists — some in fantastic fashion — across 25 minutes. His presence, whether he starts or not, should provide the team with great pick-and-roll and transition passes that they became accustomed to when CP3 was at the helm. While he’s an excellent passer and isn’t afraid to pull up from deep, he’s a revolving door on defense, and will face questions about his ability to hold up over an 82-game season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Beverley. Maybe the least-traditional point guard in the league, Beverley is primarily a three-and-D guy who has averaged more rebounds than assists every year since 2013-14. He’s not much of a scorer or passer, but with the likes of Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams on the roster, that shouldn’t cripple the offense.
I’m not sure either player will see significantly more time than the other, but my guess is Beverley starts and probably finishes most games. In DFS, until the evidence suggests otherwise, I’ll likely play Teodosic during cakewalk matchups and Beverely in tougher ones.
New York Knicks: Point Guard (Frank Ntilikina vs. the field)
Ntilikina has plenty of potential, but his overall skillset is still very raw, and it’s unclear just how NBA-ready he’ll be. His passing and mid-range shooting are likely the most polished of his skills, but his lack of a consistent three-ball and a skinny 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame will probably cause him problems.
The other options — Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions and Ron Baker — are underwhelming, to say the least. Baker and Sessions combined for 10.3 points and 4.7 assists per game. Two seasons ago, before a torn ACL, Jack averaged 12.8 points and 7.4 assists per contest, but he’s on a non-guaranteed contract, which suggests the Knicks don’t have much faith in him being able to jump back to his old self. Sessions hasn’t started more than 30 games in seven years. Baker’s career highs stand at 13 points and eight assists. It’s a mess.
Toronto Raptors: Small Forward (C.J. Miles vs. Norman Powell)
Miles is a three-point specialist who made 2.2 threes per game at a career-high 41.3 percent clip last season. He rarely shoots inside the arc and doesn’t handle the ball much, so his role next to the high-usage duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan would be that of a spot-up shooter, which he’s used to.
Powell, on the other hand, isn’t shy about handling the ball and scoring off the dribble. Over 18 starts last season, he posted 15.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 31.9 minutes per game. He also made an impressive 49.8 of his field goal attempts and 39.7 percent of his three point attempts in those games. At 24 years old, the former second-round pick projects to continue his upward trajectory.
To me, Miles has the best chance at claiming the starting job. With DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas providing little perimeter threat, a knock-down three point shooter should help open up the floor for drives and post-up opportunities. Powell can then function as the sixth man, which should help jump-start an otherwise subpar second unit.
Brooklyn Nets: Guard Rotation (Jeremy Lin & D’Angelo Russell vs. the field)
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Russell and a healthy Lin see fewer minutes per game – 28.7 and 24.5 respectively – than they did last season. How well they mesh is a different story, though both have played each guard spot, so it seems doubtful they’ll clash.
Aside from that duo, there are a myriad of other options for the Nets to deploy off the bench at either position: Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris.
The sheer number of options is somewhat overwhelming, especially since each player received between 21.9 and 25.1 minutes per game last seasons amid injuries and general rotation tweaks. If usage rate is any indication, Kilpatrick led the group at 23.8 percent, followed by Whitehead (18.2 percent). He was also given the most minutes per game out of the group (25.1).
While each player has their own unique skillset, it seems safest to bank on Kilpatrick getting the most work out of the other available options. He’ll also likely have the ball in his hands often during those minutes, which generally has a positive correlation to fantasy points. Keep an eye, too, on LeVert, who the Nets are high on after injuries at Michigan caused him to fall to 20th in last year’s draft.
Dallas Mavericks: Shooting Guard (Seth Curry vs. Yogi Ferrell vs. Wesley Matthews)
Curry broke out last year after injuries began to pile up in the Mavs’ backcourt. As a result, he ended up playing 29.0 minutes per game and averaging 12.8 points, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals. He also racked up 2.0 threes per game at a scorching hot 42.5 percent clip.
One of the biggest surprises in the NBA last season, Ferrell came out of nowhere to start 29 games. His season averages came to rest at 11.3 points, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals across 29.1 minutes per game. He also made 1.5 threes per game at a 38.6 percent mark. With the team trending in a younger direction, Ferrell seems like a long-term fit, but his upside is relatively low.
Matthews should benefit significantly from coach Rick Carlisle’s decision to start Dirk Nowitzki at center and Harrison Barnes at power forward. That should afford Matthews more minutes at small forward, rather than having to compete directly with Curry and Ferrell at the two. The main concerns for Matthews coming into 2017-18 will be his health and three-point shooting. He’s missed 35 games over the past three seasons and his three-point percentage dropped from 38.9 in 2014-15 to 36.0 in 2015-16 and remained relatively unchanged last season at 36.3. While that’s solid, it’s lower than both Curry and Ferrell’s marks and represents his main value as a fantasy commodity.