Hi, I’m Bruce. It’s a great pleasure to be joining the team here.
Kent talked about the “The Zeros” in Tuesday’s Spin. I want to expand on some of the things he said about rookies because it’s the risk that rookies (and other risky players) give you that is critical to winning. This doesn’t just apply to fantasy (the benefits of risk apply in basketball, and in the real world too) but it certainly does apply to fantasy.
Then Kent went and did something that made me wince. (We don’t always agree here on the Fantasy team, and in fact sometimes the bickering gets a bit loud.) He called Damian Lillard a “Can’t Miss”. Now I’m not saying that you don’t want a piece of Damian Lillard. Far from it. What I am saying is that in fantasy terms, you have to remember that “Can’t Miss” here means “don’t forget to rank me” and not “I’m going to be this year’s Kyrie Irving“.
A look at our 2012-13 Depth Chart shows Lillard as the starting point guard in Portland. That’s consistent with the Blazers’ thinking even before Lillard exploded all over the Las Vegas Summer League, nabbing MVP honors and scoring for fun. On July 11 as the summer league was starting, Blazers GM Neil Olshey was calling Lillard their franchise point guard. Given that his primary competition is Nolan Smith, who found making shots extremely difficult as a rookie, Lillard has been given that most precious gift for a rookie point guard: time and his team’s confidence.
But can he miss? Oh, he can certainly miss. Lillard’s credentials are thin. Yes, he was the outstanding player in the Summer League (as John Wall was in 2010) but that is a sample size of four games. Lillard played his college ball in the Big Sky conference and he was certainly outstanding but the step to playing 82 games at the NBA level against the best athletes in the sport can undo a lot of rookies. Lillard is going to need time, and he is likely to start with the training wheels on.
On the other hand, he couldn’t be in a better spot for a point guard to shine. Portland have given Lillard a gift beyond price; he’s playing on the first team with three fine scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and (assuming he bounces back to being the efficient scorer he was before last year, as I expect him to) Wesley Matthews. This takes the pressure of responsibility off Lillard and also takes the attention of the defense off him. His primary job will be to distribute the ball to guys, in spots, where he knows the team can score.
Shining on the floor and shining in the fantasy stat columns are very different beasts, but one usually doesn’t take long to produce the other because the NBA, like any sport, works by constant adjustments. If Lillard can make the basic plays to get the ball in the right areas at the right time (the “training wheels” I mentioned earlier), he’ll gain more room to drive and score, which has been his central skill in his basketball career to date. And like almost any player, the more chances he has to get the ball close to the basket, the more productive he will be in fantasy terms.
NBA defenses, like any defense, work by managing the various risks that an offense presents, at both an individual and team level. Lillard is likely to come into the league seen more as a scoring risk than as a guy who risks unlocking your defense with his passing, so defenses are likely to try to play him to lock down his shot than to keep him from putting the ball in those danger areas. Once he shows that he can do that though (and it can come as early as exhibition games) he will gain more time and space to score himself. (I was going to go off on a long ramble here about the NBA as a philosophical dialectic. I think we’ll save that for another time, but just be warned that it’s bound to be coming sometime.)
A Rookie’s Risks
There is no question that what we see in the real game on the floor, and in your fantasy league, actually works by a similar process. It’s about the management of risk. Now I don’t want to step on Jeff’s toes, as he has a blockbuster series coming up this fall about the technical aspects of fantasy management. But what you are trying to do in drafting (or making keeper choices, or monitoring your bench or the waiver wire) is managing and balancing risk. And what you’d love to have from your fantasy team (most of the time, in most formats: nothing is ever universal) is not that different from what an NBA team wants:
- Three superstars (that’s not a random number, though what a “superstar” is depends on your league)
- A group of complementary players who pile up regular numbers, and who ideally give you positional flexibility
- A bench loaded with talent who might make the step forward, or gain regular minutes
Lillard might end up occupying any of these three: you hope he does a John Wall or Kyrie Irving star turn, you think he’ll get a regular’s minutes on a good team, you can fall back on him sharing his job with Smith and waiting for him to “get it” or to be let loose.
The last is a big part of a rookie’s risks. The dreaded “training wheels” affect every player but no type of rookie faces more restrictions than a team’s starting point guard. That’s not only because your starting PG has more to process, more to think about and more to learn than any other player on your team but also because he has more responsibility to serve the team than anyone else. I can’t read the mind of Terry Stotts (but if you’re interested in Lillard or end up drafting him, you’ll want to read his quotes throughout camp). I do know that NBA head coaches dread giving too much headway to a rookie point and letting his instincts run you out of games. For other types of rookies, like the big men, the training wheels matter less and the physical challenge of working against the faster, quicker, bigger, stronger players that they rarely if ever face in college matters much more. For rookie point guards, the issue is their judgment, and that is hard to assess when the games don’t matter yet.
What will happen to Lillard when they throw the training wheels on him? No one knows for sure, but one thing I notice is that even when he dominated the Summer League, his assist-to-turnover ratio was quite poor, and they weren’t very good at Weber State either. But once those training wheels get bolted on, Lillard is much more likely to be given pass-first responsibilities, especially on a talented offensive team (the Blazers last year were well above average in points per possession). If he can’t master passing-first, his minutes and his productivity will go down.
A rookie demands you to be far more patient than other players, and they tend more than other players to be better second-half players. So drafting too many of them (more than two, I’d say) can mean you have too little firepower early and too much later on. In fact, for this reason rookies make excellent trade targets; when other owners run out of patience with inconsistent performance or minutes in December or January, you can strike.