We're barely one week into the grueling 82-game NBA season, yet there's undoubtedly been a flurry of roster moves made in your league (or leagues, if you roll like the Lab does). While the NBA preseason certainly helped the coaches get a feel for their new players, many coaches are still tinkering with their starting lineups and adjusting their rotations as they try to develop the consistent pattern that is the mark of a playoff-bound team. Or they are Don Nelson and none of this stuff matters to you. Once most of the starting fives are set in the next week or two and the bench rotations start to take shape, only a major injury or trade is going to yield another impact free agent -- making this the key time to add a potential waiver-wire gem to your roster.
Unlike baseball with its constant call-ups from the minors, shuffled pitching rotations and newly minted closers every time someone blows a save -- or football with its bye weeks -- the time to strike in fantasy basketball's free agent market is now. If you have a player that's slow out of the gate or not meeting your expectations, gambling on some fresh blood now might mean a championship later. But whom should you pull the trigger on?
Surely you've discovered by now that there's never a clear-cut way to identify the breakthrough players, however, the Lab relies on one crucial statistic that seems to shed the most light at this time on who will make the leap from unrosterable to a productive player or even a star.
This statistic isn't one of the nine traditional categories. Yahoo's platform didn't even deem it worthy enough to appear on their free agent page for the last few years before finally bringing it back from hiatus this season, yet the Lab won't add a player before checking this stat. Before someone can dare be welcomed into the sanctity of my roster -- though many of my leaguemates might take exception with that word choice given some of the stabs I've taken at beating the curve on adding a player, "inventing" him so to speak (Ike Diogu immediately comes to mind) -- I must check his minutes per game.
With such a small sample size for the regular nine categories at this point in the year, minutes are the one true indicator of a player's future fantasy potential. If you're on the floor, you have a chance to put up stats. But if you're riding pine, then there's zero chance for you to help my team win. And don't throw that "but you're winning turnovers" junk at me. If you're planning to win turnovers, you're planning to fail.
There's no denying that some coaches are starting the wrong players right now. That may be due to variety of reasons because the coach is: a) on a new team, b) feeling out a new player or player combo, c) allowing an old vet to start since he's warm, d) sending a message to a talented but somehow troubled youngster, or e) begrudgingly appeasing their GM by playing the prized summer signing even though he doesn't fit the system. It could even be the whimsical, yet widely accepted cliché of "wanting to give something a try." Most of them will figure it out and switch their lineups accordingly. A winning fantasy team is tasked with figuring out who that player is now and snagging him before the move is made.
One such move was announced last night as Sacramento's new coach, Paul Westphal, has wised up and will send Sean May waddling back to the bench in favor of the emerging Spencer Hawes to man the middle. While it's likely that Hawes is owned in most leagues, there are a few that he's not (13% in ESPN, 20% in Yahoo). In fact, Hawes was going to be my shining example for this column as his averages after four games belied his potential. Hawes struggled badly in the first two games -- likely because he was shocked and angry that May was starting over him -- dragging his averages way down to 5 ppg and 5 rpg, yet he got 35 minutes in the first game. The production didn't match the time, throwing up red flags everywhere for those who knew what they were searching for.
Hawes doesn't start the next two games for the Kings, but he plays 31 and 43 minutes. Even though he wasn't starting, it wasn't too much of a surprise when he blew up for better than 20 and 10 in each of these games. Now he'll be in the starting five, presumably on a permanent basis given his youth, talent and May's lack thereof.
The big minutes Hawes played indicated that the coach had faith in him but was still figuring out that he deserved to start. Finding other waiver wire gems means identifying the weak links in other starting fives and the valuable reserves that should replace them. One such way to know who these players are is by looking at game flow charts, the fourth quarter of close games in particular. These players are getting crunch time minutes due to some combination of their coach wanting to win and them earning it. If a reserve does well here, there is a good chance that he'll get a crack at the starting lineup or at least carve out a major role in the rotation as a sixth or seventh man capable of providing positive fantasy contributions from the back end of your roster.
One great flow chart site is PopcornMachine.net. They visually break down the minutes for each player, showing who played with whom for each stint, the player's points, fouls and plus/minus for each of the their appearances (another stat that tends to go hand in hand in determining who will see more minutes in the future), and when a team went on a scoring run.
This information is extremely helpful in figuring out why a player got extra minutes or saw fewer minutes than normal. In turn, you can use this info to spot trends that lead to starting lineup replacements and/or bigger minutes as a player gains a coach's trust -- something that doesn't come easily in the NBA.
Let's examine the case of Sixers' F/C Mareesse Speights, a highly recommended pickup by the Lab and a promising second-year player who comes off the bench behind C Samuel Dalembert. After experiencing a rise in minutes for four straight years peaking with 33 mpg in 2007-08, Dalembert's court time was slashed severely down to 25 mpg last year, partly due to Speights forcing his way onto the hardwood with his talent, but more so for Sammy's continued mental mistakes and the team's general malaise with him.
Trade rumors were rampant during the summer, but no one wanted to take on his albatross of a contract. A new coach and a new offense are put into play, one that requires the center to operate facing the hoop, away from the rim and to make good decisions, passes and jumpers. Dalembert doesn't do any of those three things well, and often does them exceptionally poorly. Speights, however, is proving capable of accomplishing these tasks more steadily than Dalembert and the coaches are noticing. The game flow charts confirm it.
In the season opener, Speights saw 26 minutes compared to Dalembert's 15, even though Dalembert started. Speights came in for him late in the first quarter, promptly scored three points and then reeled off another 10 points in seven minutes. What makes this more impressive is you can see Speights getting some of these points against Dwight Howard, the reigning Defensive POY. Coaches remember things like that. They also pick up on the fact that when they need scoring, Speights is a better option than Dalembert, so he'll likely see more fourth quarter minutes when the team is behind -- something else that the game flow charts demonstrate based on their win in Milwaukee in Game 2.
The Sixers' third game went to overtime against the Knicks. Again replacing Dalembert, Speights was the first man off the bench for Philly with 3:37 to go in the first and then didn't come out again for Sammy until eight points were on his docket and 1:12 was left till halftime. In the third quarter, Speights got in the action even quicker with 5:46 to go and didn't leave until he had eight more points. Once overtime hit, Dalembert was nowhere to be found with Speights playing the entire extra frame, dropping four more points on his way to 20 points in 30 minutes against Dalembert's 5 and 18, respectively. It sure looks like this is trending in the right direction for Speights and the wrong direction for Dalembert.
These game flow charts are also good for identifying some miscellaneous factors that led to a strange number of minutes that the game recap and box score might not be able to tell you. You can find out if a player was in early foul trouble, or if his plus/minus was terrible, indicating a bad matchup and providing a reason for why he was pulled. Blowout wins and losses become much more apparent and you'll easily see that this means fewer minutes for veterans and more time for youngsters on both teams.
Since you've made it this far, the Lab wouldn't leave you without a few interesting tidbits and some names for your Watch List. Rapid fire form in three, two, one ... Jamal Crawford's minutes in Atlanta are mostly at the expense of Mike Bibby, though Marvin Williams also takes a hit, especially in the fourth quarter ... D.J. Augustin got all the minutes in most of the third and all of the fourth quarter in place of Stephen Graham when Raja Bell was out, but now that Bell is back, Augustin is still seeing consistent minutes and Ray Felton is finding himself on the bench more ... Tyrus Thomas hasn't been playing in the fourth quarter much at all. Thanks, Vinny Del Negro ... Delonte West is starting to eat into Anthony Parker's minutes. A starting lineup switch might be coming soon ... Golden State's charts have no rhyme or reason to them so far. Are you surprised in the slightest? ... Rasual Butler was playing a lot more than Al Thornton in crunch time. It made sense to see him in the starting lineup in their last game, and getting the win helps solidify his spot there ... When Allen Iverson played his first game in Memphis, he came in exclusively for Mike Conley. O.J. Mayo's minutes were totally unaffected, though Iverson will probably see more than 17 minutes next time out ... Udonis Haslem has been getting enough minutes to be productive despite note starting this year. When he plays, he takes time away from Quentin Richardson and Michael Beasley. If Miami wants Beas to be a superstar, it's Q minutes that are going to suffer as Beasley plays more, not Haslem's ... I'd be concerned if I owned Jose Calderon in any of my leagues (which I don't). Jarrett Jack plays much better defense and is a better scorer than Calderon, who made his name as a reserve dominating second-stringers while T.J. Ford did the dirty work. The Raptors are 0-3 and might be looking for a change, never mind the fact that Jack has played more fourth quarter minutes in lieu of Calderon in two of their three games ... Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap are killing each other's value. Neither is getting comfortable and the contract issue will cloud the situation all year. It's got to be tough for everyone on the team to know that your current starter wants out after his contract expires this year and the backup is already signed to an expensive long-term deal. With Andrei Kirilenko performing like the AK-47 of old again, there are very limited minutes at the SF spot for Millsap to use. Either a trade needs to go down or Millsap and Boozer's values will both continue to suffer.