Itís never too early to start preparing for next yearís fantasy basketball season
One way weíll help you do that is by reviewing each team, highlighting what went right and what went wrong in 2017-18. Weíll also take a look at the current state of the roster to see what moves they could potentially make over the summer, and what impact those could have, from a fantasy perspective.
As we continue to work our way through the reverse order of the regular season standings, itís time to examine the Timberwolves, Jazz and Thunder.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The Pelicans (48-34) quietly led the league in pace this season (100.5), utilizing the athleticism of Anthony Davis to get out and run -- particularly after the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins. New Orleans also ranked 10th in points per 100 possessions (109.6), made possible in part by the dynamic backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, who both helped lead the Pelicans to a third-place finish in assist rate (26.3%).
Great passing ultimately led to easy buckets, and the Pels were the leagueís fourth-most-efficient team by effective field-goal percentage (54.1%). Unsurprisingly, with Davis and Cousins, New Orleans was dominant scoring in the paint, leading the league in field goal percentage from 3-10 feet (47.6%) and placing sixth in field-goal percentage from 10-16 feet (44.1%). On defense, the Pelicansí frontcourt protected the basket without fouling, racking up 5.8 blocks per 100 possessions (4th) and boasting the NBAís eighth-lowest opponent free-throw rate (.175). In turn, New Orleans allowed the ninth-lowest effective field-goal percentage (51.3%).
Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins in late January due to an Achilles tear, New Orleans still managed to claim the sixth seed in the playoffs, boosted by a trade at the deadline. The Pels shipped out a protected first-round pick and non-rotation players for Nikola Mirotic, who subsequently ended up third on the team in net rating (4.7) and averaged 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while starting 11 of his 30 contests with New Orleans.
Unexpectedly, once in the playoffs, the Pelicans pulled off a first-round sweep of the Trail Blazers, outscoring Portland by 10.4 points per 100 possessions. What was expected, however, was New Orleans being outmatched by Golden State. The Pels shot just 44.6% from the field against the Warriors and were outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions, losing the series 4-1. Despite some spotty regular-season play, Rondo led the playoffs in assists, averaging 12.2 per game across nine contests.
On an individual level, Davis, the No. 1 fantasy player this season by total production, continues to make strides in his game. He could end up finishing as high as third in MVP voting after posting career highs in points (28.1), assists (2.3) and minutes per game (36.4), as well as field-goal percentage (53.4%), three-point percentage (34.0%) and free-throw percentage (82.8%). He also continued his stellar work on the glass (11.1 rebounds per game) and on defense (2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per contest).
Cousins, in what was going to be his first full year with the Pelicans, also put together an impressive campaign before going down with a torn Achilles. He was the sixth-ranked fantasy player by average production, registering 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and a combined 3.2 steals/blocks per game. Cousins also shot 47.0% from the field, 74.6% from the charity stripe and hit 2.2 threes per game at a 35.4% clip.
Finally, Holiday had one of the best seasons of his nine-year career, leading the Pelicans in net rating (5.7) and posting highs in average points (19.0), rebounds (4.5) and true shooting percentage (57.0%). He also collected 6.0 assists and a combined 2.3 steals/blocks per game. Taking all of that into account, plus the fact that he missed just one game, Holiday ended up as the 12th best fantasy player by total production and was one of the breakout performers of the postseason.
Despite having two of the best rebounders in the league (at least for the majority of the season), New Orleans struggled to clean the glass as a team, finishing 22nd in rebounds per 100 possessions (43.5). The Pelicans struggled hanging onto the basketball as well, ending up with the 10th-highest turnover percentage (13.3%). On top of that, New Orleans couldnít take the ball back from opponents, forcing the eighth-lowest turnover percentage (12.5%). Getting to the charity stripe wasnít a strong suit, either, as the Pels finished with a bottom-10 free throw rate.
While the Pelicans switched up their style and finished the regular season strong, itís difficult to argue that Cousinsí injury didnít drastically lower the Pelicansí ceiling. Cousins suiting up probably wouldnít have been enough of a difference against the Warriors but would have made for some intriguing mismatches. Ultimately, New Orleans simply didnít have the bench to make up for Cousinsí absence. The acquisition of Mirotic was helpful, but too many minutes still ended up going to the likes of Solomon Hill, Darius Miller and Ian Clark.
State of the Franchise
The Pelicans have one major, franchise-shaping decision to make this offseason: Do they re-sign DeMarcus Cousins? And, if so, for how much and how long?
The history of players coming back to full form from an Achilles tear isnít promising, especially for someone of Cousinsí size (6-foot-11, 270 pounds). However, considering the Pelicans wonít have the salary cap space to sign a significant free agent if it lets Cousins walk (especially if keeping Rondo is a priority), re-signing him to a short-term deal makes the most sense. Otherwise, a sign-and-trade to another team with more financial flexibility thatís willing to take the risk could be beneficial for both parties. That ignores the possibility of upsetting Davis, though, as he has sounded praises for Cousins since he joined the team. At the end of the day, if the Pelicans part ways with Cousins, it will be extremely difficult to replace him with comparable talent.
Upsetting Davis is the last thing the Pelicans want to do, as he has a $28.7 million player option for the 2020-21 campaign that he will almost certainly turn down to look for a more lucrative, longer-term offer. Since Davis made his first All-Star Game back in 2014, in his second NBA season, New Orleans has made the playoffs just twice, and both playoff appearances have ended at the hands of Golden State.
Indiana (48-34), the seventh-slowest team in the league (96.0 pace), was a relatively middle-of-the-road offense, averaging 109.5 points per 100 possessions (12th). Staying slow and methodical kept the Pacers out of trouble, however, and they finished with the leagueís seventh-lowest turnover rate. While it struggled converting at the rim (seventh-worst percentage from 0-3 feet), Indiana finished top-eight in field-goal percentage from 3-10 feet (42.0%), 10-16 feet (44.9%), 16 feet to the three point line (42.2%), and beyond the arc (36.9%).
The Pacers put out a relatively pedestrian defense, as well, allowing the 13th-fewest points per 100 possessions (108.1). What stands out was Indianaís ability to force turnovers, as it ranked third in opponent turnover rate (14.2%). Another key to the Pacresí success on that end of the floor was not sending players to the charity stripe, allowing the seventh-lowest free-throw rate (.174). Finally, the Pacers made sure to contest at the three-point line, giving up the fifth-lowest percentage from deep (34.9%).
One of the biggest surprises of the season was the Pacers taking the Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the postseason. Indiana actually ended up with a plus-4.4 net rating for the series, but couldnít close the deal. There was only one Pacers player who ended up with a negative net rating for the series, though barely: Lance Stephenson (-0.5).
Getting to the playoffs and competing against LeBron James in the first round was the product of an unexpected breakout campaign from Victor Oladipo, the runaway favorite for the Most Improved Player award. Oladipo, along with Domantas Sabonis, were traded from Oklahoma City in to Indiana in early July in exchange for Paul George. Oladipo -- the second-overall pick in 2013 -- was finally given the reins of an offense, and he responded by posting the leagueís 15th-highest usage rate (30.1%). With that trust from coach Nate McMillan, Oladipo led the team in net rating (6.4) and averaged 23.1 points (47.7% FG; 37.1% 3PT), 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and a league-high 2.4 steals per game. His 75 games played helped vault him to the eighth-best fantasy season by total production, reaping massive benefits for anyone who drafted him.
Indiana didnít get great support on the glass from its frontcourt, ranking 20th in rebounds per 100 possessions (43.9), with Domantas Sabonis leading the team at 7.7 per game. The Pacers also struggled getting to the stripe, claiming the leagueís seventh-lowest free-throw rate (.173).
On an individual level, there isnít much you can point to and say things went badly. The Pacers ultimately exceeded expectations after parting ways with their best player since Reggie Miller. What hindered the Pacers from claiming a better record and knocking off the Cavs in the first round was their lack of All-Star-caliber talent around Victor Oladipo.
If anyone was going to turn the corner and be that player, it was Myles Turner. He put out an impressive 2016-17 campaign at 20 years old, averaging 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks across 31.4 minutes while shooting 51.1% from the field and 34.8% from deep. The assumption was that, with the departure of Paul George, Turner would be relied upon more offensively. That assumption led to Turner being drafted in the second or third round in many fantasy leagues.
Surprisingly, Turner took nearly one fewer shot per game and regressed slightly across the board, averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 28.2 minutes while shooting 47.9% from the field and 35.7% from three. He ended up finishing as the 68th-ranked fantasy player by average. Still, itís hard to classify Turnerís season as a true disappointment when considering that he turned 22 at the end of the season and tied with Darren Collison for the third-best net rating (3.2) on the team.
The State of the Franchise
Oladipoís breakout season will force Indianaís front office to adjust its moves to match his career arc. Oladipo turned 26 last month, and the team is too good to secure lottery picks, so building through the draft isnít a realistic option. Thankfully for the Pacers, financial flexibility is on its way.
This summer, the Pacers wonít have much room (unless Thad Young declines his $13.6 million player option and walks), but they have just two players with guaranteed money for the 2019-20 campaign: Oladipo at $21 million and Ike Anigbogu at $1.6 million. Myles Turner will almost certainly garner an extension, but allowing everyone elseís contracts to expire would give the Pacers the opportunity to sign a All-Star caliber player to pair next to Oladipo (and Turner, who could develop into an All-Star by then).
Itís possible for Indiana to make small strides next season, though most of its rotation players are leaving their primes. Taking Oladipo out of the equation, the average age of the Pacersí top five players by total minutes played was 28.0. Securing a higher playoff seed next season may come down to the development of Turner and Sabonis, who ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, on the team in minutes.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Portland (49-33), the 15th-ranked offense (109.1 points per 100 possessions), was one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the league, ranking third in the NBA free throw efficiency. The Trail Blazers crashed the boards at an elite level, as well, grabbing 46.9 rebounds per 100 possessions, which was second only to the 76ers.
Good looks for opponents were hard to come by, as Portland allowed the fourth-lowest effective field-goal percentage. That was fueled by the Blazersí defense at the rim, as Portland gave up a league-low field-goal percentage (58.2%) at the rim -- a full three percentage points ahead of second-place Toronto. -- and blocked 5.3 shots per 100 possessions (7th). All things considered, the Trail Blazers found themselves as the eighth-best defense (106.4 points per 100 possessions), despite trotting out an average-at-best defensive backcourt.
On the offensive end, the duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum continued to be a problem for opponents, with the pair combining for 48.3 points per game. Lillard, who played 73 games, set a career high in true shooting percentage (59.4%) and led the team in net rating (4.8). In a fantasy context, his 26.9 points, 6.6 dimes, 4.5 boards, 3.1 threes and 1.1 steals paved the way for him to be the 10th-best player by total production.
McCollum, who missed only one game (and five total over the past three seasons), had a bit of a down year shooting the rock, his true shooting percentage slipping from 58.5% to 53.6%. But he took better care of the ball than ever, setting a career low in turnovers per game (1.9) since he first became a starter back in 2015-16. He finished the year as the 31st-ranked fantasy player by total production, averaging 21.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.3 threes and 1.0 steals in 36.1 minutes per game.
While the Blazers were a highly-efficient free-throw shooting team, they struggled to get quality looks from the field. Portland found itself with the eighth-lowest effective field-goal percentage (51.1), due in large part to an inability to finish at the rim, claiming the leagueís worst field-goal percentage from inside three feet (60.9%). The Trail Blazers also had the second-lowest opponent turnover rate (11.7%), preventing extra possessions and fast break opportunities. Finally, though Portland was able to stop opponents from scoring at the rim, it gave up wide-open looks from 16 feet to the three-point line. Opponents shot 42.5 percent from that long-mid-range against the Blazers, the second-highest mark in the league.
Finishing as the third seed in the West was no small feat, but the celebration quickly came to a close as Portland was swept by New Orleans in the first round, despite the Pelicans not having DeMarcus Cousins (Achilles) available. Damian Lillard was all but shut down by Jrue Holiday, averaging only 18.5 points on just 35.2% shooting from the field and 30.0% from deep. He also committed 4.0 turnovers per game, compared to his 4.8 assists. Though McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu both stepped up their games, Portland simply lacked the firepower to compete against the Pelicans with Lillard neutralized.
Lillard and McCollumís supporting cast is deep and has its positives, but some limitations were exposed in Round 1. After trading for him at the 2017 deadline, it appeared Jusuf Nurkic might represent the clear third option the Blazers needed following LaMarcus Aldridgeís departure in the summer of 2015. Comparing this seasonís numbers to last seasonís post-deadline numbers per 36 minutes, Nurkic averaged fewer rebounds (12.8 to 12.2), assists (3.9 to 2.5) and defensive stats (3.8 combined blocks/steals to 3.0). He upped his scoring load per 36 minutes (18.7 to 19.5) but was less efficient overall, with his true shooting percentage dipping from 54.5% to 52.8%. Some fantasy owners gambled on taking Nurkic as high as the second round, but were let down as he finished 56th in total production.
Aside from Nurkic, the Blazers have some specialists, but nobody who can realistically be a consistent, third option. Al-Farouq Aminu shot 36.9% from deep and plays good defense but is mostly a spot-up shooter. Shabazz Napier played surprisingly well in 10 starts (15.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals), but is just marginally efficient and, at his size, canít play alongside Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner was one of only two players on the team with a negative net rating (-1.5) who averaged at least 15.0 minutes, the other being Moe Harkless (-0.1). Turnerís versatility has value, but heís not nearly worth the $36 million-plus heíll make in guaranteed money over the next two seasons.
The State of the Franchise
The now-infamous summer of 2016 crippled the Blazers. The same cap spike that allowed the dynastic Warriors to sign Kevin Durant also saw Portland sign Turner to a four-year $70-million deal, Harkless to a four-year $40-million deal, and Meyers Leonard (254 minutes this season) to a four-year $41-million deal. No team options. All fully guaranteed. Those contracts are as immovable as any in the league.
Nurkicís restricted free agency complicates things. Still just 23 years old, he has time to improve his game enough to potentially grow into a role as a true No. 3 option. But as a post-up-oriented bruiser, heís becoming an odd man out when it comes to the pace-and-space, switch-heavy modern NBA.
At the same time, the Blazers are in a similar spot to much of the league in that they wonít have the money to replace a player like Nurkic if they let him walk. Assuming no trades, Portland would be running back the same team next season minus Nurkic. Thereís probably a happy medium somewhere in there, where Portland could sign Nurkic to a two-year deal, simply treading water and waiting for Turner, Harkless and Leonardís contracts to expire. For a team that just finished 49-33, that doesnít seem like a poor option if both sides can agree to it.