NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers (Fantasy Basketball)
The NBA Moratorium has come and gone, and now players can officially sign with their team of choice. Free agency never truly begins until LeBron James makes his decision. But once that domino falls, the excitement truly begins, and oh boy, what a memorable week it’s been. LeBron restarted the “LakeShow” and Rajon Rondo came along for the ride, the rich got richer when DeMarcus Cousins joined the Warriors, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks welcomed DeAndre Jordan after he spurned them a few years back, and Julius Randle replaced Cousins in New Orleans. Below we will break down which fantasy relevant players experienced the most significant gains and losses to their draft stock.
Mario Hezonja (SF – NYK)
Hezonja agreed to a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Knicks on July 1. This deal is essentially a “prove-it” deal after the 2015 fifth-overall pick failed to impress in Orlando during his first three seasons in the NBA. However, there are reasons to be optimistic about him. He did post career-best averages in points (9.6), rebounds (3.7), steals (1.1), and threes (1.2) in just over 22 minutes a game last season. What’s even better is that after starting the final six games for the Magic in 2018, his averages rose to 13.8 points, 2.2 threes, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.8 blocks thanks to the 30.6 minutes per game he received during that stretch. When given ample opportunity, Hezonja delivered.
His signing probably spells the end of the Courtney Lee era in New York since the Knicks were already shopping him before Hezonja was acquired. With that being the case, Hezonja would likely start and have plenty of playing time at both the SG and SF spots. Plus, with Kristaps Porzingis probably out until at least Christmas because of his ACL tear, the 6’8″ Croatian will undoubtedly see time at PF as well.
Even if Lee ends up being on the Knicks this season, Hezonja would still see an abundance of time at either of those three positions as the first player off the bench, provided that he isn’t already given the nod to start at PF over Michael Beasley. If the Knicks find themselves far out of the Eastern Conference playoff race at any point next season, then they would likely turn their focus to their younger guys, which provides yet another avenue for the 23-year-old to see significant playing time. In this situation, he’ll certainly see minutes in at least the high 20s.
Elfrid Payton (PG – NO) & Jrue Holiday (SG/PG – NO)
Payton agreed to a one-year worth about $2.7 million with the Pelicans on July 1. Rondo’s departure to Los Angeles gives Payton a clear path to minutes as the de facto starter. Phoenix waived Payton due to his poor shooting (43.5% from the floor and 20% from downtown in 2018), but we can perhaps expect some positive regression in these areas.
His career three-point percentage is abysmal (29.8%), but he did knock down a solid 37.3% of them in the 44 games he played in Orlando last season. He also nailed 52% of his shots from the floor during his time in Orlando last year. If there’s even more of a reason to be optimistic, it’s that “Boogie” is now donning a Warriors’ uni. He had the fourth-highest usage rate in the league last season (32.2%), which means that there are a lot more shots to go around for Payton and Holiday. Payton will be a late-round pick who carries intriguing upside since he’ll undoubtedly score more than the 12.7 points he averaged last season with a probable usage rate bump from his 21.9% mark last season.
Speaking of Holiday, he’s coming off a career year in which he looked like one of the league’s premier point guards, averaging 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.5 steals with a 49.4% shooting percentage. As good as his scoring was, he upped that exponentially in the playoffs, averaging a gaudy 27.8 points against the Blazers, while hitting at least half of his shots in seven of the Pelicans’ nine playoff games. The absence of Rondo and Cousins also serves to increase Holiday’s usage (25.3% last season), so he’ll be taking even more shots this season. We can count on that scoring average surpassing the 20.0 mark.
Brandon Knight (SG/PG – PHX)
Knight was benched in the second half of the 2016-17 season for having a bad attitude, and then missed all of last season after tearing his ACL. February 15, 2017 was the last time he played in an NBA game. According to Scott Bordow from the Arizona Republic, first-year Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov already referred to Knight as the “starting point guard” while praising his decision to practice with the Suns’ Summer League squad.
Knight’s participation means that he’s likely back to full-strength following the ligament tear. With Elfird Payton and Tyler Ulis now out of the picture, Knight has a path to big minutes and now has the opportunity to revive what was a very successful career up until two years ago. He’s still just 26 years old, and the last time he was the full-fledged starter for the Suns back in 2015-16, he averaged 19.6 points, 2.3 threes, and 5.1 assists per game.
The Suns still owe him $30.2 million over the next two years, so it only makes sense that they’re going to want to give him every chance to succeed now that he’s healthy. His only real competition for minutes at PG is 31st-overall pick Elie Okobo, and Devin Booker isn’t expected to play as much PG this season, so a 30+ minute starting job is Knight’s to lose. Now, the Suns are high on Okobo, and he had a nice Summer League debut, so it’s possible that if the Suns have another terrible year, then they may try to shop Knight. But until then, Knight looks like a high-upside, late-round pick given his situation.
Dejounte Murray (PG – SA)
Murray’s breakout last season was probably the driving force behind the Spurs’ decision not to re-sign Tony Parker. His offense leaves a lot to be desired (no jump shot, nine total threes all season, and 8.1 points with 2.9 assists & 1.8 free throws attempted over 21.5 minutes per game). But his ability to crash the boards as a point guard (5.7 rebounds per game) and his excellent defense (All-Defense Second Team nomination last season, 1.2 steals in just 21.5 minutes per game) guarantees that he will earn plenty of minutes as San Antonio’s starting point guard.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put more of his faith in Murray as the season wore on, resulting in an average of 26.5 minutes per game in his final 34 games of the regular season last year compared to an average of 17.9 minutes during his first 47 games. During that 34-game span, he averaged 10.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, which is probably more in line with what we can expect to see from him this upcoming season. His ability to stuff the stat sheet will make him worth owning in most leagues.
Jerami Grant (PF/SF – OKC)
With the ESPN report surfacing about Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder planning on going their separate ways this summer, Grant figures to gain an enormous boost if and when this comes to pass. His solid defense would be a welcome addition to the starting lineup, and with starters’ minutes, he’d be able to pile up blocks, while making solid contributions in points and rebounds. The 24-year-old averaged 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks in just 20.3 minutes of action last season. His three-year, $27 million deal puts the Thunder at risk of spending around an extra $40 million in luxury tax if they can’t move Anthony. They would only put themselves in that position if they valued Grant as a valuable cog in their young core.
Will Barton (SG – DEN)
Wilson Chandler was traded from Denver to Philadelphia in an attempt to shed his salary, which opens up a massive hole on the wing. Fortunately for Denver, Will “The Thrill” Barton is more than capable of filling Chandler’s shoes. The 27-year-old’s true shooting percentage has climbed each year he’s been in the league, and it sat at an impressive 56.2% last season with no reason to think that can’t improve even more heading into next season.
He’ll be playing a lot more SF with Chandler gone, but his extreme versatility will allow him to continue playing at PG and SG based on the lineup he’s deployed in at any given time, so he’ll never be lacking for minutes. He averaged 33.1 minutes last season despite only starting 41 of the 81 games he played, so it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that may see his minutes top 36 per game this season. Ample opportunity combined with a unique, all-around skill set led to a career year for the swingman, as he averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.0 steal while shooting 37% from the perimeter. With the high probability of receiving all the minutes he can handle as the likely starting SF for the Nuggets, we can expect those solid counting stats to rise even further across the board next season.
Kevin Love (C/PF – CLE)
Even before LeBron James left for greener pastures, Love’s value was trending up after he put together a strong performance in the NBA Finals, averaging 19.0 points, 2.3 threes, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.0 steal. Love now finds himself in the same position he was in five years ago as the undisputed best player on a lottery team. During the four seasons he held this role on the Timberwolves, Love’s averages were outstanding, producing 23.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.8 threes. He had become a top-10 fantasy player towards the end of his Minnesota run, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could become that once again. It would be stupid to let him fall past the fourth round in standard leagues this fall.
Kyle Anderson (SF – MEM)
Anderson headed to Memphis after San Antonio decided not to match the restricted free agent’s four-year, $37 million offer from the Grizzlies. In San Antonio, Anderson would surely be coming off the bench behind Kawhi Leonard if he isn’t traded. That’s all moot now, though, and Anderson will likely compete with Dillon Brooks for the Grizzlies’ starting SF job. In fact, I’d put my money on him being the opening night starter.
Even if he doesn’t win the job, he’ll have more shots and minutes given to him. He also figures to be their secondary ball-handler after Mike Conley, so his paltry 15.5% usage rate from last year will likely be something a lot closer to the 28.4% usage rate Tyreke Evans had during his time in Memphis. The higher usage would inflate Anderson’s scoring and assists, which is great for a guy who has already established a reputation as an all-around contributor (7.9 PPG, 52.7% FG%, 5.4 RPB, 2.7 APG, 1.6 SPG in 26.7 MPG last season). He figures to have mid-round value in roto leagues.
T.J. Warren (SF – PHX)
On July 1, Trevor Ariza agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with the Suns. Ariza’s signing is a gigantic blow to Warren’s fantasy value since he is still one of the league’s better defensive players at 33 years old and has a significant leg up on Warren in that department. NBA teams typically deal with players at the same position who have similar levels of talent by starting the better defensive player and leaving the better offensive player on the bench to maintain the team’s ability to score while the starters are resting.
Even if Ariza doesn’t start, a player of his caliber will surely take a good chunk of minutes away from Warren, resulting in this situation becoming a value-killing timeshare. Warren was very productive last season, easily having a career year with averages of 19.6 points on 49.4% shooting, 5.1, rebounds, and 1.0 steals over 32.9 minutes per game. Unfortunately, it’s nigh impossible for those point and rebound numbers to be reproduced with Ariza in tow. The only hope for Warren’s value returning to what it was is if Phoenix trades him since they now have Ariza, or if the Suns fall out of the playoff race by mid-season and then quickly shift their focus to their youth.
DeMarcus Cousins (C – GS) & Jordan Bell (C – GS)
Cousins joining forces with the Warriors on a one-year, $5.3 million deal makes them the first team ever to have three players who averaged more than 25 points the season prior and the first team in 40+ years to have five All-Stars from the previous season. It’s a signing that’s hard to process for the other 29 NBA teams and the fans who follow them just because of how much better it suddenly makes what already was empirically the greatest NBA team of all-time.
This destination was probably the worst possible one for Cousins’ fantasy value though. It was already uncertain when he would be medically cleared to play, but now that he’s on a team that doesn’t even need his talents, he will undoubtedly have the rust shaken off very slowly once he’s medically cleared. It’s very possible he doesn’t make it back until Christmas, and even then, it will probably be awhile before he’s given minutes in the high 20s.
His high-usage rate from last season will go down exponentially when playing with the starting unit, so he won’t be shooting the ball nearly as much in the Bay Area as he did in New Orleans. This will have a drastically adverse effect on the 25.2 points and the 2.2 threes he averaged last season. Since he’s used to handling the ball often, it would make sense for him to get a lot of burn with the second unit, which would help mitigate the massive projected drop in scoring and usage rate. Even so, there’s no way you join a team of superstars and maintain your production from last season. There’s only one basketball to go around and so many mouths to feed.
Bell was expected to jump into a huge role as the starting big for the Warriors this season and was looking like a mid-round pick for fantasy…at least that was until Cousins came on board. Fortunately, he will still be the team’s starting center while Cousins’ is out at the beginning of the season, and he is primed to be productive during that stretch. He’s a very versatile big who stuffs the stat sheet thanks to his great athleticism, efficiency, and confidence in his jump shot.
In Friday’s Summer League contest, he scored six points (with one bucket being a vicious fast-break dunk), 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals, and three very impressive blocks in 28 minutes. Last season, the 2017 second-round pick averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.0 block in 14.2 minutes. That may not seem all that impressive, but those numbers are very well rounded and surprisingly efficient.
According to ESPN, “Player Efficiency Rating [also known as PER] is the overall rating of a player’s per-minute statistical production. The league average is 15.00 every season.” Bell’s PER was an impressive 18.00, which ranked him 23rd of all 59 eligible centers. I write this to say that what would’ve been a promising entire season for Bell, is now down to just a promising two months. He’s still worth a late-round pick for the production he’d provide as an efficient starter for the first two months, but once Cousins comes back, Bell will be virtually irrelevant outside of deep fantasy leagues.
Lonzo Ball (PG – LAL)
Rondo and the Lakers agreed on a one-year, $9 million deal after LeBron James made it clear that Los Angeles was his next destination. With the Lakers and James both desiring to have their new superstar play more off the ball, it only makes sense that they would add another point guard to the mix to have multiple guys capable of setting him up for easy buckets. Had Rondo stayed in New Orleans, he’d probably be coming off the bench behind Payton since the Pelicans would be better served by having Payton’s offense in the starting lineup. With that being the case, it just made the most sense for Rondo to go to the Lakers. He can play with arguably the greatest player of all time and have a real shot at a starting role because Ball was a significantly worse shooter (36.0% FG%, 30.5% 3P%, 45.1% FT%) than even Payton was.
Ball is also far from guaranteed a starting role now that he’s no longer the face of the franchise and is on a team with one of the league’s best ball distributors in Rondo, who had 8.2 assists per game last season. Pure Point Rating (PPR) is a statistic created by John Hollinger that measures the ability of a point guard to create positive shot opportunities for his teammates and efficiently handle the ball. Rondo had by far the league’s best PPR (11.6) last season, with Chris Paul and Spencer Dinwiddie tied far behind in second (9.5). Ball’s 6.2 PPR was at 19th, which is still very good, but he’s certainly nowhere near the playmaker Rondo is.
Ball is a little bit more versatile since he can crash the boards (6.9 rebounds in 34.2 minutes per game last season) and he is a better defender now than Rondo is at this stage of his career, so he would still probably have the edge for playing time. However, you simply can’t afford to sit the league’s best passer for very long if you’re trying to give LeBron James the best looks at the basket. For these reasons, this has the look of a value-killing timeshare where neither player will be looking at 30 minutes a game. At least Ball will still have some fantasy relevance in this situation, which is much more than we can say for his fellow sophomore teammate…
Josh Hart (SG – LAL)
Hart was fantastic for the Lakers after New Year’s Day last season, averaging 10.3 points on 48.6% shooting, 1.7 threes on 40.9% three-point shooting, and 5.1 boards in 27.6 minutes during the 33 games he played in that stretch. The second-year man out of Villanova was poised to get a significant role as a “three and D” spot-up shooting swingman coming into this season. He crushed it in his lone Las Vegas Summer League performance, producing 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting with four 3-pointers, two rebounds, and three assists in 26 minutes.
There would be a lot to be excited about if not for the likes of Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Rondo, who are all looking at prominent roles with the club. I separated Hart from Ball in this piece since Hart’s situation is vastly bleaker than that of his teammate. He simply won’t get enough minutes to be fantasy relevant outside of the deepest of leagues.
Wilson Chandler (SG/SF/PF – PHI)
Chandler had bounced back nicely over the last couple seasons after missing all of the 2015-16 season. He’s also remained durable, missing only 19 games over the previous two seasons. Ever since his second season in the league back in 2008-09, Chandler has built up a reputation as one of the league’s better two-way players, which is precisely the kind of player Philadelphia needed on the wing behind Robert Covington, who is also a “three and D” guy, and Dario Saric. As such, they traded for Chandler on July 3.
Now, if Covington were the only competition Chandler would have for minutes, then it would be reasonable to think that his production from last year (10.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.2 threes in 31.6 minutes per game) would be sustainable since he could chip in at three positions. However, Chandler was sent to a very deep team with many quality role players coming off the bench. Justin Anderson, Nemanja Bjelica, and 16th-overall pick Zhaire Smith will each be vying for minutes with Chandler at one of his three positions. He won’t get enough minutes to be draftable in standard leagues, but his versatility and three-point shooting (scored 1.2 threes per game with a 35.8% three-point percentage last season) should still earn him enough minutes to be a sneaky DFS play on some nights and have late-round appeal in deeper leagues.