By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
In the world of fantasy basketball, and fantasy sports in general, team success typically operates independently of individual success. A team’s win-loss record has no bearing on whether its top players are strong fantasy commodities — looking at you, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — but how a team operates can influence overall value.
One of the most common metrics to consider in this context is pace. At its root, pace measures how quickly a team plays — in other words, how many possessions does the team generate in a given game. The number most often cited, and the one used below, is the team’s average number of possessions per 48 minutes.
A higher pace doesn’t always translate to more fantasy value — not all possessions end in a made basket — but what it does always translate to is more fantasy opportunity. A team that averages 103 possessions per 48 minutes is going to have more chances to score — and generate rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks — than a team that averages 97 possessions per 48.
In general, pace of play should not be the guiding principle for draft-day decisions, but it’s something to take into account in situations when other factors may be close to equal.
When it comes to evaluating a player’s team context, in addition to pace, taking a close look at the projected rotation is also vital. Rotations for teams that return a familiar core are inherently easier to predict, and the same goes for those with a clear hierarchy at multiple positions. Teams with undefined rotations may offer more opportunity for middling players, but fantasy gamers should aim to bank on stability, rather than unpredictability, especially in the first few rounds of drafts.
Here are four teams whose rosters should be targeted based on their projected pace, scheduling factors and level of roster certainty:
Pace Last Season: 103.9 (1st)
Odds to Win Division: +750
Rotation Predictability: 6/10
The Hawks essentially qualify as a team to target by default, as they played at the fastest pace in the NBA last season and should employ a similar system in Year 2 of the Lloyd Pierce era. They lost ... a lot. But that hardly matters for fantasy purposes. Atlanta dropped 120 points 25 times last season, including in a regulation win over the Thunder which had a final score of 142-126.
The Southeast Division is shaping up to be the worst in the NBA. The Heat will be good, the Magic will again compete for the playoffs, but the Wizards and Hornets are just plain bad — really, really bad. The Hawks won 29 games last year, made no major improvements, and now have a roughly 7-to-1 chance of winning the division — that should tell you all you need to know.
Trae Young and John Collins are the building blocks of the Hawks, and they’re the two players we can confidently project for 30-plus minutes. Young posted at least 40 fantasy points in a third of his games, while Collins hit that mark in 31 percent of his appearances a year ago. Kevin Huerter and Alex Len proved to be viable options, as well. The questions start coming in when trying to figure out how much De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Allen Crabbe, and Jabari Parker will play. One or two role players could certainly break out on this team, but they aren’t worth more than a last-round flier in a fantasy draft.
New Orleans Pelicans
Pace Last Season: 103.3 (T-2nd)
Odds to Win Division: +1300
Rotation Predictability: 8/10
The Pelicans loved to run last season, generating at least 120 points on 30 occasions. Their best effort was a 149-129 regulation victory over the Kings. It’s actually possible the Pelicans could run even more this season. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson are all deadly players in transition, and getting in the open floor would help maximize their talents.
The Southwest Division is intimidating at the top. Either the Rockets or Spurs will win it. But the Pelicans should be able to spar with the Mavericks, and everyone will be beating up on the Grizzlies.
There are six players on the Pelicans who could realistically see 30 minutes per game: Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball, and Derrick Favors. The drop-off in talent is a steep one after that group. I wouldn’t bank on Redick or Favors seeing 30 minutes regularly, but it may not matter if New Orleans is dropping 125 points one out of every four games. Holiday, Williamson and Ingram are each multi-position players, so that trio has the best chance of trending toward larger minute shares.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Pace Last season: 102.8 (6th)
Odds to Win Division: +20000
Rotation Predictability: 8/10
Considering the Thunder lost their two best players in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, it’s tough to gauge exactly how much stock we should put into that pace figure from last season. But Billy Donovan is still the coach, so the up-tempo approach may have some staying power. Plus, the Thunder have elite athletes on the wing — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Terrance Ferguson, and Darius Bazley — who will be utilized in transition.
Unfortunately, easy wins will be hard to come by in the Northwest Division. The Nuggets, Jazz and Trail Blazers are some of the best that the Western Conference has to offer. The Thunder may be able to take some wins from the Timberwolves, but Minnesota figures to be relatively competitive.
If the pace is a plus and the division difficulty is a minus, the predictability of OKC’s rotation is the tiebreaker. There are only two proven go-to options on this team in Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari. Both are aging and both carry significant health concerns, but when healthy, they each figure to still see 30 minutes on a regular basis. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder should round out the remainder of the meaningful guard minutes, while Steven Adams is a lock as the starting center. As long as the Thunder want to be competitive, they’ll deploy that grouping of players as much as possible.
The wild card for Oklahoma City could be Nerlens Noel, who’s perennially among the league’s most productive defensive players on a per-minute basis. The playing time hasn’t been there in recent years, but if the Thunder move Adams at some point, Noel could step into a much larger role for what would officially be a rebuilding team.
Pace Last Season: 101.6 (8th)
Odds to Win Division: -150
Rotation Predictability: 9/10
Led by Ben Simmons, who is among the league’s deadliest transition players, the 76ers played at a top-10 pace and scored at least 120 points in 30 of 82 games. While the team will be swapping out Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick for Josh Richardson and Al Horford, those moves shouldn’t change things too drastically.
The Sixers are the favorites to claim the Atlantic Division, though the division might be the most balanced in the Eastern Conference. Routinely, Philly will have to fight off the Celtics, Nets, and Raptors. That said, the Nets don’t have great defensive personnel and the Raptors might struggle out of the gate after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Knicks are also four free wins.
Coach Brett Brown’s rotation is comically predictable. The talent drop-off from the starting five to the bench is one of the biggest in the league. Who is the most trustworthy reserve on this roster? Mike Scott? James Ennis? Rookie Matisse Thybulle could see 25 minutes per game if he proves to be as elite on defense as he was in college.
Long story short, Philly’s entire starting five should be off the fantasy draft board by the seventh round — something that can’t be said for any other team. Injuries will inevitably enter the equation at some point, but on paper, at least, we know what to expect from the top of this rotation.