The pandemic has had a strange warping effect on my sense of time. No basketball last winter, followed by an NBA Finals in October, and then more basketball on Christmas has only compounded my confusion. Wedged in amongst all that has been a hollowed-out baseball season and NFL and college football campaigns that have passed without really registering with me. In the meantime, I find that I keep waiting for things to stabilize. Or normalize. Or cease being as they currently are. At the beginning of this NBA season, I went wall-to-wall watching games. Last week, as reality closed in, I was dragged away a bit. This week was something in between. Of course, regardless of my wants or habits, time marches on.
At the conclusion of the NBA’s big MLK Day slate of contests, the reigning champion Lakers will have played 15 games, or just under 21% of the 72-game schedule. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards — who have had six players recently test positive for coronavirus — have been unable to field a team capable of meeting the NBA’s minimum standards for participation since January 11. Five out of every six ‘Zards games have not been played yet.
In my head-to-head leagues that have been hamstrung by absences and injuries (or both. Get well soon, big KAT) I’m self-soothing by looking at the calendar and reminding myself that it’s still early. In my roto leagues, like the RazzJam, I can see the gulf widening between myself and contention. I’m already twenty-eight made threes behind 11th place in the category. Because of the draft-and-hold format, there is only so much I can do to facilitate the chase. To paraphrase Sturgill Simpson, I can’t do a goddamn thing but sit around and wait to die.
In both cases — that it’s still early and it’s already too late — I might be right.
With an eye on the clock, this week’s Hangin’ focuses on players through the lens of time — who’s beating it, who’s getting it, and who’s been missing it.
Stealing rounds from Father Time
In the before times I was considering writing a preseason piece on Mike Conley. Back then, I believed that 1) Conley was cooked and 2) moving across the country during a pandemic would be breezy enough for me to maintain hobbies like writing about fantasy basketball without skipping a beat. I took Ls on both of those.
Last year was Conley’s first season in Utah and it did not go well. 2019-2020 was his thirteenth year as a professional, his first away from Memphis, and one of his least healthy and productive endeavors. Hamstring injuries limited him to 47 games played (41 starts), and every single statistical category dropped from his last year with the Grizzlies. Except for one — we’ll come back to that.
In my eyes, the most worrisome figure for Conley’s first dip in Salt Lake, other than games played, was his paltry 3.0 FTA. During the previous seven seasons when Grit and Grind was in its glory, Conley was good for almost 4.5 attempts from the stripe every game. Of course, as players age and the athletic burst fades, a decline in free throws is expected. Pairing this with Donovan Mitchell’s explosion onto the celestial map of NBA stars and Father Time’s track record provided me with all the tea leaves I needed to conclude that Conley’s Sell By date had come and gone. I passed on him in every league.
Conley has cooled off some from his scorching first week, but he’s still sitting pretty as Y!’s 51st best player in the 9-cat game. He’s averaging 16.8 points, 6 dimes, a career-high 4.2 boards, and 1.3 steals against 2.2 turnovers per game. How is the 33-year-old doing it?
For starters, we’ll return to one area where Conley didn’t slip in last year’s debacle: 3PT%. Last year, Conley hit 37.5% of his long balls, a mark good enough to rank as his 6th best season and the high water mark since the 2016-17 year when he hit 40.8% from deep on 6.1 attempts. Being able to find the range jibes beautifully with how Quin Snyder has orchestrated Utah’s offense. The Jazz shoot more than 40 triples a game, trailing only Portland and Toronto in that department. Utah’s 16.2 hits from deep rank behind the Raptors, Blazers, and Bucks. That’s it. That’s the list.
Snyder wants his players to hunt threes and Conley has responded with career-highs, both in percentage (42.2%) and attempts (6.9). He’s had past seasons where he’s shot it well from deep — his career number is 37.7% — though he typically lines up significantly fewer attempts. MC’s transition into a long-range bomber seems to suit his current position on his career arc.
Conley’s true shooting percentage (58.8%) is the highest it’s been since the ’16-17 season and, should it be maintained over the remainder of the season, would be the second-best mark of his career. For what it’s worth, the 58.8% figure puts the Jazz point guard ahead of LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Christian Wood, and Luka Doncic. Not bad.
Other than scoring, Conley’s 6 assists per game put him in the top-20 of the category. His steals are back up over 1 per (0.8 last season), though that could slip a touch as the Jazz rank dead last in forcing turnovers and are next to last in steals per game. The rebounding number, however, could stay elevated, as no team cleans the glass as well as Utah does.
Initially, I worried about sample size and potentially skewed data as a result of a handful of big games, but after digging in a bit I’m coming around to the idea that he’s raised last year’s floor. In last year’s 47 games, Conley delivered 5+ assists 48.9% of the time. This year he’s handed out 5 or more helpers nine times, or 69.2%. This pattern holds with the rebounding numbers too. In 2019-20, 74% of Conley’s games ended with him collecting between 0 and 4 boards. Through 13 games so far, that number is down to 61.5%
The percentage from three will probably slip a bit as the season plays out, but it’s not like there’s a track record of him being a terrible shooter. Plus, this year’s 69.2% on free throws is way down from the career number of 81.8%. Positive regression is expected here.
Father Time cannot be beaten, but for now, he appears to be held at bay, and Conley is poised for one more good ride. It’s unclear if this is the last good year or not, but I’m buying that it will be a productive one.
Time and half for a Holiday still isn’t enough
I recently took a gander at the MPG leaderboard for this year and LOL’d at how Thibs-y the list looks. All five New York starters are in the top 100, and two of the top 3 players are Knicks (Randle and Barrett). Thibodeau’s time away from basketball clearly was not spent revising his “grind your best players into dust” philosophy. After my laugh, I was struck by the presence of Pacers at the top of the board. Both Malcolm Brogdon (36.63 MPG) and Domantas Sabonis (a league-high 37.52) are in the top five, which helps explain their monster starts to the season. Myles Turner is also putting in work, as his 31+ MPG places him inside the top 60 too. Three of the four Pacers inside the top 100 are taking the heaping handfuls of minutes they’re being fed and turning it into fantasy gold. The fourth is Justin Holiday. (Technically new Pacer Caris LeVert is also in the top 100, but he hasn’t suited up for Indiana yet.)
The pervasiveness of Pacers on the MPG leaderboard makes sense once it’s understood that new Indiana head coach Nate Bjorkgren learned at the knee of Raptors coach Nick Nurse. Toronto’s head man has never been shy about clipping rotations and leaning heavily on His Guys — there are four Raptors within the top 20 in MPG this season; all of them are averaging 34+ minutes — and Bjorkgren very much appears to be a faithful disciple in this regard.
Given Bjorkgren’s tendencies and the fact that Indiana just flipped Victor Oladipo’s 26.6 usage rate for a currently unoccupied chair (get well soon, Caris), it stands to reason that Justin Holiday should be in line for fantasy goodness too. At 29.76 MPG, the opportunity certainly is there for Holiday. The results? Not so much.
Holiday’s usage rate on the season is 13.5%, which is actually down from his career average of 16.3. Despite the abundance of time between the lines, the ball doesn’t go through him much on the offensive end. Indiana has played one game since Dipo departed. Predictably, Holiday’s workload expanded with LeVert unavailable, and he logged 34 minutes during a thrashing at the hands of the Clippers. During those minutes, he converted on 6/13 FGA (3/9 3P) for 15 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 steals. It was his third most productive game from a scoring standpoint this year. You’re forgiven if those numbers didn’t knock you out of your chair.
Looking back at the eight-year track record solidifies my feeling that Holiday just doesn’t produce quite enough, regardless of how much oxygen he’s given in an offense. Holiday first started getting serious burn for the Bulls in the 2017-18 season. Since then, he’s averaged more than 29 MPG, but the output is underwhelming: 10.3/3.7/1.7 to go along with 1.3 steals per game. Bjorkgren can (and will, I imagine) pile up the minutes for Holiday, but there just isn’t a track record that supports the idea of him turning all that sweet PT into counting stats. Unless you’re exclusively hunting steals, it should be safe to move on and let someone else take the Holiday time. I don’t think you’re missing much.
Quoth Larry Sanders, “Soon Come”
I don’t see a ton of value dipping a toe into the complicated and ever-changing current of conversation that surrounds Kyrie Irving beyond saying that, broadly speaking, he’s my kind of weirdo. What is worthwhile, however, is reminding those holding Irving that Kai is the third most valuable player on-per game basis according to Basketball Monster. He’s a frustrating hold, I know, but if you’ve drafted him and the vultures are circling, I would advise you to stick to your guns and not settle for pennies on the dollar.
The frequent time away, the arrival of James Harden, and the question about the number of basketballs in Brooklyn are valid concerns, but Steve Nash’s Nets are currently giving up 113 points per game. The bench has been thinned in the acquisition of a third star, and the tactical aim amounts to “be the team that scores 120 first.” Irving’s value will be muffled by Harden’s arrival, but he’s still an absolute stud in an offense that is going to purr. If you’re fielding offers on him, demand they’re good ones, as Irving is likely to return this week.
This line of thinking should also be applied to Michael Porter Jr., who finds himself only five spots behind Irving when it comes to per-game value. MPJ has stepped on the court three times this season and has dazzled with each appearance. A refresher: 19.5 points, 6.8 boards, and a shade under two dimes while canning 2.8 triples, swatting 1.5 shots, and ripping a steal per game. Of course, on January 7 reports emerged that Porter would miss time and enter the league’s health and safety protocols. Five days after that we learned that MPJ had tested positive for Covid-19.
The young stud missed enough time that I’m beginning to wonder if MPJ actually stands for Marcel Proust Jr. For those uninitiated with this particular waiting game, MPJ hurt his back in the first half of his first game at Missouri, had surgery, and then sat until the SEC tournament before ultimately going pro. His college career amounted to 3 games played and 53 total minutes. After the Nuggets selected him at #14 in the 2018 draft, Porter had a second back surgery and sat out his rookie season. To date, the 22-year-old has played 77 games since graduating high school.
It’s hard to have a sample size much smaller than what we’ve seen (both this year and broadly speaking) and who knows the impact that contracting Covid will impact his game (or life), but the comps for Porter in high school rhymed with “Devin Kurant.” The only way I’d move MPJ, who could return this Friday, is for a bonafide star. The upside is simply too great.
Thanks for hangin’.