You aren’t going to find too many elite fantasy basketball assets sitting on an NBA bench. You’re going to find them on a 50’ wide by 94’ long stretch of hardwood, running their shoes tread-bare.
Fantasy production or “numbers” – essentially the only thing you’re mining for as you prepare for your drafts – is what results from the beautiful union between talent and opportunity.
Talent with limited opportunity (think: Jonas Valanciunas) leaves you with little choice but to sit back and wonder what could have been. Conversely, all the opportunity in the world afforded to players short on talent (I’m looking at you, Courtney Lee) has you questioning why you’re tending to vines that bear no fruit.
Unfortunately, in the world of the National Basketball Association, opportunity is usually held to a finite number each night – and that number is 240. Two hundred and forty minutes is all a given team can distribute amongst its roster during a regulation game. (For our purposes here today we’ll refrain from delving into the impact of overtime/multi-overtime games adding to the pool of minutes, though it does obviously impact the calculus.)
With NBA coaches now regularly employing rotations of nine and 10 men, there are very few players (regardless of talent, youth and good health) who are asked to play more than 75% of a game. In point of fact, during the 2014/2015 NBA season a grand total of six players averaged over 36 minutes of court time. Go just one year farther back and that number jumps to 16. The 12-13 campaign? 22 such players eclipsed the 36 MPG mark and seven ran for over 38 minutes a night. And to really put things into perspective – less than a decade ago we saw nine players average 40 minutes, with the kicker being that none of them missed more than 10 games.
|Season||40+ MPG||38+ MPG||36+ MPG||League Leader (MPG)|
|2014||0||1||6||Jimmy Butler (38.7)|
|2013||0||5||16||Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony (38.7)|
|2012||0||7||22||Luol Deng (38.7)|
|2011*||0||5||17||Luol Deng (39.4)|
|2010||1||8||26||Monta Ellis (40.2)|
|2009||2||11||34||Monta Ellis (41.4)|
|2008||0||13||41||Andre Iguodala (39.9)|
|2007||3||17||44||Allen Iverson (41.8)|
|2006||6||18||46||Allen Iverson (42.5)|
|2005||9||25||45||Allen Iverson (43.1)|
|Minimum 50 games played|
The chart above illustrates just how drastically things have changed in the last 10 years. We haven’t seen a single player average 40 MPG since the 2010/2011 campaign. We’ve seen only three in the last seven seasons combined. It just simply doesn’t happen anymore…and based on the trend we’re witnessing, I’m not sure we’re going to see it again any time soon.
Also of note is that each of the last four years, the league leader in minutes per game has come from a Tom Thibodeau-led Chicago Bulls squad. Those paying attention to the offseason happenings around the league are aware that Thibodeau has been replaced by Fred Hoiberg, a rookie NBA coach whose rotations and minutes distribution are simply “best guess” at this point.
Theories abound regarding the steep and steady decline in the number of high-minute players with each passing season. Among the most plausible:
- The depth of talent is better now than at any point in the past, and the drop-off in ability from an NBA starter to a bench player is far less significant than it has been historically.
- There is a better understanding of the benefits of reducing players’ minutes in terms of late-season/playoffs performance, and for the purposes of career longevity.
- Star players – those typically deserving of heavy minutes – are signing record value contracts and the prospect of fatigue-related injuries has management and ownership encouraging coaches to err on the side of caution. (In essence, would you rather have your $20M/year franchise player see 32 minutes of run 80 times, or suffer an injury prior to the All-Star break because he was overworked and watch attendance drop during the second half of the season?)
The truth is, for fantasy owners’ purposes, the reasoning behind it doesn’t much matter. One simple fact remains: talented, high-minute players are becoming increasingly scarce and we need to be able to identify them.
After all, each and every one of last year’s top-20 fantasy players (standard 9-category scoring, on a per game basis) logged at least 30 minutes per game. 17 of the 20 played over 32 MPG. And five of the top-12 fantasy players from this past season saw over 36 minutes of burn on an average night (remember, there were only six players to hit that mark – the only outlier being Andrew Wiggins, a rookie). The numbers don’t lie.
So who are these new era marathon men? And how can we predict who might be taking up residence in Casa Mucho Minutos during the 2014/2015 season? Which former occupants might be getting evicted? In an environment as dynamic as what we’re seeing in today’s NBA (a bi-product of the draft, trades, free agency, injuries, and developmental league call-ups/assignments) answering those questions will require equal parts research and educated guesswork. Below I will identify five players who I believe stand a great chance of securing a 36-minute per game role during the 2015/2016 NBA season, and who also possess the talent to justify paying a premium for them come draft day.
- Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls, (2014/2015 MPG: 38.7, 65 GP)
Butler is a no-brainer choice to continue averaging at or near a league leading minute count. Even with the aforementioned change to the Bulls’ head coaching position, “Jimmy Minutes” should continue to be very difficult to take off the court. His elite two-way skillset allows him to impact the game on both ends of the floor, and that kind of versatility is sure to endear Butler to his new coach. Even accounting for a small reduction in his minutes, Butler’s numbers justify a top-20 pick in every format. With a more offensive-minded coach (Thibs wasn’t exactly known for a run-and-gun approach), an improvement in efficiency can reasonably be expected for the fifth year guard. There has also been offseason talk of Butler handling some point guard responsibilities this year which would help him continue to post career-best assist totals with each successive season (Butler averaged 3.3 assists last year). Also working in JB’s favor is the fact that despite the Bulls being a deep team, the bulk of that depth is in the frontcourt and Butler should find a clear path to minutes on a team that will be battling with the Hawks and Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
2015/2016 MPG Projection: 37.5
Final word: Don’t be afraid to use a pick any time after the top-10 are off the board as Butler’s multi-category production lends itself to just about any team building strategy. He is in the conversation with a few other wings (Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Paul George) as you make the turn from the 1st to 2nd round.
- Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trailblazers (2014/2015 MPG: 35.7, 82 GP)
Wesley Matthews and his 2.9 made 3FG per game? Gone. Replaced by Gerald Henderson (career average 0.4 3PM).
What that all boils down to is that the Portland Trailblazers have gutted their roster and replaced four talented, versatile players with what can only be described as far less productive options at each of the SG, SF, PF and C positions. The team, instead, chose to reward its young superstar PG with a massive new contract (5 years at well over $20M per), effectively handing him the keys to the car. Damian Lillard is going to get run simply because he has to. Otherwise there are going to be a lot of fans heading for the Moda Center exits after three quarters of non-competitive basketball. It’s not out of the question for Lillard to challenge for the league lead in usage rate this season. And while his minutes (35.7 last year), scoring (21.0), rebounds (4.6), assists (6.2), 3PM (2.4) and steals (1.2) may all rise simply out of necessity, his efficiency is likely to take a big hit. Look for his high-volume FG% to drop from a semi-respectable .434 in 2014/2015, and his TOs could very easily rise into the 3s from the 2.7 he posted last year.
2015/2016 MPG Projection: 37.0
Final word: Damian Lillard is a stud. He is talented, young (just 25 entering the season), and extremely durable – to this point in his career Lillard has yet to miss a single game. I can’t fault you for taking him ahead of other likely 1st round PGs such as Chris Paul, John Wall or, if you’re feeling really feisty, even Russell Westbrook (who should see his numbers decline with a stacked, healthy OKC roster and whose recent durability has been an issue).
- Eric Bledsoe, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns (2014/2015 MPG: 34.6, 81 GP)
Having been limited by injuries and a backup role with the Los Angeles Clippers during his first three seasons in the league, Eric Bledsoe has started to really hit his stride since moving to the desert. After averaging a career-high 34.6 minutes last year – and proving that he can stay healthy (only missing one game) with an increased workload – Bledsoe stands to see a further increase to his playing time for a Suns team that should be fighting tooth & nail for the 8th playoff seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. NBA fans were treated to only a brief glimpse of the Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt combination before Knight went down with an ankle injury. Both players can operate as the primary ball-handler, but Bledsoe is the more dangerous scoring option and far superior all-around fantasy asset. As the 6’1” guard’s playing time has increased each of the last three seasons, so too have his assist and rebounding numbers. Expect that trend to continue with the caveat that his TOs may also spike.
2015/2016 MPG Projection: 36.5
Final word: With less depth chart competition at the guard spots than a year ago at this time, Eric Bledsoe should set a new career high in minutes for the Phoenix Suns. An improving free throw percentage coupled with the ability to post a combined 3.0 blocks/steals/3PM, Bledsoe leads the pack of sub-elite PGs by a fairly large margin. Limited upside options like Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic wait for you if you miss on Bledsoe. So in a season where the pool of reliable PGs dries up very quickly, investing a 2nd round pick in the Suns’ star guard isn’t a bad strategy.
- Gordon Hayward, SF, Utah Jazz (2014/2015 MPG: 34.4, 76 GP)
The season-ending injury to Jazz PG Dante Exum will have a cascade effect on the rest of the Utah roster. As a more than capable ball handler from the small forward position, Gordon Hayward enters his sixth NBA season in his prime at just 25 years old. He played 77 games at 36.3 MPG just two years ago and I believe he’ll be able to accomplish a similar feat this year. Hayward’s Jazz are a good, but not great, team in the West and unfortunately that means they don’t have much chance competing for a championship quite yet. However, if Utah can keep Hayward and their stellar frontcourt combo of Derrick Favors & Rudy Gobert healthy, they have a shot at snagging the 8th seed. It stands to reason that teams with postseason aspirations are going to run out the lineup that gives them the best chance to win. And while the Jazz might be slightly more reluctant to play their big guys major minutes, there’s no reason for them to restrict the very fit, very talented Hayward.
2015/2016 MPG Projection: 36.5
Final word: With the bonus of a couple more minutes a night than he had last season and increased time as the main facilitator of the Jazz offense, look for Hayward to post career highs nearly across the board. A 20 point, 5 rebound, 5 assist season with 3.5 combined 3PM, steals & blocks is well within reach. Add to that approximately 82% from the FT line on reasonable volume, you’ve got yourself a fantastic target in the 3rd round of fantasy drafts. Don’t hesitate for a moment to select him over “name” big men like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Chris Bosh that may also look tempting in this range.
- Jarrett Jack, PG, Brooklyn Nets (2014/2015 MPG: 28.0, 80GP) & Thaddeus Young, PF, Brooklyn Nets (2014/2015 MPG: 32.0, 76 GP)
Ok, so I kind of lied – you’re getting six players featured (bonus!) who I think will spend a ton of time on the court this coming season.
PG – Shane Larkin, Ryan Boatwright, Donald Sloan
That’s what the current Brooklyn Nets depth chart reads behind incumbent starters Jarrett Jack and Thaddeus Young. I’m sure they’re all fine young men, but their worthiness of being on an NBA roster based on talent is questionable, at best. So despite the fact that between the two of them, Jack & Young have a combined 18 seasons of play and a grand total of zero where they’ve averaged over 36 minutes per game, the cupboard is bare in Brooklyn and somebody has to play. The Nets, if healthy, have just enough talent to compete in the weak Eastern Conference and that suggests to me that they’re going to run their horses into the ground shooting for the postseason. Short of a deadline deal that brings in more talent (and who knows, it could be Jack and/or Young heading the other way), these two players will see a tremendous amount of court time.
Final word: Though neither Jack nor Young have skillsets that lend themselves perfectly to a fantasy roster, the sheer volume of minutes and touches that these two players are likely to receive make them worthy of strong consideration on draft day. Jarrett will be a solid source of assists – one of the tougher categories to fill – later in the draft. He’ll also chip in enough points and an elite FT% to make him worth selecting over either of the highly touted rookie PGs (D’Angelo Russell & Emmanuel Mudiay), and possibly ahead of oft-injured options like Jrue Holiday, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams. And as for Thad, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on him ahead of the crop of elder statesmen at the PF position (Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph) on the strength of his potentially elite steals, as well as respectable points and rebounds. There is also the opportunity for a positive regression in his 3PM as stretching the floor with a paint-dominant C like Brook Lopez will be a viable strategy for the Nets. Admittedly Jack & Young are the longest shots of the lot to reach the 36 MPG benchmark, but it wouldn’t be worth the read if I only threw out obvious names.
Some notables who could threaten the 36-minute mark, but I believe will fall just short:
- Anthony Davis – The near-consensus top overall fantasy asset, Davis just barely snuck over the 36 MPG mark in 2014/2015. However, after each of his three NBA seasons have seen him miss between 14 and 18 games, I envision new coach Alvin Gentry maxing out Davis’ efficiency at a faster pace, but in ~35 minutes.
- James Harden – Last year’s runner-up in floor time at 36.8 MPG, Harden could see his burden lifted ever so slightly with the addition of point guard Ty Lawson. By adding another capable ball-handler, Houston has afforded themselves the luxury of extending Harden’s breathers.
- John Wall – He just missed joining the 36 MPG club last year by the slimmest of margins (35.9). There’s a chance he’ll see a slight uptick to get him there this year, but I don’t see much cause for change in DC. Wall will be getting rock solid minutes as the main cog on a solid, but unspectacular Wizards team.
- Kyrie Irving – He broke his knee. His team is elite and can sleepwalk its way into the playoffs. He’s not coming close to the 36.4 MPG he saw in 2014/2015.
- Andrew Wiggins – The reigning Rookie of the Year obviously has youth and talent on his side, that’s not in question. He also enters his sophomore season off a full summer of international competition and rejoins a Timberwolves roster that hopefully won’t have a repeat of last year where they were signing peanut vendors to 10-days just to meet the minimum warm bodies required on a bench. The young Canadian will still play a ton, but I’d wager it’s more likely he loses half a minute off his 36.2 average than he does gain it.
- Rudy Gobert – He’s young, on an upward trajectory, and there is very little frontcourt depth in Utah. But I don’t think the Jazz risk overworking their prized center – “bigs” are a different animal than guards and wings – while they’re still a year away from truly competing in the West.
- LaMarcus Aldridge – San Antonio is where players go to rest…and win rings. Aldridge won’t be within shouting distance of the 35.4 MPG he saw last season. His efficiency may improve with so much other talent on the roster, but his time on the court will take a sizeable hit.
If I can leave you with one parting thought, let it be this – in today’s protect & preserve NBA environment, it is paramount for fantasy owners to be able to identify the players who are going to see the most time on the court. If a given player has both talent and opportunity, good things will usually follow for the fantasy owner who rosters him. After all, Johnny Basketball isn’t likely to produce much value if he’s lousy at the sport…and he sure isn’t going to do you any favors from the bench.
Thanks for reading (and for sticking with me through all 3,000+ words). Feedback is always welcome, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below or come find me in the Twitterverse at @moneyballmatty. Cheers!
H/T to the following sources for providing stats & info found throughout the article: