You may have noticed by now, but besides minutes, one of the two things I always look at when evaluating a player's potential is the pace of his team. (The other being fouls, which will be explored in a future column). All fantasy players' values are influenced by their team to some extent, regardless of sport, and in basketball the primary thing to look at is the number of possessions per game. Consider this: The difference between the number of possessions per game between the quickest team last season, the Denver Nuggets, and the slowest, the Detroit Pistons, was 12.4. That means over the course of a season, the Nuggets had more than a thousand additional possessions to tally up fantasy stats, from the obvious points and rebounds to the scarce steals and blocks, and even the production-killing fouls. That affects players of every type: The chucker is going to have more opportunities to put up low-percentage shots; the scorer is going to get to the line more often; the sixth man off the bench gets that many more opportunities for those loose-ball steals.
The pace has picked up the past couple of seasons as teams have mimicked the success of the Mike D'Antoni Suns and the NBA's strict enforcement of hand-checking took effect. We've even started to see more and more bad teams decide to just crank up the tempo; hey, we still might lose, but it'll be an exciting loss.
We're about 10 percent of the way through the season, so let's see if we can glean something by looking at the biggest differences in pace relative to last year:
The league pace so far this season has been about two possessions per game slower than last season, so the Blazers and Spurs are plodding along just the same as they were last season relative to the league. You knew the Knicks and Warriors were going to run, so you don't need to change your perception of your players on those teams. That leaves us with six teams that, based on this admittedly small sample, seem to have changed their identity a bit: the Bobcats, Wizards, Suns, Thunder, Celtics and 76ers.
Knocking out the coaching changes first, there was no doubt the Suns were going to play slower with Mike D'Antoni now the head coach of the Knicks, and once you adjust for the league-wide decline in tempo, the difference isn't too harsh when you consider Shawn Marion being replaced by Shaquille O'Neal. But it was harder to quantify the effects of what losing D'Antoni would do to the offensive efficiency of the players involved, and the answer to that seems to be "a lot," if you ask Steve Nash, anyway. Meanwhile, Larry Brown's old-school style has bogged down his team's pace considerably; that seems like a trend sure to continue, considering how stubborn Larry Brown is.
The Wizards were fifth in pace as recently as 2006-07, and especially considering their personnel it wouldn't be surprising to see them remain in the upper third of the league. The Thunder are still ninth in pace so far this season, and with such a young, athletic team should be a surefire bet to continue to run, since it is, after all, the easiest way to have a bad team still seem appealing.
That leaves the Celtics and the 76ers as the two biggest surprises on the list, as both have increased their pace significantly despite the league as a whole slowing down. Sifting through their schedules, they haven't faced an inordinate amount of run-and-gun teams, either, so it looks like a legitimate trend. Transitioning back to the foul observation from earlier, that may be why the teams' respective centers, Kendrick Perkins and Samuel Dalembert, both have increased foul rates; a high number of possessions can be a double-edged sword.
That kind of information boosts the value of the marginal players more so than the established stars', and it often can be a tiebreaker when assessing two players of similar ilk when scouring for your next free- agent pickup. Extra possessions equal extra upside.
Comings and goings
The loss of Tony Parker for two to four weeks presents another option for cheap points and 3-pointers: Michael Finley. He has scored in the teens in his past two games, amassing five 3s total, and is even posting his best rebounding numbers since leaving Dallas. On the other hand, George Hill, Parker's actual replacement in the starting lineup, doesn't look like a keeper yet: He has 13 fouls in his past four games, an obscene number for a guard. Rodney Stuckey's (40 percent shooting from the field) and Lou Williams' (37.5 percent) struggles have reinforced the most basic of rules: playing time is everything. Players coming off the bench just cannot be trusted to garner starters' minutes, so make them prove it to you before you invest. Travis Outlaw (1.8 3s per game) is, so far, looking like the exception to that rule, but keep in mind that most of his value is coming from his improved -- but fluky -- 3-point shooting percentage, which is currently sitting at 58.3 percent. It's good for Outlaw's value that he's attempting more of them, but when Martell Webster returns in January, a playing-time crunch is bound to occur. Factor in that the Blazers are tied for last in the league in possessions per game and Outlaw looks like the perfect player to sell high on. With Kirk Hinrich out for three months after tearing a ligament in his thumb, now is a good time to scoop up Larry Hughes on the low. I know, he's brutal to own at times, but his size and reputation for defense makes coaches find a reason to play him, and his steals are undeniably valuable.
Anderson Varejao, PF/C, Cavaliers: Varejao undoubtedly looks like a better player this season without a holdout looming over his head. He's in game shape and back to being all over the court. His "energy" stats -- steals and blocks -- have shot up, and although he comes off the bench, he's averaging 26 minutes to incumbent Ben Wallace's 22 per game. He contradicts my usual avoidance of big men who foul like crazy (3.8 per game this season), but he only needs a couple more minutes a game to really become an impact player. It also helps that Wallace is nearly forcing a changing of the guard with his offensive ineptitude.
JaVale McGee, PF, Wizards: To be blunt, the production McGee is putting up in limited minutes really demands a mention, and a pickup if your league runs that deep. He's averaging 8.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in a miniscule 19 minutes per game, and on a team with a suspect frontcourt, that's going to force an increase in minutes real soon. Most impressively, he's averaging five free throws per game. In 19 minutes! He's a horrendous free-throw shooter at 52 percent, but that's beside the point; getting to the line that often is a strong indicator that McGee is a player, especially considering he's not himself fouling that much for a rookie big man. Oh, and he should have center eligibility down the line.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball and baseball analyst for ESPN.com.