I have a confession to make.
I miss Don Nelson. I didn't think I would, but I do. Even though his substitution patterns gave one fits, he always provided fresh statistical material for my column.
For me, it really hit home during Wednesday night's Warriors-Knicks game. New Warriors head coach Keith Smart has been kind to fantasy owners this season, engineering one of the most fantasy-friendly rotations in the NBA. His patterns have just been so, well, sensible.
Although a lack of depth can be a bad thing in NBA reality, in fantasy it is exactly what we're looking for: heavy minutes spread across as few players as possible. The 27-28 minutes per game (MPG) mark is crucial when determining whether a player might become fantasy-worthy. You can drop down to 25 minutes per game in a higher-paced system (Phoenix, New York), but it is numerically deadly in places like Boston and Miami.
At this early stage, rotations are still somewhat in a state of flux. But we're deep enough into the schedule to start noting which teams are doing right by fantasy owners and which teams are in dire need of some tightening at the end of their benches.
(For me, the biggest challenge in writing a fantasy column about playing time is getting through 1,200 words without using the word "burn." Just doesn't seem to fit when talking about something as testosterone-deprived as fantasy sports.)
Keith Smart has clearly defined four out of five starting roles, the biggest surprise being his bestowing 37.1 MPG on Dorell Wright. Smart's keeping Biedrins above water at 26.7 minutes has led to a mild fantasy renaissance for the once-dependable big man. Overall, the addition of David Lee has stabilized the Warriors' frontcourt, but you have to wonder at some point whether Brandan Wright will start to peel minutes away at power forward and center. Other than that, owners have little to worry about, as long as Vladimir Radmanovic stays safely around the 10-minute mark.
Per usual, there have been some trade rumors swirling around Zach Randolph. If you own a Grizzly not named Darrell Arthur, you're praying no one pulls the trigger. The Grizzlies have been a model of consistency, with six players above 25 MPG, and no one else above 16 MPG. Losing Randolph would probably mean more time for the likes of Arthur, Hasheem Thabeet and Sam Young, but it would dilute frontcourt production across the board.
The other big story here has been Mike Conley's getting nearly 40 minutes a night. With only Acie Law pushing him for playing time, Conley has flourished, averaging 7.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game while becoming one of fantasy's early-season success stories.
Winning breeds rotational stability. As long as Andrei Kirilenko continues to start, this should be a relatively locked-in situation until Mehmet Okur's projected postholidays return. The mercurial Russian is one of those players whose value is directly tied to having a starting role. Bring AK-47 off the bench, even with 25-28 MPG, and he becomes maddeningly inconsistent from a fantasy perspective. I'll be interested to see how Raja Bell uses those 28 minutes once he fully recovers from his shoulder injury. Historically, Bell can be a good source of cheap steals and 3s when given the proper playing time.
No hometown bias here; a rash of early-season injuries (Gilbert Arenas, Josh Howard) has just thinned the Wizards to the point where Yi Jianlian is the only other player cracking 20 MPG. Couple this lack of depth with Flip Saunders' cranking up the pace (you should read Kevin Pelton's recent article on this trend), and you have several players firmly visible on the fantasy radar.
But it will be interesting to see how Saunders deals with three guards (John Wall, Arenas and Kirk Hinrich) in need of heavy minutes. And then there's Josh Howard's pending return. It's hard to see Al Thornton staying relevant (and at 33.8 MPG) once Howard gets his legs back beneath him. Yi Jianlian has upped his play as of late and could start pushing Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee for more minutes as the season wears on.
Head coach Kurt Rambis is quickly earning a reputation as a fantasy killer. You can see why management (even when that management is fellow fantasy killer David Kahn) might have pulled Rambis aside and told him to give Kevin Love some more minutes. To be fair to Rambis, I understand why this is such a cioppino of a rotation; it's one of the youngest and least star-addled in the NBA. You basically have Michael Beasley, Love and then seven other guys who could pull 20-27 MPG for the duration of the season.
You have a mess at point guard with Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair and the injured Jonny Flynn (thankfully, Ricky Rubio's still happily ensconced in Spain). You have four swingmen (Wesley Johnson, Corey Brewer, Wayne Ellington, the injured Martell Webster) all competing for time. Oh, and then there's the time-share at center between Darko Milicic, Anthony Tolliver and Nikola Pekovic. This promises to be a season-long conundrum, but at least Love has finally started to edge above 30 MPG of late.
There is much to admire about Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, but he'd be a lousy fantasy owner. He'd be the kind of guy who'd try to trade his first-, second- and third-round picks for eight seventh-rounders, then argue for two IR slots. His Houston players, by and large, are the model of efficiency, getting the most bang for their minutes (see how "burn" would have worked well there?), but this season there is just too much depth at several positions.
The limit on Yao Ming's playing time (let's hope his latest ding turns out to be minor) has placed the Rockets' frontcourt rotation on an area resembling the San Andreas Fault. You've got three or four big men who could get anywhere between 15 and 28 minutes a night. There's a budding time-share at small forward between intangibles king Shane Battier and the suddenly 3-pointer-averse Chase Budinger, as well as a shaky situation at point guard courtesy of Aaron Brooks' sprained ankle. On the positive side, Luis Scola is averaging almost a block a night. That's about it for the positive side.
Whenever I watch Stan Van Gundy coach, I find myself trying to remember the proper procedure for CPR, not only for Van Gundy but also for myself. Although it has been heartening to see Dwight Howard above 20 points per game, the Magic's rotation has been an early-season mess (albeit a winning mess). Hopefully, shifting Rashard Lewis to small forward -- and firmly affixing Quentin Richardson to the bench -- will start to make this lineup more fantasy-friendly. The big question here is whether Brandon Bass can rise above his current time-share with Ryan Anderson and become the permanent starter at power forward. If Bass can do that, and Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson stay healthy, this situation should improve as the season unfolds.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.