<
>

Scouting the NBA teams playing at fantasy-friendly paces

The Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns like to push the tempo, making their key contributors strong fantasy options. NBAE/Getty Images

Why wouldn't Eric Bledsoe want to be in Phoenix? Why wouldn't he want to return maximum value for fantasy managers? Doesn't he know that going by one key metric, the Suns are the second-best team in basketball?

Doesn't he like to push the pace?

Pace is a metric that tracks how many possessions a team generates per 48 minutes.

Last season, the Brooklyn Nets led the NBA with a pace factor of 101.3 possessions per game. The league average was 96.4 possessions per game; the Cleveland Cavaliers came closest to matching the average at 96.2 possessions per game. The Utah Jazz were worst in the league at 91.6 possessions per game.

As you know, the Nets won only 20 games last season. So yes, a high pace doesn't necessarily equate to NBA success.

Ideally, a high pace is matched with a high amount of offensive efficiency. For instance, the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors paired a 99.6 pace (4th in the NBA) with a league-leading offensive efficiency mark of 115.6 points per 100 possessions.

But a high pace is a strong indicator of fantasy opportunity. More possessions translates into higher volume stats: more rebounds, points, 3-pointers, steals, blocks and assists. A higher pace also means more turnovers.

Many times, a coach employing a new, high-pace philosophy needs a season or so to best match his personnel to a faster style.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson hails from the Mike D'Antoni coaching tree. It's been over 10 seasons since D'Antoni first popularized the high-pace, small-ball style of play with the Steve Nash-Amare Stoudemire-Shawn Marion Phoenix Suns. Today, the style is synonymous with a fantasy-friendly approach.

From Phoenix to Houston ... wherever Mike D'Antoni coaches, fantasy numbers increase.

While the Nets struggled last season, a canny fantasy observer could still see that given time and some roster tweaks, Atkinson was going to install a rotation that would crank out fantasy production.

So far this season, the Nets are popping with underrated players and pace-inflated box scores. They're matching the second-best pace (105.9 possessions per game) with a top-10 offensive rating (108.3 points per 100 possessions).

And don't forget another important byproduct of a high-pace team: Their opponents will play at a fast pace, too.

If you're trying to choose between starting two players, take a look at whom they're playing. Even if a player isn't on a top-pace squad, if he's playing a high-pace team, his stats should go up for that game.

Let's take a look at three underrated teams that have jumped out to a fast pace out of the gate.

Phoenix Suns

Pace: 106.1 (1st in NBA)

Players to watch: Devin Booker, Mike James, TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, Alex Len, Tyson Chandler, Tyler Ulis

After a horrid start, the Suns are 4-1 under interim coach Jay Triano. Thankfully, Triano has kept up the pace and is turning the Suns into a hotbed of fantasy potential.

Let's assume Bledsoe sits until he's traded. That's unfortunate for those of you currently rostering Bledsoe, but it opens up fantasy opportunities up and down the Suns' roster.

It is doubtful Phoenix keeps its pace this high. League-wide, pace usually starts a little higher and trails off by a few possessions as the season progresses. But relative to the rest of the league, the Suns appear locked in as one of the NBA's fastest teams.

So it was simple to take a look at the schedule and see that Tuesday's Halloween Suns-Nets matchup was going to amplify fantasy production.

The final score: Phoenix 122, Brooklyn 114. Booker led all Suns with 32 points. Bledsoe's substitute -- James -- went for 24 points, 4 steals, 5 assists and 3 3-pointers.

Fast pace means you can pack more production into fewer minutes. Deeper rotation players can still rise up with serviceable box scores. Warren scored 20 points in just 25 minutes. Alex Len played only 25 minutes, but still managed to snare 15 rebounds.

The Suns will finish the season as a top-five pace team. The opportunity is there. Consecutive seasons of high lottery picks means they're stocking a decent number of players with fantasy upside. And because they're the Suns, the team doesn't have to live up to a high degree of expectation. Their youth will be able to play through their struggles.

Which sets up the Suns' main fantasy issue going forward: Settling on a reliable, shortened rotation. Bad teams tend to tinker with their lineups. The Suns are playing well. We want high pace, but we also want as many players averaging 25-plus minutes as possible.

When it comes to Phoenix, I was forced to list nine players to watch. That's at least two too many from a fantasy perspective.

Hopefully, as the season unfolds, Triano emphasizes expanded roles for Chriss, Len and Jackson. Pace plus young upside plus minutes adds up to fantasy goodness.

Brooklyn Nets

Pace: 105.9 (2nd in NBA)

Players to watch: D'Angelo Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll, Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert

It took a long, 20-win slog of a season, but the Nets are starting to reap real dividends for watchful fantasy enthusiasts. And because they've lacked multiple lottery picks, the Nets have been forced to get creative when mining for young upside. Result: They roster several players that have sneaky fantasy potential.

The Nets may be sneaky, but it was as easy to predict seasonal fantasy success for Russell as it was to predict a high score for the Nets on Tuesday night. But Russell has been even better than advertised, thanks to a 21.98 PER. If he keeps up that level of efficiency -- and cuts his turnovers -- Russell will go down as one of the steals of the 2017-18 campaign (51.8 ADP).

I'm watching multiple Nets, but my two personal favorites are Hollis-Jefferson and LeVert.

Hollis-Jefferson's potential is built around defensive upside. He's currently averaging 2.3 blocks plus steals per game. Hollis-Jefferson is a reliable 3-point shot away from becoming what I call a 1+1+1 player: a player who chips in a 3-pointer, block and steal per night. He also carries the rarer-than-you'd-think SF/PF eligibility. (A hallmark of young, high pace teams: funky positional eligibility.)

LeVert carries the very, very rare SG/SF/PF eligibility. Statistically versatile, LeVert also packs 1+1+1 upside (needing just another half block per game to get there). LeVert is perhaps the most direct beneficiary of Jeremy Lin's season-ending injury and has a decent chance at top-100 production.

Orlando Magic

Pace: 104.2 (3rd in NBA)

Players to watch: Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Jonathon Simmons, Terrence Ross

Break up the 6-2 Orlando Magic!

All three teams on this list have a decent amount of young upside. Like Phoenix, the Magic spent several seasons out of the playoffs, which means they're rostering multiple lottery picks.

Thanks to a shortened rotation, the Magic have the most fantasy upside of any team on this list. They feature three players averaging over 30 minutes per game: Fournier, Gordon and Vucevic.

That elite number could grow to four when Payton returns from a hamstring injury. After all, Gordon came back from an ankle injury playing like classic Shawn Marion. For you young people, that translates into "he's filling up every conceivable area of the box score and doing it with efficiency." Gordon right now is playing like the steal of all fantasy drafts: He's delivering top-20 value off of a ninth-round ADP.

Spurs cast-off Simmons is a prime example of how different expectations and higher pace can suddenly make you roster-worthy in fantasy. Despite playing just 25.6 minutes per game, Simmons is averaging 15.8 points per game, almost 10 points per game better than his career average. Simmons should cool down a little when Payton returns, but for now he's returning some nice deep-league value.

Another area helped by high pace: out-of-position statistics. Guards start collecting more rebounds and the occasional block. And centers like Vucevic start ringing up assists. His 2.9 dimes a night may not look like much compared to Draymond Green or Nikola Jokic, but it's still top-10 for a center.