Central Division Team Previews
Key Loss: P.J. Brown
Key Addition: Joe Smith
Guard Chris Duhon quietly averaged 7.2 points, 4.0 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.1 3-pointers in 24 minutes per game last season. However, he could face increased competition from Thabo Sefolosha. Andres Nocioni averaged 14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 3-pointers in 26.5 minutes, and he should continue to be a thorn in opponents' sides this season.
Sleeper: Andres Nocioni
Nocioni was limited to 53 games last season due to a foot injury and, therefore, could slip in most drafts. But his per-game numbers put him in the top 100 fantasy players. He signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason, indicating his importance to the team. He is an accurate shooter (47 percent from the field, 85 percent from the line, and 38 percent from beyond the arc) and a high-energy guy who is always in the middle of the action.
Bust: Ben Wallace
Wallace is a great defender, a tireless worker, a veteran leader on a young Bulls team ... and a fantasy liability. His contributions in three categories (10.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.4 steals) are no longer enough to compensate for his meager 6.4 points and atrocious shooting (41 percent on free throws and 45 percent on field goals). Although it would be a mistake to write Wallace off completely, you should downgrade him in your rankings unless your league counts free throws made instead of free-throw percentage.
The Incredi-Bulls arrived in style in 2006-07, compiling a 49-33 record, including a 12-4 division mark and an impressive 31-10 home record. Kirk Hinrich established himself as a top-10 fantasy point guard, averaging 16.6 points, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.8 3-pointers while shooting 45 percent from the field and 83 percent from the line. Ben Gordon played with a lot more consistency, although he averaged more points (22.5) in fewer minutes (31) in his 31 games as a reserve than he did in his 51 games as a starter (20.7 in 34). Gordon's shooting accuracy (46 percent from the field and 86 percent from the line) significantly improved last season, leading to a career high 21.4 points per game. Luol Deng led the team in minutes (37.5 per game, playing all 82 games), field goal percentage (51.7) and was a multicategory contributor in points (18.8), rebounds (7.1) and steals (1.2).
Other than Wallace and Smith, the core of the Bulls team is young, capable of playing major minutes and still improving. Based on last season's numbers, Hinrich, Gordon and Deng are all top-50 players. Given the Bulls' success, however none of them will be sleepers this year. Prepare to pay a premium for point guard Hinrich, and don't wait past the fifth or sixth round for Gordon or Deng. Wallace is still fantasy-worthy because of position scarcity at center, but be prepared to kiss your free-throw percentage good-bye. Smith should keep the power forward job warm until youngsters Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah are ready to take over. This time-share does not make any of the three solid fantasy picks, but Noah could also see some time at center, which makes him an intriguing future prospect, especially in keeper leagues.
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: Devin Brown
It is only a matter of time before playoff phenom Daniel "Boobie" Gibson bursts onto the scene and supplants Sasha Pavlovic as a starter -- and that's if Pavlovic accepts the team's contract offer and doesn't play overseas. Gibson will make big strides this season, but don't get too carried away by his playoff heroics. In the regular season, he only averaged 4.6 points in 16 minutes a game, so even if he doubles his minutes, it would be hard to expect more than 10 to 12 points a game. Assuming restricted free agent Anderson Varejao re-signs with the Cavs, you would expect him to play more than 24 minutes a game, if he can maintain his energy and intensity.
Sleeper: Anderson Varejao
Varejao is entering his fourth season and, like his coiled locks, is ready to spring to the next level. In a little less than 24 minutes a game, he averaged 6.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 0.6 blocks and almost an assist and a steal. If he can improve on his 62 percent free-throw shooting, he could boost his scoring significantly; LeBron James and Larry Hughes were the only Cavs who went to the line more often last season.
Bust: Drew Gooden
Varejao's ascension may come at Gooden's expense. Despite the third-most minutes on the team (28 per game), Gooden averaged only 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and a paltry 0.3 blocks per game. The 26-year-old Gooden is only one year older than Varejao, whose energy will get the better of Gooden before long.
In 2006-07, the Cavaliers took the league by storm. Building on their 50-32 second-place Central Division finish and strong home (30-11) and conference (31-21) records, they shocked the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals to advance to their first NBA Finals before being routed by the Spurs. Cleveland was a much better NBA team than a source of fantasy talent last season. Even LeBron James' production did not live up to his hype as the consensus overall No. 1 fantasy pick. Although his 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.6 steals are nothing to sneeze at, James' 70 percent from the line is a big minus for someone who attempts nine free throws per game. After LeBron, however, the Cavaliers arguably had only one other player in the top 100 from a fantasy standpoint: center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who managed 11.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while offering good percentages. The Cavs' depth is also their curse; James (41 minutes per game) and the oft-injured Larry Hughes (37) were the only players to average more than 28 minutes per game.
Just remember these two words on draft day: CAV-eat emptor. Let the buyer of Cavaliers players beware of the post-Finals inflation that often accompanies overachieving teams. Certainly, James is still a first-round pick, if no longer No. 1 overall. But in 2007-08, the Cavs will be hard-pressed to improve upon last season in a tougher Eastern Conference. They won't sneak up on anyone, and the pressure to return to the Finals will be intense. This is basically the same roster as last season, and coach Mike Brown is not likely to shake up his rotation significantly. What this means is a team filled with role players, none of which are fantasy standouts. Hughes (14.9 ppg) is a decent scorer, but his horrible shooting (40 percent on field goals, 68 on free throws) makes him barely playable, and he remains a considerable injury risk. Pavlovic (9.0 ppg) will likely lose time to Gibson and Shannon Brown, and Donyell Marshall is a 3-point specialist who doesn't do enough otherwise to justify a roster spot. Ilgauskas is still a viable fantasy center, but don't reach. He averaged just 27 minutes last season, a figure that will only decrease at his age (32).
With the likely departure of Webber, the Pistons' other big men will have to step up. My Pistons source, Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, told me that Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell will be the primary beneficiaries of increased minutes. Whether he starts at center or comes off the bench, McDyess will likely play 25-30 minutes, up from 21 last season, when he played in all 82 games. His 53 percent shooting, 8.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.8 blocks makes a late-round roll of the "Dice" a worthy gamble. Sparkplug Maxiell could exceed 30 minutes a game. McCosky also believes that rookie Rodney Stuckey is the real deal and will be the first guard off the Pistons bench, capable of playing 20 minutes a game.
Sleeper: Jason Maxiell
Maxiell exudes energy and has tons of potential. In 14 minutes a game in '06-07, he averaged 5.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 50 percent from the field. If his minutes double and his other numbers increase proportionately, he could be a viable fantasy center ... if he can improve his 53 percent foul shooting. In terms of raw talent (emphasis on raw), Amir Johnson is someone to keep an eye on for keeper leagues, but he might not be ready this season.
Bust: Jarvis Hayes
Hayes does a little bit of everything, but does not excel enough in any one category to make him worth drafting. He is a career 40 percent shooter whose 2006-07 numbers were all below his career averages of 8.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.8 steals. Despite the Pistons' emphasis on developing their bench, it is hard to imagine Hayes being much of a factor. Stay away.
The Pistons coasted to a division-best 53-29 record, but they came up short again after a disappointing playoff exit at the hands of Cleveland. Their offense still relies heavily on the backcourt tandem of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, who, along with Tayshaun Prince, all averaged 36 minutes per game last season. Rasheed Wallace took a lot of heat for his playoff meltdown, but he remains a versatile fantasy contributor, especially if he winds up center-eligible.
Billups remains a top-5 point guard, a precious commodity in fantasy leagues. He should continue to perform at last season's levels: 17.0 points, 7.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.6 three-pointers and 88 percent on free throws. His 42.7 field-goal percentage is his only downside. Hamilton does more than just score (19.8 ppg), as evidenced by his 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 86.1 free-throw percentage. 'Sheed is primed for an even better year, having shed 25 pounds and his negative attitude towards coach Flip Saunders. Few big men combine his shot-blocking ability (1.6 per game) and 3-point shooting (1.3). Prince took a step back last season, but is still a multicategory contributor who plays every game and led the team in minutes.
Key Losses: None
Jeff Foster averaged 23 minutes per game last season and could be in line for similar playing time, particularly if Jermaine O'Neal remains injury-prone. Foster's a one-category wonder who averaged 8.1 rebounds last season, but he did finish third in rebounds per 48 minutes (16.8) and first in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes (7.0). Travis Diener, an Orlando castoff, is the backup point guard to Jamaal Tinsley, which could translate into major minutes if Tinsley goes down.
Sleeper: Mike Dunleavy
Dunleavy is the Rodney Dangerfield of fantasy hoops: He just can't get any respect. Maybe it comes from never quite living up to the hype of being the No. 3 overall pick, but in 43 games with the Pacers last year, Dunleavy shot 51 percent from 2-point range and averaged 14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. His Pacers numbers were better than his overall season averages, so you should be able to steal him in the later rounds.
Bust: Troy Murphy
Murphy averaged 14 points and 10 boards in 2005-06, but dropped off to10 points, 6 rebounds and only 0.6 blocks in 2006-07 while splitting the season between Golden State and Indy. Murphy faces competition from O'Neal, Foster and even Ike Diogu, who has shown flashes, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds in the nine games in which he played at least 20 minutes in '06-07.
Last season, the Pacers fell on hard times due to injuries, off-court turbulence and a major midseason trade that upset team chemistry. Their 35-57 record left them 18 games behind the first-place Pistons, and out of the playoffs. About the only fantasy standout was O'Neal, who averaged 19.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and a career-best 2.6 blocks in 69 games. Danny Granger shook off a slow start as sixth man to average 15.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 44 games after the Golden State trade vaulted him into the starting lineup. Tinsley averaged 12.8 points, 6.9 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals, but he made only 38.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and bristled under Rick Carlisle's tight leash on the offense.
This year, the Pacers look to go up-tempo in coach Jim O'Brien's more open style of play. Tinsley should be given more chances to create offensive opportunities for himself and others, but he still needs to shoot a better percentage and to avoid the injury bug that has plagued his career. O'Neal, Granger, Dunleavy and Tinsley all averaged more than 30 minutes per game last season and, barring injury, all should continue to log heavy minutes this season. As mentioned, Dunleavy is a decent multicategory, late-round sleeper. Granger is no longer a true sleeper, but he could fly below the radar if people focus on his season totals instead of his second-half stats. Granger has the most upside of any Pacer, especially given his ability to knock down the 3-pointer (1.3 per game) and block the occasional shot (0.7). Overall, the Pacers starters should all be slightly better if O'Brien's offense clicks, but O'Neal and Tinsley owners will want to hedge their bets with quality backups. Lithuanian league star guard Kareem Rush could get into the mix eventually, but is a late-round flyer at best.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Charlie; that cha-ching you hear is the cash register ringing for thee. Charlie Bell badly wanted out of Milwaukee, so he signed a five-year, $18 million offer sheet with the Miami Heat, only to have the Bucks shell out big bucks to keep him in town. Assuming Bell can regain his taste for brats and brew, he should be a fixture in Milwaukee's backcourt for years to come. Last season, he played in all 82 games and led the team in total minutes, averaging almost 35 per game. China's Yi Jianlian, the sixth overall pick, could also play a significant role off the Bucks bench. According to the Sept. 8 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Bucks owner Herb Kohl, during negotiations with Yi Jianlian, guaranteed that the rookie Chinese power forward will get at least 20 and 'possibly' as much as 25 minutes a game his rookie season."
Sleeper: Andrew Bogut
It's hard to call a former No. 1 overall pick a sleeper, but Bogut could be ready to issue a wake-up call to the rest of the league as he enters his third season. Bogut is already a solid shooter (55 percent from the field), rebounder (8.9) and passer (3.0 assists), and at 34 minutes per game, he should better his 12.3 scoring average if he can improve his dismal 58 percent free-throw shooting. If he can increase his shot-blocking (0.5 last season, down from 0.8 in his rookie year), he could become a complete fantasy center.
Bust: Charlie Villanueva
Villanueva is coming off shoulder surgery, but the bigger pain may come from him constantly looking over his shoulder at Yi waiting in the wings. Villaneuva's modest contributions (11.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.3 blocks in 25 minutes per game before his season ended after 39 games) will not be enough to hold off Yi from taking his job.
The Bucks bottomed out at 28-54 last season, including a dismal 1-15 mark against Central Division foes. Injuries limited Michael Redd to 55 games, and other than Bell, no other player played more than 68 games. The backcourt was the strength of the team, led by sharpshooter Redd (26.7 points, 2.2 3-pointers), Mo Williams (17.3 points, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals) and Bell (13.5 points, 1.6 3s, 1.2 steals), all of whom logged 35-plus minutes when healthy. The frontcourt was a bit soft, with no true shot-blocker and no one but Bogut averaging more than six boards a game.
This season, the Bucks should fare much better if they can stay healthy. Desmond Mason (13.7 points in 34 minutes per game with the Hornets last season) could add some scoring punch to offset the loss of Ruben Patterson. To win, the Bucks will have outscore opponents until Bogut, Yi and other big men learn how to defend the paint. In the meantime, there should be plenty of players to carry the scoring load -- Milwaukee had seven players average in double figures last season. Despite his injury, Redd's per-game numbers equate to a top-25 fantasy player, so if he's still there in the third or fourth round, you've got a bargain. Williams should go in the top 50, but he could also slide if people overlook his per-game stats. Bell and Bogut are in the top 100, but Bogut could go higher due to position scarcity at center. Someone will reach for Yi in rounds 6-8, but rookies are always unpredictable, even those who come with "guaranteed" playing time.
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