Sleeper: Kenyon Martin
Martin is flying under the radar, as would anyone that misses an entire season of basketball. He says he's healthy and this would be his first season in George Karl's system. He's had plenty of downtime to learn all the ins and outs, and some guys (Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudemire) have come back as better players after undergoing microfracture surgery. It's usually the second season back that shows the real post-surgery improvements. It likely will take Martin quite some time to get into the flow of things this season, but there is talent here and there will be opportunity. For a guy that is getting little to no publicity, you could do a lot worse than to give Kenyon a look.
Bust: J.R. Smith
Along with extraordinary athletic ability comes hype. Smith's career dunk reel is ridiculous, and fans love the dunk. Add in the fact that he's young (he just turned 22), showed flashes last season (had games of 31, 36 and 37 points) and has seemingly very little competition for playing time in the backcourt (it's Smith, Iverson and Atkins are the only experienced options with defined roles), and you have a recipe that many fantasy owners will view with glee. However, I'd proceed with caution here. Smith has been inconsistent during his career and all but disappeared down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, all of which occurred after Iverson arrived.
Allen Iverson joined forces with Carmelo Anthony in the first half of the 2006-07 season to create what was considered by some to be the best duo in the league. However, there were fears that one's presence would hurt the other, and that these two stars couldn't coexist. So how did the tandem turn out? While Iverson's points per game took a bit of a hit, nearly every other statistic remained in line with what you would expect, and his field-goal percentage actually increased to a fairly respectable number (45.4 percent, his best since the 1997-98 season). Carmelo wasn't hurt at all by Iverson's company; in fact, he improved his numbers in his first season with the former Sixer. This was probably more a byproduct of new head coach George Karl -- Carmelo has learned to move well without the ball and score quickly under his tutelage, among many other things -- and his system's impact on Anthony. System or no system, the fact is Iverson and Anthony remained top-flight fantasy players while hanging on the same hardwood night in and night out. Nene bounced back from a serious injury that cost him the entire 2005-06 season to finally approach his potential, posting more-than-solid numbers across the board.
The top-end talent on this roster is undeniable, as are the question marks. There's Martin and the positive reviews he's drawing during his attempt to come back from microfracture surgery. And there's the fact that he did, indeed, have microfracture surgery leaving his status in complete question. Camby and injury issues go together like beaches and sand. The team didn't suffer any huge losses in the offseason, but the departure of Steve Blake should not be overlooked. Blake was a key distributor last season, averaging 6.6 assists per game in his 40-plus contests with the team, and his presence allowed Iverson to work as the shooting guard during most of his partial season with the squad. His replacement, Atkins, is a different type of floor general who requires more shots and is less adept in a role like this, where he won't be touching the ball much other than to pass it on to a teammate. This team could either turn out excellent or in shambles, and many things unforeseen at this point will determine which. At their best, the Denver Nuggets of 2007-08 will sport two elite fantasy players, two big men that put up top-5 numbers at their respective positions and a comeback player of the year candidate in Martin. At their worst, the Nuggets will lose key players to injury, some will fall back to earth, and the Carmelo and AI show will quickly turn bad amidst all the losing. The most realistic outcome is much closer to the glass half full than the glass half empty, but the glass half empty is relevant, if for nothing more than a risk reference point.
Sleeper: Gerald Green
Green showed a drastic improvement from his rookie to sophomore season with Boston, and managed to put up effective fantasy numbers (10.4 points, 95 3-pointers made, 80.5 percent on free throws) despite receiving only 22 minutes per game. He's just 21 years old and now will be given the opportunity to start and be a featured piece of a team, a fact that should be a godsend to his fantasy value. He can shoot the lights out and the Wolves will be shooting more 3-pointers this season, likely looking to Green to play a key role in that facet of the game.
Bust: Sebastian Telfair
Entering his fourth season in the league, Telfair still seems to be lacking some of the things that established point guards possess. He doesn't play defense, his court vision is average at best and he's enjoyed little success when given opportunities to start in the past. I still believe Telfair will be good some day, but this season still doesn't feel right.
When I think Minnesota Timberwolves, I think Kevin Garnett. I think 20-10-5. I think Big Ticket. But for the first time in a long time, the initials KG aren't anywhere to be found on this roster. In 2006-07, Minnesota struggled to its worst record since Garnett's rookie season, despite yet another outstanding season from the star. The team's scoring was down (96.1 ppg) and they rarely hoisted a 3-pointer (13.3 attempts per game), both of which ranked in the bottom third of the league. Rashad McCants and Troy Hudson both missed well over half of the season with injuries. Dwane Casey was fired halfway through the season and replaced by assistant Randy Wittman, who will remain at the helm this season. With Garnett gone, it seems that the Wolves have become, well, the Celtics. There are seven guys on this roster that have suited up for Boston in the past two seasons. The probable starting lineup is 80 percent former Celtics.
There's plenty of entering and exiting going on with the Wolves this season, and they are firmly rooted in rebuilding mode heading into the 2007-08 season. But rebuilding doesn't mean that talent doesn't exist. Al Jefferson, simply put, is going to be a monster this season. He has great instincts around the basket and has the size and skill set that will generate many a double-double this season. The departure of Mike James means Randy Foye is now the man at point guard. Minnesota recently brought in former Villanova star and assistant coach Ed Pinckney to join their coaching staff, and while he will work mainly with post players, the reunion of Pinckney and Foye could prove beneficial since Foye thrived while with Pinckney in college. Marco Jaric has fallen far since his Clippers days when everything seemed to be trending upward. He's now listed as third on the point guard depth chart, which means minimal playing time. Look for Minnesota's scoring and 3-point shooting to move closer to the league average this season. With Garnett gone, there will be less of a slow-moving, halfcourt offense that runs through him, opening the door for a quicker style and, more importantly, more 3's. Green can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc and Ricky Davis hit a career-best 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Foye is also a capable perimeter shooter. Rookie Corey Brewer shows great potential but is still probably a year away from making fantasy-relevant contributions. It's also worth noting that Wittman seems to be hinting that he will be counting heavily on Telfair heading into this season, viewing Foye more as a 2-guard.
Sleeper: Travis Outlaw
This could have been any one of three guys (Martell Webster and Darius Miles being the other two), but Oden's injury opens the door most for Travis Outlaw. At 6-foot-9, athletic and a blossoming talent, Outlaw already was going to figure into the Blazers' plans this season before Oden's injury. But now he's a one step away from consistent playing time, and he's got the game to back it up. Think about his April numbers from last season (18.6 points per game, 92 percent from the line) and what he could do during the course of a full season if he can crack the starting lineup. Even if he doesn't start, he will still receive solid minutes with improved production, simply because he's versatile and stands as the best backup at two positions, small and power forward.
Bust: LaMarcus Aldridge
I still like Aldridge a lot as a player, especially next season and beyond, but this season he might be in trouble production-wise. He's going to have to show that he can score and rebound without that second presence down low (no Zach Randolph or Greg Oden this season), which is a burden he's not ready to take on just yet.
Last season the youth movement began for the Trail Blazers. By season's end, they were able to boast the Rookie of the Year (Brandon Roy), a second overall pick that was thriving by the end of the season in LaMarcus Aldridge, a dark horse starting point guard that provided much more production (12.0 points, 5.3 assists) than anyone expected in Jarrett Jack and a star enjoying the best season of his career (Zach Randolph). In addition to all of that, they added Oden via the first overall pick in the draft. Oh, how quickly things change. Gone is Randolph, who was shipped to New York in a trade. Gone is Oden, who had microfracture surgery which ended his rookie season before it began. This season's Blazers will revolve around the talented youth that is dispersed throughout the roster, and that might not be such a bad thing.
Nearly everyone on this team will be underrated. Keep in mind, somebody has to accumulate the stats. Somebody's got to score. Someone has to collect boards. Somebody has to pass the ball. And Roy can't do everything. This is one young team, and that's without Oden. The average age in the probable starting lineup is not a day over 22.4 years old ... in other words, about a year older than your average senior-laden college team. Nonetheless, this Blazers squad is chock full of potential talent. With Oden gone, Frye moves into the starting lineup. Only time will tell if the step back he took in his sophomore campaign will be corrected or worsened by his situation here, but Frye will be given every opportunity early on to start and produce. Portland was second-worst in the league last season in points scored at roughly 94 per game (or 16 fewer than Phoenix), and the only major difference from last season seems to be the swap of Randolph/Frye and a year's experience for the youngsters. Darius Miles returns after missing the entire 2006-07 season due to microfracture surgery, and all reports as of right now seem to be of the very positive variety, at least regarding his work ethic. He seems to be working out like crazy, and has lost more than 30 pounds in an effort to make a complete and successful return. Roy should flourish in his second season under McMillan, with a full year of the coach's system – one which he fits into so well – under his belt. Expect a wide range of players to get minutes until a core group is formed. The Blazers will not be a good team this season, but they present good value in some areas as a couple of the guys that could be logging 30-plus minutes a game are not even on the average fan's radar.
Sleeper: Robert Swift
Swift missed all of last season after a promising 2005-06 campaign. He's a talented young man who has the size (7-0, 245) and skill set (capable rebounder, good shot-blocker, moves well and is adept with his post offense) to prosper as an NBA center. His main competition is Johan Petro, whom he's already well ahead of as far as game on the defensive side of the ball, something that will quickly net him new head coach P.J. Carlesimo's admiration. Take all that and add in the fact that Swift added 30-40 pounds in the offseason, and you might begin to understand why I've taken such a liking to him heading into this season.
Bust: Kevin Durant
This is more a product of there being few guys who actually have hype (which you must have to be a bust) than anything else. But Durant isn't very good defensively, and Brandon Roy-like rookie seasons are rare anymore. While the undeniable talent will likely buy him a "get out of jail free" card as far as playing time goes, the fact that he is not a great pure shooter could hurt him this season. He couldn't bench 185 pounds, a mark I'm pretty sure most WNBA rookies could surpass, which tells us one of two things: He's either very weak or he can get by without strength. I seriously doubt the latter and suspect the former. It's going to take some time for him to add the weight and strength he'll need to succeed at the NBA level, and in the meantime he merely will serve as a scorer who pulls in some defensive rebounds, but hurts your percentages. The big contributions will come down the road.
Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis: Two names synonymous with Seattle, and with success. The pair posted possibly their best season together in 2006-07, despite both being limited somewhat by injury. They were rarely spotted off the court last season, averaging around 40 minutes per game apiece. Yet despite the duo's better efforts, the Sonics finished the season at the bottom of the league and ended up with the second overall pick in the draft, a pick they used to select Kevin Durant. With Durant came a new era, a new roster, a new coach and a new direction; Rebuilding, thy name is SuperSonics. Gone are Lewis and Allen -- team captains, league studs and Seattle mainstays (Lewis nine years, Allen 4½). Here are Durant and Jeff Green, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Kurt Thomas. This team is almost entirely different than the past couple years, and this year's squad is surprisingly deep.
Coach Carlesimo is a defensive-minded guy -- some give him credit for the post-2002 Spurs defense -- so don't be surprised if he sits those who don't play well on that side of the ball. There are 11 guys on this roster who expect to play, and they probably will until Carlesimo can pinpoint the nucleus he will look to throughout the season. The bench has more starting experience than the probable starters, a tidbit that tells you everything you need to know about the shape of this team. The starter at point guard will need to be capable of bringing the rookies and young players along, so leadership may take precedent over skill, at least in the early going. Ridnour, West and Watson are all worthy of starting in the league, but the more experienced Watson, who started over Ridnour down the stretch last season, could get the nod. The frontcourt seems to be in good hands. Collison has impressed this offseason and is coming off his best season to date. Wilcox finally got consistent minutes last season, making the most of his court time and entrenching himself as the team's starting power forward. The veteran newcomer Thomas will serve as a mentor, but is still capable of producing if looked to. Most of the production on this Sonics team will be based on minutes, and minutes – at this point – are quite unclear. There's a new coach and it's hard to tell who will best adapt to his system, and given the extreme depth here, any number of rotations are possible. Asterisk the players that are most proficient defensively as they could be the key to our playing time quandry.
Key Loss: Derek Fisher
Sleeper: Paul Millsap
This pick becomes even more relevant if Kirilenko is traded. Millsap is more than capable of putting up solid, fantasy-relevant numbers, and with question marks (Kirilenko) and injury liabilities (Boozer) in front of him, playing time will be there for the taking. Millsap averaged 5.2 rebounds a game for a coach who generally avoids the use of rookies. As Deron Williams showed, the second year in Sloan's system can be much better than the first and that is where Millsap sits as we speak. He could be Boozer with the blocks if Carlos succumbs to injury.
Bust: Carlos Boozer
Does anyone else actually think Boozer can stay healthy two seasons in a row? I didn't think so. He's the very definition of injury risk, but his hype will be higher than ever coming off a season in which he boasted career highs across the board. He doesn't block shots, and that might go overlooked by some who just see the good numbers from last season. But you want a power forward who bolsters your block totals, not one who makes no contributions there; you'll feel the impact come season's end unless you're sporting a guy or two who overcompensates in that area, and who probably won't be the case. Boozer will go higher than he should.
To say Deron Williams flourished in his second season with Utah would be a gross understatement. Williams exploded, accepting head coach Jerry Sloan's system and thriving in the same spot John Stockton used to occupy. The Jazz went on to win the Northwest Division, compiling 51 wins along the way, the team's most in a season since 2000-01. Boozer remained healthy for a full season for the first time since 2003-04, and those who took a chance on him last season reaped the benefits as Boozer posted his best season to date. The already-good 3-point shooting of Mehmet Okur improved even more (he hit 129 3's at a 38.4 percent clip, both career highs). This is essentially the same team the Jazz fielded in 2006-07, plus Morris Almond and minus Derek Fisher. With Fisher, the Jazz liked to play two point guards at the same time, a system that worked very well. Fisher's gone, but his impact wasn't large enough to create suspicions of Williams' worth without a capable second point guard on the roster.
Sloan's system will not change. The Jazz will play a slower, half-court game, and won't attempt many 3's (fewest attempts per game in the Western Conference last season). Some players on this roster, like Kirilenko, would seem to be a better fit running up and down the court, and that fact has likely contributed to AK-47's current state: disgruntled role-player. He starred in EuroBasket 2007, leading his Russian team to a championship, and is still extraordinarily talented. There's still reason to believe he can return to form if he stays here, but part of the problem last season and during the offseason was a lack of motivation; many say that Kirilenko lacked effort, and Williams hinted that the whole team has worked hard this offseason except Kirilenko. If the Jazz do choose to trade him, however, they likely would want to showcase him until the deadline, proving he's better than last season's debacle. Morris Almond might be sitting more than playing early on as he develops his defense. He's adept at getting to the line and can hit both from there and beyond the arc. However, he may need a year in Sloan's system before an impact is seen. There's no reason to believe that the Jazz won't do what they did last season and then some, with a stud like Williams quarterbacking the offense and essentially the same eight- or nine-man rotation returning with another year's experience under their belt. If Boozer can stay healthy and Kirilenko stays and becomes motivated again, the sky is the limit for this emerging Western Conference power.