Handing out the fantasy hardware
With another fantasy season in the books, it's time to look back at the season that was and hand out some fantasy awards and discuss sleeper candidates for next season's drafts.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Many fantasy ranking systems will have you believe that Chris Paul was the league's most valuable fantasy performer, but I beg to differ. It's pretty close, but I'd give James the nod due to his statistical versatility. As good as Paul is, he still has some minor weaknesses; mainly his lack of blocks and below-average 3-point shooting. Sure, we don't expect blocks from a point guard, but unlike Paul, LeBron has no statistical weaknesses. Period. To put it simply, if I have the first overall pick in next season's draft, I'm going with the more well-rounded player in James over the dominant assist and steals guy in Paul.
Breakout Performance: Kevin Durant, SF/SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
De-valued at the start of the season due to a disappointing (by fantasy standards) rookie campaign, Durant didn't just exceed our expectations; he demolished them. He finished the season averaging 25.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks and 1.3 3-pointers, which would have been enough by itself, but he also shot a brilliant 47.6 percent from the floor and 86.3 percent from the line. To think that he's still only 20 years old is flat-out scary, especially when you consider that he will dedicate his offseason to improving his strength and adding muscle (which is about the only flaw in his game right now). He's already looking like a top-10 pick in fantasy drafts next season, but if he comes in with 10-20 pounds of muscle, we might want to start thinking about putting him in the top five, as any added strength will make him nearly impossible to stop on the offensive end and will undoubtedly improve his rebounding numbers.
Biggest Surprise: Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat and Yao Ming, C, Houston Rockets
If I had told you at the start of the season that Dwyane Wade and Yao Ming would combine to play in 156 games I would have been laughed out of the building. But owners who played the risk/reward game with Wade (79 games) and Yao (77 games) won out over those who went with the so-called "safer" options like Kevin Garnett (57 games) and Carlos Boozer (37 games).
Of course, anyone can catch lightning in a bottle once, but owners took a calculated risk on Wade after seeing him dominate in Beijing last summer. It was quite clear that he was 100 percent recovered from his previous injuries and he wasn't any more of an injury risk than anyone else in the league.
Yao was a slightly different story. Most owners who took a chance on him only did so because it got too late in the draft for a player with 20/10/2 potential to be hanging around. Only time will tell if Yao is over his foot and leg injuries of the past, but he proved this year that we can not write him off for future seasons based on his lengthy injury history.
Rookie of the Year: Brook Lopez, C, New Jersey Nets
Some will argue for Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo, and one of them will probably win the "real" ROY award, but neither will take the award in the fantasy game. Rose's inability to contribute in 3-pointers (0.2) and disappointing numbers in steals (0.8) prevented him from living up to his full fantasy potential, and Mayo was simply too inconsistent a shooter (43.8 percent from the floor) to be considered the top fantasy rookie. That leaves us with Lopez, who was NBA-ready from the start. Not only did Lopez post fantastic numbers in points (13.0), rebounds (8.1) and blocks (1.8); he also shot 53.1 percent from the floor and 79.3 percent from the line during his rookie season. It's rare to find a big man that can contribute in both blocks and free-throw percentage, but Lopez looks like he'll be an option in both categories for a long time to come.
The only problem I have with Lopez from a fantasy perspective is that he doesn't possess the upside of some of his rookie counterparts. He might improve some, but I don't see him being much more than a 15-point, 9-rebound, 2-block guy with great percentages in the future. In other words, his performance this year was pretty close to his ceiling as a fantasy player. Of course, I'll take 15/9/2 any day of the week, but I fear that many fantasy owners will draft him with expectations of great improvement next season. I don't see that happening, particularly if the Nets bring in some frontcourt help over the offseason.
Bust of the Year (non-injury-related): Rudy Gay, SF/PF, Memphis Grizzlies
This might be a little harsh considering that despite his troubles, Gay still managed to average 18.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks and 1.1 3-pointers in his third professional season. For any other player this would be considered a great season, but when you take into account that many expected him to continue along his path of improvement (like Danny Granger did), Gay has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments of the 2008-09 fantasy season.
Sometimes we see young players improving from season to season and we think they will naturally continue along that progression. But we should be careful in making that assumption, particularly when a player is putting up huge numbers as the only viable option on a bad team. Once Gay got some help (in the form of O.J. Mayo), his numbers dropped in every relevant fantasy category. Don't get me wrong; Gay is still a fantastic fantasy option, but he might have already reached his ceiling now that Mayo is around to share the workload.
Shawn Marion would be the other obvious choice as fantasy bust of the year, but there were plenty of question marks about Marion heading into the season, while there were almost none surrounding Gay leading up to fantasy drafts.
Bust of the Year (due to injury): Elton Brand, PF, Philadelphia 76ers
A case could be made for a whole host of players -- including Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer -- here, but Brand takes the honors not only for his poor play on the court before the injury, but also for the way he stunted Philadelphia's offense before going down for the season. Brand averaged a career-worst 13.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 29 games, and while some of that can be blamed on his shoulder problems, he never really looked comfortable in Philadelphia. With two straight injury-plagued seasons in the books, and on the wrong side of 30, it will take a lot for him to earn back fantasy owners' trust heading into next season. That means he'll likely drop fairly far in fantasy drafts, maybe enough to make him a solid value selection in 2009-10. Remember, for all his injury issues, Brand is still a career 20/10/2 player.
Best Injury Fill-in: Paul Millsap, PF, Utah Jazz
Typically, when a star player goes down, we can only hope to replace a fraction of their production off the waiver wire. Paul Millsap wasn't your typical injury fill-in. With Carlos Boozer on the shelf, Millsap averaged 16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game in 38 starts, and some might argue that he provided even more value than the man he replaced. Thanks to his contributions on the defensive end, Millsap even managed to hold onto some of his value after Boozer returned.
With that said, the Jazz could easily let Boozer walk in the offseason and not miss a beat. If Boozer is gone, Millsap will be hyped beyond belief heading into next season's drafts, and rightfully so. If Boozer stays, both will be valuable, but neither will reach their true potential, as they'll likely cancel each other out just as they did at the end of 2008-09, with Boozer averaging 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals while Millsap averaged 11.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and a steal after the All-Star break.
Most Improved Player: Tyrus Thomas, PF, Chicago Bulls
Thomas has always had upside, but has had a hard time bringing any consistency to his game during his three-year career. Until now. Something clicked for Thomas right around All-Star Weekend. His foul problems all but disappeared, and he averaged 12.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game in the second half. Good luck finding steal and block numbers like those from anyone not named Josh Smith next season. In fact, it's going to be interesting to see where he's taken in fantasy drafts next season. His potential is off the charts, but he might drop in drafts, as many owners will be wary of his past inconsistency. Don't make that mistake, as it looks like Thomas has turned the corner in his career.
With fantasy baseball drafts and March Madness pools taking up most of our time, some of you might have tuned out toward the end of the fantasy hoops season. If so, here are some second-half performances that could be a sign of things to come in 2009-10. The numbers listed below are post-All-Star break splits.
Kevin Love, PF/C, Timberwolves (14.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 0.7 blocks): Al Jefferson will be back in 2009-10, but Love should continue to improve, and his impressive offensive rebounding numbers suggest he could end up averaging a double-double as a full-time starter.
Thaddeus Young, SF, Sixers (18.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals): Young is ready to break out, but owners will have to consider the health of Elton Brand before getting too excited about these second-half splits. Just realize that Young has the potential to do special things if he's allowed freedom on the offensive end.
Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies (14.5 points, 5.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.7 3-pointers): Once Kyle Lowry was traded, Conley wasted no time in making a statement that he was fully capable of being the Grizzlies' point guard of the future. He was an underrated fantasy option down the stretch but will enter 2009-10 as a top-10 fantasy point guard.
Joakim Noah, PF/C, Bulls (8.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks): Noah, like his teammate Tyrus Thomas, came on strong as the Bulls battled to secure a playoff spot. Noah's work on the defensive end is relentless and that will ensure that he will continue to log heavy minutes and stay productive in the fantasy game in 2009-10.
Wilson Chandler, SF, Knicks (15.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 1.2 blocks, 1.6 3-pointers): All you have to do is look at his post-All-Star break splits to know that this kid has fantasy stud written all over him. There is little doubt in my mind that Chandler will build on his success in the second half and have a monster year for Mike D'Antoni next season.
Anthony Randolph, SF/PF, Warriors (10.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 1.5 blocks): Randolph will be hyped all summer long, and while I'll join the bandwagon, I'll also be sure to mention that many of his big games came with Stephen Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Corey Maggette, Monta Ellis and Brandan Wright on the shelf. Sure, Randolph has a ton of upside, but his progression will be dependent on how many minutes he can secure under Don Nelson.
Brandon Rush, SG/SF, Pacers (11.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 1.5 3-pointers): Rush turned some heads with a strong finish and should be considered a deep sleeper heading into 2009-10. His value will depend on the health of Mike Dunleavy, but his future fantasy prospects look very bright.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.