If You're Hardcore: Finding this year's Calderon
If nothing else, fantasy basketball seems rather straightforward. The players with the most minutes tend to perform the best, and it's tough to find a player who logs more than, say, 30 minutes who isn't at least somewhat valuable. So in general, anyone playing 30 minutes or more is someone who should be on your radar, and somebody who's not, even if immensely talented, likely just won't be able to help you.
The equation changes as you participate in deeper leagues, though. All those guys with 30-plus minutes are either owned or will soon be owned; no one stays secret for long. You have to become familiar with bench guys and rookies, and occasionally even D-Leaguers. What becomes more and more important is not production in predetermined roles, but who has the talent to capture one of those roles during the course of the season, and spotting the opportunity before it actually happens. To avoid the problem of streaming the next hot thing every couple of days (or weeks, if your league is weekly), it's important to set a couple of guidelines for what to look for in a prospective player. There's a lot of micromanaging that can be done in deep leagues, but in general you want to categorize players as often as possible so you know what to expect, and more importantly, are ready to capitalize on it at a moment's notice.
In a perfect world, whenever we sift through the waiver wire or trawl for trades, we are looking for one thing: long-term viability. Whomever we pour our resources into acquiring, we want to have them perform well for as long as possible. That is where the mythical upside comes from, and in basketball, upside is generally represented through minutes per game. If an injury or role change does occur, and [insert player] is the beneficiary, what is the realistic cap you can expect on his minutes? That means you have to look at his foul rate, or maybe how good (or bad) his team is, or the quality of the other backups around him. It's normally going to take a break or two for a deep sleeper to even get an opportunity; if things break well, you need to make sure he's really that good a player, or that the minutes will assuredly arrive.
Of course, the deeper your league, the less you have to choose from, and you're going to have to kiss a couple of toads to find your prince. If a player is going to have decent short-term value for two weeks or more, then he should be on your radar as well. That means any quality backup playing behind an injury-prone player, for example. You should be aware of the one-trick ponies, too; if a player pours in 3s, blocks or steals, that has inherent value even if your team has no use for it, and it's important to snipe trade value from the waiver wire. Luckily, a player can contribute heavily in those categories with substantially less than 30 minutes per game, which is why even though you might despise him, you always have to be aware of what Darko Milicic is doing.
More than anything, though, the key to finding those nuggets of gold is to find the talent. In general, the best basketball players play the most minutes, and even if they start the season as the eighth man or in a bothersome platoon, that just serves as an opportunity to get them before they're hot. If two players are splitting time, you pick the better player and hope for the best. I would rather sit on a high-upside talent than tread water with a mediocre one. When a better option presents itself, you simply cut bait, but when T.J. Ford actually does go down, you're sitting on a top-50 player in Jose Calderon and you nearly guaranteed the success of your team.
The beginning of the season is the best time to zero in on those Jose Calderons; after any draft, if you did your homework, you should still have a litany of players with decent upside to keep an eye on. As soon as the situation breaks even slightly favorably to the player in question, you pounce. If your luck doesn't pan out in the first month or so, the fantasy buzz on the player lessens dramatically and the chances you can drop your guy and pick up someone else without your guy getting scooped by the next owner increases.
Of course, it would be remiss to not mention a handful of those players whose fantasy fortunes could turn dramatically in the coming months. Most importantly, though, you know if any of these players do end up in a pronounced role, it's not a question of whether they'll produce, but how much:
Kelenna Azubuike, SG/SF, Warriors: As one of the best rebounders on one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, you should hear Azubuike's name throughout the season. Corey Maggette is a known injury risk, and any decent player on a team that runs as much as the Warriors do is a no-brainer to put up stats if given the opportunity. He's the type of athletic-but-gritty player coaches love, and carving out 21 minutes per game as an undrafted rookie speaks to his talent.
Jordan Farmar, PG, Lakers: Another relatively obvious name, but Farmar is just that good. He's already better than Derek Fisher, and entering his third year in Phil Jackson's triangle offense means more responsibility should be handed to him throughout the season. Most importantly, he gets a copious amount of steals and 3s, a must for any point guard. Given starter's minutes, he's a strong second point guard; he's this year's Jose Calderon in terms of talent.
Roger Mason, PG/SG, Spurs: Sadly enough, without Manu Ginobili around, Mason is probably the Spurs' third-best scorer. Mason averaged 17.4 points and 2.8 3s per game in nine starts last season; most of that was the product of hot shooting, but the 3s are real. Anything else is just a bonus, but he still offers a little bit more upside than your average 3-point specialist.
Chris Andersen, PF, Nuggets: Besides having maybe the best nickname in basketball ("Birdman"? Come on now), Andersen is my favorite kind of one-trick pony because he gets blocks. Center isn't a terribly valuable fantasy position (he should qualify there eventually), and blocks are always incredibly scarce. Playing behind injury-prone players in Kenyon Martin and Nene virtually ensures some playing time, and the Nuggets ran more than any team in the NBA last season, providing ample shot-blocking opportunities.
Darrell Arthur, PF, Grizzlies: Arthur is the classic undersized-but-overperforming power forward type that we've seen flood the NBA with success in recent years. He blocks a ton of shots -- 1.4 per game in 22 minutes in two seasons at Kansas -- and could carve out a role in a Grizzlies frontcourt with no standout players. Arthur is competing with Hakim Warrick for playing time, and one thing we do know is that Warrick is not a quality starter. And if nothing else, if John Hollinger likes him, that's good enough for me.
Adam Madison is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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