If You're Hardcore: Kistic and the Thunder frontcourt
When the Thunder signed Nenad Krstic to a three-year, $15.6 million deal, they officially put a squeeze on their frontcourt. Joe Smith, Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox have all played at least 33 percent of the team's minutes at either power forward or center -- or both -- and that's not even including the copious amount of time Jeff Green has spent there.
The talent might not be too impressive -- none of the Smith, Collison and Wilcox triumvirate is averaging double-digit points, and Krstic has yet to prove himself since tearing his ACL in 2006-07 -- but there is good reason to care about this positional battle. The Thunder currently have the worst record in the NBA, and as is usually the case when it comes to unsettled situations on poor clubs, the opportunity for playing time is fluid. It is also an uptempo team, as the Thunder are seventh in possessions per game this season, and all that running provides some upside to whoever ends up emerging. Only Collison is not widely available in the majority of fantasy leagues, and considering how in flux the whole situation is -- and the value to be found if the team does find its man -- it's a situation worth taking an extended look at.
After averaging 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in seven games while in Russia, Krstic passed up the $18 million guaranteed to him in order to sign an offer sheet with the Thunder. From the team's perspective, the investment isn't large enough so that Krstic has to emerge as a starter for the club to save face; they can afford to bring him along at whatever pace Krstic himself dictates. Astute fantasy players will remember Krstic was in the midst of a breakout season in 2006, averaging a career-high 16.4 points on 52.6 percent shooting before tearing his ACL. That setback carried over to the following season, where his field goal percentage dropped more than 11 percent and his points by nearly 10 per game. As he's still just 25, however, the potential still exists; Krstic has already topped double-digit points in three of his past four games, and in a pleasant surprise has blocked nine shots in five games, an accomplishment for a player who has never averaged even a block per game.
The smart money is on Krstic taking over the starting job in the near future, where he should help improve the Thunder's second-to-last offensive efficiency. The trickiest part comes in evaluating Krstic's upper limit in playing time, as he has had foul problems his entire career. He's averaging three per contest in his five games in just 21 minutes, and even in his career season he averaged 3.4 in 32 minutes. The foul problem isn't going to go away, so it's up to the Thunder coaching staff to let him play through it, which might be more possible than you would think considering the team doesn't have much to play for. His fantasy value will likely boil down to his blocks -- if he can continue to average over a block per game -- that, along with his offensive upside, will cement his value. Otherwise, frustration is likely to follow.
If he received the playing time, Chris Wilcox would probably be the safest bet; he averaged 13.4 points and 7.0 rebounds on 52.4 shooting last season, and that was in only 28 minutes per game. This season, though, it seems Wilcox has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. At one point it looked like he would carve out a role for himself, but he has since been a healthy scratch in three of his past four games. His foul rate has gone from manageable to astronomical, and he is a veteran in the final year of his contract, giving the team little incentive to play him.
Nick Collison has started the past four games, and it seems safe to say he has a leg up on the competition. He's averaging 13.4 points and 9.0 rebounds in January, logging 33-plus minutes, but he's just plain undersized as a center. Productive when he plays -- he's shooting better than 68 percent from the field since December -- it's hard to keep him off the court, but unfortunately he's his own Kryptonite: 3.8 fouls per game accompany that gaudy shooting percentage. As the best rebounder on the team and the most physical big man, he's going to remain in the picture, but he just can't seem to be more than an effective bench player.
When looking at the options around him, it's hard not to get somewhat excited over Krstic's potential over the next couple of months. He has the prototypical size (7 feet, 260 pounds) to man the pivot, looks to be in great shape and has the offensive skills to complement Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. And if Joe Smith or Chris Wilcox -- both in the final years of their contracts -- gets shipped out and the team doesn't receive a big man in return, then it's all systems go for Krstic.
Rumors are flying that the Grizzlies and Bucks are involved in a deal that would ship Ramon Sessions to Memphis in exchange for Mike Conley. That would allow Sessions an opportunity for a long-term gig as a starting point guard, an opportunity that his numbers (13.2 points, 11.4 assists and 1.8 steals in 11 career starts) imply he is overdue for. It would require beating out Kyle Lowry, but that doesn't seem too challenging a task. As for Conley, the Bucks likely hope that Scott Skiles could help resurrect his career, but for the short term, Luke Ridnour would no longer have to look over his back. It's tough to read too much into a couple of games, especially with the Bulls, but Larry Hughes went from starting for Luol Deng and logging 42 minutes last Saturday to logging seven minutes -- including one DNP-CD -- in two games since the return of Kirk Hinrich. There are rumors of Hughes and Andres Nocioni getting dealt for Jermaine O'Neal, a deal that makes an awful lot of sense for both teams; either way, it's a pretty good sign that Hinrich is still going to retain some value, especially if the Bulls cut back some of Derrick Rose's minutes. It has been a while since you could mention J.J. Redick's name and not stifle your laughter soon after, but he might not be a bust just yet: He's shooting better than 65 percent from beyond the arc this month, converting 2.8 3-pointers per game. Courtney Lee has started the past five games at shooting guard, but he's in no danger of running away with the job. Shooting wide-open 3-pointers all day, it's not hard to imagine Redick putting up gaudy totals, one-dimensional or not; at the very least, he's back on the radar.
Von Wafer, SG, Rockets (2.3 percent owned): Reiterating my recommendation earlier this week; as far as one-dimensional short-term pickups go, you could do worse. Wafer's averaging 11.3 field goal attempts in January, and has taken advantage of that increased role to shoot 57 percent from the field, including 50 percent from long range, which has led to 16.1 points per game and 2.3 3-pointers. He'll soon cool down, but with two of the Rockets' three best scorers out, he'll see enough shots and more minutes to make up for what he loses in efficiency. He dropped 4 of 6 from beyond the arc against the Celtics and 3 of 4 versus the Lakers, two of the best defenses in the league, so he's not just taking advantage of weak competition; the steals (1.4 per game in January) are a nice cherry on top.
Mardy Collins, PG/SG, Clippers (1.6 percent owned): The recent production speaks for itself, but a quick recap: Collins is averaging 13.3 points, 6.5 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.1 3-pointers his past six games, and even the points are held down by a two-point, 1-for-7 stinker; he has scored at least 15 his past five games. He deserved a mention last week, but a 35.7 percent career shooter doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Collins' 15 minutes of fame will dissipate as soon as Baron Davis (tailbone) returns, but if your value is predicated on B-Diddy staying injured, that's a good sign you should be picked up right away.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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