The worse a team gets, the more fantasy opportunity abounds.
As more teams begin to play for next season -- and some started before this one even began -- they'll begin to loosen up minutes in their rotation for bench-ridden players who could have a fantasy impact after New Year's Day.
These sinking teams are great resources for fantasy purposes because they tend to have deep reservoirs of two of our most precious fantasy commodities: young talent with upside and minutes. These teams also tend to have cap room, which means they could be involved in trades as the deadline draws near (especially as "third teams" to facilitate deals for other franchises). This holds special interest for fantasy owners because teams looking to dump salary can also be the ones with the most minutes to give as the season unfolds.
Let's take a look at eight teams that have clearly started counting ping-pong balls.
Charlotte Bobcats (Record: 11-19, Playoff Odds: 1.5, Pace: 93.5)
The Bobcats have already made one fantasy-friendly move in swapping out Hall of Fame value killer Larry Brown for Paul Silas. It's not that Silas is some sort of Mike D'Antoni in winter, it's just that anyone this side of Mike Brown would have constituted an improvement. The report that Silas recently installed 14-second shot clocks in the Bobcats' practice facility in an effort to pick up the pace is marvelous news. It means that they have a new coach with low expectations and an up-tempo philosophy.
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the Bobcats made the playoffs last season (and almost the season before), which means there's a shortfall of high lottery picks sitting on the bench. Most of us will keep a close eye on D.J. Augustin (already showing signs of improvement under Silas) and "Fantasy Tease of the Decade" nominee Tyrus Thomas. Nazr Mohammed could scrape fantasy consideration if Silas deemed it necessary to give him 25-28 minutes a night.
If theBobcats trade Thomas and/or Boris Diaw, it just might happen. This team is going to offer a cornucopia of trade rumors, so keep an eye on the Bobcats.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Record: 8-24, Playoff Odds: 0.1, Pace: 95.4)
We'll cut to the chase. When a team is constructed around a single player and that player leaves, there just isn't a lot left for fantasy owners to look upon kindly.
The key here is minutes, or specifically, a lack of concentration of minutes. Injuries and inconsistency have forced head coach Byron Scott to tinker continuously with his rotation, making the Cavs a tough team to trust.
Both of the Cavs' young preseason fantasy sleepers -- J.J. Hickson and Jamario Moon -- have been busts, but now that they seem ticketed for a bottom-five finish, they may look to move Antawn Jamison in a salary dump, which could pave the way for a Hickson revival. The Cavs also have that post-LeBron James trade exception that could be used to bring in a younger fantasy contributor.
Keep an eye on the situation at small forward, as no one has been able to lock down a steady 30 minutes all season. It's a spot that someone new could step in right away and help fantasy teams.
Detroit Pistons (Record: 11-21, Playoff Odds: 18.7, Pace: 91.9)
After the Cavs, the Pistons probably sport the least fantasy-friendly team in the NBA. They also sport an abominably amorphous rotation, with as many as eight players averaging over 20 minutes per game at any given time.
That being said, a couple of trades could clear the deck for some second-half fantasy surprises. I have the most hope for Greg Monroe, who is the type of skilled big man who could become a multifaceted threat at center if given minutes and experience. Austin Daye has flashed some upside and could also sneak onto the fantasy radar, once the Pistons finally throw in the towel on the current campaign.
Los Angeles Clippers (Record: 10-23, Playoff Odds: 0.9, Pace: 94.6)
If Donald Sterling weren't their owner, one might be able to make the argument that the Clippers were on track for an Oklahoma City-type uprising. Gifted with two future All-Stars in Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, the Clippers could perhaps use just one more lottery pick to flesh out an already promising young rotation that also includes Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu.
I love Aminu's fantasy potential and am anxiously waiting the moment he displaces Ryan Gomes in the starting lineup. He has already displayed a ton of athleticism, along with a previously unheralded touch from behind the arc. Give Aminu the minutes in a rebuilding situation, with the pressure off, and he'll start putting up some nice lines.
The real fantasy story would lie in a Baron Davis trade. When on the court, Davis dominates the ball with an inefficiency that is almost admirable in sheer wastefulness. We've already gotten a taste of what the Clips might do without Davis running the point. Aside from boosting Bledsoe's fortunes, a Davis exodus would have a positive ripple effect up and down the roster, spreading assists and shot attempts across the lineup.
New Jersey Nets (Record: 9-23, Playoff Odds: 5.0, Pace: 91.9)
Sorry, Cleveland and Detroit, maybe this is the most disappointing fantasy team. With all respect to Carmelo Anthony, I like to listen to my wife on occasion, too, but not even The Current Mrs. Cregan clad in Starbucks gift card lingerie could talk me into throwing my lot in with these Nets. At least these Nets as presently constructed.
And maybe "presently constructed" is the key. A couple of trades could break up the fantasy-killing logjams that presently exist at shooting guard, small forward and power forward.
The Nets' most frustrating timeshare is undoubtedly at the four, with former fantasy fav Troy Murphy depressingly mired behind Kris Humphries and Derrick Favors. Put all three on other teams and all three would probably become fantasy contributors. Thankfully, all three could well end up on other teams by Valentine's Day.
I have a sneaking suspicion that at least one or two Nets not named Devin Harris or Brook Lopez will end up playing their way onto fantasy rosters before season's end. Anthony Morrow (out until mid-January) and Travis Outlaw are the kind of guys who can catch fire when nobody's watching and help owners in need of 3-pointers. If Harris is traded (and no PGs come back in return), Jordan Farmar will be an instant must-add in medium-to-deep leagues.
Minnesota Timberwolves (Record: 8-25, Playoff Odds: 0.0, Pace: 100.4)
No other team on this list has so much untapped fantasy potential in terms of sheer statistical volume. Years of underachieving, high draft picks and puzzling personnel decisions have left the Timberwolves stocked with multiple players in possession of upside and multiple timeshares. Again, a couple of trades could sort this out quite nicely.
Let's just count them off: Along with Michael Beasley and Kevin Love, Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, Darko Milicic, Jonny Flynn, Corey Brewer, Sebastian Telfair and Anthony Tolliver have been on the fantasy radar at one point this campaign. That's 11 potential contributors on the highest-paced team in the NBA.
The first domino to fall? David Kahn seems confident prodigal point guard Ricky Rubio is Sota-bound in 2011, which should seemingly put Flynn on the market.
Washington Wizards (Record: 8-22, Playoff Odds: 3.4, Pace: 95.9)
Somewhere, somehow, as I write this, Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld is trying to get some other GM to take Andray Blatche off his hands in a trade.
I'm not sure that's such a great idea. The franchise has a history of trading talented yet frustrating young big men just before they bloom. See Ben Wallace, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace. But the Wizards could use some clarity at the three and the four. They currently feature Blatche, Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard and Al Thornton at these spots (not to mention Yi Jianlian and Trevor Booker). Any of these players could help fantasy teams given 30 minutes per game.
A deal in the frontcourt would help, but even post-Gilbert Arenas exodus the Wizards might benefit from one more move in the backcourt. Nick Young has finally shown signs of blooming (in a classic contract-year push) but might have trouble getting minutes if John Wall manages to stay healthy. Kirk Hinrich has simply been too stunningly competent to leave on the bench.
Sacramento Kings(Record: 6-23, Playoff Odds: 0.0, Pace: 95.4)
The Kings are in a similar situation to the Timberwolves, with a bevy of nice yet not earth-shattering young talent fighting for fantasy relevance at multiple positions. Paul Westphal used to be one of my favorite fantasy coaches, but he's become a less reliable version of Don Nelson, seemingly trotting out a new lineup every night.
Jason Thompson, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Donte Greene have been yo-yoing around Westphal's rotation all season. Then you've got DeMarcus Cousins displaying a lack of willingness to work well with others to go along with an already difficult young player in Tyreke Evans. This is a team with young talent that seems to be headed for multiple moves on the coaching staff and on the roster, so watch the Kings closely as we head into 2011.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.