Commentary

Identifying bounce-back players

Updated: January 12, 2012, 6:50 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

I want to take you back in time.

Back to a time when the Goo Goo Dolls ruled the music industry. When there was a music industry. When we flocked to theaters in droves to thrill to hits like Armageddon, Mulan and The Parent Trap (in case you haven't noticed, I play for Team Disney).

Back to when The Current Mrs. Cregan was The Future Mrs. Cregan, weepily hurling her engagement across Blockbuster parking lots at the drop of a VHS copy of The Horse Whisperer.

It was 1998. It was the last time we fantasy enthusiasts faced the ominous drought of a basketball-less existence.

And back then, as now, the drought gave way to a joyous announcement that there would be a season after all, albeit an abbreviated and compacted one.

But both times, we didn't care, we were just happy to have our NBA back, and flocked to our televisions to witness the glorious re-emergence of what you and I believe to be our great American sport.

Then everyone … kind of sucked.

In February 1999, the NBA as a whole drunkenly stumbled out of the gate. It was Darvin Ham ugly. For that month, not a single team averaged 100 points per game (the Kings came closest at 98.9 ppg). The Nets averaged 84.5 points for the month, but that was "Showtime" compared to the Bulls, who averaged a not-so-much-Jordanesque-as-Mikanesque 80.9 per tilt.

But teams, fans and fiancées alike all dug in, put in the work, aced Pre-Cana, and eventually matters improved. Don't believe me? Take a look at the bottom of the column at the chart, which ESPN Stats & Info lovingly compiled for us, showing the NBA's drastic swing in scoring in the 1999 season.

There are some unbelievable upshifts in there. The Joumana Kidd-powered Nets went from 84.5 ppg in February to 106.3 in June. The Hornets soared from 87.2 ppg to 114.3. Even the Bulls clawed their way to 85.0.

The numbers were just as extreme in field goal percentage. A majority of NBA teams underwent a 5-8-point boost from the field during the course of the season. Several marquee players spent their first few games apparently re-teaching their bodies how to shoot a basketball. Allen Iverson shot 27 percent from the field his first week back. Kevin Garnett wasn't much better at 30 percent.

And for all his early-season struggles, Iverson went on to lead the NBA with 26.8 ppg. Garnett ended up with a career-high 19.8 ppg.

The point of all this? That you, dear owner, are looking at some historic buy-low opportunities, opportunities not seen for more than a decade.

Overall, the quality of offense has been so bad so far that production has nowhere to go but up. Injuries will heal, coaches will be fired and offenses will improve. (If you want an example of how quickly fantasy fortunes can shift, take a look at the Keith Smart-led Kings.)

The key is to identify the struggling players most likely to bounce back before the market corrects itself. Here's a top 10:

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks (18.6 ppg, 19.0 3-pt% -- down from 23.0 ppg, 39.3 3-pt%)

The Mavericks are averaging a paltry 93.2 ppg (18th in the league), a far cry from the 100.2 they notched in 2010-11. Dirk's struggles are the bellwether stat. Not that he didn't warn us; he admitted he wasn't heading into the season at 100 percent. But Dirk isn't going to stay this bad for long. He's already flashed a couple of dominant lines and will get it going by the end of the month, I promise.

[+] EnlargeSteve Nash
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesSteve Nash's scoring, assists and even his already-small rebound numbers are down this season.

Steve Nash, PG, Phoenix Suns (12.1 ppg, lowest since 1999-2000)

As Seth Landman pointed out in Wednesday's Player Rater column, Nash is still producing, but his minutes have been cut, so his production has followed suit. What I'd like to add is that throughout his career, Nash has been a slow starter and has historically picked it up. While his mega-Nash days might be behind him, he's still an elite producer in a statistically top-heavy category, evidenced by his 17-assist explosion against the Bucks earlier this week.

Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat (20.5 ppg, 44.0 FG% -- down from 25.5 ppg, 50.0 FG%)

Plantar fasciitis. I don't need Stephania Bell to scare the heck out of me on this one. But in Wade's case, I think it's a buy-low opportunity for less-skittish owners, especially ones who were waiting for Wade to come back and throw up a couple of nice lines before selling. A la Kobe, I fully expect Wade to play through this injury. The rest of the Heat are already rolling at a mid-May clip (106.4 ppg), so it should just be a matter of days before Wade returns to his normal 50 percent from the field.

Amare Stoudemire, PF/C, New York Knicks (20.9 ppg, 43.4 FG% -- down from 25.3 ppg, 50.2 FG%)

Stoudemire's been nursing an ankle injury and has lacked some of his usual explosiveness, as evidenced by his drop in blocks (down to 0.5 per game). He hasn't had a block since Dec. 29, when he was hurt playing the Lakers. Still, Stoudemire's struggled from the field overall, which is more a byproduct of rust than the ankle. From his games I've seen, the Knicks' lack of steady production at point guard has hurt up and down their lineup; it's been shocking to see a Mike D'Antoni team averaging only 95.3 ppg. They're due for a big, big offensive bounce-back.

Luol Deng, SF, Chicago Bulls (14.5 ppg, 40.2 FG% -- lowest FG% in career, fewest ppg since 2008-09)

Anytime anyone shoots 5-for-21 against the Washington Generals'/Wizards' defense, it's troubling. But Deng has still been passable, having thrown up back-to-back double-doubles this week. His stroke has re-appeared here and there, indicating it's only a matter of time before he finds some consistency.

[+] EnlargeDanny Granger
Michael Hickey/US PresswireDanny Granger didn't shoot better than 42.1 percent in a game until Jan. 11.

Danny Granger, SF, Indiana Pacers (15.9 ppg, 33.6 FG% -- down from 20.5 ppg, 42.5 FG%)

The Pacers have been winning with defense, so their offensive struggles (only 92.6 ppg) haven't been on the radar. But other than Dirk, I can't point to another player due for a larger upswing than Granger. While I never expect Granger to return to his 25 ppg heights, I still think he'll end up averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds and two 3-pointers a night. He had a big game last night, so buy low while you still can.

David West, PF, Indiana Pacers (11.0 ppg, 43.0 FG% -- down from 18.9 ppg, 50.8 FG%)

This one's a little tougher to peg because of West's particular conflagration of circumstance: West is on a new team, he's CP3-less, he's coming off major knee surgery, Indiana's scoring is down and his minutes are getting stepped on by Tyler Hansbrough. You know what indicates things will improve? Two years, $20 million, that's what. The Pacers are playing well and can afford to ease West in (he's logging only 27.6 minutes per game), but that's a lot of money to spend on a time-share. West will be given every opportunity to round his high-efficiency game into shape.

Deron Williams, PG, New Jersey Nets (16.9 ppg, 8.2 apg, 35.4 FG% -- down from 20.1 ppg, 10.3 apg, 43.9 FG%)

The problem here isn't so much of a lack of passing as it is a lack of people to pass to. But before hurting his ankle/being ejected Wednesday night, Williams had still managed to post three consecutive double-doubles. Until Brook Lopez comes back, he's all the Nets have, so Williams will get his numbers, even if they're more volume-based than efficiency-based. Remember, no matter the Nets' collective circumstances, Williams is in a contract year.

Kevin Martin, SG, Houston Rockets (16.7 ppg, 41.3 FG% -- down from 23.5 ppg, 43.6 FG%)

It's early and Martin has had the flu. I think it's as simple as that. Maybe there's some trade hangover bubbling around the edges, but the Rockets badly need his scoring punch, and he should still be in line for 15-20 shot attempts a night.

Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (18.8 ppg, 43.3 FG pct -- down from 21.9 ppg, 44.2 FG%)

I almost took Westbrook off this list (I did take off Tony Parker) after his 22-point, 7-assist outing Wedensday night. But you still might find an owner who's pouting (as their point guard has been known to do) about the slow start and willing to deal.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPCregan.

John Cregan

Fantasy Basketball
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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