- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I'm often asked in chats when I start panicking on players off to slow starts. It's different for all sports, really, and always depends on a number of factors that affect your team. Can you afford to wait longer? Can you actually get a better player? Is this guy just disappointing, or really hurting you? Are there keeper ramifications to think about long-term? We could go on and on here. Point is, it's too early to panic. Talk to me in 2009. New Year's Day isn't just for hangovers; it's the equivalent to Memorial Day in fantasy baseball or Week 4 in fantasy football -- the time when stuff starts to matter.
With one month down, I've already made decisions on a bunch of players, but it doesn't mean I'm going to trade or cut them. One still must think about value, how to take advantage of it and how to interpret it. For example, a common whipping boy the first month has probably been Greg Oden, and hardly just by me. When he had a stretch of three double-doubles in four games upon suiting up for the Blazers, I saw the angry feedback saying I had misjudged him. I also tried to move him on the team I foolishly overdrafted him on! Since that stretch, Oden has been Przybilla-like, which is my way of saying he just hasn't looked real good or special at all. His time will come, but to trade him for someone like Raja Bell -- or just cut him -- just doesn't make sense.
Then there are others who I expected would step up, but really haven't. I didn't think Denver's J.R. Smith would score 20 points a night and lead the league in 3-pointers, but hey, I thought he'd be better than this. I've been rewarded by the play of some (Andrea Bargnani), and burned by others (Marcus Williams), as is to be expected. There's a reason why the evaluation process isn't just for fantasy owners; it's of course also for real-life coaches. Some things don't come to fruition the way one thinks they will. Alas, it's still only one month of action, or five weeks in my ESPN head-to-head leagues.
Here is whom I would call the most-discussed, volatile, interesting fantasy hoops players/situations -- whatever you call them -- this first month and how I would react moving forward if I had them. Chances are I do have them somewhere.
Dwyane Wade is a monster: I don't think there was any doubt about Wade's ability, but do I think he's going to average 28.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks per game all season? No, I do not. My preseason concern with Wade was about durability, and it remains a concern now as he plays 37.1 minutes per game. In December 2007, Wade averaged 27.1 points, 7.8 assists, 1.5 steals and a block per game. If only there were a March and April for him, he might have been a top-3 player on draft day. I'd be cautious. I'm more confident Chris Bosh and Danny Granger, for example, can keep up their numbers. Wade is the current leader on ESPN's Player Rater, and if I was redrafting right now, maybe he'd be No. 3 or No. 4 overall, but there's nowhere to go but down from No. 1.
No, Dwight Howard will not improve his free throw percentage: I didn't tell people to avoid drafting Orlando's man-child, but I did warn them they were punting a category if they took him anyway. Just don't complain now that trading for Chauncey Billups isn't helping your free throw percentage. It won't! Howard is terrific, delivering not just nightly 20-10s, but 21.8, 13.9 boards and a Mark Eaton-like 3.88 blocks. That last stat is just crazy. A season ago, when Marcus Camby blocked 3.61 shots per game, he led the league by 0.79 over Josh Smith. Currently Howard leads Camby by 1.34! Anyway, if you own Howard, you're last in free throw percentage. Howard leads the NBA in attempts by 47, so no matter how many Reggie Millers you acquire, it won't matter. When Ben Wallace air-balls a freebie, nobody cares, because it might be the only time he goes to the line all night. Howard lives there.
Kobe Bryant is so average: Not true. He's not in the top 10 on the Player Rater, and his numbers are consistently down across the board, but they're still pretty darn good. Those who predicted Bryant would take a step backward statistically this season were right on, but I still don't think it warranted his leaving the top 5 on draft day. We'll take 25, 5 and 4, and note there's always a chance he'll drop 35, 7 and 7 every night over a two-week period just to prove he can. I'd argue it's a good thing his minutes are being monitored, especially if you're a Lakers fan and you want a championship. This is a very good team, and it seems to me Kobe is playing the Paul Pierce role from a season ago; a title run's a comin', so why waste energy before Thanksgiving?
Roger Mason is still Roger Mason: The Spurs' savior -- so far -- is No. 41 on the Player Rater, ahead of Devin Harris, Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan, among many others, but he won't stay there. It's all about opportunity in the NBA. I maintain that if George Karl would just leave J.R. Smith alone for 30 minutes, we'd have a potential Peja Stojakovic on our hands. But we don't. Mason is a mere one 3-pointer off Rashard Lewis' league lead. Mason will still hit treys when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili get their minutes back, but not like this. He's the obvious choice for sell-high from the Player Rater, but I'd also include Ray Allen (the top Celtic?), Spencer Hawes (how about all top-50 Kings, for that matter?), Andrei Kirilenko and one of the two rookies. Don't be fooled by the numbers that can't possibly continue.
Where's Michael Beasley? Look, if you drafted a rookie in Round 4 and don't like what you're seeing, it's not like you weren't warned. Or maybe you're just angry you drafted the wrong rookie. These first-year guys are known for breaking hearts. Despite my desire to avoid anyone under the age of 34 years old, I do have Derrick Rose on two teams, and after watching him carve up the 76ers on Sunday night, I actually think he'll improve as the season goes on. The wicked move he put on Andre Miller, essentially knocking the old man down without touching him, was priceless. I also saw O.J. Mayo play recently, and he's a stud: He can't be guarded and hits his freebies, but I just thought he'd accrue more assists. Hard to complain about him, though. I'd still move him on the premise he's not going to finish the season as a top-20 player, which he currently is on our rater. I think Rose will get there. Beasley, who saved the Heat in overtime Monday night, would be Kevin Durant, I think, if Wade got hurt.
He's 45th at center! I like the Player Rater for what it is, but it's not everything. Greg Oden is currently ranked behind 44 other centers, but you have to take into account value, missed games, how he's good in certain stats, etc. Needless to say, Oden is a lightning rod for fantasy discussion. Everyone wants to know when he'll be Al Jefferson. Not this year, sorry to say. I'd take it as a very good sign Oden is healthy and capable of double-doubles. Next, maybe we'll see consistency and touch. He remains both a buy-low and sell-high option, depending on circumstance. When someone offers up a current top-40 player for him, I would jump. If someone offers him up for Chris Quinn, you buy. I think he can average what Andris Biedrins did a season ago -- a low double-double with blocks -- but Oden has to stay on the court.
Speaking of injuries Still no sign of Monta Ellis or Gilbert Arenas, and I'm thisclose to sending Mike Dunleavy to the free-agent list in a head-to-head league. It's not looking good. Not that this surprises me, because anyone who's going to miss the first two months scares me. Who can afford to wait that long? The big top-20 busts have been Utah's Deron Williams, who is mercifully back playing and has three double-doubles in three games, and Denver's Carmelo Anthony, dealing with an elbow injury. If you drafted Tracy McGrady and can't understand why he's missing games, you just weren't paying attention.
When will Stephon Marbury play? I'm not sure why so many people in the fantasy world care about this. When Marbury did play a season ago, was he so good that he was in such demand? The Knicks are actually a fun team to watch, and they've greatly affected the fantasy community, in what I'd say is a positive way. It's a shame Marbury remains the paramount story from the Knicks and has overshadowed the good. Yeah, he's a career 20-and-8 guy, but does he even want to play? He's owned in 7.1 percent of ESPN leagues, which makes sense if you can burn a bench spot, but more than Luke Ridnour, who at least plays? As for the nice Knicks stories, Chris Duhon is a legit assists guy, David Lee had a Dwight Howard game recently sans the blocks and Wilson Chandler has been a legit breakout guy. Maybe Al Harrington has even found a short-term home. I doubt Marbury plays an NBA game anytime soon, if at all this season, and I know LeBron James won't be a Knick this season, but those are the headlines we see from Gotham. It's kind of a shame.
Just look at that front line!: The Clippers already had formidable twin towers with Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, and picking up Zach Randolph made it quite interesting. It's just a shame Kaman hurt his foot, and the trio is down to a duo again. Randolph can score, even with those other guys, and be a 20-10 guy. Camby doesn't need shots. And Kaman is on so many of my teams. He's a steal for 14, 10 and 2 blocks for where I drafted him. I'm not saying the Clippers will be one of the league's most-improved teams from here on out, because it's not like Baron Davis or any of the big men are durable, but I do think this could really work out in fantasy for everyone. That's why I kept taking Kaman; this should be a lesson that really tall, shot-blocking centers can work together if one of them -- like Camby -- doesn't demand the ball. In Philly, Samuel Dalembert doesn't want to shoot. The other stuff is there, though.
And my favorite player is We all have players we pay special attention to, someone we either took late or off free agency who has become a staple of our teams. Or maybe it's LeBron, someone we know we can count on for dominance every single night. I get asked quite a bit whom I keep closer tabs on than normal, and it's probably worth a column topic later. I can say when Miami's Mario Chalmers has one of his special nights, knowing where I drafted him in a very, very deep league, I smile more than when, say, Tayshaun Prince does something big. Same with the Knicks' Chandler, Marc Gasol, Beno Udrih and Brook Lopez. The Lopez brothers have faced off twice, and let me tell you, that is must-see television.
Joe (Milford, Conn.): Hey Eric, I'm in a nine-category, 12-team fantasy basketball league. I've been offered Carmelo Anthony and Jeff Green for Mo Williams and Tracy McGrady. I'm really losing patience with waiting for a T-Mac who may never be healthy, so should I make this trade?"
Karabell: I picked this e-mail out of many others because it includes a few names we've been discussing the first month. First of all, I don't want McGrady on my team. I'd certainly take the underwhelming numbers if I had no choice -- he's still better than waiver-wire material even at 15, 4 and 4 -- but even the most optimistic among us has to realize he's going to miss many games. I've written quite a bit about Cleveland's Williams, and so far he's doing just about what I expected. Again, I never mind feedback -- good or bad -- but there didn't seem to be many e-mails agreeing with my stance that Williams would average 15 and 5 per game. He's currently at 15.7 points, 4.6 assists, 1.7 3-pointers and less than a steal per game. I'd say he's doing precisely as expected. You can't expect eight dimes per game next to LeBron, you just can't! Anyway, I've recently lowered my expectations on Anthony. Clearly he's hurting, as if the 39 percent field goal percentage wasn't proof enough. I'd take this deal in a heartbeat, assuming you have enough assists. Even if you don't, it's not like Williams gets that many. Anthony might have to miss time coming up, but he's going to raise the shooting percentage, and while he's not the perfect buy-low, he's a good one. Move McGrady before the really bad news comes.
Ben (Sydney, Australia): I was offered Jermaine O'Neal and Joe Johnson for Amare Stoudemire. This was about a week before O'Neal went down with knee problems again. At the time, it seemed quite fair. I would have been decreasing my field goal percentage and increasing my turnovers, but fixing a major problem for me in 3s and keeping my rebounds. Mind you, I have Hedo Turkoglu, Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups to hit 3s. Admittedly, they've been light early on. Still I was seriously considering it. Thoughts?"
Karabell: I wrote in last week's column that everyone in fantasy hoops can be traded. It might take a bit more to acquire a top-5 player like Stoudemire, but Atlanta's Johnson is No. 10 on the rater. I'm not a big O'Neal fan right now, but 12 and 8 with the occasional block is ownable. You seem to know that your shooting guard types will improve, but it's never a problem getting a versatile guy like Johnson. Just beware that O'Neal might sit a month at some point and leave you without a big man.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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