- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Until you've owned someone named Zaza on your fantasy basketball team, I don't think you can know the joy of it.
I know how much fun it can be. Last season, in the deepest of leagues, I owned Zaza Pachulia and had to play him because I had no other center and the rules dictated I play one. Darn rules!
On Sunday, during commercials and halftime of the exciting Philadelphia Eagles win at Giants Stadium, it was like reliving the joy all over again when I changed the channel and watched the Hawks give Pachulia 31 mostly wasted minutes in a 109-94 loss to the 76ers. Of course, that didn't stop me from clicking on his player card and considering him as a pickup, because in a very deep league, I again find myself in need of a center. Thanks, Chris Kaman and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and get well soon.
This isn't a column in which I blast Zaza or the lowly center position because, frankly, I don't think the 5s are hurting us that much. The position might remain the NBA equivalent of the fantasy baseball catcher, based on its depth and high-end talent, but the big difference is someone like Al Harrington or David Lee slips through with center eligibility every so often. I'm still waiting for, um, David DeJesus to spend an inning behind the plate.
Depth is the main problem I see -- when you lose your center in a deep league, it's hard to replace him. There are point guards out there. There are scorers, and you generally can find a low-scoring shot-blocker if you want one. Nobody is going to trade you a top center, though, because in a lot of cases, fantasy owners are using them at other spots. Marcus Camby might be your power forward, Pau Gasol a forward, Emeka Okafor a utility guy. Lose any of them, and you don't need to investigate the recent play of Jeff Foster because you probably have forward depth on the bench.
So I added Pachulia, although let's make it clear right now this isn't likely to be a long-term relationship. I did Google him, since I like to know a bit more about my fave players. (Speaking of which, check out the YouTube video of Kevin Garnett dropping Zaza, formerly known as Zaur, with an elbow.)
Anyway, I'm likely to explore center options on a daily basis, depending on when and whom they are playing. A week ago, I wouldn't have thought of Pachulia, but when someone gets an opportunity to play a lot more minutes -- as Pachulia will because of the unfortunate bone bruise Al Horford suffered in his right knee -- fantasy owners must at least consider him. And really, Pachulia has had bouts of success in his career, occasionally with numbers similar to those the 98.9 percent owned Horford has been posting. It's not like Horford was helping you win your league.
My point is, when I looked at free agency in this particular league, I found some decent guards and forwards, ones who could help a fantasy team, some of whom would be discussed in my colleague Brian McKitish's "Working the Wire" column. But if you need a center, the available crew isn't likely to make you smile.
Kaman is the top available center in two of my leagues; then again, I was the one who drafted him and, in the past week, put him on waivers. Joakim Noah is inexplicably owned in nearly 57 percent of ESPN leagues, despite averaging 4.5 points per game and the same amount of rebounds and minutes as Pachulia. See, it's all about the name value, as Pachulia is owned in just 0.7 percent of leagues. Nick Collison, Spencer Hawes and Anderson Varejao are other center-eligibles I saw available in both my ESPN head-to-head formats, and neither of those leagues is terribly deep.
Anyway, if you're scraping for a center, Pachulia isn't the worst pickup. Faint praise perhaps, but could he average 12 points and seven rebounds with the occasional block over the next fortnight? That's really all it would take for him to become relevant. Here are five others, in addition to Pachulia, I considered with my free-agent pickup:
Ben Wallace, Cavaliers: You know before you click on Wallace's name that he's not going to score points, but other than that and the occasional bricked free throw, Wallace is someone who can help a fantasy team. Over the past two weeks, he has averaged more than two blocks per game and has had two three-steal outings, and his rebounds have been pretty consistent all season. When you own Wallace, you might not be aware of how much he's helping you, but he is.
Matt Bonner, Spurs: The reason everyone loves Rasheed Wallace so much -- statistically, at least -- isn't his points and boards, but the 3-pointers he drains from the center spot. I mean, you'd own him anyway, but he ends up a top-40 player thanks to the 3s. Bonner isn't Sheed, but he hits more 3s per game than Kobe Bryant, Mike Miller, Carmelo Anthony and Kyle Korver, among all but 50 others. Bonner also is shooting 58 percent from the field over the past few weeks.
Brian Skinner, Clippers: Hey, I said deep leagues. Someone has to play in the frontcourt for that other L.A. team, and Skinner has scored exactly 11 points in three of his past four games and has been blocking shots. I normally don't pay much attention to schedules, but he has been doing this against the top West teams (Hornets, Suns, Spurs and Mavericks). With easier prey, um, opponents ahead, Skinner might even give us the occasional double-double.
Erick Dampier, Mavericks: I have an odd affinity for Dampier, I admit, because it's just so much fun watching him play. It's not particularly fun watching Pachulia run the floor or battle for position, but Dampier does it with class. He doesn't play much, despite being a starter, and he doesn't shoot much, despite being open pretty much all the time, but are you aware that six times this season, he has pulled in 13 or more rebounds in one game? Also, he rarely misses a shot. He's an amazing 18-for-19 from the field in January. OK, that's over six games, and it's not a lot of shots, so the shooting percentage doesn't help very much, but do the math on what Rafer Alston's percentage would look like if he made 18 of his next 19. Anyway, I already own Dampier in a league, and I have no complaints.
Nenad Krstic, Thunder: He hasn't gotten off to a great start since signing with the Thunder on Dec. 30, having totaled 10 rebounds in his first three games, but his minutes are going to increase, he blocked two shots in each of those three games and there's clearly opportunity for him to score. Last week, I wrote Krstic wasn't a shot-blocker but could help in rebounds. So far, it has been just the opposite. Regardless, in deep leagues, he is worth a look on the off chance he averages 12 points and eight boards.
Tim (NYC): "Eric, I'm in a 12-team head-to-head keeper league in which each team keeps three players. My first two keepers will be Chris Paul and Chris Bosh, but I'm having trouble figuring out a third. The current guys under consideration are Yao Ming, Gerald Wallace and Michael Beasley, but I'm wondering if you think I should try to get Monta Ellis as my third keeper or stick with one of my current guys? Also, do you think Gilbert Arenas should warrant any consideration? Much appreciated.
Karabell: I don't make up the mail, but I do realize some people are already looking ahead to 2009-10. This gives us a chance to discuss Ellis, whose injured ankle is progressing and should allow him back in the Golden State lineup by the All-Star break. I still think Ellis could be like Kevin Martin is in Sacramento, scoring insane amounts of points on occasion. Generally, I tell people to take a look at where players are likely to be drafted. Paul and Bosh are likely first-rounders, and obvious keepers, but wouldn't Yao be the next player off the board? Yao's statistics are never a concern, just his games played, but it's not like he's 35 years old. Many owners would make the mistake of protecting Beasley over him, but he's not going to be a 19-9 guy with blocks and center eligibility, like Yao. I'd keep Yao, and if you're already out of the race and see no hope, look into moving Ellis and Beasley. Maybe you can upgrade Yao to Dwight Howard?
Nick (Toronto): "Hey Eric, I'm in a points league with 13-man rosters and am currently ranked 10th out of 12, mainly because I'm almost 100 games played back from the leader. I still have the highest fantasy points per game average, and have been patient, convincing myself of a huge second-half comeback. My games played is low because of Elton Brand, Baron Davis, T.J. Ford, Josh Howard, Drew Gooden, Greg Oden, Corey Maggette, Luol Deng, Mike Dunleavy and Gilbert Arenas, who have all missed significant time, and seven of which are still injured. Do I need to make a move, or will they heal enough to get me enough games played?"
Karabell: Not to be mean, but I wouldn't want to have this team. Yes, things should get better, but you might be too far behind, even after 10 weeks, to make that big a comeback. The problem is what else could you have done? Some of these players just aren't tradable for anywhere near market value. With nearly your entire team beaten up, patience could work, but you have to really take advantage of accruing games the rest of the way. I assume you have a total games limit, and others are going to come up against it in March. Also, this theory is more likely to work in a points league; if you're under .500 in a head-to-head league, making up games is difficult. So, to answer your question, at this point I don't think I'd make a major move, as Maggette, Dunleavy and Gooden are already back, Howard shouldn't be out long, and Brand should return this month. I would move Arenas for whatever you can, though. I didn't, and still don't, expect him back this season.
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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