- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Real teams don't need top-shelf point guard play to win the NBA championship, and the same is true in fantasy hoops. Sure, it's nice to leave your draft with Chris Paul and Jason Kidd, but all that guarantees is you will have plenty of assists. Looking at the actual NBA, not all teams -- few, if you will -- are built that way. We say to go after point guards and power forwards, but if you still don't have them by January, stop looking.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, for notable examples, didn't need awesome point guards alongside them to win championships. Last season's Celtics had an emerging one, but really, they could have won it with Derek Fisher, rather than spunky Rajon Rondo, bringing the ball up court and occasionally finding the open man. Some of today's top contenders for the NBA title have what we would call top point guards and others plainly do not.
I won a fantasy title a season ago with Bryant and Vince Carter supplying a healthy portion of assists, and on draft day all people noticed about my team was the lack of a "top" point guard. They didn't notice the rest of the team was stacked. I did need someone to play point guard, and much of the year it was Jamaal Tinsley and Delonte West filling the spot -- hardly stars. You can get assists from other players and things can work out.
I'm often surprised that fantasy owners don't bother looking at the actual numbers when making decisions. Anyone can see who gets the assists, just by clicking on the leaderboard for that category, but once in a while it's wise to get a little creative. I see questions in my weekly chat from time to time in which an owner claims he's ninth in his league in assists despite having three true point guards. Well, do your forwards pass at all? And are your point guards more of the Jameer Nelson variety than the Chris Duhon ilk?
Here are random thoughts I have about point guards, and hopefully they will help you to make decisions the rest of the way.
The King: Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league, and it really isn't all that close. I know, I know, real breaking news here, but the point is, he's pretty much worth whatever you have to pay for him as long as LeBron James isn't in the deal. On the Player Rater, for example, no other point guards are ranked in the top 10 overall, and only Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Nelson break the top 25. Paul is a fantasy monster and he's still improving; at some point he should develop range, score more, etc. We could use a few more 3s, but then again, he wouldn't be shooting 49 percent from the field if he was shooting them.
Changes at No. 2: Steve Nash was the second point guard off the draft board in most leagues for this season, but I would rather own Deron Williams, not only for the future, but now. Williams missed a bunch of November games and it took him a while to find his shot, but he has looked like the only other 20-10 point guard of late, averaging 25 points and nine dimes over the past week. It's a really wise time to trade for the guy because his season numbers are so-so, and you can always point to his rather disappointing Player Rater value, which is that way, of course, only because he missed so many games.
No, Williams doesn't provide a lot of steals or 3-pointers, but then again, neither does Nash. And while we love Nash's 18 assists Sunday, in two of his previous three contests he ended up with only six. I can't fathom which leagues Williams isn't owned in (99.3 percent owned), but I would assume it goes back to mid-November when he was out, he was dumped and nobody in those leagues looks at free agency. By next season, when Carlos Boozer is officially somewhere else, the team will be built around Williams. For Nash, he'll merely be scoring less and less.
Not all point guards are created equal: Usually when drafting point guards, I'm certain to get at least one player I can count on for seven or more assists. Only nine players in the league are averaging that many assists for the season, and if you don't have one, it's like you're trying to make up ground all season. You don't have to win the category, but if Tony Parker is your top assists guy, you're probably going to end up middle of the pack.
The point is, everyone likes owning Chauncey Billups, as he's 10th in the league in assists and does a lot of other things to excite the fantasy owner (points, 3s, free throw percentage). He's also at least 50 assists behind Rajon Rondo and Chris Duhon, point guards inferior to him statistically. Nelson and Allen Iverson are certainly worth owning, but add their assists together and Paul still has them beat.
It's for this reason it was hard for me to view Parker, Mike Bibby and Mo Williams as No. 1 point guards. Parker is well on his way to his best assists season, but the other guys have still been a bit disappointing. I didn't make friends in Cleveland when I argued against the Mo Williams trade. He's second to James in scoring, and I guess we'll find out in May if he can be a true No. 2 go-to guy when it counts, but for fantasy owners we're not getting assists (3.9, yuck), steals or even the scoring he provided in Milwaukee. This is a major reason why fantasy and real hoops are different.
Center of attention: The main reason one would own a point guard in fantasy is to get the assists, though it's certainly possible to get them elsewhere. For example, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Joe Johnson and Andre Iguodala also supply assists. They are all 100 percent owned, of course, so you might need to look deeper down the category to find help.
One of my favorites for years has been Sacramento's Brad Miller, a man among boys when it comes to passing big men. Miller has been a steady assists helper for years, and occasionally he'll provide much more than 3.6 of them per game: In January he put up eight assists at the Nets, and in early November over a four-game stretch he provided 27 assists.
Maybe you don't think 3.6 assists per game matter. Well, if your centers are Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor and the underrated Brook Lopez -- two 100 percent owned centers and another well on his way -- you'd have a total of 107 assists for the season. Miller enters Tuesday with more than that by himself. Check out your league assists category and tell me how many spots you could move up if you owned him.
Take advantage of eligibility: I have competed in a league or two in which positions don't matter, and you merely need to activate 10 players regardless of size and ability, but for most of us you need one player who has point guard eligibility, and then a guard and utility options. If you do not have LeBron types who pass a lot, you'll need to have three players, at least, who provide enough assists to make a difference.
Maybe you own Kidd and Jose Calderon, so your third-ranked assists helper is Miller or Pau Gasol. That works. Or maybe you rely on a passing forward, someone like Stephen Jackson or Paul Pierce. Ben Gordon is averaging a career best in assists as well. None of those players has point guard eligibility, so enjoy assists from another spot. We're in January now, and if you have a point guard who doesn't get enough assists, see if you can pick up a forward who adds one or two of them per game over what you're using now.
Beware of the point/shooting guards: Jason Terry is a point guard in shooting guard clothes, or for eligibility only; for most of us, playing Terry at the point is like using Chone Figgins at third base in fantasy baseball. Sure, it's nice to have the added eligibility, and these are good players, but you need assists from your point guards, and power at third base, or else you're likely to be lacking.
Terry is a top-20 player to some because he's scoring 20 points a night, hitting plenty of 3s and doesn't miss free throws. We can view his assists both as a positive and negative. It's nice to own him as your shooting guard because he helps out more than many 2s, but if you took him too early and didn't get more pure point guards, chances are you're not competitive in the category.
There aren't too many players like Terry who have that added eligibility but don't provide the assists benefit, either. I like Figgins when he steals 50 bases, but the three home runs for the season at a power spot don't cut it. Jamal Crawford, Delonte West, Leandro Barbosa and Roger Mason could also fool you. Mason does what he does and he's thriving (the new Robert Horry, perhaps), but with 73 assists this season, he's not helping at all there.
Three I'm buying low: Kirk Hinrich of the Bulls isn't starting, and probably won't anytime soon, but he's getting enough minutes for 12 and 6. Don't worry, he's not going to hurt Derrick Rose statistically. Luke Ridnour of the Bucks is averaging 15 and 7 recently, with 3s and steals, but few are noticing. I've been saying since October that it's his job over Ramon Sessions. Yet who is owned in more leagues? Finally, keep an eye on both Charlotte and Oklahoma City. It's pretty obvious Russell Westbrook is going to emerge soon, especially if Earl Watson gets traded, but don't forget about the Bobcats: D.J. Augustin could step in for Raymond Felton, who is playing well but could also be trade bait. Often we see rookies get serious minutes by Christmas, but they don't actually run their teams until March.
Three I'm selling high: Injuries count, and it sure doesn't seem like Jose Calderon is healing well from his hamstring problem. Calderon was top-30 on draft day, but that was predicated on his really emerging. I'd argue he hasn't. Sure, he hasn't missed a free throw and the assists are there, but he's an average scorer and below average for steals. Plus, he's hurt. Maybe you can convince someone he'll be fine in a week, but he's a bit overrated to start with.
I'd also be concerned about Miami rookie Mario Chalmers. I've been on the bandwagon all season, but I didn't like what I saw over the weekend, and the Shawn Marion trade rumors could affect him in that the Heat could end up with a veteran Derek Fisher type next to Dwyane Wade. Chalmers hit one field goal in 17 attempts over a recent four-game stretch; I'm surprised he didn't get benched.
I would also move Devin Harris. I know it's difficult to trade a guy averaging 22.3 points and 6.4 assists, but look at his January figures and you can see he's going in the wrong direction. I'd wait a few games after his recent one-game benching, let him score 30 one night and see what you can get. If he averages 16 and 5 the rest of the way, you've lost value.
Finally, don't be concerned about what happens to Andre Miller when Elton Brand returns. Miller is shooting the lights out and scoring more sans Brand, but he's not getting as many assists. Not that I expect the assists to go up -- Andre Iguodala gets them, too -- but Miller will remain a strong fantasy asset.
Rick (Provo, Utah): "I'm thankful I burned only a late waiver slot on Tracy McGrady. Two weeks for conditioning? Is it officially safe to drop the part-time McGrady for a slightly lesser full-time player like Marquis Daniels or Kirk Hinrich? How about for Travis Outlaw? Also, what are the odds he misses more than the two weeks? Thanks!"
Karabell: Well, you came to the wrong place if you're looking for someone to talk you out of dropping McGrady. I wouldn't have added him in the first place. The optimist will point out a few weeks off should help refresh him, and looking at his current numbers, which are way below what was expected to start with, he can only get better. The pessimist -- which I am not, just realistic -- would point to how many games this guy misses every season, and say for McGrady to still be owned in 95 percent of leagues, owners are likely to be disappointed. Indiana's Daniels keeps missing games, and when he returns he'll find diminished, reserve minutes because Mike Dunleavy is back. Hinrich is 12 and 6, similar to McGrady, but Hinrich should shoot better. Outlaw doesn't excite me. If you owned him, you should have seen that his 33-point game was a mirage. In three games since he has scored 31 total. I'd play waiver-wire roulette with the hot hands, like Andrea Bargnani, Mardy Collins and Andray Blatche.
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.