- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I'm sure it's mere coincidence that Andrei Kirilenko lost his title as a monster fantasy player who combined scoring, rebounding, stealing and blocking like nobody else after the odd announcement from his wife that he was encouraged to, um, wander once a year. You do remember that shocking revelation from an ESPN The Magazine interview about three years ago, don't you? It was right around the time the Russian forward was finishing up his last good season. Since then, things haven't gone so well, but hey, at least he can enjoy life off of the court.
I can't say the latest Kirilenko injury has me bitter, because I wasn't really buying in anyway. It's sad to say that halfway through a season you're still expecting something bad to happen to a player, but that was the case. I don't own Kirilenko on any teams, electing to draft actual healthy, consistent players, though he was offered to me in a trade recently. It was a fine deal, especially since I coveted blocked shots, but I said no pretty much out of spite and bad recent memories. I mean, look at his player card and his drop off from 2005-06 to the following season. It's drastic. Players have changes in scoring and other stats from time to time, but to drop off like that, without warning? This was a top-10 player!
Anyway, the trade offer had me parting with Jameer Nelson, who I like but don't really need, with Kirilenko coming back in a 2-for-2 deal. I picked up Chris Andersen recently, desperate for blocks. Kirilenko was coming off one of his signature games the night before the offer, with 23 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and three blocks. It didn't matter, I couldn't pull the trigger. It's a shame, too, because he can be an electrifying player. A week later, he's hurt again.
A friend asked me if I'd ever trust Kirilenko again, and I chuckled. Sure, he'd been valuable this season, still in the top 50 on the Player Rater, but he's not the same player he used to be. I can live with that. Who among us is the same, anyway, as we reach the age of 25? Who wouldn't want 12 and 6 with nice steals and blocks from a utility player? I just didn't want to pay for more, especially knowing his injury history. Nobody should ever root for injuries, but there are some players you just can't be surprised about when they miss games. For Kirilenko, I guess it's all his wife's fault.
Would it be too pessimistic of me to name my top -- or is it bottom? -- five for players I wouldn't trust? Hey, at least Dwyane Wade is off the list. I didn't draft him anywhere because of the risk of injury, but I had no doubts about his ability. I just don't want people to think I'm negative. In fact, I want my teams to do well so I make sure these players aren't on the squads! OK, after the bottom five, how about players I do trust, but didn't three months ago?
Can't Trust 'Em
1. Tracy McGrady, SG, Rockets: He came back over the weekend and scored 15 points against the Pistons. That's wonderful for a first game back after missing a few weeks for "conditioning" except, well, that's his scoring average for the season. You think Kirilenko has fallen off from his salad days? The Rockets are playoff-bound, they should play McGrady sparingly and keep him "conditioned" for mid-April. From a fantasy aspect, I see little reason why a brittle player way underperforming from past seasons is even owned in 96.1 percent of leagues. The magic is gone.
2. Andrei Kirilenko, PF, Jazz: I probably made it seem like his season is over, but that's not the case, at least not officially. Last I heard, Kirilenko is hoping to hold off on ankle surgery until after the season. I remain skeptical.
3. Gilbert Arenas, PG, Wizards: Honestly, how can we ever trust him again? I'm not sure he even wants to play anymore. The point is he's owned in 81.3 percent of leagues, so plenty of people are relying on him returning. Last quote from him I saw on his return was his telling the Washington Times, "I don't know. I mean, seven wins? Would you?" That's the spirit! The good news is the Wiz have nine wins now. Bad news is -- let's be real -- he's not coming back.
4. Marcus Camby, C, Clippers: The blocks are down, but everywhere else he looks very, very good. At last count, he had missed four games with a sprained ankle, and the fact his numbers look very, very good makes it all the more frustrating to own him, which I do. Apparently I waited too long to move him. He'll be back soon, but when's the next time something will befall him? Hard to believe he played 79 games a season ago. If his team was contending, maybe I'd Wait, the Clippers? Contending? I need to sit down.
5. Greg Oden, C, Blazers: He beat up the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks for 24 and 15 this past week, so I finally added him in a head-to-head league for the weekend. He played well, and I've still got him. The fact a guy owned in 90.2 percent of leagues -- I think it was around 88 percent at the time -- was even available in my league was surprising, but clearly I'm not the only one in that 10-teamer who was skeptical. Oden is on a hot streak now, but this past week he barely played. He's scoring more recently, but the tradeoff since Thanksgiving has been a lack of blocks. Hey, someday this guy should be a fantasy monster. This season, I'd be careful in trusting him as a safe double-double guy.
Can Trust 'Em
1. Shaquille O'Neal, C, Suns: I'm probably making a mistake, but the big guy looks reborn, putting up big stats again, blocking more shots, hitting what could be a career-best free throw percentage. It's not just that he's playing every night, but he's playing so well. I think the fact the Suns have O'Neal playing such a large role will give him reason to play a full season. I'm taking the over on 70 games played.
2. Andrea Bargnani, C, Raptors: He's having a monster January, a Nowitzki-like big man who hits 3-pointers and will score in the 20s consistently. He stunk in December, but I stuck with him. Glad I did. I'm still buying.
3. Nene, C, Nuggets: The Carmelo Anthony injury has statistically helped Nene, and I can see his owners jumping ship when Anthony returns this week. I wouldn't do that. His blocks and steals were actually better when Anthony was playing, and I think that's worth the dip in scoring and rebounding. However, it comes down to health. It's been five seasons since Nene played a (near) full season. I'm optimistic he does it this year.
4. Bucks backcourt: The season-ending injury to Michael Redd stinks, but it clearly opens opportunity for Ramon Sessions, who started next to Luke Ridnour on Monday and scored 18 points. Sessions doesn't have 3-point range, and Ridnour is likely to get more assists, but both point guards should see plenty of playing time. Ridnour's stats are a bit down in January, but he remains a top-20 guy in assists, his steals are up and he doesn't miss free throws. For him to be owned in 23 percent of leagues is stunning. These guys aren't stars, but they're ownable, and I see them staying that way. Sounds like a future column on point guards playing together, doesn't it?
5. The Knicks: You might be wondering, which Knicks am I talking about? Well, how about all of them? Mike D'Antoni has this team sixth in the league in scoring, and I don't see that ending. Chris Duhon was never a valuable player before, but he's still going strong, though his assists are down this month. Everything else is up. Al Harrington hasn't shot well of late, but he's not hurt, and he won't stop shooting, so the 3s will be there. Nate Robinson lit up the 76ers for 26 points and six assists off the bench the other day, and he continues to thrive next to Duhon. David Lee is just flat-out unstoppable. I've given up on the inconsistent Wilson Chandler, but other than him, the Knicks are legit in fantasy.
Mike Teng (New York): "Eric, when is it a good time to trade away stats that you are leading in? I'm in a 10-team roto keeper with standard scoring. I'm leading in points and assists by 300 compared to the next highest owner. Is the halfway point enough time to upgrade in other categories without seriously jeopardizing my lead?"
Karabell: Honestly, I would do some quick math and see how long it will take for someone to catch, but remember, teams chasing you can still make moves as well. I don't think 300 is a ton of points to make up; consider there are roughly 11 weeks left in the roto season, so that's fewer than 30 points per week the next team would need to make up in scoring. That can be done. It can't really be done in assists. Also, it's not a big deal if one team catches you in a category. It is a big deal if you lose five spots. Go upgrade!
James (D.C.): "When I drafted Josh Smith in the second round, I expected him to carry my team in the blocks. Now, I can live with the general disappointment Smith has brought me due to injuries. It looks like he's finally remembered how to score 20 a night with good shooting. But why on earth are his blocks nearly half of what he did last year? Is he still tentative on that ankle that he's not willing to block as much? Do you think he's a sell high at this point on his namesake, or do you think he'll round into shape in the second half and at least break two blocks a game?"
Karabell: I can't really speculate why Smith isn't blocking shots at normal levels, but I generally don't expect someone to drastically change their game with half the season done. Sure, Smith has never blocked shots at this low a rate, but he's been back in the Atlanta lineup for eight weeks, and he's registered three or more blocks only three times in those 28 games. He's been scoring and rebounding more of late, but don't expect the blocks. I would still buy low, just not in the category you seem to need most.
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.
Eric Karabell looks at five players he just can't trust and five players he's finally buying into.