- Tom Carpenter, Fantasy and Insider
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Key additions: None
Key departure: Ben Gordon
Sleeper: Luol Deng
Injuries have derailed Deng's career and fantasy potential, as he's missed 52 games in the past two seasons. He's supposed to be over the stress fracture in his leg that cost him all but 49 contests last season, but his average draft position (ADP) is 115th, which makes him a solid sleeper. Keep in mind that at his peak three seasons back, Deng averaged 18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals with great percentages (.517 from field, .777 from line). Ben Gordon took his 16 shots per game with him to Detroit, so Deng will have plenty of opportunity to match his peak performance and makes for a great bargain in the latter part of your draft.
If you paid attention only to their names and past performances, veterans Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Brad Miller could end up being busts for you. All three have been quality fantasy options in the past, but everyone knows that Hinrich's value is capped by battling Derrick Rose and John Salmons for playing time in the backcourt. We just discussed Deng's propensity for injuries, so everyone knows the risk involved with him. And Miller is 33 years old and in his own battle for playing time with Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas in the frontcourt. It's pretty obvious that nobody is drafting them based on name recognition or past performances in ESPN leagues, considering their ADPs: Deng (115th) Miller (129th), Kirk Hinrich (136).
In fantasy terms, the Bulls boil down to small forward Deng surrounded by three-headed monsters in the backcourt and frontcourt. The backcourt's time-share is between Rose, Salmons and Hinrich. Obviously, Rose is the man, so he's going to be on the floor for 38-plus minutes per game. Salmons actually averaged close to 38 minutes per game after coming over from the Kings for the final 26 games, and with Ben Gordon out of the picture, he should start at the 2 and produce similarly to what he did during that stretch last season. Because he's a mediocre point guard who likes to chuck shots, Hinrich offers little competition for the young star Rose or for the underrated Salmons, so he'll be limited to a reserve role unless he gets traded. The frontcourt time-share is between Thomas, Noah and Miller. Thomas is poised to become a fantasy monster if he can keep focused, but no one's sleeping on him (ADP of 66) in ESPN drafts. Noah should be able to churn out a double-double with 1.5 blocks or better as the starting center. Miller will make the most of his minutes off the bench. While that isn't enough to pack much of a fantasy punch, he'll make for a perfect late-round pick to round out your roster.
Key departures: None
Sleeper: Shaquille O'Neal
It seems insane that the biggest big man of all time could go unnoticed, but that still seems to be the case this preseason. I took him with the very last pick of ESPN's first mock draft, and I was honestly surprised to see him still available at 130. How many players left at that point even have a remote possibility of averaging 17.8 points, 8.4 boards, 1.4 blocks and 60.9 percent of 11.2 shots per game, like Shaq did last year? LaMarcus Aldridge, who went 45th in our draft, didn't post better numbers than that. Obviously, people are down on Shaq for his free throws, his injury history and his age (37). Free throws have always been his Achilles' heel in fantasy, but since he doesn't take double-digit attempts anymore (fewer than seven per game the past two seasons), it won't destroy your free throw percentage in roto leagues. As for his health, you have to assume that playing 75 games last season was a fluke. But if you're taking him to round out your roster in deeper leagues or just to give you depth at center, there is virtually no risk in giving Shaq a shot in the 10th round or later.
Bust: Anderson Varejao
With Ben Wallace shipped out of town, Varejao should have his hands on the starting power forward job for the season. If you've been waiting for Varejao to get starter's minutes and blow up into a decent fantasy big man, it's not going to happen. He actually reminds me of a former Cav, Tyrone Hill, who always hovered around a double-double, carried a good field goal percentage and didn't block many shots. He was a staple of my teams back in the day whenever I needed to rack up some boards in deeper leagues. Ty maxed out during his All-Star 1994-95 campaign with 13.8 points and 10.9 boards. While I believe Varejao can top 10 boards a night, he doesn't really have the scoring ability in the post to top more than 10-11 points each game. Take a double-double power forward with little or no production in other categories, toss him into a frontcourt consisting of Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and you can't really expect Varejao to break out in any sense of the word. On a team full of reliable veterans, Varejao's the closest thing to a bust you'll find in Cleveland this season.
Wow! I actually managed to make it this far into the Cleveland Cavaliers' preview without mentioning LeBron James. Actually, that does make some sense, since he's a man who needs no introduction. The only thing I'll say about LeBron's fantasy game that might slip by you for a split second is that he doesn't turn 25 until Dec. 30, so if you think you've seen him max out his fantasy potential, you are wrong. Mo Williams had an outstanding run last season, and while he may score a little less with Shaq on board, he'll add some more dimes and keep his overall value steady. The Cavs added Anthony Parker over the summer. While he can get hot for stretches and be a decent source of 3s and steals in deep leagues, he's strictly a role player who won't see enough touches to do anything special. There are some decent low-end players on the Cavs' bench, like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West and Jamario Moon, but playing behind Shaq, Williams and LeBron, respectively, means none of them will see enough action on a regular basis to be useful in fantasy terms. Also note that West currently is dealing with personal and legal issues that may affect his role with the team.
Sleeper: Rodney Stuckey
The former Eastern Washington Eagle has been the point guard of the future in Detroit for two seasons, but now he is the point guard of the present. The Allen Iverson distraction from last season is gone, and the Pistons must have Stuckey step up and become a gamer every night if they are going to compete with the elite teams in the East. If you glance at his totals from last season, he'll blend in with a bunch of other guys who spent most of the season on waivers, but Stuckey has some serious fantasy potential that could be unlocked in his third campaign. Consider that he averaged 15.6 points, 6.3 dimes, 3.8 boards, 1.6 steals and 53 percent from the field in 14 games in December 2008. In January, he averaged 17.3 points per game. His production actually compares well to Derrick Rose; when they're on, both have quality percentages, can score, dish and rebound well, but they lack quality production in treys and swipes (despite his December performance, Stuckey averaged just 1.0 steal on the season). He may not have the same upside as Rose, but you'll be able to get Stuckey much later in drafts. When Stuckey was confident last season, he did well, so I expect his fantasy game to blossom this season as his experience leads to more confidence. The only legit concern is that his minutes and touches in the backcourt could be limited with Ben Gordon and Rip Hamilton in the mix.
Bust: Charlie Villanueva
I think Pistons president Joe Dumars made a prudent move by bringing in Villanueva, because he's such a versatile scorer. In fantasy terms, though, my expectations aren't high. I doubt he'll average more than 16-17 points. Even if he scores 20 points a night, he doesn't add steals (career 0.6 per game) or blocks (0.6) or assists (career-best 1.8 last season). Plus, his rebounding and field goal percentage are pedestrian. If your expectations are limited, like mine, then you won't be disappointed by his performance this season. On the other hand, if you expect him to churn out 21.6 points and 2.2 treys per game like he did in February, then he'll almost certainly be a bust in your eyes.
Dumars has one goal: win championships. To his credit, when he felt the team he had was no longer capable of winning a title, he began the difficult process of rebuilding an aging, defensive-minded team that couldn't score into a young, athletic team that should score a lot. As I've already noted, there's a logjam in the backcourt with Stuckey, Gordon and Hamilton, but Dumars' next move in his rebuilding process -- trading Hamilton -- should take care of that. He's the final chip that Dumars gets to play to round out his roster for the next few seasons via trade, and I expect him to pull the trigger during the season. At that point, Gordon's scoring could jump into the 22-25 range and Stuckey could fully break out. I like my midround picks to be reliable players with upside, and I think Stuckey, Gordon and Hamilton fit that description perfectly, because even without a trade to clear the logjam and max out their fantasy potential, all three will be worth starting in most any league. Tayshaun Prince could also be on the trading block, but in the meantime, you can expect him to put up his usual pedestrian production. In the frontcourt, Villanueva will handle most of the scoring, with Chris Wilcox starting at center. Don't expect consistent production from Wilcox this season, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him as a big waiver-wire pickup a couple of times this season, because he can get hot for brief stretches. The frontcourt bench has a bunch of names you'll recognize: Ben Wallace, Kwame Brown and Jason Maxiell. Of that group, I'd only consider drafting Maxiell, because he can at least rack up a lot of blocks with enough playing time.
Key addition: Earl Watson
Key departure: Jarrett Jack
Sleeper: Roy Hibbert
As a rookie, Hibbert did little of note, averaging 7.1 points, 3.5 boards and 1.1 blocks. However, the 7-foot-2, 278-pound center could make some noise in his second campaign. Assuming he beats out Jeff Foster to start, he should actually get starter's minutes, unlike last season, when he averaged 17 minutes as a starter during the final 42 games. When Hibbert averaged about 25 minutes during a three-game April stretch, he averaged just below 17 points and eight boards. He also blocked 10 shots during the final three games of last season. In case that doesn't whet your appetite, you should check out his preseason production, because he's averaged 16.7 points, 8.7 boards and 4.3 blocks in the Pacers' first three games. A lot of young players have the skills to bust out, but Hibbert has the added advantage of playing for a team that could genuinely use another quality scorer, especially in the paint. Mike Dunleavy is injured, T.J. Ford should focus on passing and Troy Murphy prefers to score away from the basket. The door is open for Hibbert to be a quality No. 2 center, and he has top-10 center potential if all goes perfectly.
Bust: Troy Murphy
You can't help but look at stats like the 17.0 points, 12.5 boards, 2.4 treys, 49 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line Murphy averaged after the All-Star break last season and salivate. But if you want that level of stat production, you'll have to pay a steep price for it. Murphy was drafted in the fourth round, 37th overall, in ESPN's first mock draft and his current ADP is 27th in ESPN leagues. Before you give into visions of grandeur, you should consider his downside, too. While Murphy shot 47.5 percent from the field and 45.0 percent beyond the arc last season, he's averaged just 44.3 percent and 39.7 percent, respectively, in his career. During that eight-year career, he has constantly battled injuries and hasn't topped 75 games in a season since his sophomore run. And while it's nice getting 3-point production from one of your bigs, it stinks that he will get you basically no production in blocks (0.4 career average). Don't get the wrong idea, I like Murphy and had been expecting a breakout performance from him for many years. I just won't be drafting him as early as he'll go in most drafts, because the odds are against him matching the value of a third- or fourth-rounder.
The Pacers gave head coach Jim O'Brien an extension, so expectations in Indy are going to turn from developing talent to winning games. To that end, O'Brien intends to stress defense more this season. While that sounds good in theory, this team is built to run, so they're still going to score a lot of points. That offense, of course, is built around Danny Granger, who should go in the top five in nearly every scoring system. Ford probably has more fantasy potential than most of the midround point guards you'll find on draft day, but with Earl Watson replacing Jarrett Jack on the roster, Ford will still be backed up by a reliable guard capable of chipping away at his court time. We still have no idea when we'll see Dunleavy back in the mix. That opens the door for Brandon Rush as a deep sleeper, capable of scoring and dropping treys. The catch is that O'Brien probably will start defensive specialist Dahntay Jones at the 2, which could sap Rush's shot at reliable fantasy production. There isn't much fantasy depth in the frontcourt beyond Hibbert and Murphy, though rookie Tyler Hansbrough could make a little noise if Murphy misses any action. Note that Hansbrough has been battling a shin injury this preseason.
PG Brandon Jennings
SF Joe Alexander
PF Ersan Ilyasova
Sleeper: Hakim Warrick
Warrick couldn't get off the bench in Memphis last season, despite being clearly better than a number of guys who earned more minutes and starts. He should get a better shot at regular production in Milwaukee, as he's slated to take Charlie Villanueva's starting job at power forward. Warrick has enough offensive versatility to score in the midteens with a quality field goal percentage and acceptable boards; maybe 15 points, 6.5 boards and 50-plus percentage from the floor. That's worth noting in deep leagues when you're filling out your roster and bench. You can't get too excited about Warrick, though. To begin with, the aforementioned stats are about all you can expect from him; Warrick's stat lines are completely bereft of treys, steals, dimes and blocks. And you can be assured that his overbearing coach, Scott Skiles, will demand serious effort on the glass from the scrawny Warrick (6-foot-9, 219 pounds), if the power forward is going to see more than 20-25 minutes per game. And to date, Warrick hasn't done that for long stretches. He also has Ersan Ilyasova nipping at his heels, which could lead to a general time-share situation. Still, on an NBA team that offers little in the way of fantasy stars, Warrick at least has a little unexpected upside.
There just aren't really high enough expectations for any of the players in Milwaukee to genuinely dub any Buck a potential bust. There are only two players who might fit the bill: Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut. If Redd was still going in the third round or so, he'd be an easy pick as a bust candidate. However, the facts are that he's missed nearly 90 games in the past three seasons and all but 33 games last season due to an ACL injury. That's enough concern to drop his ADP to 58th in ESPN leagues. That's about the right spot to draft a guy who can score and drop treys like Redd, despite his injury issues. Like Redd, Bogut is coming off an injury-shortened campaign, as a stress fracture in his back limited him to 36 games last season. He displayed his potential as a fantasy center during the second half of the 2007-08 campaign, when he averaged 16.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 blocks and 51 percent from the field. His ADP right now is 93rd, which means he might fit the bill as a sleeper more than a bust. When healthy, he's a quality starting fantasy center, but we don't know if he'll be healthy, so drafting him in the final third of your draft is about right.
The Bucks drafted Brandon Jennings with the 10th overall pick this summer. He circumvented the NBA's college requirement by playing in Italy last year and was thoroughly awful there. Nonetheless, the point guard has a terrific first step and can score. He might even be a breakout candidate in a different situation. In Milwaukee, though, if Jennings wants to start and see a lot of minutes, Skiles will demand quality shot selection and defense from the rook. With effort, he's capable of the defensive side of it, but with Luke Ridnour and Charlie Bell in the backcourt mix, it's unlikely that Jennings will bust out, even if things go well with his coach. With Richard Jefferson out of the picture, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should start at small forward, but he'll be on the floor for his defense, not his fantasy production. In deep leagues, you can keep an eye on Joe Alexander and Ersan Ilyasova in case Mbah a Moute or Warrick fail or get hurt.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
Tom Carpenter analyzes each Central Division team and the players worthy of fantasy consideration.