- Neil Tardy, Fantasy Basketball
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Key departure: Linas Kleiza
Sleeper: Renaldo Balkman
Deep-leaguers know Balkman produced a few big games last season. In 10 starts, he averaged 9.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 66 percent from the field. Although Martin and Andersen were ahead of him at power forward, this season the 6-foot-8 Balkman is expected to get most of his minutes backing up Anthony at small forward. Essentially, he'd replace the departed Kleiza, but of course Balkman brings a markedly different skill set. With 20 minutes per night (note that Kleiza played 22 minutes last season), Balkman should approach his starting line from 2008-09. The potential to average 1.5 steals makes him worthy in deep leagues.
Bust: J.R. Smith
Although I don't think "bust" is the best word to use with Smith, there are reasons to be cautious. At least I find it tempting to overrate Smith, because when he's on, he's otherworldly. What Smith owner doesn't love seeing him drop 30 points and four 3-pointers? However, despite Smith's talent, Nuggets coach George Karl seems inclined, for now anyway, to keep him with the second unit. So the 28 minutes he saw last season might be his ceiling as far as playing time. There's also the matter of his seven-game suspension to start the season. Even if stashing Smith for a couple of weeks in a head-to-head league isn't a big burden, it's something. Mostly though, keep in mind his limitations for fantasy; 3s in bunches, yes, but also inconsistent points and nothing special in boards, assists or the hustle categories.
Feel-good stories are an inevitable part of preseason chatter. We've all seen them, and probably most of us have regretted taking some too seriously (like a couple of years back when I read that Dwight Howard spent the summer working on his free throw shooting). It's just life in the preseason. This time of year, every team is poised to make a big jump in the standings, every player is in the best shape of his life and every decent starter is a potential All-Star. But the Nuggets have a few of these stories. Hometown hero Chauncey Billups is in charge from day one. Nene (with Yao Ming on the shelf and Shaquille O'Neal having moved east) is an All-Star in waiting. And it seems J.R. Smith really has grown up.
Of most interest to fantasy owners may be Kenyon Martin's story. Martin recently told The Denver Post that his legs haven't felt this good since he debuted in Denver in 2004. In the offseason Martin also worked with a shooting coach and Carmelo Anthony's personal trainer. The latter resulted in his dropping about 10 pounds by cutting way back on the fried foods. However, the difference between Martin's stats in 2004-05 -- the last time he felt great -- and last season's numbers comes down to about four points and one-plus rebounds per game. So maybe Martin will push 15 points and seven boards on average this season, but figure on his getting his usual 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and 10-15 DNPs. I'm more excited about Nene. George Karl says he wants more touches for his starting center, and that does seem a worthy goal for someone who shot 60.4 percent from the field on just 9.2 attempts per game in 2008-09. Meanwhile, Melo should make more shots after registering just 44.3 percent from the field a season ago, and that should push his scoring back into the 25- to 27-point range. Billups, now 33, has averaged at least 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 1.6 3-pointers every season since 2003-04. Despite playing just 20 minutes a night, Chris Andersen was second in the league with 2.5 blocks. That's hard to ignore, even in standard 10-12-team leagues. Rookie Ty Lawson probably isn't worth drafting, but he is worth watching. The Nuggets still have Anthony Carter, a Karl favorite, backing up Billups, but expect Lawson to play more as the season progresses.
PG Jonny Flynn
SG/SF Corey Brewer
Sleeper: Sasha Pavlovic
For all the talk of the Timberwolves' draft-night point guard spree, they have precious little going at the off-guard position. That's what makes the recent signing of Pavlovic notable. I'm being realistic. I know Pavlovic hasn't enjoyed any real fantasy value beyond the end of his 2006-07 season in Cleveland. But I think he'll get ample minutes in Minnesota, and I think he knows it. (Remember: Pavlovic passed on a New York Knicks offer to come here.) I also think the Timberwolves, who have virtually no players with any cred as defenders, appreciate that part of his game. Wasn't Pavlovic generally the choice to guard Kobe Bryant and other top scorers? Isn't the new Timberwolves coach ex-Laker assistant Kurt Rambis, who closely watched a few of those Sasha-on-Kobe matchups? Pavlovic playing at least 24 minutes a night is capable of double-digit scoring and maybe up to 1.5 3-pointers. He's worth a late pick in deeper leagues.
Bust: Jonny Flynn
I'm reluctant to put Flynn here, not just because I'm a Timberwolves fan but also because, make no mistake, the rookie has a good opportunity on a rebuilding team that clearly is committed to him. However, for standard leagues, for this season, I'm ambivalent about Flynn's fantasy prospects. For one thing, I think Ramon Sessions is a great fit. Plus, I'm fretting the common knocks on Flynn, namely, his shot and his size. Although I can see him producing decent assist totals initially, if that comes with 40 percent or lower shooting and a lot of turnovers while preoccupied with trying to defend bigger pros, I want no part of it.
As alluded, the new Timberwolves point guard who most intrigues me is Ramon Sessions. The Timberwolves signed Sessions away from the budget-conscious Milwaukee Bucks, and he comes to Minnesota as the unofficial Ricky Rubio fallback plan. Surrounded by inexperience in the backcourt, I'm thinking Sessions will start at point guard initially and could spend more time at shooting guard once Flynn gets acclimated. Oh, did I mention that new coach Kurt Rambis wants this team to push the ball? As a Bucks starter last season, Sessions averaged 15.1 points and 7.6 assists in an offense that at least attempted to be up-tempo. With Flynn playing plenty at the point, it might be tough for Sessions to pile up that many dimes, but I believe those numbers are a reasonable baseline for him.
Actually, for a team that won't win anything this season, the Timberwolves are an intriguing bunch for fantasy. Of course the known commodity is Al Jefferson, and if you're wondering whether Big Al has lost anything since his season-ending knee injury in February, the answer is yes. He's lost weight. Jefferson reported to camp a whopping 30 pounds lighter than he was last season. As for his right knee, Jefferson says he's fine -- not that I have to tell you folks. As of this writing, he's checking in with a 12.8 average draft position (ADP) at ESPN.com. But while you're on Al, you may be missing the mark with Kevin Love (ADP: 82.9). Postbreak last season, the rookie averaged 14.0 points and 9.6 boards. With increased minutes a given, figure Love is worth in the neighborhood of 15 and 11 for his sophomore season.
Key departures: none
Sleeper: James Harden
Blake Griffin aside, I believe Harden is the rookie who has the best opportunity to contribute from opening night. Although he's been hampered by ankle problems early on, Harden started and scored 12 points (albeit on 4-of-11 shooting) in the Thunder's first preseason game. Even with Kevin Durant's improvement, the Thunder were dead last in 3-pointers made last season. Harden's touch from the outside is needed, and it should make him a solid complement to Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. As with most rookies, you'll want to be patient with Harden, but for standard 10- to 12-team leagues, he's a good, speculative choice at the end of your draft.
Bust: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is superskilled and hardworking, and a month from his 21st birthday, he's still learning how to be an NBA point guard. So what's with the "bust" label? I'll ask you to focus on the last part of that first sentence. Westbrook already is good, and he'll keep progressing. But he's not quite there. To be a true fantasy force, Westbrook must shoot better and take better care of the ball. As a rookie he shot just 39.8 percent, and he wasn't a factor in 3-pointers. Given his other attributes, I'd be fine with no triples, provided he raised his shooting to 42-43 percent. But that seems like a huge leap for one season. If your league counts turnovers, I'd be extra leery of Westbrook. His 3.3-per-game average was the fifth-most in the league. Now, three-plus turnovers from Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant (who had the eighth-highest turnover rate in 2008-09), I don't mind. But Westbrook isn't at that level.
Oh, where to start? Something about K.D. ... yes, that Kevin Durant fellow. Not much to say about him actually, other than that entering his third season, the just-turned 21-year-old is a consensus top-five fantasy pick. (Durant is fourth on my board, for what it's worth. I couldn't pass on Dwyane Wade's assists and steals.) This interesting article points out that Durant took off last season once Thunder coach Scott Brooks shifted him to his natural small forward position. Obviously, Durant will stick at small forward from here. So there's a good reason -- as if you needed one -- to expect Durant to take another statistical leap this season. Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green join Durant as exciting young talents, and the Thunder believe that former New Jersey Net Nenad Krstic can regain the form that saw him average 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds three seasons ago before his promising 2006-07 season was ruined by a left ACL tear.
Key addition: Andre Miller
Key departures: none
Sleeper: Greg Oden
May as well get this out now: I fell hard for the Oden hype last year. It wasn't smart, and it wasn't even characteristic of me as a fantasy owner. But, we move on. Sort of. It's just that a couple of big preseason games (including 20 and 12 versus the Kings on Oct. 7) is plenty to get me back on the bandwagon, especially now that Oden is only a borderline top-100 pick. Plus, the 21-year-old is apparently lighter -- both in weight and mood -- and, simply, better. I don't care that Blazers coach Nate McMillan is talking about starting Joel Przybilla. And I'm sure Oden still will have those nights when he puts himself on the bench with a couple of lightning-quick fouls. But there's just too much ability here not to jump at Oden by the ninth or 10th round. If you good people insist on drafting Andrew Bogut ahead of him, though, that's fine by me.
Bust: Andre Miller
Speaking of things McMillan is speaking of, is the coach seriously thinking of having its big free-agent signee come off the bench? I'll believe it when I see it, but McMillan -- even while pointing out that it doesn't really matter who starts -- sure seems enamored with the idea of two balanced fives. Now I'm looking at Miller's career stats and seeing that he hasn't averaged fewer than 35 minutes per night since his rookie season. Starting or not, with the Blazers' deep roster, maybe it's inevitable that the 33-year-old sees his minutes slip to the 30-32 range this season. In that case, the 15 points and seven assists we've come to expect from Miller might slide to a 14 and 6. That doesn't make him a bust, really, but a mild disappointment for fantasy owners.
Because I spilled about my fondness for Greg Oden, allow me to defend myself by saying that Brandon Roy was another player I was big on going into last season. That one worked out, as Roy established career highs in points, shooting percentage and free throws attempted. This season you'll find Roy as a top-20 pick, although it's worth wondering if he can maintain five assists a night with Andre Miller on board. LaMarcus Aldridge is the Blazers' No. 2 fantasy option. Of course it'd be nice to see him get after it on the glass more, but there's nothing really wrong with nearly 20 points and seven-plus boards, plus a steal and a block per night. All the Blazers' reserves offer some fantasy worth for deep leagues, but naturally, Przybilla's value would spike in the event of an Oden injury.
Key addition: Eric Maynor
Key departures: none
Sleeper: Ronnie Brewer
There are reasons not to like Brewer this season. He struggled in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Jazz have yet to extend his contract. But I'll dwell on his solid second half in 2008-09 and, especially, the 2.1 steals he averaged in his final 29 games. With steals being as hard to find as they are, I view Brewer as a nice end-of-draft pick in standard leagues.
Bust: Paul Millsap
Sure, if Carlos Boozer is dealt, Millsap's value skyrockets. But for now, you're taking a chance by drafting him. Because the Jazz threw $32 million at Millsap this past summer to keep him from bolting to the division-rival Trail Blazers, they will find substantial minutes for him. In fact, with C.J. Miles facing left thumb surgery and is expecting to miss the beginning of the season, don't be surprised if Millsap -- and not Kirilenko -- starts at small forward on opening night. Still, if Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Miles are all here and healthy, Millsap will struggle to see 30 minutes a night.
In recent years, the Jazz have had one of the NBA's most stable rosters, and that's the case again this season. Rookie Eric Maynor, the 20th overall pick from Virginia Commonwealth, is the only new face of note. But will the Jazz really go through 2009-10 with Carlos Boozer? After opting in for the final year of his deal at nearly $12 million, Boozer loudly proclaimed that the Jazz promised to trade him. He even went on the radio in Chicago and Miami and crowed about joining the Bulls or Heat. But Boozer remains in Salt Lake City, as does Paul Millsap, the double-double machine who filled in for him for much of last season. Supposedly Boozer's relationship with Deron Williams is frosty, and by not moving Boozer and keeping Millsap (the team matched his contract offer after the Trail Blazers made a bid on the restricted free agent), the Jazz now face considerable salary-cap difficulty. This sounds like an unworkable situation, but then, not so long ago Andrei Kirilenko wanted out of Salt Lake, too. Sometimes the status quo sticks. Boozer now says he's fine with the way things haven't turned out, but fantasy owners will continue to draft Millsap and pray Boozer is sent packing. At least with the rest of this team, you know what you're getting. Williams is fantasy's second-best point guard, Mehmet Okur is that rare center who can shoot the 3 and Kirilenko remains a tempting choice despite his declining hustle stats.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.