Pacific Division preview
There's a lot of running and gunning in the division, making for fantasy-friendly options
Sleeper: Stephen Curry
Any Warriors player has the chance to be a fantasy gold mine as long as he gets one thing: minutes. Their ever-fickle head coach, Don Nelson, is notorious for continually tinkering with his rotation depending on his own sick whims, but early reports suggest he is enamored with Curry. Curry is already a near-lock to start at shooting guard, and his ability to score (28.6 points per game at Davidson), shoot (38.7 percent from beyond the arc) and pass (5.6 assists per game) will fit right in with the up-tempo, offensively minded team. The Warriors averaged a league-leading 98.2 possessions per game last season, so Curry, who can be expected to share much of the ball-handling duties with Monta Ellis, will get plenty of opportunities to pile up numbers. After spending three years at Davidson, Curry should be ready to contribute in the NBA immediately, and as a bonus he qualifies at both point guard and shooting guard. He's not just a scoring threat, either; he averaged 2.5 steals in 33.7 minutes per game as a junior last year, so it's also probably safe to pencil him in for a significant contribution in that category this season, too.
Bust: Stephen Jackson
Jackson had a career year last season, and now you have to pay for that performance with, on average, the 48th pick in fantasy leagues. You rarely want to be the one paying for someone's career year, and Jackson, who is on the wrong side of 30, has a couple of red flags. For one, with two capable ball handlers in the backcourt -- the return of Monta Ellis and the addition of Curry -- Jackson will be hard-pressed to repeat the 6.5 assists he dished out per game last season. Also, Jackson has a lot of mileage on his body, averaging more than 39 minutes per game in each of the past two seasons. Sure, you want your players to log a heavy amount of minutes, but not only does that present the possibility of injury -- Jackson has missed 32 games the past two seasons -- but it also means his production has nowhere to go but down, since it's a bit unreasonable to assume any player suiting up for Don Nelson is a safe bet to log that many minutes. A full season of health for Ellis will reduce Jackson to second banana, and with the likes of Corey Maggette and Anthony Morrow available off the bench, chances are good the days of Jackson approaching 40 minutes per contest are over.
Once again, this is one of the toughest teams in the league to predict, but we did learn a few things from last season. On the wings, no one is safe, as Nelson can opt to get scoring (Maggette), defense and rebounding (Kelenna Azubuike) or shooting (Morrow); as I noted, even Jackson is no lock to see his usual high-30s minutes per game because of injury concerns and reports that he is disgruntled and wants out. Fortunately, things do look clearer elsewhere; Ellis averaged nearly 36 minutes per game upon his return, and once he got up to speed, he was averaging well over 38 after the All-Star break. Ellis and Curry might form a small backcourt, but departed combo guard Jamal Crawford was one of the worst defenders in the NBA, so don't think Nelson is too concerned about that. Instead, he is tantalized by the shot-creating ability of both stars. Even though Jackson averaged more than six assists per game, he also led the league in turnovers by a huge margin, and the Warriors assisted on only 53 percent of its baskets, the second-worst rate in the league. Expect more of the offense to be initiated by the starting backcourt, and for Ellis, not Jackson, to be the star of this show. In the frontcourt, center is set with Andris Biedrins, and if you weren't already a believer in Anthony Randolph, the shoulder injury to Brandan Wright ensures uncontested minutes for the second-year player. Biedrins, Ellis and Randolph are the locks for production here; everyone else is subject to interpretation and injuries. Welcome to another year of Donnie Ball.
Key departures: Zach Randolph
Sleeper: Baron Davis
After stinking up the joint in 2008-09, his first season as a Clipper, Davis is coming into this season with a chip on his shoulder. The addition of No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin gives the team hope, and Davis said the right things over the summer, calling the Clippers "his team" while vowing to work much harder. In his good years, Davis -- if you could live with his shoddy field goal percentage -- was a No. 1 point guard on any fantasy team, but as of now, he's barely the 12th point guard selected in ESPN leagues. Even in an off year (last season), he averaged 7.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 3-pointers, so a motivated Davis should rejoin the league's most productive point guards. Let's also hope all the work he put in over the summer leads to improved health, but even if Davis misses his usual 15 or so games, it's rare to find any guard who can threaten 20 points, eight assists, two 3-pointers and two steals on a nightly basis.
Bust: Al Thornton
Thornton carved out value last season mostly by virtue of showing up (he was tied for second on the team with 71 games played) and chucking up shots (his 14.8 shots per game also tied him for second on the team) along the way, but this year's rendition of the Clippers should be much more balanced, and common sense says Thornton is the one who will suffer. There is room for only so many scorers, and when you add the No. 1 pick in Griffin, account for last year's rookie sensation Eric Gordon, and pencil in bounce-back seasons from Chris Kaman and Davis, Thornton is looking at table scraps. While Thornton was the Clippers' first-round pick just two seasons ago, he'll also turn 26 in December, so what you see is what you get. Considering he failed to average even one 3-pointer, steal or block per game last season despite averaging a whopping 37 minutes per game, you're not looking at much.
The biggest unknown here is Griffin, a player most people seem content to safely project as a superstar. The uncertainty about him, however, makes him particularly difficult to project; as we saw with a number of rookies last year, such as Michael Beasley and Kevin Love, there's a possibility Griffin could be weaned along no matter how critical he is to the Clippers' hopes. Drafting Griffin is a foray into uncertainty, and since the Clippers have a loaded frontcourt and a multitude of scoring options -- and because Griffin didn't block a lot of shots in college -- there's a significant possibility he won't be very fantasy-friendly in his rookie season.
Griffin's biggest impact, in fact, might be the one he has on Kaman and Marcus Camby. As of now, Kaman is the starter, but you would think Camby's superb help defense would mesh with Griffin's offensive firepower in the frontcourt. It's going to be a battle for minutes for these two all season, although since Kaman fouls much more often, Camby will be the victor in fantasy circles. Nonetheless, concessions will be made for both. The Clippers have little depth in the backcourt, so what you see here is what you get -- even if B-Diddy goes down, do you really want to mess with Sebastian Telfair? -- but you might want to get to know some of their frontcourt depth. DeAndre Jordan and Craig Smith are two of the best backups in the game; if Camby, Kaman or, heaven forbid, Griffin miss significant time, you know where to look.
Key departures: Trevor Ariza
Sleeper: Andrew Bynum
Just like last season, Bynum is one of the most obvious sleepers around, but unlike last season, this year he actually seems poised to break through. Coach Phil Jackson has made Bynum work much harder for minutes than most outside observers expected, but now Bynum's impact on the court is obvious: The Lakers were a much better defensive team when he was healthy. On the offensive end of the court, Bynum is only now tapping into his deep reservoir of talent, with both his free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage improving during the season last year, and really, the only concern about him comes down to opportunities in the offense. Fortunately, Pau Gasol is as unselfish as they come, and Kobe Bryant is getting up there in mileage and not as able to do the heavy lifting (his free-throw attempts dropped more than two per game last season), so if this is the year Bynum is ready to come into his own, expect those around him to be more than happy to make way. Right now he's only the 11th center selected in average live drafts, but after the top four are off the board (Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Amare Stoudemire and Tim Duncan), you can make a case he'll be at the top of the next tier when it's all said and done.
Bust: Ron Artest
In the past three seasons, Artest has averaged 15, 17 and 15 shots per game, respectively. The problem is that nobody on the Lakers averaged more than 13 field-goal attempts except for Kobe Bryant. The Lakers were third in offensive efficiency last season, so they simply don't need Artest to be a scorer, and it's an open question as to whether the volatile Artest can adjust his game to account for that. Fortunately, it seems he has grown into a competent 3-point shooter, which could be his primary offensive role for the Lakers, but the last thing the team needs is another player who is taking shots away from Gasol and Bynum. There's no telling what effect going from the second option to the fourth will have on his fantasy value, and since he hasn't been much of a shooter in his career -- 42.2 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from beyond the arc -- selecting Artest with the 64th pick, as his ADP suggests, seems like quite a leap of faith. One also must note that he has played in more than 70 games just once in his past eight seasons.
Things are pretty cut-and-dried on the Lakers. For stability, you know what you're getting with Bryant and Gasol, although this could be the first season in which we see Bryant's numbers take a dip as he allows those around him to take on bigger roles. Bynum is one of the easiest players to project a career year from, and it is difficult to overstate his upside; he is projected to finish eighth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), after all. That leaves two positions up for interpretation: small forward and point guard. Small forward might get the most hype, with the newly imported Artest and the re-signed Lamar Odom off the bench, but like Odom did last season, Artest likely will have to come to grips with a serious dip in his numbers in exchange for winning. The real intrigue is at point guard, where Derek Fisher might be the worst starting point guard in the league. Unfortunately, backup Jordan Farmar was absolutely brutal last season, and he really needs to show significant growth if he wants to take the incumbent's job. Fortunately, he's not even 23, so he still could bounce back. It remains to be seen, however, if Phil Jackson would bench the veteran Fisher in exchange for the erratic Farmar. Such a change would probably not occur any time soon, and even if it did, Farmar's upside is limited because the Triangle offense is often initiated from anyone on the court, not just the point guard. In deeper leagues, Farmar is worth stashing or keeping an eye on since he still has a lot of potential, but he's going to have to earn the job through improved defense and consistent shooting.
PG/SG Leandro Barbosa
Sleeper: Channing Frye
With word out of Arizona that Frye is entrenched as the team's starting center -- and if there had been any doubt, backup center Robin Lopez will now miss the next 6-8 weeks because of a broken foot -- it is hard to contain my excitement over Frye. Going undrafted in the vast majority of leagues, Frye is one of the best sleepers around, as reports suggest he has even extended his game to the 3-point line. The next Mehmet Okur? Not quite, as the validity of such talk remains to be seen, and Frye also has problems staying out of foul trouble. But these are minor concerns at the end of your draft, and offensively, Frye sports a consistent jumper and should get many opportunities as defenses focus on the team's other weapons. Don't forget the Suns led the NBA in offensive efficiency by a country mile after coach Alvin Gentry took over. In fact, their 116.3 mark in the final 31 games would have ranked them as one of the best offenses of all time if sustained for a full season. Under Gentry, they ran even more than they did under former coach Mike D'Antoni, and while Frye won't block many shots or become a ferocious rebounder overnight, he is definitely capable of mid-teens scoring.
The Suns get the ball up and down the court quickly, especially under Gentry. With so many opportunities to go around, and a short, defined rotation, what's not to like? The Suns are making no bones about it: They are playing to outgun you and blow you out of the building. Your offense versus our offense, and if you can outscore us, so be it. That makes them a fantasy gold mine, as everyone on the roster is in a great position to rebound from down seasons last year. The misguided Shaquille O'Neal experiment is over, and the Suns have no depth to speak of, so all of their starters, plus Leandro Barbosa off the bench, have no choice but to pull their weight. Barbosa, in fact, averaged more than 16 points and shot nearly 50 percent from the field after the All-Star break last season, so expect him to challenge for the Sixth Man of the Year award once again.
The Suns' players should be as fun to own as they are to watch. The Suns are going to need a lot of things to break right for them to make it back to the playoffs, and they will be led by their two best players, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Both disappointed last season, but the Nash-to-Stoudemire connection wasn't able to take advantage of Gentry's 10-seconds-or-less revival; Stoudemire played in only two games under Gentry before he suffered a detached retina. That means a full season of Stoudemire as the featured player in the offense; it means Nash should once again comfortably lead the league in assists; and it means role players such as Jason Richardson, Barbosa, Grant Hill and even Frye will all be called on for heavy lifting. Remember, the goal is 110 points, so expect pure scorers such as Richardson and Barbosa to have a field day putting the ball in the hoop. In real life, their lack of depth might be their undoing, but for fantasy, you couldn't ask for more.
PG Sergio Rodriguez
PG Beno Udrih
Sleeper: Tyreke Evans
New head coach Paul Westphal is extremely fantasy-friendly. As in he loves to run. Odds are the Kings, who finished seventh in Pace Factor (number of possessions per game) last season, will run even more this season. It also looks like Westphal, who also has a good track record of developing young talent, will give Evans every opportunity to learn on the job. Beno Udrih is, frankly, a marginal NBA player, and has no business being a starter, and thankfully Westphal realizes that and will push Udrih to the bench. The bad news is that Evans will need every minute of on-the-job learning, as it's going to be a rough adjustment for him to become an efficient NBA point guard. His shooting and passing will need work, but on average he's going with the 116th pick, so it's OK if he's rough around the edges. The important thing is that he should see a lot of playing time, and should have the ball in his hands quite often. Fortunately, he averaged 2.1 steals and 0.8 blocks in just 29 minutes at Memphis last season, so even if he struggles shooting the ball or doesn't get you as many assists as you would like, he is still capable of filling up the box score.
Bust: Francisco Garcia
Although Garcia was a nice little revelation off the waiver wire late last season, seeing him go with the 87th pick in most leagues is a bit too high for my tastes. First, he's really only a viable option in rotisserie leagues; in head-to-head leagues, it's not difficult to ride the hot hand week-to-week and find players who can average 1.4 3-pointers, 1.2 steals and/or 1.0 blocks per game, the categories Garcia contributes most in. But over the course of a season, it's hard to find players who can chip in a little bit of everything, so that's where Garcia's true value lies. But the main problem is not that most of his value is tied up in a certain league setting but that he is too fungible a player in real life to depend on. Even on bad teams, not just anyone logs 33-35 minutes per game, the amount of minutes most players need to sustain long-term value. Last season Garcia averaged 36 minutes per game after the break, but he averaged only 14.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. The only month he averaged more than 33 minutes was April, and even that was nine games at the end of a lost season. This would be fine if the Kings didn't have options, but they do -- Andres Nocioni, for one, not to mention first-round pick Omri Casspi, and last year's first-round pick, Donte Greene. To put it succinctly, Garcia doesn't have enough upside to warrant selecting at that point when there are so many other high-upside players to grab who are going later than him, such as Trevor Ariza (90th) or Andrei Kirilenko (96th).
Editor's note: Garcia has been ruled out for at least four months with a forearm injury.
The Kings are going to be a very intriguing team for fantasy prospects because they will be a bad team that will accumulate a lot of possessions. For astute owners, that will offer a lot of opportunities to snag undervalued players, especially when injuries strike. Deep leagues will want to keep a close eye on the rotations. Kevin Martin is the only truly safe player on the team; every other position could remain in flux. The addition of Westphal as head coach should provide a boon for the young players of the Kings if for no other reason than the team will gain an identity. No longer will veteran retreads such as Mikki Moore take playing time away from developing young players like Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson. Expect Thompson, Hawes and other parts of the Kings' future to receive the opportunity to play through more of their mistakes, resulting in more playing time and improved production. That, combined with Westphal's philosophy of up-tempo teams, could leave them mightily undervalued in a league near you.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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2009-10 Basketball Draft Kit
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