Southeast Division preview
Key departure: Ronald Murray
Sleeper: Josh Smith
It's a difficult feat for a player who was a late-first-rounder a year ago to begin this season as a sleeper, but Smith is the rare player who can pull it off. In a season when many looked for him to join the true fantasy elite, Smith's production took a leap back. Couple that with ankle problems and bad press, and you have a top-30 performer who's dropping past the third round in many drafts. But although Smith may never be an elite scorer and shoots too many 3s for someone who can't shoot them (29.9 percent last season), he is still a special statistical blend of steals, blocks and boards. Hopefully conquering his ankle troubles means he'll return to the upper echelon of the NBA in blocks per game. If he's somehow still hanging around in your fourth round, grab him; even with a mere repeat of last season's numbers, he's worth a third-round pick.
Bust: Jamal Crawford
Even though he'll be coming off the bench, Crawford will play the Jason Terry role of supersub in Atlanta, which means he'll be in line for at least 28-30 minutes a night. However, you're talking about a player who was one of the NBA's streakiest even when he had a starting job. Coming off the bench, Crawford and his fluctuations will reach new, shaky heights. He'll always be the player who can score 25 one night and three the next night. His 3-point shooting makes him a decent add in the endgame in deeper roto leagues, but nothing more.
Besides swapping out Ronald Murray for Crawford, the Hawks are largely the same team that reached the second round of the playoffs last season. Because they're seeking growth from within, there's little to suggest a major statistical shift in Atlanta. What we should see is a mild bump across the board for their younger players (Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford) and more of the same from their vets (Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson). Bibby always is available in fantasy drafts a round or two later than he should be; he does nothing inordinately well at this stage of his career but won't hurt you in any area. His hidden strength lies in his strong percentages (39 percent on 3s last season). With only a rookie (Jeff Teague) pushing him for minutes, Bibby will make a fine second point guard in any league. If Bibby breaks down, Teague should be an immediate waiver-wire grab in deeper leagues.
Teamwise, coach Mike Woodson is cooling fantasy owners with a preseason proclamation that no player will log more than 34 minutes a night. It's hard to see him sticking to that ceiling as the season progresses, but it could make for a mild hit in production for the Hawks' starting five. It's a box score situation worth monitoring this preseason.
Key departure: Emeka Okafor
PG D.J. Augustin
SG Gerald Henderson
SG Ronald Murray
Sleeper: Gerald Wallace
Fantasy draftwise, Wallace is in a situation very similar to Josh Smith's. As of this writing, Wallace's average draft position (ADP) is 37, meaning he's slipping into the fourth round of many drafts. That says Wallace finally has come full circle, having run the fantasy gamut from unheralded super sleeper to mildly overrated bust back to solid sleeper. Of course, Wallace always will be a massive injury risk thanks to his Tasmanian Devil-esque abandon on both ends of the court. However, as the only offensive threat in the Bobcats' frontcourt, Wallace is in line for a spike in his numbers and could scrape the 20-point per game barrier this season. Wallace's percentages (.480 from the field, .807 from the stripe) are an underappreciated aspect of his fantasy game. If he can stay on the court for 72 to 75 games, he'll be a steal in the fourth round.
Bust: Raymond Felton
Felton proved himself a survivor last season, holding off a challenge for minutes from heralded rookie D.J. Augustin and posting numbers (14.2 ppg, 6.7 apg) of a solid second fantasy point guard. It's hard to see him still logging 38 minutes a night this season; Augustin's time is coming because he obviously is a favorite of coach Larry Brown. Felton is in a contract year (he settled for a one-year deal after a dry summer on the negotiation front), but his short-timer status should just open up more opportunities for Augustin (who's also a far more dangerous offensive threat). But with his assists and steals alone, Felton remains a decent play in the 10th-to-12th-round range as a fantasy backup.
The trade of Emeka Okafor for Tyson Chandler was a defining move for the Bobcats; it was a classic Larry Brown swap, trading low-post offense for better defense (and a cheaper contract). But in fantasy terms, it is a major offensive blow, leaving Charlotte without a single low-post option on offense.
Defensively, the Bobcats will be an elite team, but without any real firepower on the other end, signs point to Time Warner Cable Arena's being a fantasy wasteland in 2009-10. Not to say there won't be some draftable players; somebody has to play 30-35 minutes a night. Boris Diaw had a fine second half after his arrival/rescue from Phoenix (15.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.9 apg) and will at least equal those numbers in Brown's point-starved rotation.
Felton's return to the fold means Augustin will spend this season as a fringe fantasy player. It's a shame, because Augustin has the potential to be a special guard; anyone who can average nearly two 3s a game while shooting 44 percent from behind the arc bears watching. The battle for minutes at shooting guard probably will settle into a frustrating time-share between Raja Bell and rookie Gerald Henderson. Thanks to Charlotte's dearth of scoring threats, Henderson will get plenty of opportunities to provide a punch off the bench. Away from the stat-bumping effects of Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler undoubtedly will take a step back this season. He'll be a No. 2 center at best.
Key departure: Jamario Moon
SG/SF Quentin Richardson
SG Daequan Cook
Sleeper: Michael Beasley
Plainly, Beasley's ADP (currently the 11th round) is being depressed by factors that have nothing to do with his fantasy numbers and potential. It really began last preseason when red flags were raised about Beasley's maturity and that his rookie season could be a disappointment. And although the media regarded his rookie season as a letdown, on paper, Beasley actually was effective for a rookie. His rocky role in the Heat's rotation wreaked havoc on his box scores, but when starting, Beasley averaged a solid 16.7 points and 6.7 boards.
During the summer, Beasley added to his reputation by logging another strike in the NBA's substance-abuse program and eventually landing in a rehabilitation facility. But his personal problems are offset by the fact that he came into camp in great shape, seemingly eager to put the negative perceptions that surround him to rest. He'll enter the season as the Heat's No. 3 scoring option (and maybe No. 2, depending on Jermaine O'Neal's health). He should be going at least a round or two earlier. Don't forget Beasley still has massive fantasy upside.
Bust: Dwyane Wade
This singling-out has absolutely nothing to do with what will end up being another elite statistical season for Wade. Even if he takes a small step back from last season's lofty heights, Wade is a top-five draft choice and truly special fantasy performer. This choice has to do with Wade's injury history and the fact that he will be asked to do everything on what looks to be a wafer-thin Heat rotation. We're talking about a player who averages only 66 games a season; his breakneck style of play means his playing time always will need to be managed to some degree. And with Wade virtually all alone in Miami, it's hard to see head coach Erik Spoelstra resting his star too often. He'll need Wade to play 38-40 minutes a night, thereby increasing the potential for injury. Maybe Wade will adjust with age (his improved 3-point shooting is encouraging), but don't bank on it. Numberswise, Wade will never disappoint, but he's a perpetual risk and should be drafted with the expectation he'll miss 10 to 12 games during the course of the season.
You can see why team president Pat Riley might have cause for concern that Wade could bolt in the fabled summer of 2010. Right now, the Heat have one marquee talent (Wade), a couple of promising youngsters (Beasley and Mario Chalmers) and veterans with a variety of question marks and red flags (O'Neal, Quentin Richardson). Of course, the reason the Heat are so understocked has everything to do with their keeping their powder dry for next summer, but it'll make for a bumpy fantasy ride this season in Miami.
One potential bright spot is Chalmers, who ended up posting a promising rookie campaign upon the merits of his mix of 3-point shooting and already-elite thievery (2.0 steals per game). Even a marginal uptick in his production should make Chalmers an underrated threat as a No. 2 point guard. O'Neal is saying some encouraging things this preseason, but the reality is he's a ticking time bomb as a No. 1 center. His shot-blocking always will make him draft-worthy, but don't look to him before the late rounds. Richardson is new in town, and he'll take away opportunities from Daequan Cook, who could shape up to be an intriguing 3-point specialist if given a steady diet of minutes.
Sleeper: Brandon Bass
Bass has long oozed Millsapian potential and should get to capitalize on his power-packed hops with his new team. (Always keep an eye on the Mavericks' draft choices; they have a knack for drafting freaky athleticism.) He's a hustle guy who could benefit from an expanded role alongside an elite center. The key will be Bass' minutes (needing 28-30 a night to have fantasy relevance), which is why the opening 10 games -- the duration of Rashard Lewis' suspension -- will be of monumental importance to Bass and the other fantasy fringe players in the Magic's frontcourt. If Bass starts strong, he could end up carving himself a nice bench role in deeper fantasy leagues.
Bust: Rashard Lewis
"Bust" is probably too strong a term. Like Wade, this has nothing to do with production. We're simply talking about a player who is already guaranteed to miss 12 percent of his season. Players coming off deep playoff runs tend to be a little overinflated in subsequent drafts, and given his suspension, Lewis should be drafted no earlier than the middle of the fourth round. But Lewis' game still has plenty of positives, the biggest of which being that he's one of fantasy's best 3-point producers (a league-leading 220 3s in 2008-09). We don't see Vince Carter's arrival impacting Lewis' long-range game too deeply, but one should assume his points per game will take a slight hit.
There's much to admire in the Magic's offseason. Instead of standing pat after their Eastern Conference title, general manager Otis Smith retooled and restocked, trading for Carter and outbluffing the Mavericks for Bass and Marcin Gortat. Much was made of Turkoglu's departure, but Vince Carter should better Turkoglu's numbers and give the Magic a true go-to player down the stretch.
The biggest questions regarding Orlando's fantasy development are at the 1 and the 5. Jameer Nelson is seemingly recovered from his shoulder injury, but time will tell whether last season's boffo first-half averages (16.7 points, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.0 3s) were an anomaly or future annual expectation. The biggest key to Nelson's boom was his lights-out 3-point shooting (45 percent), and it is hard to see anyone duplicating that feat two seasons in a row. (And don't underestimate Jason Williams' potential impact on Nelson's minutes; Stan Van Gundy may come to rely on Williams' pure point guard skills in the clutch as the season progresses.)
Dwight Howard enters the season as fantasy's No. 1 center, but he has yet to reach his full offensive potential. As long as his free throw percentage stays in the upper 50s, Howard will be only this generation's Shaquille O'Neal (circa 2001); a truly elite center whose addition to your team means essentially punting a category. His deficiencies in this area lead to his sloughing off the ball in key situations down the stretch. Improvement in this area and more aggressiveness in general on offense would transplant Howard into the echelon of all-time fantasy greats.
Key departures: None
PG/SG Randy Foye
SG/SF Mike Miller PF/C Andray Blatche
Sleeper: Brendan Haywood
Haywood's loss to a wrist injury highlighted his true importance to the Wizards. Without him, the team lost its best interior defender and only back-to-the basket scorer. In real-world terms, his loss had almost as much to do with Washington's 19-win debacle as the loss of Gilbert Arenas. Now fully recovered, he's already become a favorite of new coach Flip Saunders, who has commented publicly about the need to get him more offensive touches. Even while being pushed by phenom JaVale McGee, Haywood still should scrape a double-double and two blocks, nothing to sneeze at for a No. 2 fantasy center.
Bust: Caron Butler
Butler still will be solid as a fourth-round pick, but too many factors point toward a slight downturn for the former All-Star, who at certain points during the past two seasons broke the top 10 on ESPN's Player Rater. First and foremost, Arenas' return means Butler will go back to being the No. 2 option in Saunders' offense. Second is the fact that Saunders is encouraging Butler to gamble less on defense (while working harder on his effort), which means Butler will expend more energy on the other side of the ball while seeing his steals decrease. Finally, the Wizards' overabundance of shooting guards undoubtedly will spill over to the 3 spot, meaning a slight drain on Butler's minutes (not a bad idea given his propensity for injury).
Too many Wizards, too little time. Given a healthy Arenas, Washington undoubtedly will return to the Eastern Conference playoffs this season, but it's hard to predict who will see his fantasy performance enhanced by all this newfound depth. What you'll end up with is three or four fantasy contributors (Arenas, Butler, Jamison, Haywood), and then three to five players who could tease owners on any given night (Mike Miller, Nick Young, Randy Foye, Andray Blatche, McGee). Whoever starts at shooting guard probably will start in name only, as Saunders will have to forge a time-share between Miller, Young and Foye. Dominic McGuire and McGee both flash all kinds of upside, but it's hard for either to make an impact unless someone goes down with an injury. Jamison remains one of the most underrated power forwards in fantasy. He's a true throwback player on offense, a junkball pitcher whose numbers don't seem to decline with age. If Jamison sustains an injury, look to scoop up Blatche immediately. He's raw offensively but is capable of 13 points and 8 rebounds given the opportunity. Another player who could step up should injury strike is Foye, who could flourish alongside Arenas in Larry Hughes' old role.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
2009-10 Basketball Draft Kit
ESPN.com's fantasy experts offer all the information you'll need to succeed in your draft this year.
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• McKitish's Draft-Day Manifesto
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