- Josh Whitling, Fantasy Basketball
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Sleeper: Shawn Marion
First off, if you're in a roto turnover league, immediately bump him up a round, as he's regularly one of the best in production per turnover. Marion is a balanced player who contributes in multiple categories, and historically forces turnovers, an area where the Mavs need significant help. Dallas a good fit for high-maintenance locker room guys because the amenities will make him feel like a superstar. Marion should put up his best numbers since his days of running with Steve Nash, and hover around 16 points and 10 boards with around a steal and a block with fantastic percentages hovering around 50 from the floor and 80 from the stripe. That alone warrants him being drafted higher than his current average draft position (ADP) of 71, as sixth round is an acceptable place to draft Marion. The true test is if his long-lost 3-point shot returns, which is likely since it's not something that one loses with age. If Marion averages around one 3-pointer per game, which is a good gamble to make, his value is incredible in roto formats, where he'll contribute in seven of the eight standard categories, and eight of nine in those that count turnovers.
Bust: Jason Kidd
Kidd's points, field goal and free throw attempts, assists and rebounds have decreased in each of the past three seasons, and he's clearly entering the twilight of his career. He still has a great deal of value in assists (+4.3 standard deviations on the Player Rater) and steals (over two per game in each of the past two seasons), and finished the season ranked 10th on the Player Rater last season. As the slow decline in stats continues, achieving such a high ranking this season will be a challenge, and Kidd's ADP of 24 has him higher than Jose Calderon and Devin Harris, two point guards I'd draft before him, as well as Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, two I'd have to think long and hard about. Second- and third-round picks are too valuable to spend on a player like Kidd, whose stats have trended downward, primarily because of age, over the past several seasons.
They didn't lose any key pieces, and added Marion and Drew Gooden, building frontcourt depth. I like what the move to Dallas does to both of their values, and they'll sop up minutes left by Bass, DeSagana Diop, Wright and George. They'll add overall fantasy value to the Mavs' roster but perhaps take a bit of value away from Nowitzki, Howard and Terry. Josh Howard is undervalued, a very nice player in roto formats, and will be on the floor when he's available since the backcourt of Terry and Kidd has significant defensive flaws. Problem is, as of mid-October, there was no timetable set for his return from offseason ankle surgery, so there's huge risk with Howard. Even more frustrating is that coach Rick Carlisle has indicated he'll be day-to-day right up to the first game Howard's ready for, which could be two weeks or two months. His draft value is shot, making him worth a late-round, high-upside pick. Erick Dampier is a capable center, although he's incapable of averaging more than about 25 minutes per contest, meaning that this lineup will be malleable. Gooden, Marion, Dirk, Matt Carroll and Tim Thomas will all see minutes. This takes down the individual value of each, since they'd get more minutes on a team with less depth.
Sleeper: Kyle Lowry
Aaron Brooks is the centerpiece of the Rockets' backcourt, but he's more of a Ben Gordon/Jason Terry-style combo guard. He'll never average six assists per game and will have trouble topping five this year, despite being dubbed the Rockets' starting point guard. I like Brooks for what he'll give you, which is big-time scoring and tons of 3s, but Lowry could finish as the team leader in assists, despite limited minutes as a backup behind Brooks. Assists are scarce -- just 58 players averaged plus-1 or more standard deviation on the Player Rater last season, fewest of any non-percentage categories -- and Lowry could be a cheap source of them. He's a solid defender and excellent thief, averaging one steal per game in his career in just 23 minutes per game. He's only worth a look in deeper leagues, but could provide value in assists and steals with a handful of steals thrown in.
Bust: Trevor Ariza
Keep in mind the terms "sleeper" and "bust" are relative, and directly related to the perceived value of the player, and touting a player as a bust simply means he won't fulfill expectations. Ariza's move to the Rockets will force his hand and test how complete an offensive player he truly is. If Tracy McGrady misses time as he typically does, Ariza will have to create his own shots and expend much more energy on offense. His points, boards and assists will all practically double, which is what most people are expecting and why he's being drafted 92nd overall after finishing 110th on the Player Rater last season. Gone are the days of hanging out in a lawn chair in the corner while Kobe and Co. take care of business while he drains wide-open 3s here and there and focusing primarily upon defense. Now he'll have to be a key cog in an offense without a true point guard, which likely will cause his shooting percentage to fall. Plus, he's a career 66 percent free throw shooter, so you should temper your expectations for Ariza and expect some bumps to go along with his improvement in certain areas.
The Rockets' young core of Ariza, Scola, Battier, Landry and Brooks is talented, but lacking in versatility. Tracy McGrady is the key to everything for the Rockets this year, and is underrated due to his propensity for serious injury. His knees are still shaky, but if he can stay on the court for a majority of the season, he'll have all the opportunity in the world to put up gaudy offensive totals. T-Mac is undoubtedly worth taking a risk on in the back half of the draft if you're feeling solid about your team and want a very-high-risk/very-high-reward player. I like Scola very much, and think he'll have a fantastic season, but the Rockets are deep at power forward with Landry and Hayes backing him up, so he won't be forced to carry the team despite the absence of Yao. As of this writing, he's being drafted 84th on average in ESPN leagues, and I'd take him a round higher than that, expecting around 15 points, nine boards, one steal, a field-goal percentage over 50 percent and a free-throw percentage in the upper 70s. He's a huge liability in the blocks department, however, especially if you're starting him at PF or C instead of F or utility. His 0.1 blocks per game is a lot different than 0.8 blocks per game, which would be pedestrian for a PF or C. Scola is definitely a player to watch, and I would rather have him on my team than other forwards such as Blake Griffin, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza who are drafted around him. Just compensate for the nonexistent blocks, and I would recommend starting him at utility and see him fill more of a small forward's role for your fantasy team. Shane Battier is one of my favorite players to draft with one of my final picks in roto formats, especially those which count turnovers. Anybody who has the potential to average more 3s, steals and blocks than turnovers is an ideal glue player in those leagues, but his value plummets in head-to-head formats, most of which typically don't count turnovers. He's the type of guy who is awesome to have on a good fantasy team and painful to have if you're trying to make up ground. Chuck Hayes is seeing minutes at center in preseason games, and could see increased minutes and value if he sees time there and gains the positional eligibility.
Sleeper: Rudy Gay
Gay was one of the biggest disappointments in fantasy hoops last year, as he had huge preseason expectations set for him and there was a big debate about who to draft first: Gay or Danny Granger. Then, after doubling his scoring average from his rookie to sophomore year, he took a step back across the board in his third season, finishing 49th on the Player Rater after regularly being drafted in the third round. Coach Lionel Hollins preaches taking open shots if you have them, and Gay should have more with Randolph and Iverson around, and will bounce back after last season's disappointment. This green light is ideal for Gay, since his stats last season were down across the board, but the most significant drop-off was in 3s, both made and attempted (1.1-3.1 last season after going 1.7-4.8 in 2007-08). After three full seasons of full-time play, Gay's ceiling is still hard to predict, a rare statement for players for which we have such a large sample size. He won't have to force it this season, which will allow his natural talent, versatility and propensity to accrue defensive statistics to shine. He's regularly being drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds, but he's a fifth-rounder to me, and I'd much rather have him than inefficient, overrated players such as Al Harrington (ADP: 49), Stephen Jackson (48) and teammate Zach Randolph (63).
Bust: Mark Gasol
Zach Randolph is one of my least favorite fantasy players, but he simply will demand big minutes, and rookie Hasheem Thabeet, promising sophomore Darrell Arthur and the chronically underachieving-yet-talented Steven Hunter will get their share as well. I just don't see nearly 31 minutes per game for Gasol, and although he'll start at center and get minutes in the upper 20s, he doesn't have much opportunity to take the type of step forward expected of a second-year player.
I really like Mike Conley, but it's tough for him to achieve his potential as a point guard when he's surrounded by two shooting guards who have played point guard for most of their careers in Allen Iverson and O.J. Mayo. That has its benefits as well, as he'll be able to keep his turnovers low (1.7 per game in each of his first two seasons, incredible for a point guard). He averaged 5.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.7 3s, 46.4 percent FG, 84 percent FT over the final 30 games last season, numbers that will be difficult to attain if Iverson is healthy and getting minutes, although five assists, 1.5 3s and 1.5 steals, not to mention fewer turnovers is expectable, and those numbers are worthy of a spot on any fantasy roster. Darrell Arthur had a nice rookie campaign, starting in 63 games and finishing the season with 0.7 steals and blocks with 4.5 boards in 19 minutes per game. There isn't huge upside here, but if the cards fall in his favor, Arthur could have some value this year. Thabeet will block shots from the get-go, but nothing else. Still, that warrants value, and he'll be a force in that category from the moment he steps on the court.
SF James Posey
PG Darren Collison
PF/C Darius Songaila
SF/PF Julian Wright
SG Devin Brown
PF Ike Diogu
Sleeper: Hilton Armstrong
Coach Byron Scott boasted about Armstrong's improved conditioning, aggressiveness and confidence, which all will translate into the box scores if it continues into the regular season. Armstrong will have an opportunity to back up both Okafor and West in the frontcourt, and given Okafor's questionable health, he could start at some point. He averaged 0.4 steals and 0.6 blocks in 15 minutes per game last season, and if his minutes increase, he could be over one block per game as a backup, with a high ceiling if the improvements Scott raved about equal improved per-minute stats. At the least, Armstrong is a nice handcuff to Okafor, who has been hindered by a toe injury this preseason. With the average of 0.5 blocks per game in just 12 minutes per game for his career, he's no stranger to sleeper lists for hardcore fantasy hoops players, but it's always been a case of "if he ever gets the minutes." With the improvements he's showing this preseason, he's securing an increased role, and if Okafor is injured during the season, he'll be a must-own. I plan on Armstrong being my final pick in several drafts.
Bust: Morris Peterson
With Devin Brown, Bobby Brown and Marcus Thornton all in the mix, Mo Pete's days of fantasy viability are over. He could crack the opening day starting lineup, although Devin Brown is the veteran shooting guard I like on this squad, and Brown and Thornton have more upside. Peterson has always been on the fringe of fantasy relevance, averaging as many as 2.2 3s per game for the Toronto Raptors in 2005, and he used to average one steal per game regularly. But last season his production took a plunge, as his 0.8 3s per game were the lowest since his rookie season. Don't be fooled by the fact he's No.1 on the depth chart, Mo Pete is done.
Julian Wright is in the mix for the starting small forward job, and boasts an intriguing combination of steals and blocks, averaging 0.7 and 0.4 last season, respectively, in just 14 minutes per game. He's raw, but becoming more polished, and should continue learning how to use his talent and athleticism on the NBA level. He's a deep sleeper, but one with fantastic upside in the defensive categories, and could see more opportunities with the departure of Rasual Butler. David West has solidified his place as a third-rounder, with his excellent scoring, low turnovers, high percentages and solid boards, steals and blocks. His hidden value is in blocks, where he averaged 1.3 per game two years ago, and would inch toward being a second-rounder if he could inch toward 1.5. Even if he stays around one per game, West is one of the safest picks in the first few rounds of the draft. Peja Stojakovic is way past his prime, but still worth taking a look at in the late rounds, especially in turnover leagues, simply because he still drains 3s like crazy (2.4 per game last season). Don't reach, don't draft him if you don't need the 3s, and don't choose him over another player you like who is younger with higher upside. However, don't be fooled into thinking Peja has lost all value. Bobby Brown's 0.7 3s in 14 minutes per game as a rookie is intriguing, and he knocked down four in the Hornets' first preseason game to make a statement. He has a chance to have some value in deeper leagues at some point this season, but isn't worth considering on draft day. Devin Brown has played for five teams in his seven seasons, and the last time he got decent minutes was in 2005-06 for the Hornets, when he averaged 1.4 3s in 28 minutes per game. He's a better option than Mo Pete right now, and has the upside of 13 points, 1.5 3s and one steal with low turnovers. Darren Collison will see limited minutes backing up Chris Paul (who is barely worth mentioning because his awesomeness is so well documented), and has no fantasy impact this season unless Paul is injured. But he has potential down the road, and my favorite feature of his college stats is his 50 percent shooting from the field and 90 percent from the stripe his senior year. He's got a bright future, and will benefit by learning from the best in the game.
Key Losses: Bruce Bowen
Sleeper: Keith Bogans
Roger Mason has benefited from Ginobili's fragility and the lack of depth in the Spurs' backcourt for the past few seasons, and last season averaged two 3s per game in 30 minutes per game. He played backup at both guard positions last season, but George Hill will get basically all of the backup PG minutes, and Bogans is a much more complete player. Nothing flashy, but he'll steal plenty of Roger Mason's glory.
Bust: DeJuan Blair
I know, I know -- he looks incredible in preseason (he snared 19 boards in his first preseason game) and is the apple of the franchise's eye right now, but the reality is that he's a rookie on a team with a deep frontcourt who simply won't get enough minutes to be fantasy viable unless several injuries occur. He'll be a delight to watch this season, and will put up sporadic big games and highlight-reel plays, but every draft pick is so valuable in fantasy hoops that it would be unwise to spend it on somebody who simply isn't going to get huge minutes.
Tim Duncan going to wear a knee brace all season, as tread is wearing down on the tires. He's got plenty of game left, although a slight decrease is to be expected. The Spurs added depth in the frontcourt to ease this blow with Bonner, Ratliff, McDyess, Blair and Mahinmi. Swapping Bruce Bowen for Jefferson negates the strategy most teams employed on the Spurs, which was sticking their worst defender on Bowen, and best on Parker, which posed challenges and wore him down as the season progressed. Parker is coming off the best statistical season of his career: 22 points, 6.9 assists, 50 percent on field goals, 78 percent on free throws. But I have problems with Parker's game, namely his lack of peripheral stats (0.9 steals, 0.3 3s). His ADP is 45th overall, although I don't want to pay for him after a career season and would like more versatile stats from a point guard. George Hill is Parker's undisputed backup and should get minutes in the low 20s, although he doesn't have a very good fantasy skill set, and doesn't appear to be above average per minute in any fantasy stats. This is Tony's show, and if he went down for an extended period of time, I see the Spurs signing a vet or making a trade to plug holes. Prize offseason acquisition Jefferson's shift from the No. 1 option in Milwaukee (especially last season when Michael Redd missed more than two-thirds of the season) to the No. 4 option in San Antonio will cause his scoring to fall significantly, but he'll be a more efficient player overall (read: better percentages, fewer turnovers). His defensive stats have always been awful, but now that he'll be expending a fraction of his energy on offense, I'm thinking his steals and rebounds could improve, which would make him an excellent glue player in roto formats. He'll probably score about 15 points per game, down from about 20 last season, but if his efficiency and defense improve as I predict, 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the stripe, 1.5 3s and one steal per game are attainable, which makes him a much more balanced and efficient player.
Josh Whitling analyzes each Southwest Division team and the players worthy of fantasy consideration.