Northwest Division fantasy team previews
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleepers: J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza
When Kleiza played regularly last season (25 minutes-plus), he was a solid source of points and 3s. And extending the 23-year-old's current deal is a priority for the Nuggets, so more consistent minutes in 2008-09 should be assured. The team has already committed to Smith, who inked a three-year deal last month. Has the oft-exasperating 3-point gunner turned a corner? Well, you have to take notice of what he's done lately. After the All-Star break last season, Smith averaged 15.7 points, 2.6 3s and 49.3 percent shooting. And he played throughout the summer. As the Denver Post notes, the Nuggets are touting Smith's offseason work; he played for the Nuggets' summer league team, attended assistant coach Tim Grgurich's camp for NBA players and worked with the USA Select team that practiced against the Olympic team.
Bust: Allen Iverson
Probably no true bust here, but I'm leery of Iverson, whose grace is pretty much confined to the hardwood. Or have you forgotten A.I.'s ugly departure from Philadelphia, when the Sixers essentially suspended him till they got a deal done? I mention this because it is a realistic possibility that the now-frugal Nuggets will look to move Iverson sometime this season.
The salary dump of Camby changes everything, and nothing. Iverson, Martin and gold medalist Anthony should still get their stats, but this could be a long season in Denver. Coach George Karl is talking about emphasizing defense, but those words seem hollow with the team's top defender now in Los Angeles. Even with Camby in the paint, the Nuggets were 29th in scoring defense and 28th in 3-pointers allowed last season. So Denver is, if anything, an even more desirable matchup for fantasy owners. I, of course, will be pulling for Nene to continue his recovery from cancer, but that doesn't mean I'll be drafting him. Yes, he's the starting center, but he appeared in just 20 games last season (counting playoffs), and he's only about eight months removed from his most recent chemotherapy treatment. The Nuggets brought in Andersen, the former Hornet who received a lengthy suspension for violating the NBA drug policy on performance enhancers, as Nene's backup. Andersen's shot-blocking ability could make him relevant in deep leagues.
Key Loss: Marko Jaric
Projected Starting Lineup:
Sleeper: Randy Foye
With Foye playing, the 2007-08 Timberwolves were a better team. Minnesota was a pitiful 8-35 while a knee injury sidelined Foye for the first half of last season. However, the Wolves were a more competitive 14-25 with him active. But can Foye make your fantasy team better this season? If last March and April are any indication, the answer is yes. Foye averaged around 15 points, 5 assists and 1.7 3s while shooting in the 45 percent range over the final six weeks. With Miller sliding in to complement Jefferson as a scoring threat, Foye is being asked to refine his distribution skills this season. So perhaps those assist totals climb to six or seven per game. That would definitely make Foye a bargain at his current ESPN ranking (101st overall, 24th among point guards).
Bust: Ryan Gomes
I like Gomes as a late-round fill-in forward as much as you do, but don't be surprised if he shares time with 2007 draft bust Corey Brewer. Improving the defense is clearly a priority for Minnesota (the Wolves allowed opponents to shoot 47.2 percent from the floor in 2007-08), and while Gomes is a solid defender, defense is supposed to be Brewer's forte. And teams tend to give their first-rounders a second chance or more.
First, don't be scared off of Jefferson, who wasn't ready for a full practice load at the start of camp. Jefferson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that running forward wasn't an issue; rather, the issue was his tentativeness cutting on his injured right knee. However, Big Al should be ready for the regular season.
After Jefferson and Foye, the third fantasy wheel here is Miller, who arrived from Memphis in the draft-night blockbuster. Miller's averages should be in line with what he produced last season -- 15-plus points, 6-7 rebounds and a couple of 3s. Unless Gomes clearly beats out Brewer, there doesn't seem to be much else, fantasywise, in Minny. McCants will tease owners with the occasional big night off the bench. And while it's hard to offer a blanket endorsement of rookie Love as a fantasy option, it's worth noting that he has impressed in camp.
Key Loss: Luke Ridnour
Projected Starting Lineup
PG Russell Westbrook
SG/SF Damien Wilkins
Sleeper: Jeff Green
If anyone, it's Green, who averaged 13.6 and 5.3 rebounds after the break in his rookie season. While those numbers aren't overwhelming, post-break Green also averaged 0.6 3-pointers, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks. If he can reach 1.0 per game in one of more of those categories, Green gets a bit more interesting.
Bust: Russell Westbrook
Let's fall back on the rookie-point-guards-don't-produce meme and say Westbrook. The 19-year-old does seem to be in a good situation, with the veteran Watson as the starter/mentor. Coach P.J. Carlesimo has said both will play plenty, but that only increases the likelihood that neither gets enough minutes to really help fantasy owners.
In a recent interview with The Oklahoman, Durant wouldn't say how much weight he can lift. (You may recall the criticism he took ahead of the '07 draft when he couldn't lift more than 185 pounds.) Nonetheless, Durant is by far the weightiest fantasy pick on the newly relocated Thunder franchise. That he got stronger, at least statistically, as 2007-08 progressed makes it easy to get excited about Durant's potential this season. From March on, he shot close to 50 percent from the field while averaging more than 22 points. Put that sort of scoring and accuracy with a steal and a block per game from a guard-eligible player, and he could be a top-30 fantasy talent. By the way, Durant just turned 20 in late September. While Green and Westbrook also offer upside, Oklahoma City's fantasy No. 2 is Collison. The Kansas product returns to Big 12 country after averaging 9.8 points and 9.4 boards last season.
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleeper: Rudy Fernandez
I watched his dazzling showing with Spain in the Olympics, and it's good enough for me. Even though he's listed as Roy's backup, I think Fernandez gets solid minutes.
If I like Fernandez, I almost have to be down on Bayless. In Portland's crowded backcourt, I think the rookie from Arizona loses the numbers game. Roy is playing. I feel that Fernandez, a rookie in name only, will play. And Blake is going to play. Maybe Bayless starts later in the season, but for now, coach Nate McMillan says that Blake is his starting point guard. And what Nate says, I believe.
Wow. I just found my favorite NBA team to write about this season. What a collection of young talent. I'll skim over Roy and Aldridge, who you already know and love, and start in the middle, which is where you'll find Oden. Given his name recognition and his ability, he strikes me as a player who's bound to be drafted a bit too soon. ESPN's evaluation in player projections succinctly lists the caveats: The cautious Blazers likely will limit his minutes early in the season, he probably won't score that much, and foul problems are a possibility as he adjusts to the speed of the pro game. Of course, despite this, we still have Oden at No. 52 overall. And yes, I'll probably spring for him, too -- I want those two blocks a game and near double-digit boards. One other thing with the Blazers: Webster and Outlaw are battling to start at small forward. Regardless of who prevails, both are fantasy contributors.
Key Loss: None
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleeper: Kosta Koufos
According to the Deseret News, Koufos, the 7-footer from Ohio State, could carve out some time behind Okur or even Boozer.
Bust: Paul Millsap
As the same Deseret News article notes, if Koufos is the first choice to spell Boozer, Millsap could lose minutes.
It's hard to think of a team having a more uneventful offseason than the Jazz. Sure, Williams and Boozer earning gold medals with the Redeem Team is a significant highlight, but as far as the organization itself, next to nothing has changed since the Lakers ousted Utah in the second round of last spring's postseason tournament. That said, if you're a fantasy owner who targets guys who are playing for new contracts, move Boozer and Okur up on your board. Both have player options and could leave Salt Lake City after the 2008-09 season. Korver, who has a termination option, could also be auditioning his talents. Beyond that, Matt Harpring is hurting and Brewer and Korver will split minutes, probably to the point that neither is of much fantasy value. With Jerry Sloan's mainstays, though, you know what you're getting: points and boards from Boozer, points and 3s from Okur, general aggravation from Kirilenko and general studliness from Williams.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.