Pacific Division fantasy team previews
Sleeper: Marcus Williams
The most recent press out of the Bay Area has Don Nelson saying Watson is leading in the race to start at the point for the Warriors. This is the same man who said he wanted Monta Ellis playing point guard last preseason. We saw how that turned out. Marcus Williams is a pass-first point guard and will get at least six assists per game with starters' minutes. He has scorers surrounding him and a coach who likes to push the pace. The only question mark is if he has the wind to run with the rest of the Warriors. The offseason reports are promising: Williams has lost weight and dedicated himself to improving his endurance. Maggette, Biedrins and Harrington should improve their scoring totals to make up for the loss of Davis and Ellis. Someone is going to have to get these guys the ball.
Bust: Monta Ellis
No one likes to kick a man when he's down, but here's the problem: he's not down! You guys are taking Ellis way too early in drafts. His most recent average draft position is 52.3, ahead of healthy players like Mike Miller, Leandro Barbosa and Jamal Crawford. At this point, it appears Ellis will miss at least one-third of the season. Ask yourself; is two-thirds of Ellis more valuable than the players listed above? The other issue with Ellis is he was supposed start at the point this season. Last season a far less serious back injury kept him from playing the point at all. It seems highly unlikely he will log many minutes there this season. The Warriors already have Jackson at the two and this bit of a logjam will make it easier for Nellie to limit Ellis' minutes when he does return. In other words, you aren't getting a healthy two-thirds of Monta Ellis, you are getting two-thirds of Ellis playing fewer minutes (at least for the first week or so). You can do better in the fifth or sixth round.
Raise your hand if you love mopeds. Ok, the 12-year-olds can lower them. The Warriors are still going to be a fast-paced team, but the man we expected to lead them offensively will be MIA for at least November and December. While the overall team speed is negatively affected with the loss of Ellis, there are plenty of able bodies left behind.
Corey Maggette is the best bet to lead the squad in scoring. He is a scoring machine and Nellie will be sure to use his athleticism and strength to exploit mismatches wherever possible. Expect an uptick in scoring, 3-pointers and an even higher volume of free throws from Maggette. His slashing ability should complement outside gunners like Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington. Regarding the latter, if Harrington is to increase his scoring and truly help the team, he is going to need to remember how he scored before he made his home by the Bay. He used to be a good midrange shooter and could score off the dribble. Compare his free throw attempts last season (2.3 per game) with those in his last two in Atlanta (5.3 per game in 2004-05 and 4.6 in 2005-06). I fear his love of the long ball and his aversion to rebounding will again limit his minutes. This puts a ceiling on how much improvement we can expect.
If Harrington struggles with his post duties, several players stand to benefit. First and foremost, Andris Biedrins. The team captain is just 22 years old and will average a double-double this season. Biedrins averaged 22.3 points a game playing for Latvia in the Eurobasket qualifying tournament this summer, which could be a sign of increased confidence on offense. The only thing standing in the way of Biedrins and that coveted double-double average is Don Nelson's willingness to play the kid 30-plus minutes. This year, he will.
One or more of the bench players could establish themselves, as well. We know Ronny Turiaf will block shots and grab some rebounds but his foul rate will limit his minutes. This leaves us with the vermicelli twins, rookie Anthony Randolph and second-year man Brandan Wright. It seems unlikely either breaks through this season, but if you to pick one it would be Randolph. His ball-handling skills are simply unfair for a player of his size and he has received glowing reviews from teammates since the start of training camp.
Stephen Jackson will have the most fantasy production on "his team." He stands to improve in most categories and his only major flaw is his field goal shooting, which languished at 40.5 percent last season. Given the 3-pointers (2.5 per game), assists (4.1), steals (1.3) and free throw shooting (83.2 percent), this is tolerable.
The Warriors will continue to be a great source of fantasy numbers and as many as eight players from the squad by the Bay could be rosterable in standard leagues this season. Keep in mind that this team has the league's worst defense and owners in head-to-head leagues should look to exploit players facing the Warriors.
Sleeper: Ricky Davis
The other Davis in Clipperland is sure to be overlooked on draft day. He had a subpar season in 2007-08 and enjoys a shall we say poor reputation among many casual NBA fans. As a Clipper, Davis will come off the bench as the sixth man. Despite underperforming on a largely dysfunctional Heat team last season, Davis has been a valuable fantasy play throughout his career. Paired with a strong presence like Baron Davis, Ricky Buckets should be on his best behavior (much as he was with the Celtics a few seasons ago) and put up good numbers. He will back up both shooting guard and small forward and log well more than 30 minutes per contest. He is an underrated passer and should easily average more than four assists per game to go with 16 or so points, four-plus rebounds, 1.4 3-pointers and one-plus steals per game. That is solid production from a guy who will last into the eighth round of standard drafts.
Bust: Chris Kaman
There's an old saying in fantasy circles -- you may have even heard the esteemed Matthew Berry mention it once or twice -- never pay for a career year. There is no other way to describe last season for Chris Kaman. With Elton Brand sidelined for all but eight games, Kaman was the sole post presence for the Clippers. He responded with career highs in scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounding (12.7), blocks (2.8) and assists (1.9). He also played a career-low 56 games due to a variety of ailments. The only time Kaman has played the full 82 was his rookie season, but it is not his health concerns that make him a bust candidate. It is his new teammate in the front court, Marcus Camby. By all accounts, Camby is an angry, motivated man since being traded from the Denver Nuggets. He will eat significantly into Kaman's rebounding and block numbers. If Elton Brand, inferior in both categories to Camby, hurt Kaman here, what do you think Camby will do? Kaman's scoring will not be affected, as Camby rarely has plays drawn up for him. Look for Kaman to put up rebounding and block numbers somewhere in between last year's gaudy stats and those of 2005-06. Don't overpay.
While many were ready with shovelfuls of dirt after Elton Brand departed for the City of Brotherly Love, there are reasons to like the team the Clippers have put together this season. With so many new faces, there is going to be an adjustment period, but in Baron Davis they have a clear leader on offense and someone who will take quick ownership of the team. Davis joined a Warriors team in disarray three and a half seasons ago and navigated it through roster changes and low expectations to create a winning franchise. The culture of the Clippers is about to change significantly.
On offense, Davis will lead the charge. Well known for his late-game heroics, Davis' most valuable asset in Los Angeles may be his passing. The Clips haven't had an initiator of Davis' skill since um you get the point. Players like Kaman and Al Thornton will find themselves getting into their shots with much greater comfort and ease than they did last season. The biggest question surrounding Davis is how well he will mesh with the controlling Mike Dunleavy Sr. While Don Nelson often let Baron run the show in Oakland, Dunleavy is known for running far more set plays. Will he loosen the reins for Davis, or will Davis chafe under Dunleavy's leadership?
The second most significant addition to the team is Marcus Camby. Camby is still letting every reporter in earshot know just how ticked off he remains about leaving Denver. He will be motivated this season. He and Kaman form an imposing front line on defense. Keep this in mind when starting slashing forwards and guards on nights they face the Clippers. Offensively, Kaman will own the low post and Camby will occupy the high post in most sets. Camby's passing is phenomenal (3.3 dimes per game last season) and he will help everyone else get theirs even as his scoring remains modest. Camby was remarkably healthy last season, missing just three games. It would be a mistake to expect him at age 34 to hit that career high for a second season in a row.
Al Thornton was a popular sleeper (oxymoron?) by the end of last season. He averaged 35.5 minutes, 15.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks per game in 31 games as a starter. Look for improved numbers this season, especially scoring. An effective point guard should only help Thornton. While Ricky Davis represents something of a threat to Thornton's numbers, it is more likely that he logs the majority of his time at shooting guard.
Which brings us to Cuttino Mobley. Even before the Clippers acquired Ricky Davis and drafted Eric Gordon, it would have been hard to recommend Cat. His stats have been in decline for years and, at this point, he has little to offer his fantasy owners. In 35 minutes per game last season he averaged just 12.8 points, 0.9 3-pointers, 2.6 assists and 1.0 steals. His other numbers are barely worth mentioning. Given whom the team has added at shooting guard, Mobley will be hard-pressed to top 30 minutes per game this season. Avoid him.
Looking down the bench, the only players worth keeping your eye on are Tim Thomas and Jason Hart. Thomas because he is always good for 3-pointers (1.3 per game) and because he will get serious playing time should either Camby or Kaman get hurt, which is a distinct possibility. With the retirement of Jason Williams, Jason Hart is the only point guard behind Baron Davis. Yes, Eric Gordon could play in a pinch but Hart will be the primary backup. Baron's injury history demands that owners be conscious of who will get his minutes should he go down.
Key additions: None
Key losses: Ronny Turiaf
Sleeper: Andrew Bynum
This assumes he stays healthy this season. The signs all point to a full recovery for Bynum and if that is the case, his owners are in for a treat. Bynum injured his knee after landing on Lamar Odom's foot going for a rebound. In other words it was a freak thing and given Bynum's youth, owners can assume he is 100 percent. Bynum shouldn't really be a sleeper as he clearly broke out last season. However, his current average draft position (ADP) is 88.9. This is due in part to his having played just 35 games last season. Prior to last season his stats were unimpressive, but the kid is just 20 years old! His ADP was 95.7 going into last season. Clearly, his owners got a steal for the first few months. We expect his current ADP to correct itself as more drafts occur and owners shouldn't hesitate to grab him as soon as the fifth round in standard 10-team drafts.
Bust: Pau Gasol
It's not that I don't like Gasol. I do. He was very efficient upon joining the Lakers and his ability to pass out of the high and low post is a great asset in the triangle. The problem is that owners will be counting on Pau to provide excellent big man numbers and I think this is where he will disappoint owners. Gasol averaged just 7.9 rebounds per game as a Laker and that was with Lamar Odom as his main competition on the glass. This year he will be contending for rebounds with Odom and Andrew Bynum. If Gasol were to average 7.5 or fewer rebounds, I would not be shocked. Blocks are another concern. Owners expecting him to block 1.9 or 2.1 shots as he did in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, respectively, will be in for a shock. He dropped to 1.5 blocks last season and, again, Bynum's presence only hurts him here. Gasol's ADP of 36.6 is a bit high given these concerns.
Provided a full bill of health for all involved, this season the Lakers are going to be nasty. A front line composed of Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is both huge and skilled. Odom and Gasol are expert passers and Bynum showed a huge improvement on the glass (10.2 rebounds per game in 2007-08), on defense (2.1 blocks) and shooting (63.6 percent from the field and 69.5 percent from the line). For value, as stated above, Bynum is the best of the three but provided one doesn't reach, Odom and Gasol should be solid plays. There have been reports in the L.A. Times that Odom is miffed about rumors that he could come off the bench. While the idea of Odom exploiting mismatches all over the floor as a supersub is tantalizing, if he doesn't buy in, it is doubtful this will go down. Keep your eye on this development during training camp. He may actually have more value as a sixth man than as a starter.
The player most likely to benefit should Odom move to a sixth man role is Trevor Ariza. He is a dogged perimeter defender -- something Odom is not -- and will provide owners with good steals if he's given playing time.
The bench player with the greatest potential is Jordan Farmar. He nearly made the cut as team sleeper for this column. Farmar would be a starter on many teams. He provides decent scoring (9.1 points per game), 3-pointers (1.4) and steals (0.9) in very limited minutes (20.6). Old Man Fisher could start yielding significant playing time this season. Farmar is worth a late-round pick on the prospect that he plays 25-plus minutes per game in 2008-09.
Sasha Vujacic is a decent 3-point specialist, having averaged 1.6 per game last season, but does little else for fantasy teams. Luke Walton was a pleasant surprise for fantasy owners two seasons ago, but playing time and injury concerns should dampen enthusiasm. Ariza appears to be ahead of him on the depth chart and only owners in very deep leagues should consider the son of Big Red.
Saving the best for last, we come to Kobe Bryant. He is a member of the elite fantasy four along with Amare Stoudemire, Chris Paul and LeBron James and shouldn't fall out of the top four in any drafts. However, there are a few reasons to think he might not equal his totals from his MVP season. He will be joining a starting lineup with a ton of talent up front. Kobe seems unlikely to grab six-plus boards as he did last season, not with the trio of Odom, Bynum and Gasol patrolling the glass. His scoring could dip slightly as well, as the frontcourt gets theirs. One also has to wonder if Kobe's injured pinkie will eventually affect his play. Just to recap, Kobe injured his pinkie last February 5 and has decided to pass on surgery on two separate occasions. According to the L.A. Times, Kobe has a torn ligament and a loose bone fragment in the pinkie finger. Kobe is as tough as they come, but keep the injury and lineup issues in mind if you find yourself with one of the first picks in your draft.
Key losses: None
Sleeper: Matt Barnes
Few undrafted players have as much upside as Matt Barnes does in Phoenix. While the Suns under Terry Porter will not push the pace the same as they did last year under Mike D'Antoni, there will still be plenty of offense to go around. Barnes has a very good chance to become the starting small forward this season. Grant Hill is 35 and does not have the stamina to hold up for an entire season and remain fresh for the playoffs. Barnes gives the Suns a high-energy player who is effective on both ends of the court when given decent playing time. Last season, Barnes was affected by the death of his mother and by the yo-yoing of his minutes by Don Nelson. In a more secure environment, and one with a creative playmaker like Steve Nash at the helm, there are good reasons to suppose Barnes can rediscover the flavor of 2006-07 when he averaged 34.5 minutes,14.3 points, 2.2 3-pointers, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks in 23 games as a starter. He likely won't see 34.5 minutes per game, but Barnes' ability to defend multiple positions will keep him on the floor longer than some suppose. He is currently owned in just two percent of ESPN leagues. Let's bump that number up a bit.
Bust: Raja Bell
Resisting urge to use a John Donne pun here ok, we give up. For whom the Bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Thee owners of Raja Bell, that is. For two seasons, from 2005-06 to 2006-07, Bell averaged 14.7 points per game and more than 2.5 3-pointers per game. Last season he slipped, scoring just 11.9 points, though he maintained his 3-point shooting. The decrease in scoring can't be tied just to playing time; Bell averaged just two minutes less per game last season (35.3) than the previous two. He simply became a smaller part of the offense. He is now almost purely a 3-point bomber. In Bell's first two seasons in Phoenix, 3-pointers comprised 50 percent of his shots. Last season they were almost 60 percent. His free throws fell significantly, as well. This looks like an indication that Bell is feeling his age and slowing down. While he still has value as 3-point shooter and as a defender (in the real game), Bell should continue to have his minutes and thus his fantasy value reduced.
These are not the Suns fantasy owners have come to love the past three seasons. Terry Porter has been preaching defense since the start of training camp and with Steve Kerr's blessing, it looks like he is quite serious about it. While it is unclear how quick with the hook Porter will be, players who do not exhibit effort on defense might find themselves on the bench. This could bode ill for a player like Leandro Barbosa, who plays defense as he wishes it would be played against him: that is barely at all. Steve Nash's deficiencies on defense are well known and he may be the sole exception if Porter enforces his defensive regimen with vigor.
The larger issue for Nash and his owners is the role of Goran Dragic. The Suns have said they want to limit Nash's minutes and that they believe Dragic is the heir to Nash's throne in the Valley of the Sun. If Dragic is up to the job -- and no one is sure yet if that is the case -- Nash will drop from a late first round value to late second/early third value. Keep this in mind when deciding between Nash and younger point guards like Deron Williams or Baron Davis.
Amare Stoudemire has openly welcomed the new emphasis on defense. Amare blocked 2.1 shots per game last season. With Bill Cartwright coaching the bigs on defense -- and one would think stopping dribble penetration would be at the core of his curriculum -- is it possible we will see more blocks from Amare? Fantasy owners certainly hope so and if he is truly as motivated as he appears, it may even be likely.
In addition to a dedication to defense another change will be in the depth of the rotation. We have already seen that the Suns plan to give serious minutes to Goran Dragic and likely Matt Barnes as well. Other changes may include the use of bench players such as Robin Lopez, Boris Diaw and even Alando Tucker. Lopez proved he was a willing and able defender in the Pac-10 last season. Shaquille O'Neal hasn't played in more than 61 games since the 2004-05 season. That's 20-plus starts at center for somebody on the Suns. Stoudemire could, of course, shift back to the 5 with Diaw moving to power forward, but keep an eye on Lopez. If he plays hard on the defensive end he could see his minutes rise over the course of the season and have some value in deep leagues.
The Suns may not be the same gunners of old but with Nash at the helm, Amare down low and creative offensive talents like Diaw, Barbosa and Barnes ready to pitch in, we should still see our share of high-scoring games. The key will be how they adapt to Porter's defensive philosophy. This will affect everything from playing time to Amare Stoudemire's blocks. If you are looking for good values on the Suns look for younger guys who will get after it on defense.
Sleeper: Francisco Garcia
The Kings liked what they saw out of the third-year swingman enough to sign him to five-year contract extension. Looking over his numbers, it's not hard to see why. With minutes, Cisco puts up serious digits. For a sampling, check out his April splits: in 32.7 minutes per game he averaged 16.8 points, 1.2 3-pointers, 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks with excellent percentages. With sixth-man minutes, this is the kind of playing time owners can expect from Garcia. He is an excellent long-range shooter (39.1 percent from beyond the arc) and is ferocious on defense. This multi-category contributor is exactly the kind of player you want occupying one of the utility spots on your roster. Be sure to target him late in your drafts and reap the sweet rewards during the season.
Bust: Brad Miller
It's not the five-game suspension to start the season that lands Miller here, though it doesn't help, especially in roto leagues. It's a combination of age (though, admittedly, 32 is not very old), injury and opportunity. Miller has a long history of injury and as he gets older there is no reason to think this will get better. After spreading much joy for his owners the first four months of the season, Miller fell off badly in the month of March. The source of the problem was bone chips in his right elbow and later a stress fracture in his left leg. The elbow was operated on last spring and reports from the Sacramento media have Miller at 100 percent. The problem for Miller and his owners this season is that there is far less room for slippage. Spencer Hawes proved very capable last season stepping in for Miller. In addition, the team drafted Jason Thompson, who at 6-11 and 250 pounds has the size and toughness to seize minutes inside. Miller averages 34.9 minutes per game this season. If either or both of these players shine during Miller's suspension, his minutes stand a good chance of slipping.
The Kings have five players who should be drafted in all leagues and upwards of eight in deeper leagues. There is a lot of talent here, so it's just a matter of knowing where to target it. Starting with the obvious, Kevin Martin has turned himself into a top-tier shooting guard. While he doesn't bring quite the statistical variety of players like Joe Johnson or Vince Carter, what he does do, he does very well. There is no one in the NBA who helps owners more from the free-throw line than Martin. Last season he had the highest free-throw percentage (86.8) of anyone in the top 12 in attempts per game. This accuracy plus volume equals a disproportionately positive impact on this category for your team. Add to this Martin's scoring (23.7 per game) -- which is likely to rise with Artest gone -- his 3-pointers (1.8) and his accuracy from the field (45.6 percent) and you have a lot to like.
The small forward spot will be occupied by John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, when he isn't backing up Martin at the 2. Both are excellent values and put up strong numbers last season when starting for Artest and/or Martin. Garcia is going later in drafts and is therefore the better value, but both should put up strong all-around numbers for their owners. The remaining small forward, Donte Greene, is a massive talent on offense but his defensive education is so rudimentary it seems unlikely that he will contribute meaningful minutes this season.
Prior to last season Beno Udrih was largely unknown except to die-hard Spurs fans and, of course, the good citizens of Slovenia. After taking the starting point guard job in Sac-Town, Udrih changed all that and became a must-add in all formats. Once inserted as the starter, he provided scoring (14.4 points per game), 3-pointers (0.9), assists (5.0) and steals (0.9) to complement excellent percentages from the floor (47.4 percent) and the line (86.0). While there is some concern about his proneness to injury, his injuries from last season (broken finger and stiff back) don't necessarily point to anything chronic. Besides, given Udrih's average draft position -- currently 119.8 -- this is an acceptable risk. He is the second-best sleeper candidate on the Kings.
If you are looking for intrigue on the Kings, you'd best look to the power forward and center spots. Power forward was crowded last season. Mikki Moore took the starting reins but his energy and hustle, while exciting to the fans at Arco Arena, did little for fantasy owners. This year we could witness the changing of the guard. Shareef Abdur-Rahim has traded his jersey for a sports jacket and youth is waiting to be served. Jason Thompson has the ability to play both the 4 and the 5, but given the presence of Brad Miller and Spencer Hawes, he will probably see more minutes at power forward. He is more than willing to mix it up down low and should be an effective scorer in the post. The future for the Kings likely has Hawes starting at center and Thompson at power forward. They will start to take minutes from Miller and Moore this season, as the Kings are rebuilding and there is little incentive to play veterans for big minutes at the expense of youth.
There is a lot of fantasy gold to be mined in Sacramento. There is talent at almost every position and several bench players worth keeping tabs on. While the team may struggle to reach the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference, the infusion of young talent and the arrival of Kevin Martin as a certifiable stud give the Kings and their fans some reason for optimism.
Guy Lake is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.