Southwest Division fantasy team previews
Sleeper: Brandon Bass
Bass was right on the cusp of a breakout last season. All he needed was a few more minutes per game to make it work, and he'll get that this season for new head coach Rick Carlisle. Nicknamed "The Animal" for his physical play under the boards and around the rim, Bass isn't just your typical bruiser on the glass. He also has the quickness to get up and down the court and the touch to knock down the midrange jumper. Bass was dynamic in limited action in 2007-08, averaging 8.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in just 19.7 minutes per game. He also added stellar percentages: 49.9 percent from the floor and 82.2 percent from the line. Project those numbers to reflect 35 minutes per game and you'll see a highly productive fantasy player: 14.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Of course, Bass will be hard-pressed to earn 35 minutes per game, but the upside is there, and the 23-year old has major breakout potential in Dallas.
Bust: Jason Terry
Remember the days when The Jet would score 18, hand out 5-6 dimes, create 1.5 steals and drain 1.8 3-pointers per game? He was the prototypical point guard for the "Point Guard/Power Forward" philosophy. But those days are long gone now, and Terry (who was always a combo guard at heart) can barely even be considered a point guard these days, despite what his position eligibility states. His assists have vanished (3.2 per game) and his steals have dipped to just 1.1 per contest. Don't get us wrong, Terry is still a very nice option for points (15.5) and 3-pointers (1.7), but there are plenty of shooting guards out there that can offer similar stats at half the price. Why take Terry in the fifth round when you can find a similar talent three rounds later?
What a difference a year makes. The much-debated Jason Kidd experiment failed, and after coming up short against the New Orleans Hornets in the first round of the playoffs, the Mavericks acted quickly to find a scapegoat in head coach Avery Johnson. The Mavs dismissed Johnson shortly after their playoff flop, replacing him with Rick Carlisle. Carlisle has promised to bring a more up-tempo style of play to Dallas in an effort to better suit Kidd's skills. If he's a man of his word, this will be new territory for the Carlisle, who has made his living primarily on the strength of defense and a half-court offensive style. Still, rumors of an up-tempo offense can only be a positive sign, at least for fantasy purposes.
Aside from the coaching change, the Mavericks didn't make any major moves during the offseason. Personnel-wise, for all intents and purposes, this is the same Dallas team that disappointed down the stretch in 2007-08. With Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Terry and Josh Howard, the Mavs have a nice core of fantasy players to work with. Erick Dampier will start at the pivot, but he is only serviceable in deeper leagues for boards and blocks at this stage in his career. And if the Mavs decide to run and gun, expect to see much less of Damp and DeSagana Diop, and more of sleeper candidate Bass. Off the bench, the Mavs are fairly thin fantasy-wise. Jerry Stackhouse will have value here and there, and Antoine Wright or Gerald Green may make a push for backup minutes, but Bass (for the reasons mentioned above) is the only real exciting bench option for fantasy owners to consider.
The Mavs success -- both in real life and fantasy -- will hinge on how well Jason Kidd can mesh with his fairly new teammates. We know one thing: Aside from Dirk Nowitzki, Kidd didn't mesh well with his new teammates last season. Most alarming was the dip in production from two core players, Terry and Howard. Not only did their overall numbers dip, but their efficiency from the floor suffered upon Kidd's arrival. That trend, however, could be offset if the Mavs can pull off the run-and-gun offense, but it's still wise to temper our expectations for both Terry and Howard in 2008-09.
Kidd, incidentally, has been targeted in nearly every "bust" column we've seen this year. He didn't look great after the trade, and he was outplayed by Chris Paul and Deron Williams in Beijing during the Summer Olympics (but then again, who wasn't?). This has led many to believe that his run as a fantasy star is over. Not so fast, people. Remember, while Kidd wasn't his typical self, he still averaged a diverse 9.5 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.2 3-pointers per contest in Dallas.
Sleeper: Luis Scola
After a slow start to his NBA career, Scola silenced his critics with a stellar 13.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 30.4 minutes per game after the All-Star break. Now a proven commodity, the Rockets are going to be hard-pressed to keep him off the court in 2008-09. Sure, Ron Artest's arrival will complicate matters slightly, but Scola has the good fortune of being one of the healthier players on the league's most injury-prone roster. Injuries or not, Scola should be able to earn 27-30 minutes per game. He'll be a solid producer in points and rebounds, and although he doesn't block shots, he will create more steals than your average big man. Now, it's important to realize that Scola may not be your traditional sleeper. He won't be overlooked on draft day. Don't be surprised if he struggles early in the season when the Rockets are healthy. But not to worry, Scola's sleeper status will reveal itself during the season when (not if) the first major injury strikes in Houston.
Bust: Tracy McGrady
Calm down, Houston fans, this is fantasy we're talking about, not reality. T-Mac can still average 20/5/5 when he's on the court, but that's just the problem, he seems to struggle with the "on the court" part of the equation. Playing in an average of just 61.3 games over his past three seasons, T-Mac has become one of the league's most injury-prone players. To make matters worse, McGrady's skill set is also starting to deteriorate. This can be seen best not only in his declining numbers across the board, but also his horrendous percentages. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he didn't take so many shots, but 41.9 percent from the floor is a major drag when you're taking 19.8 shots per game, and 68.4 percent from the line is unforgivable enough without the 5.4 attempts per game. When considering the fact that McGrady is already talking about lingering pain in his left knee and the possibility of postseason surgery on his shoulder, it's best to let someone else deal with the percentages and injury issues.
Talk about being under a microscope. After suffering yet another playoff disappointment, the Rockets had an opportunity to revamp their roster and start over. Instead, they chose to build around their core -- Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady -- by adding one of the league's most talented (and troubled) stars in Ron Artest. Now the pressure is on for the Rockets to win, and win now. On paper this is a phenomenal lineup that is capable of winning an NBA championship, but they'll have to stay healthy (good luck with that) and find the right chemistry to make it work. Unfortunately, while the real-life Rockets look somewhat promising, the same cannot be said for the fantasy Rockets.
This is a team filled with potential fantasy busts. Rafer Alston will start at the point and provide his typical assists, steals and 3-pointers, but will also torment you with his sub-40 percent shooting from the floor. For that reason, he's a lower-tier fantasy point guard. Shane Battier will be solid but will undoubtedly suffer a slight decline because of the presence of Ron Artest. Both Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming have missed significant time because of injuries over the past three seasons, and it would not be surprising if the trend continued in 2008-09. T-Mac and Yao are risk/high-reward selections, and Yao has top-10 potential, but both are a little more risk than reward at this point. Let's also not forget about the injury history of newcomer Ron Artest. Ron-Ron missed 25 games last season and 12 games in 2006-07. Make no mistake; this is a very talented, but also risky fantasy lineup.
Needless to say, Houston's bench could play a major role this season. It's too bad that there aren't many promising fantasy factors coming off the bench. All are solid NBA role players, but none offer much in the way of fantasy excitement. And with that said, Scola will be your best option should an injury strike any of Houston's talented trio.
Assuming that we see a relatively healthy lineup, the Rockets will roll with Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest, Yao Ming and either Shane Battier or Luis Scola in the starting lineup. Ron-Ron will be starting for sure, but it is not clear at the moment where. The most likely scenario is that he will bump Shane Battier to the bench, but Rick Adelman could easily decide to play small with Artest at the four and Luis Scola coming off the bench. Either way, this should negatively affect the minutes of both Battier and Scola in the early going, or at least until the first injury strikes. As for Artest himself? He will log heavy minutes, and while we can expect his scoring to decrease slightly, he should be able to match his fantastic peripheral numbers -- two-plus steals, 1.5 3-pointers and 0.7 blocks -- in Houston.
Sleeper: Marc Gasol
O.J. Mayo will get all the pub, but Marc Gasol may actually be the most productive fantasy rookie in Memphis. Coming off of a strong season in the Spanish ACB League and an impressive showing in Beijing, Gasol will have an opportunity to shine in the Grizzlies' depleted frontcourt. With Darko Milicic and Hakim Warrick as the only real post threats, Pau's brother won't have a problem logging heavy minutes in his rookie season. So while we should always be wary of youngsters from overseas, there is still plenty to love about Gasol. He earned MVP honors in the Spanish ACB League after averaging 16.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, and he looked strong with 11 points and five rebounds in just 23 minutes in the gold-medal game in Beijing. With limited competition for minutes and loose balls, Gasol looks to be a nice late-round gamble for those looking to bolster their fantasy frontlines.
Bust: Hakim Warrick
Now entering his fourth season as a pro, Warrick has progressed nicely as an offensive player. This was evident last season after the Pau Gasol trade when he averaged 16.0 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 49.1 percent from the floor. Unfortunately, he was unable to use his long arms to do much of anything on the defensive end. We've been waiting a while for Warrick to start using his length to his advantage defensively, but for some reason he has failed to live up to the promise that he displayed during his days at Syracuse. Part of his struggles can be blamed on a lack of minutes, but the rest has to do with poor per-minute stats in the two measurable defensive categories: steals and blocks. It's not all bad news for Warrick, however. He's going to get a ton of minutes in this lineup, and we typically love players that have the kind of opportunity he has in the Memphis frontcourt. Don't write him off completely because he's listed here as a bust; just don't expect him to help in any categories other than points, rebounds and field goal percentage.
Don't let this team fool you. They will likely spend much of the season looking up from the basement in the Western Conference, but that doesn't mean you can't find a bunch of fantasy goodness on this young roster. Talented players on bad teams almost always have fantasy success, and that's exactly what we're looking at in Memphis this season.
Rudy Gay is clearly the cream of the crop here. He's basically a Danny Granger clone in terms of statistics: 20.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.7 3-pointers and a block per game. It doesn't get much better than that, folks. Those numbers have second-round fantasy selection written all over them. After Gay, the Grizzlies lineup is filled with high upside fantasy options that can be found in the later rounds.
Mike Conley has a ton of competition in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry and Javaris Crittenton in town, but it has become clear that the Memphis front office wants to see Conley succeed. The Ohio State product struggled to adapt in the NBA early on in his rookie season, and that will likely depress his value in your fantasy draft. However, a closer look at his numbers reveals a productive last month in which he averaged 14.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 3-pointers and a steal per game. Look for Conley to fend off Lowry and Crittenton to earn the starting nod, and grab him late for help in assists and steals. If Conley comes down with injuries, Lowry is more than capable of stepping in and producing for fantasy rosters. Lowry averaged 11.6 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals after the All-Star break in 2007-08 and should be a mainstay on any "watch list" as a potential pickup.
Rounding out the backcourt will be Mayo. The rookie will have to battle Marko Jaric for minutes initially, but we are expecting him to eventually win the starting gig. Typically, rookies are vastly overrated in fantasy leagues, but many owners have been tentative to reach for the high-upside swingman in early fantasy drafts. If that is the case, feel free to scoop Mayo up at the end of your draft. He has both opportunity and talent, two key ingredients for the success of any youngster. Aside from Gay and Warrick, there aren't many proven scorers in this lineup. Mayo could easily step-up and fill that void as the season progresses, especially in the second half.
Considering how thin the Grizzlies frontcourt is, it would not be surprising to see them run with a smaller lineup from time to time. Some will expect Darko Milicic to start at center, but no one has to tell you how wildly inconsistent this guy has been during his NBA career. In fact we didn't even list Darko as a bust above simply because it was too obvious. Even if he begins the season as a starter, he will face a serious threat to his job in the form of Marc Gasol. As mentioned above, Warrick will provide scoring in the paint, but will struggle on defense. The Grizzlies are in their "youth movement" phase, so don't rule out rookie Darrell Arthur's chances either. He's not one to consider on draft day, but definitely one to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
New Orleans Hornets
Key losses: Jannero Pargo
Sleeper: David West
OK, so he's not much of a sleeper in the traditional sense, but West is better than you think he is. Here's a guy who averaged 20.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 48.2 percent from the floor and 85.0 percent from the line last year, but is still being found in the fourth round in fantasy drafts this season. That's one heck of a value right there, folks. Don't underestimate the power of the percentages, either. There aren't too many big men that can shoot 80-plus percent from the free throw line, let alone do it with 4.6 attempts per game.
Bust: Peja Stojakovic
In a show of hands, how many of you thought Peja could stay relatively healthy last season? And don't lie. None of you should have your hands up. Peja surprised everyone in his ability to play in 77 games after missing 69 games because of back surgery in 2006-07. While he was healthy last season, there is no guarantee he will be able to stay that way, especially when we're talking about a back injury. Peja also enjoyed a career-high shooting percentage from downtown at 44.1 percent. Some of that has to do with the greatness of Chris Paul, but we still can't realistically expect Peja to duplicate that number this season. Stojakovic will also have to deal with the addition of James Posey, who is another 3-point sharpshooter. Posey will likely pull some shots away from Stojackovic, and Peja simply can't afford to lose many shots. At this stage in his career, he is a two-category wonder in fantasy leagues, points and 3-pointers. Both would be affected if Posey steals some of his shots.
It's Chris Paul's world; we're just living in it. Some may argue that he, not LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, should be the first selection in fantasy drafts this season, but that is an argument for another day. One thing is for sure: No one should doubt Paul's status as a top-3 fantasy selection. Paul's impact on the fantasy world reaches far deeper than just where he is drafted. He makes the rest of his team better, and that makes fantasy owners a happy bunch. It's not a coincidence David West and Tyson Chandler have thrived offensively under the leadership of Paul, and it's not surprising Stojakovic posted a career-high shooting percentage from behind the 3-point line. Paul's ability to create open shots should not be overlooked when looking at his surrounding cast.
With Paul as the quarterback, the Hornets are primed to make another run deep into the playoffs, and they'll lean heavily on Paul, West and Chandler to make it happen. Chandler's offensive prowess has improved immensely with Paul at the helm, and he's always been one of the league's top rebounders. Where fantasy owners are torn, however, is in Tyson's streaky shot-blocking history. In 2006-07 Chandler swatted 1.8 shots per game, but he managed just 1.1 blocks per game last season. So which Chandler will we see this year? That is the question fantasy owners will have to consider before deciding to grab Tyson this season. He certainly has the talent to block more shots, but with David West also asserting himself on the defensive end, Chandler may not be able to recreate the magic of two years ago. One concern for the Hornets will be the lack of depth in the frontcourt. If either Chandler or West suffer an injury, it will be Melvin Ely and Hilton Armstrong attempting to fill the void. Armstrong has some upside, but neither he nore Ely figure to make much of an impact here.
Look for newcomer James Posey to provide a much-needed defensive presence to the swing positions in New Orleans. Stojakovic and Morris Peterson are fine offensive players, but no one ever accused them of really buckling down defensively. For that reason, Posey is assured plenty of minutes in his new home. Peja and Peterson will feel the impact of Posey's presence, in terms of both playing time and ball distribution. Posey's arrival will also stunt the growth of second-year man Julian Wright. Wright is a phenomenal talent, but unless injury strikes, we probably won't get to see much of him on the court this season. Although he seems to affect all of the Hornets' swingmen, don't overrate Posey's fantasy game. He will knock down around 1.5 3-pointers and create about a steal per game, but he will leave fantasy owners wanting more in the rest of the fantasy categories.
Key losses: Brent Barry
Sleeper: Roger Mason
Acquired from the Wizards in the offseason to help provide depth and 3-point shooting, Roger Mason figures to be the primary beneficiary of Manu Ginobili's worrisome ankle injury. Mason shot nearly 40 percent from downtown in Washington last season, and with Brent Barry out of town, the Spurs will lean heavily on Mason's sharp-shooting, especially early in the season. When presented with ample playing time, Mason proved to be more than just a 3-point specialist. In nine starts for the Wizards he averaged 17.4 points, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals and 2.8 3-pointers per game. He won't be able to match that sort of production in San Antonio, but it is clear there is a considerable amount of upside here while Manu mends early in the year.
Bust: Manu Ginobili
Coming off of his best statistical season yet, many had high hopes for Manu before he injured his ankle in Beijing. The injury, which is expected to keep him out until December at the earliest, will present problems for those looking to scoop him up at a discount in the late rounds. Gregg Popovich has a history of limiting Manu's minutes to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Given the severity of this injury, Pops will be even more careful with his prized possession this season. Those expecting a repeat of last-season's numbers -- 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.1 3-pointers -- will be sorely disappointed when Manu returns. It is not surprising that Manu's career-high statistics coincided with a career-high in minutes. When his minutes retreat to his typical 27-28 per game, his statistics will follow suit.
Despite being near the top of the class in the Western Conference, the Spurs are a lower-tier fantasy club. They focus on fundamentals rely more on defense and half-court offensive sets rather than the run-and-gun offense that has become so popular these days. While that may translate to wins in the NBA, it doesn't translate well to the fantasy game. It has been years since a player other than Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker has stepped up and to make a splash in the fantasy world. Roger Mason has a chance to buck the trend, but even he is a late-round sleeper rather than a proven fantasy star.
Aside from Mason, it's the Big Three or bust for fantasy owners. Fabricio Oberto started 53 games for the Spurs last season, but only managed 5.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest. Aside from the one game he missed last season, Bruce Bowen has started every game for the Spurs over the past six seasons. But despite being dominant defensively, Bowen has never been much of a fantasy player, not even as a 3-point specialist. Some may think Michael Finley will be able to find his rhythm with Ginobili on the shelf, but Finley is a shell of his former self these days, and he can't be counted on to provide anything more than the 10.1 points and 1.6 3-pointers per game he put up last season.
Though the rest of the lineup looks like a fantasy wasteland, we can still always look to Duncan and Parker for consistency. Duncan is getting up there in age, but you wouldn't be able to tell from looking at his stats. With averages of 19.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.9 blocks in 2007-08, Timmy is still worthy of a second-round selection in fantasy drafts. The knock on Duncan has always been his free throw percentage, but he did improve in that area last season, hitting on 73.0 percent from the stripe.
Parker has posted three straight seasons of at least 18 points and 5.5 assists per game. But he is still a mid-tier fantasy point guard, because he doesn't do enough in steals (0.8) or 3-pointers (0.2). The lack of 3-pointers is troublesome, but keep in mind that his reluctance to shoot the 3 helps keep his field goal percentage up near 50 percent, which is almost unheard of for a point guard.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.