NBA Offseason Notebook: Early free-agency returns
Whether you love or hate free agency, one cannot deny that the NBA's free-agent signing period generates a serious buzz. This time of year is usually dominated by baseball talk, yet most of the conversation I heard Wednesday centered around the new-and-improved Philadelphia 76ers. For what was supposed to be a slow offseason, things started pretty quickly, with big names such as Baron Davis, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette on the move. And with all this player movement, there are plenty of fantasy implications to break down as we move closer to the launch of our brand-new fantasy basketball league manager, which will be offered for free this season on ESPN.com.
Is it safe to say the Sixers made the move of the summer in signing Brand to a five-year deal worth $79.8 million? I think so. They already were an up-and-coming team, but the addition of Brand makes the Sixers an immediate contender in the East. Anyone who has had the pleasure of watching Brand play on a regular basis knows that he is an uber-stud in the paint, and if his numbers at the end of last year are any indication, he should go back to his usual 20-point, 10-rebound, 2-block self fairly quickly in Philadelphia. Granted, Brand played in only eight contests in 2007-08, but he averaged 17.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 34.3 minutes per game. Given that he was shaking off some rust during that time, we can pretty safely assume that he is fully recovered from the Achilles injury that caused him to miss most of the season. In Philly he'll immediately become the go-to guy on offense, and he'll have some help from super-athletic teammates Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Samuel Dalembert. It also will help that he has a true pass-first point guard in Andre Miller to get him the rock in the post. I don't expect Brand to have any more value in Philadelphia than he did in Los Angeles, but I don't see him losing any value, either. Those worried about Dalembert stealing some of Brand's boards and blocks may want to consider that Brand played alongside Chris Kaman, an above-average rebounder and shot-blocker, in Los Angeles. Brand's numbers didn't suffer much with Kaman as his wingman, and I don't expect them to suffer much, if at all, in Philly.
The obvious player who most likely will be affected by the Brand acquisition is Dalembert. It wouldn't be as big a problem if the Sixers brought in a mid-level power forward to complement Dalembert in the post, but this is Elton Brand we are talking about -- a dominant force in the paint. Now, don't get me wrong, Dalembert is still going to be a great fantasy option for rebounds and blocks, but it would be unrealistic for us to expect him to repeat his 2007-08 numbers of 10.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Taking into account that Dalembert finally has started to cash in on his raw ability, but also considering that he was the only guy patrolling the paint last year, I'm thinking more along the lines of 9.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in 2008-09. The biggest problem for Dalembert is that Brand is such a great offensive rebounder, and that will be a double-whammy on his scoring and rebounding totals.
Miller and Iguodala may see their scoring dip slightly (especially Miller), but after all is said and done, I think Brand's presence will help Andre and AI2. Miller should see his assist totals move closer to his career-average 7.5 per game, as opposed to 6.9 from last season, while Iguodala no longer will be burdened with the pressure of being the go-to guy on offense. The 76ers will roll with a starting lineup of Miller, Iguodala, Young, Brand and Dalembert, with Louis Williams as a sixth man. I love Williams' potential, but I fear that he won't receive enough minutes in this rotation to make a serious fantasy splash this season.
Ouch. That hurts. Losing Corey Maggette to Golden State isn't that big a deal, but losing Brand puts the Clippers right back in the same spot they were last season when Brand missed most of it. Baron Davis should help alleviate some of the pain, but this team is neither very intimidating nor good without Brand in the paint. It's not all bad news out of L.A., though; some of their fantasy players got a big boost from the departure of Brand and Maggette.
Thornton is not a power forward by any stretch, but he may be forced into the role if the Clippers can't sign a serviceable post player. Either way, Thornton is going to be thrown into the mix at either the 3 or the 4, and there is no doubt that he'll earn major minutes all season. Thornton averaged a solid 16.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 3-pointers in 34.4 minutes after the All-Star break last season, and with the opportunity for increased playing time, the 24-year-old is looking like a breakout candidate in only his second professional season. He is still a little too raw for my liking, but it's hard to deny the sheer athleticism and upside he possesses. He has the talent to put up 17-18 points, 5-6 rebounds with a steal, a block and a 3-pointer per game, but he may be a year away from fully realizing that potential. Fortunately, he'll be put in a position to capitalize on the opportunity whether he's ready or not.
This may not be a popular opinion, but I think Baron Davis is the only loser (besides Clippers fans) in all of this. Wait a minute, the Clippers just lost their top two offensive options, and Davis is a loser? You heard me. On the surface, this looks like a big win for Davis' fantasy value; he is now the clear-cut No. 1 option, and he'll do it all on offense for the Clips. But be careful, folks. Being the only viable offensive option on a poor team will inevitably lead to a plummeting field goal percentage and a climbing turnover rate, but that's not the only thing that has me worried. Baron has a bit of a sketchy fantasy history when he's not happy, and I doubt he'll be happy in L.A. unless the Clips can get him some help this summer. I'm not dropping him down too far from my original rankings, but I will drop him five spots or so and put him near the end of the second round, simply because of the added risk. Listen, I know Baron is an absolute fantasy stud when he's on the court, and I know he could end up being a total steal if he's a late second-rounder in your fantasy draft. I worry that his situation in L.A. could lead us to a repeat of Baron's old days when he missed an average of 26 games during a five-year span, and that must be considered before making a selection on draft day.
I don't think the Warriors are going to be hurting as much as most people think. Sure, they lost Davis, who, with respect to Stephen Jackson, was the heart and soul of this team. But they added an accomplished scorer in Maggette, and I don't think people yet realize how good Monta Ellis is. Ellis is not a true point guard, but he's talented enough to help fill the void left by Davis. Whatever Don Nelson says to the press cannot be trusted, but he already has come out with his preliminary starting five: Ellis and Jackson in the backcourt, Maggette and Al Harrington at forward and Andris Biedrins at center. That's not a great lineup, but they might be able to contend for one of the final playoff spots in the West. These starters likely will play a ton of minutes, as the departure of Mickael Pietrus has left the Warriors with a very thin bench. Look for all the starters to see a bump in fantasy value, unless Nelson and the Warriors can find suitable role players via trade or free agency before the season.
Ellis is well known among the fantasy community, but he's not yet a household name. I bet that changes this season. He might be the quickest player in the league (apologies to Leandro Barbosa), and he'll take on a bigger role in Golden State's offense now that Davis has left town (remember, Baron threw up 18.6 shots per game last season). It's scary to say, but Ellis should be able to improve on his 2007-08 numbers: 20.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Most of that improvement should come in the points and assist categories, though he likely will suffer the consequences of having the rock in his hands more often, and that negatively will affect his field goal percentage (.531) and turnovers (2.1). One thing I worry about is that Ellis' stock will be so pumped up by the time the season starts, that you are going to have to reach really early just to get him on your roster. Still, it may be worth it to reach if he can put up around 22-23 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. And I think he might be able to reach those lofty projections.
Maggette found a great spot for his skills. He's a scorer and not much else, but that seems to fit well in Don Nelson's up-tempo system. Maggette should register a career high in points per game (his current career high is 22.2 in 2004-05) and get to the line 11-12 times per game, where he shoots 81.9 percent for his career. He's still an injury concern, but there's plenty to like about Maggette from a fantasy perspective. Not only can he score, but he's a nice complement in fantasy to players that don't shoot well from the line. Adding Maggette to a roster that includes Dwight Howard can make Howard all the more valuable.
One thing to keep an eye on in Golden State: who will be the player that comes out of nowhere as the sixth man? Will it be last year's summer darling Marco Belinelli or perhaps Brandan Wright, or will it be Kelenna Azubuike? Azubuike is probably the best bet, but Belinelli could emerge as a deep sleeper as the summer progresses. Of course, I'd be surprised if the Warriors didn't add a few more players to the mix before the season starts, so we'll have to stay tuned.
Looking at Pietrus' skill set, it's going to be hard for head coach Stan Van Gundy to keep him off the court. He still needs some refining on offense, but he's athletic enough to get to the rim and can knock down the long-range jumper. His best attribute, however, may be his defensive skills. As a lockdown defender on the perimeter, Van Gundy's newest acquisition should get ample playing time (think 32-35 minutes per game). I'm loving Pietrus as a mid-to-late-round sleeper, as he'll be able to contribute in multiple categories with the potential to average a steal, a block and a 3-pointer on the season.
Other than Keith Bogans (who may be on his way out of town) and Maurice Evans, I don't see this addition hurting any of Orlando's current fantasy players. I was high on rookie Courtney Lee on draft night, but Lee will need an injury to break into this lineup.
Most Knicks fans were hoping that their beloved team would go out and find themselves a star point guard via trade, but instead, they landed themselves a solid, if unspectacular, point in Chris Duhon. Duhon is far from a fantasy stud in the making, but in New York he could offer solid returns as a late-round fantasy sleeper.
Let's get straight to the point here: the Knicks are looking for any way to get rid of Stephon Marbury, and Nate Robinson is far from the ideal point guard for Mike D'Antoni's system. Enter Duhon, who may become the starting point guard in New York by default. Duhon is a solid defender, he can pass and hit the 3, and those are all qualities that could make him a decent fit for D'Antoni. If Duhon wins the starting gig, don't expect many points, but do expect somewhere around six assists and 1.5 3-pointers per game, which would make him a serviceable fantasy reserve in standard leagues and a starter in deeper formats.
The Kings re-signed point guard Beno Udrih to a five-year deal Wednesday. The 26-year-old Udrih had a slow start to his NBA career, but you can't fault him, as he was buried on the bench behind Tony Parker in San Antonio during his first three professional seasons. After signing with the Kings last year to help replace Mike Bibby, Udrih made the most of his newfound opportunity by averaging a fantasy-friendly 14.4 points, 5.0 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 3-pointers in 51 starts before suffering a few injuries late in the season. Udrih was a nice find off the waiver wire last season, so some folks will know his name coming into this year, but he'll still be undervalued because of his lack of name recognition. Look for Udrih to match or exceed his '07-08 totals as a starter, and target him in the mid-to-late rounds once all the top point guards are off the board.
What's on tap?: Summer League action has begun, and there will be plenty of free-agent moves and trades to analyze in the coming weeks. I'll be here to guide you through the offseason all summer, so check for my thoughts on Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden in Portland, Michael Beasley's progression in Miami and any other fantasy-relevant news as we get closer to the launch of our draft kit late this summer.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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