It's natural to get excited about the NBA postseason, particularly with the just-completed 2011 playoffs. Each round featured great individual performances, dramatic finishes and compelling storylines. However, as fantasy basketball owners, it can also be a little too easy to get overly excited about the players who shine from April to June.
We know the playoffs are different from the regular season. The stakes are higher, the rotations are tightened and the defense is dogged. Still, when an unheralded player stands out in the spring -- or when a high-profile player unexpectedly struggles -- those impressions can linger. But the playoffs are the playoffs, and the regular season -- where fantasy owners pursue their championships -- is the regular season. Look at it this way: LeBron James may have come up short in the finals, but come this fall -- or whenever the 2011-12 NBA season launches -- he'll still be sitting at the top of fantasy drafts, as he should. And Russell Westbrook, irrespective of the grief he received over his postseason play, will undoubtedly remain one of fantasy's most coveted point guards.
Yes, those are obvious examples, so let me offer another: Taj Gibson. Whenever Gibson gets a chance at regular minutes, I lap it up. As a fantasy analyst, I've been hyping Gibson regularly during his two NBA seasons, and when I think about his highlight-reel dunks against the Miami Heat that still light up YouTube, I get the itch to sing his praises again. Instead, though, I'll take a deep breath and remind you (and me) that, as intriguing a talent as he is, Gibson remains an offensively limited player who next season will continue to fight for minutes in a crowded Chicago Bulls frontcourt.
Nonetheless, it is fun to speculate, isn't it? It's even more fun for me, with this ESPN.com gig writing about fantasy hoops and all. So here's a quick list of players who I do believe altered their fantasy value with their recent postseason performances.
Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat
2011 postseason: 7.8 ppg, 2.1 apg, 43.6 FG%, 71.9 FT%, 1.5 3-pt PG, 1.2 spg (21 games)
This is actually the second straight year that Chalmers impressed in the postseason. Really, Chalmers never played much until the Finals, but he averaged 11.8 points, 2.3 3-pointers and 1.5 steals against the Dallas Mavericks, capped by an 18-point, 7-assist, 3-steal showing in the closeout Game 5 loss. With James and Dwyane Wade doing the bulk of the ball-handling, Chalmers may never be an elite fantasy option, but we owners can hope that the Heat are done with the likes of Mike Bibby and Carlos Arroyo and will just let Chalmers run with the point guard duties.
To casual NBA fans, Zach Randolph was the Grizzlies' breakout postseason star, but Z-Bo had already won over his few remaining skeptics in fantasy with that December-to-February stretch in which he averaged better than 20 points and 13 rebounds. It was Gasol who made his leap against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. During the regular season, when he averaged only 11.7 points and 7.0 rebounds, the Grizzlies limited Gasol's minutes to keep him fresh. That's worth noting when considering his gaudy postseason numbers -- Gasol logged almost 40 minutes per game in the playoffs versus about 32 in the regular season. Still, it seems like a good bet that Gasol, who turns 27 in January, is now physically mature enough to return to the 34-36 minutes per game range going forward.
James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
2011 postseason: 13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, 47.5 FG%, 82.5 FT%, 1.4 3-pt PG, 1.2 spg, 0.8 bpg (17 games)
Harden arrived in the fantasy mainstream when the Thunder dealt Jeff Green in February. Though he didn't overwhelm in the playoffs -- for instance, Harden managed only 30.3 percent shooting from downtown -- he nonetheless showed his value. The Thunder went 5-1 when Harden scored at least 15 points, losing only in their finale against the Mavs. Kevin Durant and Westbrook are the stars in OKC, but the Thunder need more from Harden, and there's every reason to believe he'll deliver. Remember, Harden averaged 15.8 points, 1.7 3s, 1.2 steals and 46.5 percent shooting in the second half of 2010-11. And he'll be just 22 at the start of next season. I think I like him even a bit more than Brian McKitish, who has Harden at No. 76 for 2011-12. I'll call Harden a top-70 player.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Teague open next season as the Hawks' starting point guard. The Kirk Hinrich trade rumors are already flying, and his expiring contract is an attractive piece. Hinrich, of course, helped the Hawks upend the Orlando Magic in the first round, but then was sidelined for the Bulls series. That's where Teague took over and impressed with his poised performance (14.8 points, 4.2 assists and 53.7 percent shooting versus Chicago). With the offense still running through Joe Johnson, Teague doesn't appear primed for big assist numbers, but the youngster looks like an end-of-the-draft option.
Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls
2011 postseason: 12.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 43.3 FG%, 80.0 FT%, 0.6 spg, 0.4 bpg (16 games)
While he was regularly torched on the defensive end, Boozer, statistically, wasn't terrible in the postseason -- he had three games of 20 points and 10 rebounds. The Bulls may want to deal Boozer, but given his huge contract, odds are he'll be back in Chicago. (This would be reason No. 1 not to get carried away over Taj Gibson). Even so, Boozer's injury history and his age -- he turns 30 in November -- are significant caveats. Also note that after the All-Star break, which was the only meaningful stretch he and Joakim Noah played together in the 2010-11 regular season, Boozer averaged just 14.8 points and 9.0 boards. Those aren't bad numbers, of course; they're just not the numbers we're accustomed to seeing from Boozer. But his best days could be behind him.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
2011 postseason: 20.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 44.3 FG%, 78.1 FT%, 1.8 3-pt PG, 2.6 spg (5 games)
Ginobili makes this half of the list despite leading the Spurs in scoring in their first-round loss to the Grizzlies. Really though, Ginobili's playoff line is boosted by his remarkable, series-lengthening performance in Game 5 (33 points on 10-of-18 shooting). In games 2, 3, 4 and 6, Ginobili shot just 40.4 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from downtown. He'll be 34 to start the 2011-12 season, and he's coming off of a season in which he played in a career-high 80 games and logged 30 minutes per game, the second-highest average of his NBA career. Ginobili should remain a quality fantasy option, but expect at least some decline compared to his past two seasons.
Smith managed a pair of 15-point performances in the first round but saw only 15 minutes per game for the Nuggets in their first-round loss to the Thunder. Smith is not expected to return to Denver next season. Where he lands will obviously determine his fantasy value for 2011-12, but don't assume Smith is headed for the 2-guard starved Bulls. They have a lot of choices (Jason Richardson and Jamal Crawford are both unrestricted free agents) and a lot of trade fodder going into this offseason. The Bulls could easily conclude that Smith is more trouble than he's worth.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.