- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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First, we ranked the players. Then we sat around a campfire, toasting marshmallows while we discussed why we did what we did. that last part isn't true, though the fire does burn bright at ESPN Fantasy! Anyway, Keith Lipscomb, Brian McKitish, Guy Lake and myself certainly did rank nearly 200 fantasy basketball players each. You can see those rankings at this link, and make your own judgments. Do you trust the consensus, or any one individual? Wondering what our thought process was when we made our decisions? Well, I was wondering that myself. I mean, there are plenty of dissimilar rankings here, so why did we do what we did?
The four of us gathered around that mythical campfire for a rankers' roundtable. Check it out below.
Karabell: Two of us have Kobe Bryant ranked second, the other two have him ranked fourth. Personally, I can't rank Amare Stoudemire ahead of Kobe. Guy and Brian, why did you? I almost ranked Kobe first overall, even ahead of Chris Paul and LeBron James (but I didn't)!
McKitish: Kobe's so called "low" ranking is much less an indictment on him than it is a vote of confidence for LeBron, CP3 and Amare. I don't think anyone is going to argue Kobe over LeBron, so that leaves us with Paul and Amare. To me, it comes down to scarcity of categories and upside. Paul not only dominates two scarce categories in steals and assists, but his upside is off the charts. Folks should also be reminded that Paul finished first on our Player Rater last season, so ranking him above Kobe isn't much of a stretch at all when considering that he could actually improve his raw numbers this season.
Karabell: Well, I could make an argument for Kobe first overall. I mean, on our own ESPN projections he is ranked first, with James and his troublesome free-throw percentage down at No. 3. Paul is fourth. So I think the argument can be made.
Lake: Kobe's numbers are going to dip slightly this season. With four big-time players in the starting lineup, I can see Kobe's scoring dropping about a point per game. Not huge, but significant. I am sure his rebounding will decline with Andrew Bynum back in the middle. Last season, Kobe averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. This season, he will be closer to 27 points and 5.5 rebounds with similar assists. This slight dip is enough for me to boost Amare ahead of him. While Steve Nash may be the steering wheel, Amare is the offensive engine that drives the Suns. As a power forward, I expect him to overwhelm opposing defenses and for his scoring to climb. His excitement about new coach Terry Porter's attention to defense could lead to higher blocks as well.
Karabell: I understand the Kobe angle, fellas, really I do. To me, the opportunity to get such a monster scorer outweighs the rest. Paul isn't scoring 28 points per game, not yet. To me Paul is an obvious No. 3, then Stoudemire. Will the coaching change really make him any better? Is that possible?
McKitish: As for Amare, well, it's simple. He and Yao Ming were the only two players in the league last season to average two-plus blocks per game while shooting over 80 percent from the free-throw line. There aren't too many big men out there who will put up monster numbers and hit their free throws consistently, so to get your hands on one (who will actually stay healthy) is solid gold in fantasy leagues. Again, nothing against Kobe, but I place a big-time premium on "do-it-all" big men like Amare.
Karabell: OK, moving on, we've got a clear-cut top 4, though we disagree with the order. Then I see I'm alone on an island for the No. 5 pick. The three of you each picked Miami's best player for that spot, and I didn't even have Dwyane Wade in my top 10. Yikes. What's the worst spot to draft? Seems to me it's fifth, but I guess you guys disagree. Why is everyone else so confident in the brittle Wade, and is fifth a tough slot?
McKitish: How high is your tolerance to risk? There is no doubt that Wade is talented enough to be the fifth pick in the draft, but then again, so is Yao Ming. The difference between Wade and a guy like Yao is that Yao's injuries seem to be more chronic by nature. Wade's injuries have come on freak plays, and I think it's a little too early in his career to call him "injury-prone" or "brittle." Granted, the way Wade throws his body around is worrisome, but that's a risk I'd be willing to take after seeing him dominate the way he did in Beijing.
Karabell: OK, so maybe I didn't give Wade enough love, but if I get the fifth pick and can trade it, I'm throwing offers out there left and right.
McKitish: Honestly, I pity the owner who gets stuck with the fifth pick. There's a pretty steep dropoff after the first four are off the board. It seems to be too early to take a Steve Nash or Kevin Garnett, but that's who you might be stuck with if you can't deal with that sinking feeling in your stomach every time you see Wade take it to the hole.
Lipscomb: I'd rather pick 12th and go back-to-back than pick anywhere between picks 6 and 11. Let everyone pick those players whom I have grouped in the same tier and I'll just take the best two players left at 12 and 13 (in a 12-team league, of course).
I don't like anyone outside the top 4 enough to not take Wade fifth, because I've seen enough of an improvement in his body to expect him to hold up better while supplying the usual numbers (let's say 25-5-7, to go with solid percentages and at least 1.5 steals and around a block per game). All that's missing are the 3s, and I can get them elsewhere later in the draft. I'm willing to take the chance that he plays 73-75 games, rather than go with safer, albeit slightly declining options like Steve Nash or Kevin Garnett, for example, at that juncture.
Karabell: Well, I ranked Nash fifth and Garnett next, so I guess you all know what I think! Yeah, I keep hearing how Nash's minutes will get chopped. Has it happened yet? Ever? While we're at it, what's the best spot to draft? Seems to me Round 2 is awfully deep, and the back end of Round 1 looks weak, so I'd like to have one of the top four picks without question.
McKitish: There are a lot of values to be had at the end of Round 2 and the beginning of Round 3. Joe Johnson, Danny Granger, Tim Duncan, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony; the list goes on and on. There is no doubt that you're in a better spot with a top-4 pick. That, of course, doesn't mean that you can't win with a late pick. I recently nabbed myself Nash, Josh Smith, David West and Vince Carter with my first four picks drafting last in a 12-team league. Not bad, right?
Karabell: Wow, Nash slipped that far? That seems a bit odd. Carter, especially, seems like nice value for you there.
Lake: I agree that I want to be in the top 4 because of the talent separation I see in the first round, and because of the relative parity I see in fantasy production across the second and third rounds.
Lipscomb: Usually, I'm comfortable picking in the middle the whole way through, but I'm not as crazy about it this year. Beyond the obvious reasons for wanting a top-3 pick, I especially like it this year, because I really like the top 23 players on my draft board right now. And since others have different targets, I would feel very good about my chances of getting three of my top 23 if I had picks Nos. 3, 22 and 27, for example.
Karabell: While you all seem to trust Wade, the four of us were more evenly split on Dwight Howard. Hey, I think he's a monster player, but I don't know if I would even take Howard where I ranked him, knowing I'd be punting free-throw percentage in roto leagues. He's essentially Shaq! Or is he?
Lake: It's all about the free throws for me. His poor percentage combined with his extraordinarily high volume means teams will have to punt or work very hard to overcome his weakness here in roto leagues. In head-to-head leagues, on the other hand, punting is a sound strategy. In this case, Howard is an easy top-10 selection.
Karabell: I concur. In a head-to-head format, I might move Howard all the way up to No. 5. That's how good he is, and in H2H, I can afford to punt a category. In roto, however, it's like you have to work so much harder the rest of the way to make up for his deficiency.
Lipscomb: Well, I've got him ranked the highest, and while I'm not sure I'd actually take him at No. 14 in a roto league because of the damage he could do to your free-throw percentage, he's such a beast on the glass and from the field, he still belongs in that tier of players in my mind. If I took him, I would immediately be changing my approach the rest of the way, though, in hopes of surrounding Howard with enough decent free-throw shooters (who go to the line a lot, by the way) to at least try to finish as close to the middle of the pack in the category as possible. It's not an easy task, and that's what I'd be wrestling with if my pick came up in the middle of the second round with him still available.
McKitish: What's wrong with punting? It's not the easiest thing to pull off, but it can be a successful strategy if you do it right, especially in H2H leagues. Howard is pretty close to a modern-day version of the old Shaq Diesel. He won't score or block as much, but he's also just 22 years of age, so the potential is there. And remember, Shaq was a perennial late-first-/early-second-rounder in fantasy drafts back in the day. Why? Well, because he dominated categories like no one else. And that's exactly what Howard does. Look, he's not perfect, but if you tailor your strategy around his strengths (field-goal percentage, points, rebounds, steals and blocks), he can be ranked even higher than we have him here.
Karabell: I have seen owners win leagues by punting a category, but it's risky, and I don't do it. I tried taking Howard in one of our mocks, and didn't like it. Other teams know you can't get a perfect score, and I think it changes how they view the standings, too. My goal is to win every category, but now that Reggie Miller has retired -- well, forget free throws if you have Howard. I think you can't even finish middle of the pack in the category. But hey, at least Howard is healthy and doesn't take 20 games off per season just because he can, I'll give him that. I don't target injured guys, or those with a strong propensity to be injured, unless they fall way too far. How did you decide on where to dump Gilbert Arenas, Manu Ginobili and Monta Ellis, among others, and how long is too long to wait for them?
McKitish: While many may think that I closed my eyes and threw a dart, there was some actual thought behind these rankings. First, I look at the upside of each player. Where are they ranked at perfect health? Then I try to weigh the severity of the injury at hand to determine the final ranking. Drafting injured players is risky, but it can pay a dividend later in the season. But forget about our rankings here -- these rankings change drastically during the draft depending on what type of risks you take early. If you've already gambled on Wade or Yao early, you can't afford to take a risk on Gilbert, Manu or Ellis. But if you've played it safe through the first five rounds, you can go ahead and take that risk in the middle rounds.
Lake: These guys are all too good to drop from a list altogether, but I will be very hesitant to take any of them on my teams this season. All three suffered soft-tissue injuries, and this makes the certainty of their ability to come back to where they once were um, less certain. With bone breaks, the recovery time is usually more concrete, as is the players' ability to return to form. With ligament and cartilage damage, the effects can linger, robbing players of their former explosiveness. All three of these players need to be able to cut laterally and explode off the floor to remain effective. I would wait until the seventh round or later in standard leagues before taking players who will miss the first two months of the season and potentially be less than 100 percent when they are back.
Karabell: I see Brian's point about upside, but with someone like Arenas, who keeps having the same knee problem, what if he misses more than two months? What if he sits until April and gets ready for the playoffs again? I can't take that risk until my starting lineup is set, and then it's probably too late to get him. And if I do, late in a draft, I certainly don't take multiple risks.
Lipscomb: I don't completely avoid so-called injury-prone players, but I limit the number of such players on my roster. In the case of Arenas, I just don't feel he'll ever be the same player he was, which doesn't mean he'll fall off the face of the earth fantasy-wise; just that he won't be a top-10 option again. I can't take him as one of my starters if he's not going to play until 2009. Same goes for Ellis, who I'm also unclear how effective he'll be upon his return to the court. And Manu could have his minutes watched closely by Gregg Popovich for the first month after he returns. I can't see taking any of these guys in the top 50 right now, knowing what we know about their injuries. I want my starters first, then I'll consider taking chances on one of these guys.
Karabell: I suppose I've tipped my hand a bit on how I draft. I tend to be a conservative drafter. If I know someone like Carlos Boozer will put up the same big numbers annually, I'll always take that over an upside guy like Yao, who can't stay on the court. But two of us ranked Yao better, though obviously not me. Why?
McKitish: I'm with you, Eric, though I do have to question the love for Carlos Boozer. Sure, 20/10 is nice, but Booz doesn't block shots -- which is a huge knock against him when comparing him to other big men. It seems to me that it's Boozer that we differ on more than Yao. You have him ranked 17th, I have him 30th. I just can't overlook the lack of blocks to put him much higher than I have him.
Karabell: True, Booz -- think he'd mind if we call him that? -- does not block shots, and probably never will. I guess I'm willing to overlook that because of how much of a rock he is elsewhere. Plus, there's always an Erick Dampier-type, or Dampier himself, out there in the final round.
McKitish: I am with you on the conservative drafting method, though. For the most part I'm a conservative drafter myself. But just as drafting an injury-prone player has burnt me in the past, so has my reluctance to take a risk. Exhibit A: Marcus Camby. I've avoided this guy like the plague for years, but last year he managed to stay on the court for 79 games. Exhibit B: Baron Davis. After five straight years of playing fewer than 70 games, Baron comes out and plays all 82 last season. Both Camby and Davis finished in the top 10 on our player rater, and both proved to be absolute steals for whoever drafted them in the third round last year. In fact, I'm betting that a lot of the teams that took a risk on Baron and Camby finished in the money in their leagues. Now, I'm not saying that Yao will stay healthy this season. The chances of that are pretty slim. But what if he does? Yao is a top-10, maybe even top-5 fantasy player when healthy, and I think reward starts to outweigh the risk once we get into the third round when we are talking about a player of this caliber.
Karabell: Yes, I tend to miss those surprise breakout seasons, too, but if you've drafted wisely, I don't think it matters, especially in hoops where so little changes. But moving on, we all have late sleepers we like more than the other rankers. Apparently I'm running the fan clubs for Marcus Williams, Brad Miller and John Salmons. It's probably about the assists. I crave them. Who are your late sleepers and why?
Lipscomb: I'm not sure if Bynum is considered late, but since two of us have him ranked in the 60s, I'll list him here. I've got him as a fifth-rounder. I'd feel fine if he was my starting center, for example. And I'm with you on Williams and Salmons. This year, there aren't other options for Reggie Theus to find a reason to sit Salmons like he did inexplicably last season. And although I don't love Jarrett Jack normally, the fact that fragile T.J. Ford is the other point guard in an up-tempo system could make him a nice value as one of your final bench players. You know Ford isn't staying on the court all season. Jack's nothing fancy, but you could do worse in the 12th and 13th round. And with Brendan Haywood out, Andray Blatche could be a nice late-round bargain or waiver-wire pickup, even.
McKitish: Typically when I look for sleepers I look for anyone who displays solid per-minute stats and is expected to see a bump in minutes, and youngsters who are starting to mature. That said, my favorite sleepers for this season include Mickael Pietrus, Louis Williams and Jason Maxiell. Pietrus was quite valuable for his statistical versatility in Golden State before Don Nelson cut his playing time. Now he's the unquestioned starter in Orlando and should regain his fantasy status with the increase in minutes. Williams and Maxiell fit the mold of the youngsters who are right on the verge of breaking out. Both have some playing-time issues to consider, but both are too talented to keep off the court for anything less than 25 minutes per game.
Karabell: Um yeah, on Louis Williams, let's just make it understood I'm firmly on his bandwagon. Guy, I noticed you've got J.R. Smith nearly in your top 100! Explain, sir!
Lake: I, too, love Marcus Williams, but there are some other guys I like late as well. You're right, J.R. Smith is a guy I really love. The Nuggets signed him to a long contract this offseason, and this is the season we will see his per-minute production transform into sweet fantasy totals. Nene, the man with one name, is the starter at center in Denver. He has no threat to his minutes or production other than his health. He is worth the risk (which is little as a late-rounder) for his potential (which is high; think 14-15 points to go with 8 rebounds per game).
Lest I get called out as a Nuggets lover, which I am not outside of fantasy, let me add Wilson Chandler to the mix. If Danny Granger vacates his "Matrix Jr." role this season to become the senior version (and I say he does), then this is the guy I like to take his role. He is a great fit in Mike D'Antoni's system, and I like him better than his competition at small forward in New York, Quentin Richardson and Danilo Gallinari.
Karabell: As I continue to peruse Guy's ranks, I should point out I'm also never high on rookies in fantasy hoops, and ranked them consistently lower than others. Are there are any rooks you see breaking out? Guy had Michael Beasley nearly in his top 50, and was also highest on O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love.
Lake: I have to admit, looking over my rankings, that I was a little surprised to see I was so high on these rookies. As a rule, like Eric, I prefer consistency in fantasy hoops. Here's my explanation for why I like each of these guys this season. First, I think Beasley is a special player. He is just so versatile scoring the ball and such an able rebounder that he will force himself into a higher-profile position despite having Shawn Marion alongside him. Mayo is a risky player in fantasy, but on a team as poor as the Grizzlies, someone needs to score. After Rudy Gay, whom I love this season, Mayo is the next-best guy on this team and worth a look late in drafts. Kevin Love is a guy who won't play like a rookie and is in the right situation in Minnesota. He is an excellent rebounder on a team that needs help here (21st in the league last season) and his passing is the real deal out of the post on the outlet.
Lipscomb: I almost never get rookies, because others are willing to take them before I am. This year will be no different, unless it's in the final rounds of the draft and someone like Jerryd Bayless is still out there. He could be given an opportunity by midseason and is aggressive enough to take advantage. But I usually let others scarf up the rookies.
Karabell: Well, we all say the right things, but someone must be taking these kids in drafts.
McKitish: Rookies are typically overvalued in fantasy leagues. Oftentimes, we see owners loading up on upside rookies in the late rounds only to find those same youngsters on the waiver wire after Week 2. Many of them won't pan out, particularly early in the season when they are getting their feet wet. That, however, doesn't mean that there won't be some nice rookie finds this season. Take Marc Gasol, for instance. He's in a great situation in the depleted Grizzlies frontcourt, and should prove to be a valuable late-round selection for rebounds and blocks. Another rookie I like quite a bit more than everyone else is Russell Westbrook. Earl Watson will only be able to fend him off for so long. Westbrook may end up being one of those players who's sitting on the waiver wire after the first few weeks of the season, but he'll be a waiver-wire star once Oklahoma City puts its youth movement in full swing.
Karabell: Well, there you have it. Maybe we agreed on more things than we thought, but hopefully we were able to enlighten our readers on what we were thinking. Let the season begin!
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, Brian McKitish and Guy Lake discuss their individual rankings in our Top 190.