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Welcome back to the Hoops Lab for the new season. I can't wait for things to get going. Baseball season is looooong, and even though I love the NFL there's nothing like the NBA to get the blood pumping. This offseason there was a Decision that rocked the basketball world, leaving everyone talking about a new evil empire on South Beach and very few talking about the teams that have won the last three NBA championships. We also have Kevin Durant being sized up as the next big thing after leading Team USA, Dwight Howard spending the summer learning to post up with The Dream, and the Nuggets seemingly trying to trade Carmelo Anthony to any team except the Knicks while Melo patiently waits them out. By late next week the storylines will start playing out, but in the meantime we've got the joy of setting up our fantasy squads for the long road to the title. And as we all know, your fantasy championship is MUCH more important than the paltry NBA title, so let's get down to the business of winning it for you.
I was asked the other day what my draft strategy is. The quick answer is that I draft the first few rounds based purely on quality, then in the middle rounds I try to fill positional and category needs with an eye on upside, then the late rounds are all about sleepers and upside. That's fine as a general template, but no matter what your strategy is, your most important mission is to get value at each of your picks. That is my purpose here today, to discuss some players that I find to have good value for where they are going in drafts. It's my experience that while the personality of your team may be determined by your first few picks, the quality of your team will be determined by your ability to find strong producers every round while your competition is whiffing on bigger names with lesser games.
Pau Gasol: Gasol is one of my favorite late first-round draft options because he has it all. He's a plus scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker who also delivers good assists from the center position and shoots excellent percentages. Gasol is ultra consistent, and is right in his athletic prime, so his game should be peaking. Also, with Kobe Bryant (knee) playing himself into shape and Andrew Bynum (knee) expected to be out at least another month, the stage is set for Gasol to have a great start. That means increased trade value out of the gate, and a strong franchise cornerstone that's as trustworthy as any of the other names that come off of the board in the middle part of the first round.
Dwight Howard (head-to-head): Howard will always be a risky pick in roto leagues because his free throw percentage can be prohibitive in a competitive league. But in head-to-head leagues where you can afford to punt a category, Howard is worthy of consideration as high as the second or third pick. It's a given at this point that he's going to lead the league in rebounds and blocked shots and also finish among the league leaders in field-goal percentage and games played (all 82 in five of six seasons). The potential difference this year is that he put in a summer learning post moves from Hakeem Olajuwon, and seems to be applying what he learned thus far in the preseason. A Dwight Howard with an actual post game on offense would arguably be the best fantasy producer in the league in a world where his free-throw gremlins don't kill you.
Kevin Love: Love has been used off the bench through the majority of his Timberwolves tenure, but his per-minute stats have always been stellar. With Al Jefferson now in Utah the way was clear for Love to start, but initially his coach suggested he'd continue to come off the bench and play only 30 minutes per game. Instead, Love has started every game in the preseason and has averaged 30 points with 12 boards in his last two outings as the clear focal point of the offense. Those numbers are inflated by preseason, but nevertheless I expect Love to outproduce his current ADP of 45.
Brandon Jennings: Jennings started off last season with a 50-point explosion early, then couldn't hit the broad-side of a barn for the rest of the season on his way to a putrid 37% shooting effort from the field. It should be noted, though, that he still averaged 17.1 points, 6.3 assists, 3.8 boards, 2.0 treys and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 82% from the line. In other words, the only part of his game that struggled as a rookie was field goal percentage. By the postseason, though, he seemed to find his range on his way to an 18.7 ppg average on 41% from the field. It says here that he'll match that 41% shooting as a sophomore, and with the rest of his game so strong even a 41% effort from the field was good enough to get him to No. 21 in my preseason projection rankings. Considering that his ADP is currently 66, that sounds like good value to me.
Joakim Noah: Noah is one of my personal favorites to draft this season, because I think he's on the brink of exploding. He broke out last season with a huge first half of the season (11.4 points, 12.2 boards, 1.8 blocks) before stumbling a bit due to injury down the stretch. Now healthy and in a system that plays perfectly to his motor and mobility, I expect Noah to put together a defensive masterpiece this season.
Andray Blatche: Blatche is only 24 years old, is center-eligible, and is coming off a season in which he averaged 22.1 points, 8.3 boards, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks in 32 games after the All-Star break once he took over as the starting power forward for the Wizards. He likely loses some shots to rookie John Wall and the returning Gilbert Arenas, but Blatche should only be getting better as a player and has realistic upside that well exceeds his ADP of 62.
Kevin Martin: Martin was routinely a top-20 fantasy producer on a per-game basis in his Sacramento days, but injuries and a change of address have him a bit under the radar. If healthy, which is a big if, Martin should be poised to excel on a Rockets squad in which he gets to spend half of the game playing off of Yao Ming and the other half getting as many shots as he needs as the main option on the team.
Ray Felton: This season, Felton will help answer the question of whether or not Mike D'Antoni's system really is utopia for a point guard. D'Antoni's system took Steve Nash from second tier star to MVP, but in New York there has never been any point guard talented enough to replicate even half that level of success. Until now. Felton is a talented player that has put up solid numbers in the past. If D'Antoni's system really can take a point guard up two levels, Felton could be a bargain at his ADP of 60.1.
Jeff Green: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may get all the attention in Oklahoma City, but don't forget about Green. Green is a do-everything type, a plus scorer who can rebound, knock down the trey, and contribute to both blocks and steals. He finished last season ranked No. 37 by the Yahoo! player rater, and we currently project him at No. 38 for this season. Both of those are much better than his current ADP of 67.
Cavs (Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, Antawn Jamison, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker): The public perception after "The Decision" has been that Cleveland is now a basketball wasteland. But even bad teams have fantasy upside, and in the Cavs' case there are several proven fantasy threats and a big upside guy still on the roster. Williams and Jamison are both former All Stars that have posted top-50 fantasy seasons even before LeBron. Moon and Parker were both good fantasy role players before they got to Cleveland, and now that they should get the majority of the wing minutes, they are again roster-worthy. And the latest word out of Cleveland has Hickson, already an upside pick, as the new starting power forward with Jamison coming off the bench and/or getting more minutes at small forward. Hickson is now one of the more intriguing young players to keep an eye on, as he could become a focal point for the team.
Paul Millsap: Millsap has averaged about 16 points, 10 boards, almost three assists, and more than a steal and a block over the last two seasons when he starts. He'll be starting for the first few months of this season as Mehmet Okur continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon. Millsap also fits well next to new starting center Al Jefferson. He's good value at the end of the sixth round, where he is generally going.
Luis Scola: I can't understand why Scola is going so low. He established himself as a force last season, averaging 16 points and nine boards with great percentages and decent assists in his first season as an offensive hub for the Rockets. Scola never gets hurt (he's played in all 246 games since he's been in the NBA), he'll be a staple on an otherwise fragile Rockets front line, and he has improved in each of his years as a pro. Scola is one of my favorite players to target in the middle rounds (current ADP of 76), as he will likely perform better than players going several rounds earlier.
Nic Batum: Batum spent most of his sophomore season injured, but once he got healthy he challenged for a starting slot and dropped the occasional huge game - he went for 31 points, seven boards and five treys in late February, then followed that up with 21 points and four treys the next time out. He had his ups and downs, but he seems to have settled as a guy that can get you double-digit points, knock down the trey, contribute to both blocks and steals, and grab a handful of boards as well. He's the undisputed starter at small forward in Portland this season, and has become a popular sleeper candidate.
Roy Hibbert: Hibbert lost a lot of weight this offseason and has also been treated for a previously undiagnosed case of asthma, and his improved condition is paying big dividends for him. Hibbert has averaged 17.5 points and 9.7 boards thus far in the preseason, has one game with seven blocks and another with six assists. He looks to be the focal point down low for the Pacers this season with Troy Murphy out of town and could be in for a breakout year.
Late–round possibilities to watch
Carlos Delfino: Has been named the starter at small forward in Milwaukee with Corey Maggette injured, and should be primed to continue his breakout performance from last season for as long as he holds onto the job.
Tyrus Thomas: Still not starting, but looking good in Charlotte with solid double-digit rebound and defensive potential.
Jeff Teague: Behind Mike Bibby on the depth chart, but could take over as the starting point guard for the Hawks any day, and no one would be surprised.
Dorrell Wright: Fresh off a strong finish last season, Wright has earned the starting small forward job in Golden State and should continue to get better.
Marco Belinelli: Belinelli looks like the starting shooting guard in New Orleans, and he has been lighting it up from long-range all preseason.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka was drafted as a raw, athletic, defensive project a few years ago. Last season, he started fulfilling that promise at the end of the year, including a seven-block game in the postseason. He has been playing himself into a prominent role in the big man rotation in Oklahoma City this preseason.
Friends and Family league
Last week I drafted in the annual Yahoo! Friends and Family league (head to head roto), and I'm satisfied with my team. I took Dwyane Wade at fourth overall, then followed him up with Steve Nash and Al Jefferson. I got several of my mid-round favorites, including Noah, Stephen Jackson, and Scola (7th round!). I also got Vince Carter in the eighth, which I think will be excellent value. All in all, my team is a nice balance in every category, but has some serious health concerns with Greg Oden, Jermaine O'Neal, Rodrique Beaubois and Mehmet Okur.
Fan Funhouse pick-from-group
Over the last few weeks I've participated in a "who would you take?" project featuring several other fantasy analysts. We started off debating possible No. 4 picks (Wade, Kobe or Danny Granger - I took Wade), then discussed injury-prone big men, young point guards (I took Jennings over John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose), and sleeper candidates (I went with Batum). You can follow the links to check out the picks and supporting arguments.
Sirius-XM show Fridays:
For those that want to hear from me more often, you can catch me on the radio every Friday afternoon at 12:30 PM EST on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 147, Sirius 211.