Often in my last Hoops Lab before the season starts I like to do yearly predictions, then after the first week I talk about my first impressions from across the league. This year, though, the season started on the night before I planned to turn in my predictions, and I got so excited I scrapped my Nostradamus hat and instead gave my impressions on the night of action. But that was only one night and three games, and we've now had a week of goodness to enjoy. So for the second week in row, here are my impressions of the league thus far. Just with a lot more impressions to work with.
• The Heat are who I THOUGHT they were... sort of
This summer, I speculated that this Heat team could win 73 games this season. However, if you actually follow that link, you'll see that I also thought they would have trouble with teams like the Lakers and Celtics. One week in? That part is playing out just like I expected. Success in the regular season is all about talent and motivation, and against just about every team in the league the Heat will have a big talent advantage and strong motivation to live up to the hype/shut everyone up. One week in, that's what we've seen. They've laid the corporal smack down on four straight teams, even the Magic, after they struggled against the Celtics. The only thing about the Heat I'm still not sure about is the pecking order, which has big fantasy implications. My expectation was that Dwyane Wade would be the leading scorer (in the upper 20s) but with fewer assists, that LeBron James would fall into the mid-20s but challenge for double-digit assists, and that Chris Bosh would by default become more of a rebounder/defender while still pushing for near 20 points per game. Wade and LeBron seem to be settling into their roles, but Bosh hasn't made that defensive transition, nor is he scoring the ball. If he can't find an area of strength on this team, he could turn out to have been grossly overpriced in the second/third round of fantasy drafts.
• The Lakers are ridiculously better than 90% of the league
I watched the Lakers beat up on the Grizzlies on Tuesday, and before that I watched them drub Golden State on Sunday. Or at least, I watched some of those games before turning away from pretty boring blowouts. Here are the things that were immediately evident to me: Kobe Bryant's knee is fine, Pau Gasol is every bit the superstar I expected him to be, Lamar Odom continues to be wildly underrated, and the Gasol/Odom frontline is still better (at least in the regular season) than the Gasol/Andrew Bynum frontline that rarely materializes for health reasons. I currently have Pau Gasol at No. 5 in my fantasy rankings, ahead of Kobe Bryant, and it may not be long before he overtakes Wade for No. 4. And if it weren't for Bynum's impending return, I'd have Odom ranked even higher than his current No. 61. The difference in skill level between the Lakers and anyone else outside of Boston or Miami is so striking that they just make the game look easy. On the other hand, don't sleep on the fact that Bynum will eventually be coming back and potentially wrecking the others' value. I would definitely trade high on Odom if possible, and despite how much I like him I'd consider doing the same with Gasol. Gasol will still be 20/10 when Bynum gets back, but may go from a top-5 to top-15 player. If you can get top-5 value for him now, that might be a good move.
• The Celtics have a ton of storylines
Rajon Rondo has more assists right now than anyone ever has in NBA history through four games. I tweeted and wrote last week that he would lead the league in assists, but even I didn't expect this. Meanwhile, lost in the internet hubbub surrounding what he may or may not have said to Charlie Villanueva, Kevin Garnett has opened up the season looking really, really healthy. Healthy enough that I didn't hesitate to trade for him at cost in my keeper league (Nicolas Batum and James Harden for Garnett and Tyrus Thomas, if you're curious), but by the same token, if this renaissance continues for long enough to generate some buzz I also wouldn't hesitate to suggest you sell high on Garnett. Healthy or not, he will be 35 years old before the season ends. Paul Pierce is the other established Celtic that has looked great, and Glen "Big Baby" Davis has made himself a nightly double-digit scoring threat off the bench. Plus, unlike the Lakers and Heat, the Celtics still seem to have a knack for playing down to the level of their competition - which means that their main players are having to play hard every game instead of resting in blowouts. This means more big games early in the season, but could also combine with age to mean more injuries down the line.
• The Magic have to discover their identity
Are the Magic contenders? Are they the team that's won 59-games two straight years, or the one that has been drubbed by the Lakers and Celtics to end those two seasons? Are they the outside-in scoring team they've been, or will they be led by a newly Hakeem Olajuwon-trained Dwight Howard as an inside-out offense? Will Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson return to All-Star form or will they struggle as they did last year? Two games and an asbestos-induced cancellation later, we still don't know. They looked absolutely great in smoking the Wizards, and absolutely terrible while getting run by the Heat. And because both games were blowouts, not even the stats are reliable. I tend to believe both Carter and Nelson will play well this year and are decent buy-low candidates, but I have no intention of touching Lewis. Howard will still dominate the defensive categories, and for now I think I buy that he'll also set a new career-high in scoring. His touch around the rim is better, and he's more aggressive, so I see him in the 22–23 ppg area this year. Still can't shoot a free throw to save his life, but we can't have everything.
• The Hawks and Bulls look like teams trying to reach the next level
The Hawks and Bulls have both been low-to-mid level playoff teams in recent years. They are both full of young-to-prime NBA vets whose games are near their peaks. I think both teams win 50 games, giving the East at least five 50-game winners (six if the Bucks get their act together). And both are filled with fantasy goodness. All five Hawks starters plus their sixth man are rosterable, even the left-for-dead Mike Bibby and never-lived-up-to-No. 2-pick Marvin Williams. Al Horford has joined Josh Smith and Joe Johnson as fantasy centerpieces. The biggest question in Atlanta is whether Jeff Teague will ever really overtake Bibby for the starting job, and with the team's hot start it'll likely be awhile before he does so. For Chicago, Derrick Rose is quietly making the leap to superstar status, and both he and Luol Deng have added the 3-pointer to their arsenals. And I never made it a secret that I think Joakim Noah is a fantasy beast. That said, like the Lakers, I would consider trading some of these guys high because sometime next month Carlos Boozer comes back and likely vultures some of the stats his teammates are currently hoarding.
• Look to the secondary stars among last year's playoff teams
Dallas, San Antonio, Utah, Oklahoma City, Denver and Portland all look solid again through the first week. They all have the same foundations, and even when a player has moved on (Carlos Boozer out of Utah) he has been replaced with a player with a similar skill set (Al Jefferson). As expected, Kevin Durant is living up to his hype as the leading scorer in the NBA. But the players from these teams that are standing out the most are the second stars, with Manu Ginobili (19.7 points, 5.7 assists, 2.7 treys, 2.7 steals), Jason Kidd (11.7 assists, 11.3 points, 5.7 boards), Russell Westbrook (22.3 points, 7.3 assists, 6.7 boards, 2.7 steals), Paul Millsap (21.3 points, 12.3 boards, 3.0 assists), and LaMarcus Aldridge (18.8 points, 9.2 boards, 1.8 steals, 1.6 blocks) all putting up numbers of similar caliber to their more heralded teammates. All of these guys look to have the ability to maintain this pace long term, though both Millsap and Aldridge will face injured teammates returning in the next month or two that could eat into their stats.
• Phoenix could fall out of the race if they aren't careful
I mentioned Phoenix in my article last week, so I'll only say that they seem to be the playoff team most likely to fall off from last year. This isn't unexpected with Amar'e Stoudemire now in New York, but in order to keep pace the Suns will have to find someone to replace his production. Steve Nash and Jason Richardson can both score in the low-20s on a nightly basis, but neither seem to have the game or mentality to push it further than that. Hakim Warrick has the most similar skill set to Stoudemire's athletic finishing ability, but in his career he's never shown the ability to do it night-in and night-out. The rest of the squad appears to be role players. I would take a flyer on Warrick and maybe a couple of other guys like Robin Lopez (defensive role player) or Channing Frye (long-range gunner), but if the wheels fall off in Phoenix and the Suns aren't competitive I could imagine scenarios where Nash either scales down or moves on. If either of those things happen, the fantasy value of everyone on that team changes dramatically (usually for the worse).
• New Orleans, Sacramento, Golden State, and Memphis all look hungry to break into the race
The Hornets almost don't belong in this category since they were a mid-to-upper 50 wins team in two of the last three years, and their fast start this year suggests they are returning to form. Memphis, Sacramento and Golden State are all young teams, full of talent and potential. In Memphis the wings (Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo) draw the eye, with last year's strong bigs (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol) battling early season injuries. In Golden State it's the backcourt, with Monta Ellis and the injured Stephen Curry as franchise guys. But keep an eye on Andris Biedrins, who finally seems healthy again and is playing well - perhaps too well for David Lee owners. And in Sac-town it's all about Tyreke Evans so far, though DeMarcus Cousins is already proving to be a 15 and 7 guy with upside.
• Nets, Knicks and Pacers trying to do the same in the East
I don't really believe in any of these squads as long-term contenders, but I think their fast starts signify that they are young, upcoming teams with some interesting talent to keep an eye on. Everyone expected big things out of Amar'e Stoudemire in New York, but Wilson Chandler has come on huge off the bench early on, and I'll be interested in checking out Anthony Randolph when he finally returns from injury this week. The Pacers are being driven by Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger, both of whom look outstanding. Both should be fantasy impact guys for as long as their health allows, which is not trivial in this case. New Jersey is all about Brook Lopez and the now-healthy Devin Harris, but rookie Derrick Favors is averaging more than five offensive rebounds per game as part of his double-double. Favors was supposed to be a project, but he's playing so well in the absence of Troy Murphy that the future might be now for the youngster.
• Milwaukee and Houston are better than their starts indicate
The Bucks and Rockets have one combined win through their first seven games combined. I think each win at least 45 games this year, keeping them in their playoff races. The Bucks have been struggling to find their chemistry together, as Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut have to learn how to be primary options in the offense together. Carlos Delfino has been outstanding on the wing, but injuries have slowed Corey Maggette out of the gate, and John Salmons is having one of his slow starts. In Houston it's no longer about Yao Ming, as backcourt mates Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks are great scorers, and Luis Scola is flirting with fantasy superstardom.
• There is still basketball in Toronto and Cleveland
The Cavs and Raptors each have a win, which is more than the media would have had us believe after The Decision stripped both of their stars. In Toronto it's all about Andrea Bargnani, but Linas Kleiza and DeMar DeRozan are both playing well early on. In Cleveland not only is LeBron gone, but Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams have also struggled with injuries, leaving a real stats vacuum. J.J. Hickson has stepped into that gap, leading the team in scoring by almost six points per game over the first week of the year. Daniel Gibson also really vibes in Byron Scott's offense, and is knocking down almost two treys per game.
• Some of the poor teams look lifeless
It's not a huge deal to be winless through the first week, since the season is so long. Of more concern is the general vibe of the team, and ones like Detroit and the Clippers have already had periods where they look lifeless and uninterested. Baron Davis has already admitted to being out of shape in LA, and watching the Pistons play the Celtics on Tuesday was almost painful as it seemed that they were just counting the seconds until the game was over. Like I said, it's early, but quietly I'm hoping to unload any players I have from those teams. Any players, that is, except...
• Blake Griffin and John Wall are electrifying
I'm holding onto Griffin, because he is just pure fun to watch. I got this e-mail from one of my Rotowire colleagues, Chris Liss, during Griffin's debut last week: "You watching Blake Griffin? Guy is Chris Webber with better moves and more polish. Forget the numbers - they don't do him justice. The guy is Amar'e quick, but Boozer strong. And he has nice touch. Weighs 255. 6-10. Jumps out of the gym. Going to be a superstar if he stays healthy." Really, nothing else needs to be said.
Wall got off to a slower start against the Magic, but he exploded in the last two games including a 29-point, 13-assist, 9-steal effort on Tuesday. On the radio today I heard that he's the only player in NBA history to have that combination of stats in any one game, and it could happen again. I've said since I saw him in Vegas this summer that he could lead the league in steals, and on a Washington offense that's built around him he should have huge scoring and assist numbers on a nightly basis.
• Several of my favorite value players are off to massive starts
I'm usually pretty conservative about elevating a player to "fantasy stud" status in my internal trade valuing system, feeling they should prove it before they get bumped up like that. But when it was obvious from a player's history and circumstances that a leap could be on the horizon, I'm much more apt to believe that it's real early on. Guys like Luis Scola, Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert all figured prominently on my value-picks list because I thought they could produce like high-round draft picks though taken in the middle rounds. As such, their fast starts are not at all surprising to me, and I feel no qualms about having all three ranked in the top-22 of my most recent fantasy cheat sheet.
• Some other fantasy mainstays... not so much
David Lee, Al Jefferson and Kevin Love are all off to lesser starts than I expected in their new situations. Of the three I am most worried about Lee, because Ellis and Curry will dominate the scoring, and Biedrins could take a chunk of his boards. I'm not sure where he's going to find the stats to justify his second round pick in most fantasy leagues. Jefferson had a bad first game, but I think he'll eventually settle in to his usual 20 and 10, though Millsap is making his life interesting. Love, on the other hand - I just don't know what to expect. He should be a star. He's on the National Team and is by-far the best talent in Minnesota. Yet inexplicably, Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis benched him in the second half of the first game. I keep Love if I have him in hopes that eventually sanity reigns in Minnesota, but I'm not comfortable with it.
Arron Afflalo (46% owned): When I did my top-150 article, one of my commenters told me to keep an eye on Afflalo this year in Denver. I did, and I've liked what I've seen. He's still a do-everything "Garbage Man", but he's doing a bit more scoring and hitting more treys, which gives him more value.
James Jones (37% owned): Jones could eventually be replaced by another shooter, because he's really the replaceable long-range shooter who operates off of the Superfriends in Miami. But Jones has been the hottest of their gunners early on, having knocked down 18 treys in his first five games.
Darrell Arthur (32% owned): Arthur has gotten off to a strong start this year in Memphis, strong enough for roster consideration. But keep in mind that he has gotten extra minutes with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph missing time due to injury, and eventually he will return to the bench.
Daniel Gibson (31% owned): As mentioned above, Gibson has vibed with Byron Scott's system and is once again a long-range gunner worth keeping on your radar.
Landry Fields (20% owned): Fields is the starting shooting guard in New York, and seems to be a decent scoring and shooting threat who can also crash the board a bit from the backcourt.
Keeping up with the Professor
As I said above, I have joined Twitter nation. If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that 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.