As of Tuesday morning, the top teams in the Eastern Conference are Miami (8-1), Chicago (8-2) and ... Philadelphia? The Sixers lead the Atlantic Division with a 6-2 overall record. And they might be even better than their win and losses indicate; they started the season with five straight games on the road.
The biggest driver of that record is defense; Philly is holding opponents to .391 shooting from the floor. Continuity is obviously a factor there. Other teams may struggle to integrate new faces and plays due to the short preseason and compressed schedule, but the Sixers' coaching staff and core returned from last season almost completely intact. Philly is also getting improved play from youngsters like point guard Jrue Holiday, shooting guard Evan Turner and center Spencer Hawes.
Can fantasy owners profit from Philly's improved play? The Sixers you'd most want to own - Holiday and Andre Iguodala - are 100 percent owned in both Yahoo! and ESPN/NBA .com leagues. Hawes is at 100 in ESPN but just 80 percent in Yahoo. Elton Brand is close to that (92% Yahoo!/88.5% ESPN) but is getting dropped in lots of leagues as owners realize Hawes is the better frontcourt option these days.
Lou Williams is worth a look in Yahoo! leagues, where he's 71 percent owned; he's been the Sixers' leading scorer to this point and is doing an excellent job of getting to the free-throw line (5.6 attempts/game) as Philly's third guard. ESPN/NBA.com fantasy players are bigger Williams fans; he's 100 percent owned over there. Evan Turner hasn't scored a ton - his 21-point outburst at New Orleans on Jan. 4 notwithstanding - but he is rebounding very well for a guard (5.4 rpg in 25.5 minutes) and could be in line for more playing time if starter Jodie Meeks (.370 FG, .300 3PT) continues to struggle with his shot.
Personally, I don't think Turner will reach his full potential as long as Iguodala is on the Sixers. And Iguodala is playing so well right now, many of the rumored trades that would have sent him elsewhere (Iguodala for Chris Kaman?) seem horribly lopsided. But that doesn't mean the Sixers won't make a trade before the March deadline. And even if they don't, Turner's improved play and breakout potential make his "percent owned" (27% Yahoo/18.5 ESPN) very low.
The Devin Ebanks experiment in Los Angeles has come to an end; Matt Barnes is your new starting three. The artist formerly known as Ron Artest is second on the depth chart, with Ebanks consigned to the land of DNP.
Several Spurs have stepped up in Manu Ginobili's absence, including rookie Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson and Danny Green of all people. Second-year guard James Anderson, on the other hand - seems to have missed his chance.
Picks for the Week:
The first set of picks is for players in standard leagues - guys who may be available in your average 10 team/15 player roster league. The second group is for owners in very deep leagues, and will be based more on speculation than actual numbers.
Starting this week, I'm giving percent owned stats for both Yahoo! and ESPN/NBA.com leagues with each pick. If you play some other league/format, let me know in the comments and I'll do what I can to accommodate.
Richard Jefferson (69%/96.2%) - One of several Spurs that is putting up better numbers in Manu Ginobili's absence.
Amir Johnson (56%/60.3%) - Appears he's found a home as Toronto's starting center. Johnson is undersized for a pivot (listed at 6-7) but has posted double-doubles in consecutive games and seems a great fit for Dwayne Casey's system.
Tyrus Thomas (53%/38.5%) - Thomas has yet to win back the power forward job, but for the last two games, Paul Silas has been using him as his starting three. The unconventional arrangement makes some sense - Thomas is quick enough to stay with small forwards on defense, and on offense, Boris Diaw plays more like a small forward despite his size. Assuming he can hang on to a regular job, Thomas will be a good source of boards.
Iman Shumpert (47%/74.3%) - Appears to have a lock on the Knicks' starting point guard job, at least until Baron Davis is ready to go. And with Toney Douglas struggling (more on him in a bit) and Mike Bibby… being Mike Bibby, look for the rook to log heavy minutes (37 against Charlotte on Monday night).
MarShon Brooks (45%/58.8%) - Basically the Nets' only scoring threat at this point.
Toney Douglas (57%/49.6%) - Douglas' percent-owned has been dropping, mostly because his shot hasn't. I don't think that will continue. He means too much to New York as (potentially) their primary second-unit scorer. If he can turn things around as the Knicks' third guard, he could have big value down the stretch.
Landry Fields (41%/11.5%) - Like Douglas, Fields hasn't been able to hit the broad side of a barn with his shot recently. Unlike Douglas, Fields has been helping in less-obvious ways… five boards and two steals against the Pistons on Saturday, six boards and five dimes against Charlotte Monday. He's got value now, and could have more if that shot starts falling.
Gary Neal (23%/15.4%) - Starting at shooting guard in place of Manu Ginobili.
B.J. Mullens (13%/10.7%) - An afterthought in OKC, Mullens has become a rotation player for the Bobcats, scoring in double figures in four of their last five games.
Danny Green (10%/3.4%) - Came out of nowhere to score 24 points with seven boards against the Nuggets on Saturday. Fell back to earth at OKC on Sunday (6 and 5) but still seems like a very solid play for as long as Manu Ginobili is sidelined.
Vladimir Radmanovic (7%/5.3%) - With Marvin Williams (ankle) sidelined, Radmanovic has stepped up to fill the void, scoring in double figures in three straight. It's not clear when Williams will be back, so enjoy this as long as it lasts.
Linas Kleiza (2%/0%) - Versatile wing could join the Raptors this Wednesday. He's been out since the middle of last season while recovering from microfracture knee surgery, but - if healthy - has the talent to displace James Johnson, Rasual Butler or both in Toronto's forward rotation.
Mickael Pietrus (1%/0.2%) - Should make his Celtics debut on Wednesday, and is expected to have a significant role off the bench before too long.
DeSagana Diop (0%/0%) - Paul Silas wants size on the front line, so he's putting Diop back in the lineup. Temper your expectations - the big fella's conditioning is highly suspect - Boris Diaw looks svelte by comparison - and he managed just 6 points combined in starts against the Pacers and Knicks this week. He's still working his way back from a major Achilles' injury; his play could improve with better conditioning and less rust.
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