Training Camp Tips Off
NBA training camp began this week, which means we're headed into the most exciting time of the year for fantasy hoops fans – draft season.
Unless you're hopelessly addicted to the NBA or write about the league for a fantasy sports content site, there's a good chance you've missed some of the bigger offseason news nuggets. Before jumping into the usual rundown of players with rising and falling fantasy value, let's go over the major wheelings and dealings from the offseason.
Dwight Howard signs with Houston.
The league's best big man was also the best free agent on the market this offseason. We're not counting Chris Paul as a free agent since he was never going to leave the Clippers. After the usual teeter-tottering from Howard, he opted to sign with the Rockets. Over a full season removed from back surgery, Howard should start to resemble his old self. James Harden and the rest of the Rockets' supporting cast mesh much better with Howard than Kobe, Pau Gasol, an ancient Steve Nash and the rest of the ragtag group Los Angeles plugged together last season.
The Pistons make a splash in free agency by signing Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.
The last time Detroit had stacks of cash available for free agency and went on a spending spree they signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to long-term deals. Oops. Smith and Jennings are much better players than Gordon and Villanueva, so don't expect a flop this time around. Instead, Detroit will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
Tanking season starts early.
Instead of waiting until after the All-Star break to flip the switch to tank-mode, the Sixers opted to start making their push for the most ping-pong balls during the offseason. Philadelphia traded away starting point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a first-round pick in 2014 on draft night in June. This Sixers squad could be historically bad, and there are only a couple of intriguing fantasy options on the team. At least Philly fans can take solace in the fact the Sixers should land a couple of extremely talented youngsters in next year's loaded draft.
Rebuilding mode for the Celtics and Lakers?
For the first time since the 1993-94 season, we could see a postseason where neither the Celtics or Lakers are involved. The Celtics solidified themselves as a rebuilding squad by trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn and parting ways with coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, Los Angeles lost Dwight Howard and received nothing in return. To make matters worse, Kobe Bryant's status for the start of the season is in serious doubt. Don't be surprised if both teams fall short of the playoffs.
There were countless other moves made this offseason that will have some sort of impact in fantasy. Some are touched on below, and many others will be explored in this column in the weeks to come.
Now it's time to start prepping for your draft.
Every week, we'll use this space to track players whose fantasy value is improving, declining or uncertain. We're not particularly concerned with hot or cold streaks - all players toss up a 2-for-10 game every now and then - unless they are extreme or seem to indicate an underlying problem or injury. Instead, we'll be looking at changes in playing time, rotation role and performance.
Jonas Valanciunas, C, TOR – Say hello to this year's Las Vegas Summer League MVP. Josh Selby was the co-MVP with Damian Lillard last summer, so this honor by no means guarantee future success once the games count, but it's still hard to shrug off Valanciunas' performance. The Raptors big man averaged 18.8 points on 56.1 shooting from the floor while pulling down 10.0 rebounds per contest. He flashed similar double-double upside down the stretch last season, averaging 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over the final 17 games of the regular season. He's a highly-skilled and efficient big man who will be locked into the Raptors starting lineup and handed heavy minutes from the opening tip this season. Don't pass on the 21-year-old breakout candidate.
Andre Drummond, C, DET – Here's another young, up-and-coming big man to target for your frontcourt. Like Valanciunas, Drummond is slated for a huge boost in playing time this year. The 20-year-old center is cemented into the starting five, and new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks doesn't plan on restricting his young pivot's playing time. Drummond's per-36 averages from his rookie campaign (13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.7 steals) hint at the monster he could become as soon as this year. The one area prospective owners will want to account for is Drummond's faulty free-throw stroke. He hit just 37.1 percent from the charity stripe in his rookie season and will likely be a huge drain in the category.
Jeff Green, F, BOS – With Garnett and Pierce now in Brooklyn and Rajon Rondo (knee) sidelined, Green is primed to open the season as the Celtics go-to option. Last season, Green averaged 12.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.9 treys in 28 mpg. He's expected to be the Celtics starting small forward but will also see time at the two and four positions, meaning 35-plus minutes per night is very realistic. Green has briefly flashed the ability to be a lead scorer for an NBA squad, stockpiling eight efforts of 20 or more points over the final month of last season, which included his monster 43-point outing against the Heat on March 18. The Celtics will not be a good team before Rondo returns, but even bad teams have leading scorers, and Green will assume that role when the season tips off.
Eric Bledsoe, G, PHO – No longer stuck in Chris Paul's shadow, Bledsoe is in position to fulfill some of the potential he's flashed over the past couple years. Working primarily as a reserve for the Clippers last season, Bledsoe averaged a ho-hum 8.5 points, 3.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks in 76 appearances. Of course, he did all that damage in just 20 mpg. He's projected to start at the two for Phoenix and should immediately see a significant bump in playing time compared to his first three seasons in the league. While the upside with Bledsoe is fairly high, there remain some question marks with his mediocre mid-range game and his ability to succeed as an under-sized shooting guard alongside Goran Dragic. Even with those question marks, Bledsoe should offer up stellar defensive stats from a point guard eligible player and solid enough production across the board to be one of the bigger breakout fantasy players this season.
Evan Turner, G/F, PHI – While Turner showed improvements across the board last season, he still didn't reach the full breakout levels many pundits, myself included, expected. The aforementioned Sixers will be in full-blown tank-mode from the opening tip, and Turner figures to be the player driving that tank. Eventually, the team will hand over the keys of the franchise to rookies Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and whichever lottery picks they land in the 2014 NBA Entry Draft, but the 2013-14 season will belong to Turner. He needs to start hitting more threes and offer better defensive production to reach the upper levels of fantasy value, but Turner's production in the scoring, rebounding and assists categories will reach new heights this season and provide plenty of punch for your fantasy squad.
Samuel Dalembert, C, DAL – After a disastrous season in Milwaukee, it would be easy to write Dalembert off, but owners would being make a mistake to leave the veteran big man off their cheat sheets. Dalembert signed with Dallas this offseason, and he's projected to be the Mavs starting center. Even during his lost campaign with the Bucks, Dalembert was able to post very strong per-36 minutes averages – 14.7 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. Those numbers are a bit unrealistic, and in all likelihood, so is any expectation of a role beyond 25-30 mpg, but the 32-year-old veteran remains effective on a per-minute basis, and his expanded role with the Mavs will result in some solid fantasy production.
Caron Butler, F, MIL – Here's another veteran with an opportunity to rejuvenate his career and return to fantasy relevance. In his two seasons with the Clippers, Butler dealt with injuries and played a supporting role to the team's superstars. Now healthy and suiting up for a Milwaukee squad that lacks star power, Butler is projected to be one of the team's primary options on offense. Milwaukee will be desperate for scoring this season, so the team could lean even heavier on Butler than currently expected. At 32, prospective owners shouldn't expect a return to the 20-point scoring averages Butler posted in his prime, but he has a legitimate shot to climb back to the 15-point range while also being a solid source of three-pointers.
Enes Kanter, C and Derrick Favors, F, UTA – Both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson left the Jazz via free agency this offseason, which opens the door for Favors and Kanter to take over as the team's frontcourt of the present and future. Kanter is a double-double machine in waiting, as evidenced by his monster 23-point, 22-rebound effort on March 1 in one of his two starts last season. He's a big, bruising center who will post strong percentages but may be a bit weak in the defensive categories. Favors, on the other hand, should provide plenty of value on defense, as he's capable of swatting away a couple shots per game and picking up his fair share of steals. His offensive game is still a bit unrefined, but his athleticism allows him to make up for some of those shortcomings. It may be difficult for these two youngsters to reach the lofty fantasy values that Millsap and Jefferson offered during their time in Utah right out the gate, but both Favors and Kanter do offer that type of eventual ceiling. Don't be afraid to reach a round early for either of Utah's young big men.
Andrew Bynum, C, CLE – Other than a new uniform, nothing new to see here. Bynum signed with the Cavaliers this offseason, giving Cleveland a potential All-Star big man to pair with franchise point guard Kyrie Irving. Unfortunately, the injury problems that have plagued Bynum in the past remain an issue. The knee injuries that forced Bynum to miss the entire 2012-13 campaign have lingered into his first training camp with the Cavs, and there's some doubt he'll be ready for the start of the regular season. He has been practicing on a limited basis and saying all the right things, but Bynum remains a scratch-off ticket when it comes to his fantasy value for the upcoming season.
Danilo Gallinari, F, DEN – Gallinari underwent procedures this offseason to repair a torn meniscus and an ACL tear in his left knee. He's currently targeting a return in late November or early December. Wilson Chandler is the frontrunner to start at small forward while Gallinari is on the shelf.
Rajon Rondo, G, BOS – Rondo is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered back on February 13 of last season. He started participating in some limited offensive drills, but Rondo hasn't been cleared for contact yet. Early reports had Rondo targeting a return in December, but an exact return date is still unknown. Given what we saw with Derrick Rose's lengthy recovery from a torn ACL last season, players like Rondo and Gallinari are risky picks on draft day.
J.R. Smith, G, NY – Smith had an eventful offseason. Shortly after signing a lucrative, long-term deal with the Knicks, he underwent procedures on the patella tendon and lateral meniscus in his left knee. Those procedures could possibly keep him sidelined until mid-November. Once he's healthy enough to return, Smith will have to serve a five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy. Add those problems to the Knicks' offseason acquisition of Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace, plus an expected expansion of Iman Shumpert's role, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Smith take a step back this year. Don't be surprised if he winds up in the section below at some point this season.
Russell Westbrook, G, OKC – Westbrook is another star player working his way back from a knee injury. He originally suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during a playoff contest against the Rockets on April 24. His status for Opening Night was already in jeopardy before the star point guard suffered a setback this week and had to go back under the knife. On Tuesday, Westbrook underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, and he's now slated to miss the first 4-to-6 weeks of the regular season. Barring another setback, Westbrook will be able to return in early-to-mid December and still appear in 60-plus games. Reggie Jackson is expected to fill in at point guard in Westbrook's absence.
Kobe Bryant, G, LAL – Bryant currently has no timetable for his return from the Achilles injury he suffered late last season. While there's no denying Bryant's past ability to play through injury, a ruptured Achilles tendon is significantly more severe than other ailments he's dealt with in the past, and it certainly doesn't help that he's entering his age-35 season. An early and productive return seems inevitable from the hard-working Bryant, but there's a pretty good chance he'll take a step back from the elite levels of production we've become accustomed to over the years.
Omer Asik, C, HOU – Asik is the player from Houston's roster whose fantasy value was impacted the most by the team's acquisition of Howard this summer. A full-time starter at the center position last season, Asik now appears destined to be in a reserve role similar to the one he held in Chicago. The Rockets' brass has been spouting nonsense about Asik and Howard sharing the frontcourt, but Asik doesn't fit at power forward, and Howard proved last year that he has trouble playing alongside other low-post players. Don't be fooled by the coach speak, Asik will see his role drop significantly this season.
Tyreke Evans, G, NOR – After an illustrious rookie campaign, Evans' production has been on a steady decline. He left Sacramento via a sign-and-trade this summer, and while a change of scenery was probably needed for the talented combo guard, landing in New Orleans won't be ideal for his fantasy value. Evans had trouble posting consistent production over the past couple seasons while playing for a cellar-dwelling Kings team with little talent. New Orleans, meanwhile, has a revamped roster with multiple talented pieces (Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) capable of racking up big numbers. The initial plan for the Pelicans is to deploy Evans as part of their bench unit with Anderson. Unless a member of the starting backcourt suffers a significant injury, it will be difficult for Evans to match the production we've seen from him in past seasons.