Risks and Rewards
By Charlie Zegers
RotoWire Staff Writer
The definition of a sleeper varies wildly from league to league, depending on the number of teams, the scoring system and a dozen or so other variables. Instead of placing guesses as to who might be undervalued in your leagues, we'll take a look at the types of players that might be riskier selections – but who can turn into major rewards.
New Faces in New Places
Success and productivity on the basketball court has as much to do with "fit" as anything. Players who fit well in a system perform well. Players who don't "fit" are Isiah Thomas' Knicks.
As such, the transaction wire is a great place to find undervalued players – a player on a new team might improve significantly simply because he fits better in his new situation. But beware – not every move is a good one.
Chris Duhon – NYK [PG]
For years, we've been employing a "draft guys on Mike D'Antoni's team" strategy, and thus far it's worked out pretty well. Of course, Mike D'Antoni's old team had Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire and his new one has Chris Duhon and Zach Randolph. No matter. Don't draft Duhon thinking he'll become Nash. Draft him thinking he'll play significant minutes at the point for a fast-paced offense, and as such should easily post career-best numbers.
Mo Williams – CLE [PG]
LeBron James has spoken out in favor of the Williams acquisition, which is really all we needed to hear. With so much of the Cavs offense running through King James, Williams should be free to do what he does best – score.
Michael Beasley – MIA [PF]
NBA-ready body: check. Mature game, based on more than just sheer athleticism: check. Doesn't need to carry the team by himself: check. Usually, we shy away from rookies – but Beasley had the good luck to land on a team that doesn't need him to come in and play savior right away. With a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade (more on him in a bit) and Shawn Marion in town, Beasley doesn't have to go 20-and-10 for the Heat to be successful, which actually improves his chances of hitting those magic numbers.
Mario Chalmers – MIA [PG]
Aside from Beasley, one of the most promising fantasy options coming out of the 2008 draft will also wear Miami orange and black. Chalmers is particularly well-suited to play in Miami's system, which will ask him to play good perimeter defense and hit open threes, but won't lean on him too heavily in the "quarterbacking the offense" department that's so daunting to rookies. That's a recipe for immediate success.
Marcus Williams – GS [PG]
Things never really worked out for Williams in New Jersey… he was stuck behind Jason Kidd, then behind Devin Harris, and Laurence Frank's system never seemed to play to his strength. He has a chance for a fresh start in Oakland with one of the most creative basketball minds of our generation. Theoretically, he'll be backing up Monta Ellis at the point – but Ellis will miss the start of the season, and it's unclear if Ellis is really suited to the point.
Jameer Nelson – ORL [PG]
Nelson hasn't changed teams, but his primary competition for the Magic's point guard spot has. Carlos Arroyo will play in Israel this season, and Keyon Dooling will be backing up Devin Harris in New Jersey. As such, it seems far less likely that Nelson will be yanked from the lineup again this year.
The immediate future seems less bright for:
Derrick Rose – CHI [PG]
Over the next few years, we expect Rose will be in the conversation with Chris Paul and Deron Williams for "best point in the game" honors. But looking at this season, it's hard to recommend him as a high-level fantasy pick. Chicago's crowded back court, combined with the tendonitis that has sidelined Rose for most of the summer, warrant caution.
Corey Maggette – GS [SF]
After this season's roster makeover, the Warriors now have Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Kelenna Azubuike, Marco Belinelli and Maggette under contract. Exactly how many wing scorers can Don Nelson play at once? And how well did Maggette react when Mike Dunleavy brought him off the bench? We want to see how playing time is distributed before getting involved with any of the Warriors' two/three types.
Raymond Felton – CHA [PG,SG]
Charlotte's selection of D.J. Augustin in the first round tells us all we needed to know about Felton's medium-to-long term prospects as the Bobcats' primary point guard. And with Jason Richardson firmly entrenched at the two, a move to off-guard doesn't seem likely.
Richard Jefferson – MIL [SF]
One of the knocks on Jefferson's game for the last several years is that he's a product of Jason Kidd – that Kidd's brilliant passes, and not RJ's talent – were the driver of Jefferson's oft-impressive numbers. Jefferson has a chance to prove the doubters wrong – but he'll have to do it with the unproven Ramon Sessions as his point guard, and while drawing the opposition's toughest defender most nights. That'll be a challenge. (And frankly, we're in the "Kidd made RJ look good" camp anyway.)
Jose Calderon – TOR [PG]
With T.J. Ford out of the picture, Calderon is officially Toronto's starting point guard. Only problem is, he's never played starter's minutes for a full season, and even showed signs of fatigue when injuries made him a starter last year. We expect him to be one of the better assist-men in the league this year, but possibly not quite as good as his per-minute stats would imply.
We also like to look for players who seem particularly well suited for the system or role that they're expected to play.
Jamal Crawford – NYK [SG]
Crawford can score on anyone, but his work on defense is often maddening. His new coach preaches fast-paced offense and treats defense like a piece of chewing gum stuck on the bottom of his shoe. Sounds like a perfect match.
Zach Randolph – NYK [PF]
The Knicks' biggest priority is to clear cap room for a run at the free agent class of 2010. Yet general manager Donnie Walsh turned down the Clippers when they offered to take Randolph's contract off his hands. Why is that? A couple of possibilities spring to mind… New York management might think Randolph's offensive game is well suited to coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Or, they might be thinking that a month or two in a fast-paced offense will inflate Randolph's stats to the point that they might get something of value for him. Either way, it makes Randolph an intriguing fantasy option for the coming season.
Ramon Sessions – MIL [PG]
With defensive taskmaster Scott Skiles running the show, we expected Sessions – considered a pretty solid defender – to win the starting point guard job in Milwaukee even before Mo Williams was shipped to Cleveland. Now that his competition for the job is Luke Ridnour and Damon Jones, we're considering it a lock.
Ron Artest – HOU [SF]
Maybe this is unnecessarily optimistic, but we think being reunited with one of his favorite coaches – Rick Adelman – and playing for a championship contender will keep Artest on his best behavior. For a little while, at least.
Brandon Rush – IND [SG]
Coach Jim O'Brien prizes players who will work hard on defense and hit threes. Rush is an excellent fit in both regards. Even as a rookie, he could emerge as the Pacers' third scoring option, behind Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy.
Chemistry can also cause explosions, which makes us wary of:
Ben Gordon – CHI [SG]
At press time, Gordon is still technically a Bull, though he's said he won't sign the team's qualifying offer and may join the increasingly long list of players who will be spending 2008-09 in Europe. If he does relent and agree to play out his last restricted year with Chicago, expect him to be involved in several hundred trade rumors leading up to the February deadline – which hasn't helped Gordon's productivity much in the past.
Josh Smith – ATL [SF]
According to most reports, Smith really, desperately wanted out of Atlanta. After the Hawks matched Memphis' offer sheet, Smith is locked in for five years… and no leverage. We don't like where this is headed.
Josh Howard – DAL [SF]
Howard turned up in the news for the wrong reasons last season – he admitted to marijuana use during a radio interview, threw a big late-night party during Dallas' first-round playoff series and was later arrested for street racing. His new coach knows well the impact that bad behavior can have on a team – Rick Carlisle's career in Indiana was derailed by that brawl and its aftermath. Don't expect him to put up with much nonsense from Howard.
Picking Up the Pace
The number of possessions in a game is one of the biggest determining factors in a player's fantasy numbers… quicker pace means more possessions means more shots, more opportunities for rebounds and assists, etc. As such, players on teams that will get out and run have a distinct edge over similarly-skilled players on slower-paced teams.
Danny Granger – IND [PF]
With Jermaine O'Neal sent north of the border, the Pacers are officially Granger's team. In Jim O'Brien's fast-paced offense, the multi-talented Granger has a chance to put up the sort of numbers that made Antoine Walker a valuable fantasy asset during his Boston days. Only with far better shooting percentages.
T.J. Ford – IND [PG]
Quite possibly the game's fastest player, Ford should be an excellent fit running O'Brien's scheme. But proceed with caution – Ford's long and truly frightening injury history will always make him a risky pick.
J.R. Smith – DEN [SG]
Smith's frequent clashes with coach George Karl always made him seem like too big a risk. But we've had a change of heart – he's reportedly on the verge of a long-term deal with the Nuggets, which could be a sign that he and Karl have reached an understanding. Ability was never a question – Smith is an electric scorer that will have good fantasy value, even as a sixth man.
On the other hand, some teams may be slowing the pace a bit
Leandro Barbosa – PHO [SG]
We don't know how much of Mike D'Antoni's offense new Suns coach Terry Porter will retain. We're comfortable in guessing that Steve Nash will continue to get his points and assists, Amare Stoudemire will get his, and Shaquille O'Neal will score, board and brick free throws when he's in the lineup. But the change in coaches makes us very cautious about the rest of the Suns – players like Barbosa and Boris Diaw, whose fantasy value may be tied too tightly to D'Antoni-ball.
Jason Richardson – CHA [SG]
Richardson will still be Charlotte's most talented offensive player, but new coach Larry Brown is a traditionalist who will likely insist on getting his post players more involved in the offense. That's good news for the likes of Emeka Okafor and, if healthy, Sean May, but probably means a downgrade for Richardson.
Don't Call it a Comeback
When considering players who are injured – or prone to injury – don't make the mistake of comparing a full season of one guy against a half-season of, say, Yao Ming. Think of it this way – if Yao plays his usual 50-or-so games, that means you'll also have 32 games worth of "waiver wire center" factored in to your stats.
Greg Oden – POR [C]
Yes, knee injuries can be really scary. But generally, we're a lot less concerned when the knees in question are just 20 years old. Expect the usual rookie growing pains from Oden – don't forget, his next NBA minute will be his first, and he hasn't played competitive ball in well over a year now – but he should be a defensive force from day one.
Andew Bynum – LAL [C]
As with Oden, that Bynum will take his first legal drink just days before the season opener – he turns 21 on October 27 – makes us far more confident in his ability to come back from the knee problems that ruined his 2007-08 season.
Let someone else take a chance on:
Yao Ming – HOU [C]
No matter where you stand on the evolution vs. intelligent design debate, one thing seems clear: the human body wasn't intended to carry seven-feet, five-inches and three hundred pounds of flesh and bone back and forth on a basketball court through 100-plus games a year. In his last three NBA seasons, Yao has appeared in 57, 48 and 55 games – and fantasy owners have been subjected to 30 games a year from the likes of Mark Blount and Brian Skinner. Not me. Not this year.
Article first appeared on 10/8/08