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Risks and Rewards

By Charlie Zegers, RotoWire.com

You don’t need to read a preview to know that LeBron James is pretty good. But fantasy leagues generally aren’t won or lost with those first-round no-brainer picks anyway. If you want to finish in the money, you’ll need to find the guys who will be much better than anyone expects with those middle and late-round selections, and avoid burning picks on guys who will bomb. Here’s a look at some of the developing stories around the league and how fantasy sleepers and busts might emerge.

New Faces in New Places

One of the most obvious places to look for under and over-valued players is the transaction wire. Will a trade to a new situation allow that guy to shine? Or is he a bad fit in the rotation?

Also, when analyzing how player movements will impact fantasy values, don’t forget to take a long look at how the players left behind will be affected.

Rajon Rondo – BOS [PG]: You may not be aware of this, but the Celtics actually have more than three players on their roster. Everyone knows that KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are hot fantasy commodities. What’s less obvious is how their presence in Boston’s rotation will impact the rest of the team. In Rondo’s case, we’re expecting big improvements. The biggest hole in Rondo’s game is his outside shot – or lack thereof. This year, Boston’s ”Big Three” should create so many problems for defenses that Rondo should get more freedom to create off the dribble, which means the disrespect of his jumper shouldn’t be as much of a problem. Remember, there are other guards – most notably Finals MVP Tony Parker – who have been plenty productive without an outside game.

Rondo will likely lead the Celtics at point this season.
(Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images)

Kendrick Perkins – BOS [C]: As with Rondo, the arrival of Garnett and Allen takes away any pressure for Perkins to do what he’s least good at – that is, to score – and allows him to concentrate on his strengths – defense and rebounding.

Smush Parker – MIA [PG]: At first glance, the free-spirited and defensively-deficient Parker wouldn’t seem to fit well on a Pat Riley team. But let’s not forget, a point guard who can hit the three can put up big numbers in Miami’s offense. Need proof? Check out Damon Jones’ numbers before he left Miami for Cleveland.

Brevin Knight - LAC [PG]: With Shaun Livingston’s future in doubt due to injury and Sam Cassell… well, old… there’s a decent chance that Knight will be running the show for the Clips this season.

Martell Webster – POR [SG]: Webster’s only real NBA-ready skill at this point is long-range shooting. The arrival of Greg Oden means opposing defenses will need to think about collapsing on the lane, which should open up plenty of open shots for someone. If Webster can take advantage, his fantasy value will skyrocket.

Joel Przybilla – POR [C]: Don’t assume that Oden’s arrival makes Przybilla undraftable. Until Oden becomes a bit more experienced in dealing with NBA big men, he figures to spend a lot of time in foul trouble. Przybilla should still get a fair amount of run.

Morris Peterson – NOH [SG]: Mo-Pete fell into disfavor in Toronto last year. This year, he’ll be asked to provide perimeter scoring for the Hornets. With Peja Stojakovic’s status uncertain, he might be the only perimeter scoring option.

The immediate future seems less bright for:

Kevin Durant – SEA [SG,SF]: Sorry, I’m simply not prepared to hand Durant the first of a dozen or so scoring titles like some other analysts. My problem? 185 pounds. That’s the weight that Durant couldn’t lift back during draft prep. Sure, the bench press isn’t a category in all fantasy leagues. But what if Durant’s lack of strength means he’s getting pushed around on defense? That might put him at odds with his coach, defensive guru P.J. Carlesimo. His lack of strength could also make him shy away from contact and make him a jump-shooter. It could also get him hurt. We have no doubt that Durant will be a superstar in this league, but we’re not at all convinced that he’ll be worth a second or third-round pick at this early stage of his career.

Al Jefferson – MIN [PF,C]: Jefferson has been selected very early in some mock drafts, with owners apparently seeing the same potential that led Kevin McHale to pull the trigger on the Kevin Garnett trade. There are a number of problems with this scenario. First, we have no idea how quickly Jefferson will adapt to being the primary option in an offense – especially when he won’t have a Paul Pierce to draw defensive attention. Second, bear in mind that the West is a much tougher conference for forward. Jefferson will be dealing with the Tim Duncans and Amare Stoudemires and Dirk Nowitzkis and Carlos Boozers of the world more often now. And third, by using a top pick on big Al, you’re essentially saying you agree with Kevin McHale on a player valuation. Are you really comfortable with that?

Rafer Alston – HOU [PG]: The fact that Houston has acquired about nine potential point guards this off-season says a lot about Alston’s short-term job security.

Tyrus Thomas – CHI [SF,PF]: The hyper-athletic Thomas showed flashes of potential in his rookie season, but the return of Andres Nocioni and the acquisition of Joe Smith seem to indicate that the Bulls aren’t quite ready to give Thomas a regular job.

Luke Ridnour – SEA [PG]: Two of Seattle’s new arrivals – coach P.J. Carlesimo and guard Delonte West – spell trouble for Ridnour. Carlesimo is a major proponent of defense. That’s Ridnour’s greatest weakness, and a strength of both West and Earl Watson.

Flashes in the Pan

Every NBA season, there are players who put up surprisingly good numbers for a very short period of time, parlay those results into new contracts, and promptly disappear. Think Jerome James. One good playoff series netted him a massive contract with the Knicks, and no one’s seen him since. Think Tim Thomas. A couple of weeks with the Suns made the Clippers forget that Thomas’ previous two teams couldn’t wait to get rid of him.

This season’s examples:

Steve Blake – POR [PG,SG]: Blake arrived in Denver and his assist totals started rising like the altitude - from 2.5 as a Milwaukee Buck to 6.6 as a Nugget. Of course, just about anyone could net some dimes by handing off to Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. Blake’s play earned him a new contract with the Portland Trail Blazers – a curious choice given that Portland already has Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez and Brandon Roy under contract. It’s almost like even he knew he wouldn’t be able to repeat his Denver success.

Mikki Moore – SAC [PF]: Moore made the most of his time in New Jersey, stepping up when Nenad Krstic got hurt. Many expected he’d re-sign with the Nets, but he opted for a free-agent deal with the Kings instead. In Sacramento, he’ll learn that it’s much easier to score when Jason Kidd is setting you up for an easy layup and harder when Mike Bibby is heaving up jump shots on every possession.

On the other hand:

Matt Barnes – GSW [SF,PF]: Barnes hoped to net a long-term contract off his outstanding success in Don Nelson’s system last year, but he didn’t get any bites. Instead, he re-upped with the Warriors for one more year. That’s tough luck for Barnes, but good news for fantasy owners. By staying with Nelson and company, Barnes actually stands a decent chance of duplicating his 2006-07 numbers.

Will it Fit?

Individual success in the NBA usually has a lot to do with how well a particular player fits within his team’s system. A player particularly well-suited to his team’s offense will wind up being more valuable than a more talented player in a less-advantageous system. And don’t forget the “he makes his teammates better” factor – sharing the court with a guy like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd can make just about anyone look good.

Renaldo Balkman – NYK [SF,PF]: Scoring won’t be the Knicks’ problem. With Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph on hand, New York will be sporting four starters who can easily drop 30 points on any given night. The Knicks’ problem will be stopping the other guys from scoring, and that’s where Balkman comes in. The hyperactive Balkman, who has drawn comparisons to just about every elite defender in the NBA (though Ron Artest’s name seems to come up most often), is easily the best perimeter defender on the team. That being the case, we expect he’ll log heavy minutes defending small forwards, big guards and even the occasional quick power forward. (I hear Boston has one of those now.) Given enough playing time, Balkman should emerge as one of the NBA’s elite garbage men – racking up hard-to-get fantasy points in boards, steals, and blocks and even scoring a little on put-backs and breaks.

Juan Carlos Navarro – MEM [PG,SG]: We generally shy away from rookies, expecting that they’ll need at least a few months to get acclimated to the NBA game. But Navarro is a special case, due to the fact that he’s been a teammate of Pau Gasol’s on the Spanish National Team for years. The on-court chemistry they’ve already established should expedite Navarro’s production, much more so than if he’d signed with another team.

Bonzi Wells – HOU [SG]: Wells looked like a player on the rise two years ago in Sacramento. Last year in Houston, he didn’t look like much of anything. That lost season might take him off the radar of a lot of fantasy owners, who might not make the connection that Wells is reunited with the coach who was running the show in Sacramento during Wells’ best season. We’re expecting a big comeback.

Francisco Garcia – SAC [SG,SF]: Another case of good chemistry between coach and player, Sacramento’s new head coach, Reggie Theus, was an assistant coach at Louisville when Garcia played his college ball. One rumor even suggested that Garcia helped Theus get the job by talking up his old coach’s work. We’re not sure how much influence a reserve wing had on personnel decisions. However, we are sure that the established relationship between Theus and Garcia should make that wing a more productive fantasy player this year.

Maceo Baston – TOR [PF]: Baston was buried on Indiana’s bench last season. This year, he’ll be in Toronto, providing the Raptors with frontcourt depth. But don’t forget, Baston was a very good player in Europe, and players with Euroleague experience have done very well for themselves in Toronto.

But square peg/round hole problems may arise for:

Andrei Kirilenko – UTA [SF]: He’s got freakishly long arms, one of the coolest nicknames in the NBA, and a shockingly understanding wife. What he might not have is the quickness to be an effective small forward in the NBA. We’ve always considered AK-47 as a three, but his most productive play has been when he’s stationed closer to the paint. That makes him far more dangerous as a help defender – allowing him to rack up those blocked shots. But the rejuvenation of Carlos Boozer pushed Kirilenko out to the wing, and that exposed several of the weaknesses in his game. He’s not really quick enough to guard athletic wings on the perimeter. He can’t block shots from the weak side if he’s out by the three-point line. And the weakness of his own jump shot allows defenders to lay off him – meaning he’s less able to create off the dribble. It may be that Kirilenko won’t put up great numbers unless or until Boozer gets hurt again.

Can AK-47 turn it around this season?
(Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images)
J.J. Redick – ORL [PG,SG]: Redick has got to be disappointed that Billy Donovan didn’t last as Orlando’s coach. Stan Van Gundy, the new head man on the Magic’s bench, is a guy who will focus on defense. We imagine he’ll have a hard time pairing the undersized Redick with even smaller Jameer Nelson in the backcourt, and Van Gundy really doesn’t have another option at the point. Don’t be surprised to see Van Gundy use one of his talented small forwards – Trevor Ariza seems like a good bet – at the two, and for Redick to spend another season coming off the bench.

Eddy Curry – NYK [C]: We’re not worried about Zach Randolph. He’ll get his 20-and-10. We are worried about Eddy Curry, and the possibility that sharing opportunities with another big low-post scorer will cause him to take a step backwards.

Adam Morrison – CHA [SG,SF]: It’s bad enough that Morrison has to compete with Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace for minutes. At this point, Morrison hasn’t done enough to hold off playing time challenges from Matt Carroll or Walter Herrmann either.

Wally Szczerbiak – SEA [SF]: He doesn’t defend, and he pouts when he’s not getting enough shots. Now he’ll be coached by P.J. Carlesimo on a team that wants desperately to develop Kevin Durant. This won’t end well.

It’s All About Tempo

The success of the Suns and, more recently, the Raptors and their up-tempo offense has teams league-wide looking to pick up the pace. Everything else being equal, a player on a fast-paced team has a better opportunity to produce than one who plays exclusively in the halfcourt, simply because the fast-paced team will generate more possessions (and by extension, points, boards, steals, etc). This season several more teams, including Memphis, Indiana and Sacramento, are expected to pick up the pace.

That being the case, players in roster spots that wouldn’t ordinarily be valuable – the fourth and fifth options in the offense, bench players – suddenly become fantasy options. Take a long look at guys like:

Chucky Atkins - DEN [PG]: Denver’s hyper-caffeinated offense actually made Steve Blake look good last season. This year, in Blake’s place, George Karl will have a player with some actual offensive skill, especially from downtown. We’re betting Atkins will put up pretty nice numbers this season.

Hakim Warrick – MEM [PF]: He’s probably going to be buried on the bench behind Darko Milicic and Pau Gasol. He’s still probably going to play enough to compile solid fantasy numbers.

Travis Diener – IND [PG]: New Indiana coach Jim O’Brien loves the three-point shot. Diener can hit ‘em in bunches. Even as a backup to Jamaal Tinsley (and we’re not certain he’ll be a backup all year), Diener is worth a long look.

Grant Hill – PHO [SG]: Every year, it seems the Suns add some “nobody” off the street and get excellent production from him. This year, they’ve added a former All-Star. Don’t count on Hill for more than 50 or so games, but expect very good numbers when he plays.

Don’t Call It a Comeback?

When considering the value of a player who will miss part of the season, make sure to factor in the production you’ll get from whoever you’ll use in his place. In other words, drafting Elton Brand means you’ll get a third of a season from Brand, and two thirds of a season from a power forward off the waiver wire.

Consider late-round flyers on guys like:

Shaun Livingston – LAC [PG]: The closest pro sports parallel to Livingston’s brutal knee injury is the one suffered by Daunte Culpepper, then of the Minnesota Vikings. As we saw last season, Culpepper was close to useless in his first season back from the injury. But bear in mind, Livingston is just 21, and young bodies heal quicker. Don’t totally discount the possibility that Livingston could return late this year.

Elton Brand – LAC [PF]: Brand ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in early August. Some players will rule Brand out entirely because he’ll miss at least the first few months of the season. But treatment of Achilles’ injuries has come a long way, and there’s every possibility that he’ll return – and be productive – soon after the All-Star break.

Steve Francis – HOU [PG,SG]: Honestly, I have trouble grouping Francis with the list of guys coming back from severe injuries. Francis’ biggest malady last year was a case of “get-me-out-of-New-York-itis.” On those rare occasions when he played, he did show glimpses of the form that earned him the “Stevie Franchise” nickname – like when he averaged 25 points, six rebounds and three assists in his last two appearances for the Knicks last April. He’s returning to the scene of his greatest successes, Houston. He has a two-year deal. The Rockets have employed the likes of Rafer Alston and Mike James at the point during the last few years, which means they aren’t likely to be insistent on having their point guard think pass-first all the time. And let’s not forget Francis is just 30 years old. The conditions seem perfect for a potential “Comeback Player of the Year” campaign.

Let someone else waste a late pick on:

Kenyon Martin – DEN [PF]: Nuggets management is saying Martin will be back for the season opener. But even if he wasn’t coming back from yet another knee injury, we’d be wary of him. The Nuggets simply have too many other options at power forward to anticipate anything worthwhile from a guy who has missed more than 100 games in the last two years.

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