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1. LeBron James - CLE [SF]
James remains the most physically gifted player in the NBA. He’s a legitimate threat to score 50 points or produce a triple-double on any given night. There’s nothing that James can’t do on the basketball court, which means that he can (and does) fill every stat on the fantasy sheet as well as anyone. James did show two chinks in the armor last season, though. First, he continued his alarming regression at the free throw line (69.8 percent), which is a problem considering that he gets to the line a lot. Secondly, James appeared to coast through parts of last season in apparent deference to postseason goals. James on cruise control is still one of the top players in the NBA, but there was always the feeling that he could do more if he really put the hammer down. This situation makes him both an intriguing potential top draft pick (he still, amazingly, has upside) and also a risky one (coming off an NBA Finals run and another offseason with USA Basketball, James could enter the season more fatigued than he was last year).
2. Shawn Marion - PHX [SF,PF]
Marion had a bit of a down year by his standards, but even so he continued his reign at the top of many fantasy rating systems. With the return of Amare Stoudemire and the rise of Leandro Barbosa, Marion’s scoring dropped more than four points per game (17.5 ppg) and his boards dipped by more than two (9.8 rpg). His scoring numbers could continue to be lower this season with the addition of Grant Hill, but if Hill’s addition pushes Marion to more time at power forward, Marion’s boards should get back into double figures. Marion is the rare player that contributes in every category, with a five-year streak of at least 4.5 combined steals, blocks, and three-pointers (and at least one averaged in each category) to go along with his good scoring, rebounding and shooting percentages. He also never gets hurt, having missed no more than three games in any season this millennium. There’s no reason not to expect to see Marion near the top of the fantasy rankings again this season.
3. Josh Smith - ATL [SF,PF]
Smith continued his rise up the roto rankings lists last season, setting new career marks in all five counting categories (16.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.9 bpg, 1.4 spg). He’s one of the best shot blockers in the NBA, and getting those kinds of blocks from a swingman is valuable indeed. He’s still only 21 years old, and it is possible that his numbers could soon rival Shawn Marion’s in terms of across-the-board contribution. It will be interesting to see how the Hawks apportion minutes between Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Shelden Williams and Al Horford. However, Smith is likely to see 35-plus minutes per game regardless of who else is on the floor with him. Smith’s only weakness is his free throw shooting – at around 70 percent, he’s a moderate liability for a swing player.
4. Paul Pierce - BOS [SG,SF]
Pierce has performed a solo act in Boston for the past few years, but he just received a boatload of help with the Celtics’ offseason acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Pierce has never played with teammates even remotely this talented, but that poses a risk for his fantasy output if those teammates diminish his numbers. The beauty of the situation, though, is that while Garnett and Allen are both big scorers, the rest of the Celtics’ roster is full of role players that don’t really need the ball. This is a best of both worlds scenario, in which the Celtics’ Big Three should prevent opposing defenses from being able to focus on any one of them while the lack of supporting scorers guarantees that the Big Three will get as many shots as they want. Pierce may not average the 26 points per game that he has produced during the last two seasons, but he should still be a strong scorer, and his shooting percentages and assists could go up as well.
5. Caron Butler - WAS [SF]
Butler was in the midst of a career year before breaking a bone in his right hand. Butler set new career highs in points (19.1 ppg), rebounds (7.4 rpg), assists (3.7 apg), steals (2.1 spg) and field goal percentage (46.3 percent) on his way to becoming a first time NBA All-Star. Butler also shot 86 percent from the line, making him valuable in virtually every category except blocks and threes (just 18 threes on the year after 41 in 2005-06). Butler’s hand should be fine to start the season, and with his prominent role in a wide open Wizards’ offense, he should continue to put up great numbers across the board.
6. Rashard Lewis - ORL [SF]
Lewis won the offseason bonanza with a huge contract from the Magic to be the co-star next to Dwight Howard. Whereas Lewis has played that role before next to Ray Allen in Seattle, this is the first time that he’ll play next to another star whose game doesn’t replicate Lewis’ own perimeter scoring. Since Howard’s strengths are rebounding and interior presence on offense and defense, Lewis should be the primary go-to scorer with his new team. During each of the last three years in Seattle, Lewis has averaged 20-plus points and 1.8-plus three-pointers on greater than 46 percent shooting from the field. If Howard can open up space for Lewis by drawing opposing defenses into the post, those numbers could improve in Orlando.
7. Gerald Wallace - CHA [SF,PF]
Wallace followed up his breakout 2005-06 campaign with another strong effort last season, but injuries to his head and shoulder caused him to miss 10 games and play several others at less than full speed. The after-effects showed up mainly in his defensive numbers, where he only posted a still respectable 3.0 combined blocks and steals per game instead of the ridiculous 4.6 blocks and steals he averaged the year before. Despite the injuries, Wallace had the best offensive season of his career with new personal highs in points (18.1 ppg), assists (2.6 apg), and free throw percentage (69.1 percent) to go along with strong 50.2 percent shooting from the field and 7.2 rebounds per game. Wallace also has a new running mate in Jason Richardson, which should allow Wallace to have a bit more space to operate. As always, if he can stay healthy, Wallace should be one of the better roto options in the league…but that remains a big ‘if’.
8. Luol Deng - CHI [SF]
Deng burst onto the scene last season, posting across-the-board career highs on his way to making himself the de facto franchise player for the Bulls. He has an excellent mid-range game and also uses his 6-9, 220-pound frame to score around the rim (18.8 ppg) and grab rebounds (7.1 rpg). Deng’s rise to prominence corresponded with the Andres Nocioni’s absence (due to injury). With Nocioni back this season, it’s possible that Deng could have more competition for playing time. On the other hand, the Bulls have only three true scorers (Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich) to go with their offensively-challenged front line, which means that Deng is likely to solidify himself as an elite scoring option this season.
9. Carmelo Anthony - DEN [SF]
Anthony posted career highs in all three of the major categories last season (28.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.8 apg) on his way to becoming one of the leading scorers in the NBA. But it should be noted that his output went down after the Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson. Anthony was averaging well better than 30.0 ppg before Iverson arrived, but ‘Melo had to defer with another dominant scorer on the court. Since so much of Anthony’s value is tied to his scoring ability, this is enough of an issue to bump him down from borderline-elite fantasy producer to just “very good.” Anthony is still worthy of a high round draft pick, but keep in mind that his name recognition might get him drafted a bit earlier in some leagues than his post-Iverson production merits.
10. Kevin Durant - SEA [SG,SF]
Durant enters the NBA off of one of the most impressive individual seasons in college basketball history. With his talent and situation, he’s a safe bet to lead all rookies in scoring and probably the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. That’s because the Sonics have lost both of their leading scorers from last season (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and plan to build their entire team and offense around Durant. Durant is a tall and long with excellent range on his jumper and the ball-handling ability of a guard. He was also one of the NCAA leaders in rebounds last season as a freshman and produced 3.8 combined steals and blocks on the year as well. The only knock on Durant is that he needs to get physically stronger to be able to handle NBA forwards. However, if he plays most of his minutes at the three, that will be less of a problem. Long term, he probably projects as a power forward, with his height and length.
11. Josh Howard - DAL [SF]
Howard posted career highs in scoring (18.9 ppg), rebounds (6.8 rpg), three-pointers made (1.3 tpg), free throw percentage (82.7 percent) and blocked shots (0.8 bpg) on his way to becoming one of the better all-around roto options in the league. He was also named to his first All-Star team, and often getting accolades from the league helps young players have the confidence to reach even higher levels moving forward. The only negative mark for Howard is that he continues to have trouble with injuries, missing 12 games last season after missing 32 the year before that. Other than that, Howard remains on the brink of the fantasy upper crust.
12. Mike Miller - MEM [SF]
Miller exploded into the fantasy elite last season, surprising many with his career-high per game averages of 18.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.9 treys. Miller has always been a good outside shooter, role player type, but he knocked down a full three-pointer per game more than his career high last year and showed that he has the ability to help carry the scoring load for a team. Miller is a natural small forward, but impressive second year player Rudy Gay also is a natural small forward, which means that each will likely spend some time in the backcourt this season. Either way, Miller should continue to have the green light to knock down treys this year, especially if rookie point guard Mike Conley Jr. is able to break down defenses and get Miller more open shots.
13. Ron Artest - SAC [SF]
Artest produced his typical strong numbers last season and played in 70 games for the first time in three years. Artest is still the most physical small forward in the NBA, able to overpower many of his opponents down low for easy buckets and rebounds. He also uses his strength and quickness on defense, where he produced 2.1 steals per game last season. There are rumors that he could be traded this offseason, possibly to New York, where his offensive numbers could go down a bit. But if he remains in Sacramento where his role is established, he should continue to produce good numbers for as long as his attitude and actions allow him to remain on the court.
14. Danny Granger - IND [SF]
Granger is a promising third year forward for the Pacers, but it remains to be seen whether he has the talent to make the leap to an impact player or remain an athletic role player who contributes in spurts. Granger is a large small forward at 6-9 and almost 230 pounds, and he uses that size to his advantage with a nice mid-range-and-in game on offense. He also added three-point range last season (1.3 treys per game). If he continues to improve in that department, he will be a much more marketable fantasy player. For his size and reputation as a solid defender, one would expect better rebounding (4.7 rpg) and steal/block numbers (1.5 combined/game). Also, if Jermaine O’Neal is traded during this offseason and the team fails to get another impact forward in return, Granger’s potential output would increase significantly.
15. Andrei Kirilenko - UTA [SF]
Kirilenko was one of the most disappointing fantasy players in the NBA last season. Moreover, his struggles appear to be due to playing small forward full time last season, something that’s not going to change any time soon with Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur firmly entrenched as the team’s productive big men. Kirilenko also appears to have lost a step, which makes the long 6-9 forward even more suited to be a quick four than a slow three. The emergence of second year player Paul Millsap as a fierce rebounder and solid defender leaves almost no opportunity for Kirilenko to play close to the basket. As a result, he’s stuck on the perimeter, which limits his shot-blocking and rebounding potential. He’s also forced away from the paint on offense, forcing him to rely on a somewhat shaky jumper. And he is now, at best, the fourth option on offense, which takes away his opportunities to create assists or scoring opportunities for himself off the dribble. In short, despite his big name and memories of when he was one of the most valuable fantasy producers in the NBA, Kirilenko merits just a middle round pick in most formats.