Key Losses: None
Projected Starting Lineup
Let's be honest, the Dallas Mavericks are a pretty boring fantasy team. A team with realistic championship aspirations year after year isn't going to rehaul its core every season, and the only six players with any fantasy value for this team all have clearly-defined roles. The Mavericks won a franchise-record 67 games in the regular season, and though they lost in the first round, it was wise to stand pat. Josh Howard broke out last season but also has been steadily improving since his rookie season, so it wasn't too surprising. The performances of the other core Mavericks was as expected, and as you can see from the lack of roster movement, almost nothing has changed. For better or for worse, this will be essentially the same team as last season.
The only difference from 2006-07 will be the role of Devin Harris. Harris recently was signed to a five-year extension, and he should finally start and receive starter's minutes. He should have no problem in the new role, and it's easy to argue it's a long overdue move, but with the luxury of patience the Mavericks took their time developing Harris. He won't be an elite fantasy point guard, but he'll be a good No. 2 or No. 3 and can grow into Tony Parker-lite with more steals. That will push Jason Terry to shooting guard more often, which will hurt his assists some. Terry did play at shooting guard more often than point last season, but averaged 6.7 assists per 48 minutes compared to 7.8 assists per 48 minutes at the point. These are negligible differences, though; the prevailing point is that what you see is what you expect, and, barring injuries, there should be few, if any, surprises for the Mavericks.
Key Loss: Juwan Howard
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleeper: Luis Scola
Scola is the odds-on favorite to start for the Rockets, which by default makes him a name to watch. A second-round draft pick by the Spurs in 2002, things didn't work out with San Antonio due to buyout issues with his Spanish team, Tau Ceramica. Scola was the star of the team and, at age 27, has long been NBA-ready. Scola is unselfish, hard-working and passes well for a big man. He never put up big block totals in the Euroleague, but should be well above average for a big man in steals. Chuck Hayes and even Shane Battier, who played 16 percent of the Rockets' minutes at power forward last season, will take time away from Scola, so don't expect great things. But for a late-rounder, maybe even free-agent claim, Scola has the opportunity and has demonstrated enough skill to be a valuable fantasy backup who might grow into more.
Bust: Steve Francis
Anyone expecting even a hint of the Francis of old will be disappointed. The Rockets are simply loaded at point guard, but loaded is relative; the three players in question -- Francis, Mike James and Rafer Alston, are all limited mediocrities of some sort. The truth of the matter is that not only will all three steal minutes from each other, but Luther Head will take minutes, too. With Tracy McGrady, the Rockets don't truly need a prototypical point guard -- not that any of the trio in question is that anyway -- so many times, the Rockets will have McGrady handle the ball with Head on the court for much-needed outside shooting. Head shot a whopping 44.1 percent from beyond the arc last season, and, along with Battier, are the only Rockets who can make teams pay for doubling Yao Ming or T-Mac himself. The whole point guard situation is one to avoid.
The Rockets quietly have title hopes this season, and the truth is, such hopes aren't that unreasonable. With two of the very best players in the NBA in Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, by default they are already in the playoffs, barring injury. And though it took a while, it seems management finally has built a capable supporting cast surrounding them. The team did win 52 games last season with Yao missing 34 games, and Scola represents an upgrade over Juwan Howard. With a mostly static group of core players, though, the fantasy potential of the team is found in the margins.
Only two positions, fantasy-wise, are in question, as Yao, T-Mac and Shane Battier will unquestionably log heavy minutes at center, shooting guard and small forward, respectively. The aforementioned Scola is a decent bet to carve out a niche on the Rockets and see about 30 minutes per game, but his advanced age and the presence of Chuck Hayes (22 minutes per game last season) limits his impact somewhat. In shallow leagues, he'll have fringe value, but in 12-team leagues or deeper Scola is a smart and relatively safe pick for a late-round player. The other position in flux is point guard, and it speaks to the situation that last year's starter, Rafer Alston, logged over 37 minutes per game yet is buried third on the depth chart. That leaves Steve Francis and Mike James, but both are the type of point guards you'd do well to avoid: low field-goal percentage, low 3's and low steals with little potential to even approach Alston's 37 minutes of last season. Players like Bonzi Wells, Head, Francis and James only have intrigue when injuries strike, but the Rockets have a few individual players who are significant injury risks. As is often the case with the best real-life NBA teams, the roster should be stable, which is unfortunately fairly boring from a fantasy perspective.
Key Loss: Chucky Atkins
Key Additions: Darko Milicic, Mike Conley
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleeper: Darko Milicic
If a team finally commits to him, Darko fans say … and now, finally, it looks like as if we finally have a winner. After four seasons in the NBA, the Grizzlies will be that team after signing him to a three-year, $21 million deal. Still just 22 years old, Darko is, of course, still bubbling with potential. (And he might be the only non-starter in the NBA who is referred to on a first-name basis.) At the very least, Darko has demonstrated one skill: a superb ability to block shots. After blocking an average of more than two shots per game after joining the Magic in the midseason in 2005-06, Darko averaged 1.8 blocks in about 24 minutes per game last season. The Magic did not give much offensive attention to their big men -- even Dwight Howard averaged just 10.7 shots a game -- so opportunity should not be in question in Memphis. Darko is actually playing next to actual talent, too, with Pau Gasol and Mike Miller established veterans, and Rudy Gay and Mike Conley also brimming with potential. Like almost all young big men, Milicic has a problem with fouls, but given even 30 minutes per game, Darko is a lock to at least return his draft day value from his blocks alone, and a player with his talent cannot yet be written off.
Bust: Rudy Gay
The draft reports on Gay were accurate: He is quite a raw player. Gay came off the bench for the beginning of last season, but when it was determined the season was lost, Gay became the starter and ended up starting 43 games. And while the potential was obvious for the 21-year-old, the production was not. Gay's performance is most easily illustrated by his post All-Star break numbers: 34-plus minutes per game, 41.2 percent from the field, 1.9 assists to 2.8 turnovers. Down the line Gay is going to be quite the fantasy monster as he gains a jump shot and harnesses his defensive ability, but Gay would need to improve substantially during the course of one season to become even a serviceable fantasy asset. And with the Grizzlies more talented this season, and a presumably healthy Pau Gasol, Gay might see the same type of starter's minutes from the get-go this season, but his role in the offense will be hampered. Wait until next year; you're paying for potential this year, not performance.
Although the Grizzlies were miserable last season, losing 60 games, even the staunchest pessimist can find plenty to like about this year's edition of the team. While too young and raw to compete for a playoff spot, every starting position could turn into a fantasy hot spot. Gasol is a proven stud, of course, and if you are doubting the validity of Miller's career year, don't -- the man is for real. That gives the team two stable building blocks, and the signing of Milicic was a wise gamble for a rebuilding team. If they succeed, the Grizzlies have the requisite size to compete in the West, and give themselves a defensive shot-blocking presence to boot. The fact that there is a legitimate reason to watch the growth of the Grizzlies is already an improvement over last season's debacle.
It will take a couple of months to see the growth of the players, as the keys to the franchise -- Gay, Milicic and Conley -- are all extremely young and rather large question marks. Damon Stoudamire is the requisite placeholder for Conley, but it wouldn't be too surprising to see Conley change that quickly. Conley might have the most potential of any Grizzly, and could prove himself a phenom a la Chris Paul and Deron Williams. His outside shot needs work, but he averaged 2.2 steals in 31.6 minutes last season at Ohio State as a freshman and should already be capable of running an effective NBA offense. The downside is that while the roster is intriguing, it's also rather boom-or-bust; Darko will either be great or just serviceable, and Gay will either blossom this season or be a year away (or more). The talent, if demonstrated, will play, but the risk is placing faith in the players a year too soon.
Projected Starting Lineup
Sleeper: Peja Stojakovic
Stojakovic is a 30-year-old one-dimensional player who missed all but 13 games last season and had his career season four years ago. But he's a sleeper for one simple reason: Injuries can't take away a jump shot. While back injuries are always dicey, Stojakovic reportedly has worked hard to return from injury and is ready to go. With as much as the Hornets have invested in him -- he has more than $54 million due to him through 2010-11 -- a healthy Stojakovic is guaranteed minutes and a substantial role on the team. At his best, Peja is a beast in four categories – field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, 3-pointers and points -- and though he's not above-average in any other category, unlike other one-dimensional players, he at least doesn't kill you in a category, either. With talent around him -- David West is a legitimate big man, Chris Paul is one of the premier playmakers and Tyson Chandler is a monster on the glass -- Stojakovic isn't the focal point of defenses, either, which means he won't ever have to face double teams or have to create his own shot too often. Peja will likely never be the Peja of old, but that's the beauty -- for the discount you can get him at, he can be 70 or 80 percent of his prime and still add a lot to your team.
Bust: Morris Peterson
Peterson is a decent, versatile swingman to have around as a sixth man for about 28 minutes per game, but as a starter he is overextended and limited. Fantasy-wise, all he essentially does is hit 3's, needing heavy amounts of minutes to make up for his deficiencies in every other category. Guards with a low field-goal percentage who hit a decent amount of 3-pointers are a dime a dozen, and you can find cheaper ones who haven't exhausted all of their potential. Peterson isn't likely to log 35-plus minutes, with Rasual Butler, Jannero Pargo and Bobby Jackson around to steal minutes, and more realistically was signed as a solid defensive player who can hit an open shot and to serve more as insurance for Stojakovic since Peterson can also play small forward. Since I'm high on Peja, I'm obviously going to be less optimistic about Peterson.
The Hornets had relatively high hopes last season, adding Stojakovic and Chandler to the surprisingly competitive 2005-06 team, but injuries to almost everyone destroyed that dream. Their three best players, Paul, West and Stojakovic, all missed substantial time, which meant players like Devin Brown, Pargo and Desmond Mason were all overextended. In fantasy basketball, a ton of minutes almost always means some type of value, and Brown, Pargo and Mason all had their moments last season, but they are bench players for a reason. On the bright side, Chandler blossomed into the consistent defensive and rebounding threat he hinted at in Chicago, and finally solved his foul problems well enough to log heavy minutes.
The core of Paul, West and Chandler is a strong one, and all are great fantasy options with little to no risk attached to them. If Peja can make a full comeback and play 33-35 minutes, things look pretty decent for the team, but the Hornets have a disconcerting lack of depth. Their best depth is in the frontcourt, with Melvin Ely and Hilton Armstrong serving as fine backups, but with Chandler and West, they really won't have much use for the backups barring injury. At shooting guard, the Hornets are weak, with an aging Peterson starting, and Butler or Pargo instantly becoming one of the worst starters in the NBA if ever thrusted into the role. With only Marcus Vinicius, he of 13 games played last season, behind Peja at small forward, the team is thinnest at their biggest question mark. That puts a ton of pressure on Peja, and though I have faith in him, putting all your eggs in one basket is an unreliable course of action. Stojakovic is a fine gamble in the middle rounds, but there simply aren't any hidden gems to be found on this roster if injuries strike.
Key Losses: None
Projected Starting Lineup
Widely considered to be the most boring team in basketball, and maybe professional sports, the Spurs are also not terribly sexy in the fantasy world, either. For the defending NBA champions, the regular season is merely the Spurs pacing themselves, making sure all of their players are ready for the playoffs. No team has more clearly defined roles than the Spurs, and because of that there is little difference between perception and reality. Everyone knows Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are the only three players worth mentioning unless you are in the deepest of leagues. And even though Ginobili might be the second-best player on the team, he has yet to average more than 30 minutes a game and usually comes off the bench simply because the Spurs can afford to pace the notoriously reckless Ginobili. With established track records from each of the big 3, and almost no change in roster from last season to this season, what you see is what you get, with little variation.
If a player were to break this mold and become the fourth fantasy factor, it would be Fabricio Oberto. Oberto brings non-stop energy and is definitely a better player than Francisco Elson; on a worse team, Oberto likely would garner more minutes. In the playoffs, Oberto demonstrated his value while earning more playing time, but though it was just his second season in the NBA in '06-07, he is already 32 years old after an established career in Europe. With coach Gregg Popovich employing a 10-man rotation, it would take a litany of injuries for anyone outside of the big 3 to sustain any value. The one danger to the Spurs' title hopes is that they employ an old roster; nine players are 30 or older. But this is an annual title contender that is as stagnant fantasy-wise as they come.