The tip-off to the NBA playoffs is always bittersweet. Sure, we'll get to see basketball played at its top level, but none of the stats being churned out each night will matter to us. That's because the fantasy season is officially over in most every league when the last second clicks off the final game played Wednesday night.
With the fantasy hoops season all but in the bag, it's time to dole out some awards for the best and worst of the 2009-10 campaign.
Most Valuable Player
You can look at statistics all day and night, and fantasy junkies like us do exactly that. But if you're really going to predict which players are going to excel over other players, you have to open your own peepers and watch them ball on the hardwood. By doing that, you'll be able to see exactly what they're good at and what they need to work on. In the case of Kevin Durant, you could see the natural smoothness of his stroke back when he was in high school. Add to that stroke a 6-foot-9 frame with the arms of a center and ball skills like a point guard and it should be no surprise to any of us that Durant filled the stat sheet in literally every category this season: 30.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.6 3s, 1.4 spg and 1.0 bpg. On top of that, he's hit 47.4 percent of his 20.4 shots per game and 89.9 percent of his 10.3 free throws.
But there's that guy LeBron James, who still managed to top those staggering numbers this season: 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.7 3s, 1.6 spg and 1.0 bpg, while hitting 50.3 percent of his 20.1 shots per game and 76.7 percent of his 10.2 free throws. The point-guard-like dimes push King James to the top, where he'll like be drafted in most leagues next season.
Winner: LeBron James
Runner-up: Kevin Durant
Defensive Player of the Year
With 40 more steals than any other player, Rajon Rondo's 2.4 steals per game put plenty of fantasy owners at the top of the charts all by himself. But it's not as impressive as defensive star Josh Smith, who is always a double threat to swipe and block balls. He averaged 1.6 steals and 2.1 blocks on the season and helped his defensive prowess by pulling down 8.7 boards. While Dwight Howard doesn't have the same versatility as J-Smoove, he averaged enough steals (0.9 this season, with months of 1.3 and 1.2) to be in the conversation -- a conversation that pretty much ends with his 2.8 blocks per game and 13.2 rebounds per game.
Winner: Dwight Howard
Runner-up: Josh Smith
Honorable mention: Rajon Rondo
Rookie of the Year
It's been an amazing season for rookie point guards. Just seven games into the campaign, Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings exploded for an historic 55-point performance against the Golden State Warriors. By mid-December, though, Jennings' fantasy star had fallen back to earth or to the waiver wire, in fantasy-folk parlance. As a starter, Darren Collison played like Chris Paul, but he spent most of the season as a backup to CP3.
Meanwhile, Sacramento Kings point guard Tyreke Evans has been one of the steadiest hands in the NBA, as he joined the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James as rookies to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Not only that, but Evans has averaged 1.6 steals per game and shot a respectable 45.6 percent from the field. However, he averaged just 0.5 triples per contest and his free throw percentage dropped after the All-Star break from 78.9 percent to 67.7 percent.
My fantasy Rookie of the Year fills nearly every category, though. It took a little while longer for Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry to get going, but he more than made up for it the past couple of months. Since the break, Curry has averaged 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 2.7 3s, and shot 47 and 88 percent from the field and line, respectively. In fact, he's been playing at or above that pace since the calendar changed to 2010. Both Evans and Curry are going to be stars for years to come, but I love the all-around fantasy game Curry brought this season.
Winner: Stephen Curry
Runner-up: Tyreke Evans
Honorable mention: Darren Collison
Personally, Devin Harris was the biggest bust for my teams -- not because this injury-prone player missed 18 games, but because it took him so long to get his game going when he was actually healthy. But I ranked him higher than most others, so he probably didn't bust as badly for you. We can look at other injury-prone guys like Greg Oden, Al Jeffferson and Andrew Bynum, but we should have expected them to be felled by injury in the first place. The same could be said about Gilbert Arenas, but let's face it: Arenas was felled by stupidity this season, not injury. For that, I give him runner-up billing as the second-biggest bust.
The biggest bust to me has to be Jose Calderon, whose assists dropped from 8.9 last season to 6.0 this season. This is a guy who went among the top handful of point guards in every experts league I played in, but eventually found himself on the waiver wire in most of those leagues.
Winner: Jose Calderon
Runner-up: Gilbert Arenas
Dishonorable mention: Devin Harris, Greg Oden
Sleeper of the Year
I have an open man-crush on Russell Westbrook, but his shaky shot selection has kept him from maxing out his fantasy value. Brook Lopez is right in the discussion, considering his consistency all season long. It's also no secret that I love Stephen Curry, but he didn't turn the fantasy jets on until midseason. David Lee, though, has been a steady monster this entire campaign, so he gets the nod as the top sleeper. Nobody should have been sleeping on his rebounding abilities. And averaging more than 20 points per game wasn't a reach, since we knew he'd get more shots this season. But what really surprised me was his ability to rack up dimes. Lee is averaging 3.6 assists on the season, 3.9 since the All-Star break, and he averaged 4.7 dimes in 15 January games. It will be interesting to see where this free agent ends up next season and who is on his team. Regardless, he likely won't have this kind of offensive freedom again, so this may be his max fantasy season.
Winner: David Lee
Runner-up: Stephen Curry
Honorable mention: Brook Lopez, Russell Westbrook
Comeback Player of the Year
Both Monta Ellis and Manu Ginobili missed a large chunk of last season due to injuries, and both stormed back with big fantasy seasons. The only catch is that Ellis still missed 18 games, and Ginobili didn't exceed his usual value. If Ellis had played nearly a full season, he'd be the no-brainer winner, and if Ginobili had exceeded his typical production, I might give it to him. But Zach Randolph came back from something much bigger than physical injury. He came back from the abyss. This is a guy who couldn't cut it with the hapless New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers and was dealt to the NBA's version of the North Pole: Memphis. How did he respond? After missing 32 games last season, Z-Bo has missed one game and posted fantastic stats all season: 20.8 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.0 spg, .488 field goal percentage and .780 free throw percentage.
Winner: Zach Randolph
Runner-up: Monta Ellis
Honorable mention: Manu Ginobili
Most Underrated Player
Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani were on nearly all of my teams this season, because I love their diverse fantasy games. Both had great seasons, but they're both still flying a bit under the radar. Neither player has a particular stat that jumps out at you, but any player who produces across the board is a player I want.
Bargnani averaged 17.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 3s, 1.4 blocks, and shot 46.8 percent from the field and 77.0 from the line, while Gay averaged 19.5 points, 5.9 boards, 1.9 assists, 0.8 3s, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, and shot .467 from the floor and .752 from the stripe. Bargnani's production in 3s and blocks is comparable to Gay's production in 3s, steals and blocks, so I'll call it a tie. Gay's a restricted free agent, while Bargnani's teammate Chris Bosh is an unrestricted free agent, so the overall value of both players could change dramatically this offseason. But I'm sure I'll be eyeing both of them next season, regardless.
Co-winners: Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani
Most Overrated Player
When Kevin Martin was averaging 24.6 points, 2.3 treys and banging 86.7 percent of his 10.3 free throw attempts a couple of seasons back, it was a lot easier to forgive his 42 percent field goal percentage and his low assist production (2.7 per game). But now that that other production is down and he has become an injury liability, his overall value has dropped enough that he can't be that overrated. Carlos Boozer is a really solid fantasy player, but I still think he's overrated in most people's eyes. Any big man who averages only 0.5 blocks per game has a big knock against him. That, and his shaky free throw percentage (.744 this season, .728 career), is enough to keep him out of the top tier or two of big men, in my opinion.
Derrick Rose is similar. I love watching him move on the court; he's an amazing athlete. But he can't join the next tier of point guards until he can hit 3s (0.2 per game) and play defense (0.7 steals per game). He still has plenty of fantasy value, but many people (myself included) took him too early in drafts this season. I don't intend to make the same mistake twice, and neither should you.
Winner: Derrick Rose
Runner-up: Carlos Boozer
Best Stat Line
We may remember Brandon Jennings' 55-point, 7-triple performance from Nov. 14 the longest, but he didn't do much else that night. Kevin Durant has been churning out monster lines almost nightly this month, though shaky 13-of-29 shooting is the only thing keeping his April 6 performance (45 points, 7 boards, 4 assists, 7 3-pointers, 2 steals, 2 blocks and 12-12 FTs) out of this discussion. Stephen Curry had two of the biggest nights this season: Feb. 10 (36 points, 7-8 FT, 7 3-pointers, 13 assists, 10 boards and 3 steals) and April 7 (27 points, 12-22 FG, 3 3-pointers, 14 assists, 8 rebounds and 7 steals). But it's the King, LeBron James, who had the game of games on Feb. 6 in Madison Square Garden: 47 points, 17-31 FG, 7-7 FT, 6 3-pointers, 8 assists, 8 boards and 5 steals.
Winner: LeBron James (Feb. 6)
Runner-up: Stephen Curry (Feb. 10)
Honorable mention: Stephen Curry (April 7)
Waiver Pickup of the Year
Andray Blatche is a perfect example of why we fantasy junkies monitor news stories 24/7 as the trade deadline approaches. Good fantasy owners snatched Blatche off waivers the second they heard the Washington Wizards traded fellow big man Antawn Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but great fantasy owners already added him a week or two before once Jamison trade rumors started popping up. Blatche has exploded as a starter, averaging 20.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks in 35 games this season. With scoring, rebounding and assist totals reminiscent of Chris Webber, Blatche has been a fantasy stud since the All-Star break.
But once New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul went down, Darren Collison posted stats that are nearly identical to CP3's, the consensus top-two pick last fall. In 36 games as a starter this season, Collison has averaged 18.6 points, 9.0 dimes, 3.6 boards, 1.4 steals, 0.9 triples, while shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 85.0 percent from the charity stripe. I give Collison the edge over Blatche, because a point guard who can shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 84 percent from the line since the All-Star break is something truly special.
My favorite fantasy players to watch
It doesn't matter whether I'm watching them on the hardwood or simply watching their superstar stats pour in each night, this would be my favorite starting lineup to eye:
G Chris Paul
G Stephen Curry
F Kevin Durant
F Josh Smith
C Amar'e Stoudemire
My Top 5 for 2010-11
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Stephen Curry
4. Chris Paul
5. Dwayne Wade
If I were drafting a team today under the assumption that rosters and coaches wouldn't change, that's how my top five would look. With LeBron and Wade free agents, CP3 duplicate Collison currently on the same team, and concerns that fantasy king-maker Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson might retire, that's a lot to assume. But if Nellie returns, and factoring in how prone to injury CP3 and Wade have become, I would take Curry third overall. He's really that good.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.