You may remember the 2000 movie "Gone in 60 Seconds," about a car thief who has to steal 50 cars in one night to save his brother's life. The star of the film, Nicolas Cage, had 49 in the bag before he ended up in a crazy car chase to swipe the last and finest car, a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500 named "Eleanor." This wasn't exactly a masterpiece of film, but it was a pulse-pounding thriller from beginning to end, very much like how the 2011-12 NBA season appears poised to roll.
In a typical 82-game season, I have always preached patience early. Specifically, I have recommended that fantasy hoops owners wait a full three or four weeks before reacting to the current season's stats or player production, because it takes a little while for teams to settle into their rotations and for players to settle into their roles. The trouble during this abbreviated 66-game NBA season is that we lost that month to be patient when nearly 20 percent of the season was canceled.
Now we are in a 66-game sprint to the late-April finish line, so there is no time for patience when we are trying to commit Grand Theft Roto by stealing quality players from our opposing owners. Next week, I'll break down some trade techniques and philosophies. Due to the compressed timeline, though, I'll cut to the proverbial chase this week and take a look at players to target like Cage's "Eleanor" before this season is gone in 66 games.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: In nearly every industry draft in which I took part, Kevin Love was drafted no later than the middle of the first round and Griffin went in the middle or end of the second round (at least in drafts where I didn't take Griffin in the middle of the first round). I understand why people are hyped about Love; who wouldn't love a scorer who can rebound at a historic pace while banging down some treys? But why wasn't Griffin getting the same love? Granted, Griffin doesn't shoot 3s like Love and he takes a tremendous number of free throws (8.5 last season), hitting a poor percentage of them (64.2 percent last season). However, as a rookie on a bad team with no point guard to speak of, Griffin outdid Love last season by 2.3 points, 1.3 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.2 blocks per game, and 3.6 percent from the field. Now Griffin is in his second campaign and has Chris Paul feeding him the ball, so why shouldn't we expect Griff to continue outperforming Love in a number of categories? If you trade for Griffin, you'll have to counter his free throws, but the rest of his upside is unlimited. Go get him before he gets comfortable with CP3 and fully explodes.
John Wall, Washington Wizards: The top pick in the 2010 draft has been kind enough to play relatively terribly early this season, which means his trade value is low. He has yet to nail a 3-pointer in five games, has been thoroughly inconsistent as a scorer (13, 20, 6, 19, 11 points) and is averaging just 31.8 percent from the field. Don't focus on his short-term flop. Focus on some of his splits from last season that display his upside: 10.5 dimes in 16 January games, 18.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.9 spg and 78.7 FG% on 7.0 FTA in 27 post-All-Star break games. You may have to overcome a high turnover rate and a field goal percentage in the low 40s, but the rest of his upside is so tremendous, it's worth buying low on him now.
Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers: The risk in having an injury-prone Bynum on your roster in a season where NBA players are taking part in four or five games per week, instead of the typical three or four games per week, is obvious. In fact, it's about as obvious as Bynum's fantasy upside. Bynum is just 24 years old and averaged a double-double for 35 games four seasons ago and 2.0 blocks in 54 games last season. We can see his complete upside by viewing some splits. Bynum averaged 13.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while hitting 64.6 percent of his shots in 11 March games last season. Two seasons ago, when Bynum averaged 35 minutes in a dozen November games, he cranked out 18 points, 10 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 57.2 percent from the field. Now Lamar Odom and coach Phil Jackson are gone, while Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are dinged up and in their 30s. It's time for a changing of the guard on the Lakers, so all Bynum needs to do is stay on the court and he can finish as an elite fantasy center. We can't ignore the fact that he hasn't topped 65 games since his 82-game 2006-07 campaign, but I see it as a now-or-never scenario for Bynum, and his upside has me taking the risk on "now."
Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls: I'm always wary of players whose fantasy value is tied directly to having a big role on offense. Shawn Marion is a perfect example. He was a fantasy stud with the Phoenix Suns because he played upwards of 40 minutes per game and was a favorite of Steve Nash on fast breaks. When he joined the Miami Heat and other teams, his minutes and shots per game dipped and he quickly became an ordinary player. Deng is in a similar situation because he would be an ordinary player if he wasn't playing upwards of 40 minutes and taking 14 shots per game. However, with the current Bulls rotation, Deng has no competition for minutes or touches, so there's little reason to think he won't match last season's production. Since that includes some production in every category, he makes for a solid player to target in trade proposals to round out your roster.
Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets: It's no secret that Gallinari is a 3-point threat, which is the main reason fantasy folks see him as a nice sleeper. What may be lost on the typical fantasy owner, though, is what else Gallinari offers statistically. At 6-foot-10, he has the ability to average five or six rebounds per game, which is a solid number for a small forward. In fact, he ranked sixth among NBA small forwards last season when he averaged 4.9 rpg. You may also be surprised that a 3-point shooter like Gallinari also is a volume free throw shooter. Only a dozen players averaged more free throw attempts than Gallinari last season (6.3 per game), and he drained 86.2 percent of them. Now he's expected to be an integral part of the Nugs offense, so he should see even more free throw attempts. He's just 23 years old, but once he settles in and gets comfortable as a pro, we should see his field goal percentage (42 percent over his three-year career) rise to a respectable level. If he can get it up to 45-46 percent, he could easily average more than 18 points, two 3-pointers and five rebounds, and be among the league leaders in free throws.
Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons: You can't look at Monroe's rookie averages and get excited, and there's nothing sexy about his block totals (or lack thereof: 0.6 bpg as a rookie). However, it's only a matter of when -- not if -- Monroe will average 15 ppg and 10 rpg with terrific percentages. In 25 games after the All-Star break last season, Monroe averaged 13.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 0.8 bpg, 58.0 FG% and 71.0 FT%. He did that despite playing just 33 minutes per game and taking just 9.5 shots per game. New coach Lawrence Frank has promised to run much of the offense through Monroe, so there's little doubt that he will match, and likely exceed, that production this season.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.