First off, I'd like to congratulate myself for winning the ESPN Writers' Auction League.
No prizes -- this is a true gentleman's league -- but I did sneak out of my newborn-laden household for a celebratory adult beverage at Barney's Beanery, where I sat smiling amongst a sea of rapidly degenerating New York Rangers fans, quietly toasting my victory while watching Alexander Semin arise from the dead. A good time all around.
In a true show of the expanded fantasy joys of the auction keeper format, this was a championship team that did not feature a single top-15 player. My strategy of not overspending on one superstar, and instead going for depth, paid dividends down the stretch when several key contributors were shelved with injuries or pre-playoff shutdowns.
This was a good year to roam the waiver wire. Team Cregan benefited from a way unheralded performance by Beno Udrih, who finished 42nd on the Player Rater with a quietly efficient 13.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, and 1.2 spg, to go along with a .501 field goal percentage and an .863 free throw percentage. The second coming of J.J. Hickson (20.1 ppg and 12.1 rpg in April) and hot months from Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, Amir Johnson, Rashard Lewis, Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia, James Johnson, Jared Dudley and Richard Jefferson all figured heavily in this particular team's solid across-the-board performance.
And don't forget the historically heavy trade deadline, which dramatically reshaped about 10-15 key players' fantasy prospects, some for better (Devin Harris, Landry Fields, James Harden), some for worse (Jeff Green, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton). All in all, I think this was one of the more rewarding fantasy seasons in memory, if not the best I've covered in my many years of pseudo-sports journalism.
But the celebration is over, and we now turn the page and start to look toward next season.
(By the way, I'm going to skip the "if there is a next season" palaver, and just let you know that if the worst should strike, you're all invited over to my place for Axis and Allies. If I can put together a basinet, a toddler bed and a train table in one night, you can figure out how split several hundred million dollars.)
Before we move on to the next stage of the fantasy season -- seeing which players' fantasy draft stock will be drastically overinflated by playoff stardom -- I want to pause by way of discussing keepers for 2011-12.
In true Hardcore fashion, I'll skip the more obvious candidates (yes, that Durant guy should be solid next season) and instead focus on some deep-league and under-the-radar keepers that can quietly help anchor a winning fantasy team.
Keep in mind that when I keep a player, it's usually because he fits into my specific philosophy. This philosophy is tweaked from season to season, depending on trends in player production and categorical scarcity, but for the past couple years it's basically been ...
1. Have a 10-assists-per-game guy (Paul, Nash, Williams, Rondo)
2. Acquire as many center-eligible players as possible
3. Acquire as many multiposition-eligible players as possible, especially PG/SG and SG/SF
4. Look for out-of-position producers (3s/assists at PF/C, blocks/boards at G)
5. Place a special emphasis on the percentage categories
6. In accordance with No. 5, stay away from Dwight Howard
7. Do anything you can to stay away from pure SGs
8. Look for players with high PERs who might be line for heavier minutes
No other player received a larger post-deadline boost than Wallace, who landed in a perfect situation to perform a little career reclamation ... both in fantasy and in NBA reality. Wallace has been all over the underrated/overrated map through the years, and has seen his potential submarined by a propensity for injury (his breakneck style being the main culprit). But Wallace went vintage after landing at the Rose Garden, averaging around 16 points and 8 rebounds to go along with two steals, a block and a 3. Assuming the Blazers stand pat with their forward rotation, Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge should make for a nice fantasy tandem in 2011-12.
I'm listing Gallinari after Wallace because I harbor a similar set of hopes and fears for his fantasy prospects. I'm thinking Gallinari will eventually emerge as the Nuggets' go-to scorer, and have been especially heartened by the slight uptick in his post-trade defensive numbers (1.0 steals per game in April). My worry for Gallinari is that his high-motor style will lend itself to an array of hustle-related injuries in the near future. If he can stay healthy, Gallinari is primed for a top-40 season come Halloween.
Lee had an up-and-down 2010-11, suffering one of the freakier injuries (a bite-related infection straight out of "True Blood"), but finished strong by posting an 11.10 on the Player Rater during the final month of the season. He'll never be a shot-blocker, but will do everything else while anchoring your rebounds and percentage categories. An ideal player to round out a keeper list, Lee's the kind of player you can plug in and forget about, my favorite kind of big man.
Gasol had a season reminiscent of Lee's, an inconsistent first half followed up by a strong finish (13.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 1.3 spg, 56.7 FG% in April). Gasol's proved he can coexist with a rebounds-eater like Zach Randolph, and remains one of the most underrated players in fantasy going into 2011-12. And if you're looking for out-of-position stats, Gasol's 2.5 apg from the center spot is a nice little bonus.
Rudy Gay, SF, Grizzlies
Gay was on his way to mini-Grangerish status before a dislocated shoulder derailed a momentum-building season. But Gay was operated on by the good Dr. Andrews, which means he should be back at full strength by training camp. Twenty points, a block, a steal and a 3-pointer per game with solid percentages will make for a nice statistical base for your squad.
Wall -- top-10 on the Player Rater in April -- was as forgotten as a high-producing No. 1 draft pick could be this season, toiling on a 23-win team while putting up numbers that would have nabbed Rookie of the Year, if Blake Griffin's kneecap hadn't been displaced last summer. The percentages are still scary, but Wall improved his shot during the course of the season (.443 in April) and will probably track along a Derrick Rose type of path with his 3-point shooting next season. One stat that gets left of the Wall discussion too often: his 4.6 rebounds per game (6.0 in April).
Will Phoenix stay with the status quo, or shake things up after missing the playoffs? To me, this is one of the major fantasy storylines of the coming offseason. If the Suns elect to stick with Nash and their pace- and PER-friendly style, all three of these guys could make for nice, cheap keepers (especially in auction keeper leagues), seeing as no one probably paid too much for their services this season. If Nash is dealt, one wonders if Aaron Brooks' score-first skill set is best suited to lead the Suns' attack. Goran Dragic (and his triple-double on the final night of the regular season) just might have been a better fit.
Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
Serge Ibaka, PF/C, Oklahoma City Thunder
JaVale McGee, C, Wizards
If you have a spot to burn on a keeper list, keep in mind that it's always nice to roster a player that gives you a week-in, week-out edge in a given category, especially one as top-heavy as blocks. Hibbert, McGee and Ibaka all need to stay around 30 minutes per game (MPG) to stay out of the "specialist" column, so keep an eye on how Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka mesh in the playoffs, who the Wizards nab in the upcoming draft, and who ends up coaching the Pacers.
Dorell Wright, SF, Warriors
This would scream "contract year" if he hadn't just signed a new deal. I know the jury's still somewhat out on whether or not this was a one-season aberration for Wright, but barring large-scale personnel changes, I don't see why Wright couldn't post a nice sequel to his 2010-11 numbers. Even 80 percent of Wright's career year would make for a nice starting utility player in most leagues. And remember, it's nice to have a player whose singular presence makes you competitive in a category (3-pointers).
Jrue Holiday, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies
Kyle Lowry, PG, Houston Rockets
The three breakout PGs of 2010-11. Holiday's rise was expected, Conley's was a small but nice surprise, but Lowry's might rank as the biggest rags-to-riches fantasy success story of the season. Like the Suns, the Rockets' offseason will weigh heavily on the current Rockets' fantasy prospects. They suffer from a preponderance of pretty-good players, and some thinning and compacting of the rotation will be required for Lowry to hold onto some keeper status. Both Holiday and Conley have firm holds on their respective jobs and should both push for top-40 status next season. Holliday has more upside, but Conley's high steals-per-game average is a nice little asset from which to build a winning fantasy team.
Ty Lawson, PG, Nuggets
Jerryd Bayless, PG, Toronto Raptors
Marcus Thornton, SG, Sacramento Kings
Anthony Randolph, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves
All four of these players bear watching during the summer with regard to personnel and front-office shuffling. If any of these players enter training camp with an inside track on 30-34 MPG, put them on your "watch" list. All four are in highly unpredictable situations, but all possess considerable upside.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.