Ibaka gets more involved on offense
Lost amid the hype surrounding James Harden's dazzling debut for the Houston Rockets is the fact that his absence opens up increased opportunities for Serge Ibaka as an offensive option for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ibaka demonstrated subtle offensive improvements last season that went largely unnoticed, as he increased his attempts and accuracy between 16 and 23 feet, hitting 46 percent of his shots from that range. With the increased opportunity and improving ability, Ibaka is becoming more of an offensive asset, as he demonstrated in Thursday's win against the Chicago Bulls, dropping 21 points with nine rebounds, four blocks, a steal and one pretty corner 3-pointer he hit with confidence. He's averaging 12.6 points compared to last season's 9.1 points and is poised to expand his fantasy reputation beyond being a one-trick pony in the blocks department. Those who drafted him might be frustrated that he hasn't already provided swat totals quite as dominant as last season, but those will come, and owners should be happy that he will deliver more well-rounded stats and perhaps even help a bit from the offensive end given his excellent field goal percentage and ability to drain the occasional 3.
Jamal Crawford scored 25 points with minimal contributions elsewhere, continuing his hot start on the offensive end. I've never been a huge fan of Crawford in a fantasy sense due to his lack of peripheral stats, but he has been successful this season partly because he doesn't have to play point guard (Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe are handling those duties), so he can instead focus on providing scoring punch off the bench. Crawford should be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, and while he'll likely flash some inconsistency in the bench role, he is primed to provide fantasy owners with points and 3s, and has been one of the pleasant early surprises of this season.
Caron Butler struggled Thursday, scoring just two points, but has looked solid so far and is worth a look in deeper formats. Coming off an injury-plagued 2010-2011 season, Butler struggled to adjust in his first year as a Clipper, averaging just 40.7 percent from the field, the second-lowest mark of his career, and 0.8 steals, the only time in his career he's been under 1.0. The biggest culprit for his plunge in field goal percentage was shooting 39.0 percent on long 2s between 16 and 23 feet after averaging 45 and 48 percent in the previous two seasons. During his prime years in Washington, he averaged more than 20 points, six boards, four assists and two steals per game. Although he's not going to replicate that, he still has the potential to put up fantasy value now that he is one year removed from major injury and more comfortable with his team.
Although he scored just six points, Joakim Noah once again shone on the defensive end, snaring 13 boards with six assists, a steal and a block. He has at least one steal and one block in all but one of the Bulls' contests, and is averaging 2.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game thus far. He was largely healthy last season, and if he can remain that way this season, he is primed to be a defensive cornerstone for fantasy teams, providing fabulous rebound/steal/block numbers.
Luol Deng scored 27 points with three 3s, a steal and a block in 42 minutes, and he is averaging 18.0 points per game, compared to last season's mark of 15.3. Tom Thibodeau gives Deng tons of PT, and with Derrick Rose sidelined until around the All-Star break, Deng's offensive numbers should continue to swell as he shoulders the scoring load for the Bulls.
Despite their lack of shot-blocking ability up front, don't be surprised if Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries swat a shot or two, as facing Glen Davis provides more opportunities to do so than facing any other player in the league. Shawn Marion will miss another game with a knee injury, opening up opportunities for Jae Crowder and Elton Brand to see more run than usual against the New York Knicks. It's unclear if Anthony Davis will be cleared to return from his concussion against the Charlotte Bobcats, although Austin Rivers should be ready to go. Rivers shouldn't be starting in anything but the deepest of leagues, but pay close attention to Davis' status leading up to game time, as you'll want him in your lineup if he's given the green light. Another big whose status is unclear is Anderson Varejao, who is day-to-day with a bruised knee. He's averaging 15 rebounds per game so far, so like Davis you'll want to get him in your lineup if it's looking like he'll play, and expect increased production from Tristan Thompson if Varejao misses more time.