Sleeper: Rajon Rondo
If you compare Rondo's stats in his 26 playoff games to his stats in the regular season, two things stand out. First, in roughly the same amount of minutes, he increased his assists from 5.1 to 6.6 per game. That number would have been good for 13th in the league last season, just behind Chauncey Billups and ahead of Mo Williams. On the other hand, his shooting percentage -- a strength during the season -- plummeted against better defenses. A summer spent working on his midrange jump shot should allow him to adjust to the sort of looks he'll be getting from defenses this season, and I think he can again approach 50 percent from the floor during the regular season. The assists, it seems, should be here to stay. Rondo's a gifted distributor, and having a championship in tow, I think the coaching staff will be more likely to keep him on the floor. I'm expecting his minutes to jump to around 36, which would probably boost his assists and steals to more than 7.0 and 2.0 per game, respectively. He has major holes in his game -- you'll have to find 3-pointers elsewhere -- but he's a good bet to make a major leap forward this season. You can probably get him in the seventh round of most 12-team drafts, but if you are already good in 3s and free-throw percentage, he's worth grabbing in the sixth.
Bust: Kevin Garnett
I want to be clear here, because I'm a Celtics fan and I feel nothing but gratitude when KG comes to mind. I don't think he's going to be a bust in the sense that he won't play well, or even that he won't be extremely productive. I just think we need to start considering him the way we consider Tim Duncan. Both are great players, but their teams will be playing for the postseason right from Day 1. Would you rather have KG for 32 minutes or Elton Brand for 38? Would you rather have 71 games of KG or 80 games of Josh Smith? In fantasy, the answer to these questions is always on the side of the numbers. It's quantity over quality, and you have to draft accordingly. Is Garnett still a top-15 pick? Absolutely. But if you draft him in the top 10, my personal opinion is that you are making a mistake.
It's strange to say about a team coming off a championship, but in terms of fantasy, I'm not sure we know exactly what to expect from this squad. This year's Celtics might be a lot like last year's Spurs: three big-time fantasy studs and a slew of irrelevant benchwarmers. On the other hand, the possibilities for fantasy success might be endless. Rondo and Kendrick Perkins appear primed to take on larger roles and should both be extremely important in most leagues. Tony Allen was on the verge of being a very productive fantasy player two years ago before he hurt his knee, and he will have every chance to play the 25 minutes per game that belonged to James Posey last season. Leon Powe finished last season seventh in PER among power forwards and could turn into an extremely productive player given 20-25 minutes of action. So, fantasy-wise, this team could go seven deep, and that's not counting Eddie House's 3-point proficiency or the distant possibility that Darius Miles returns to his one-plus steal and block form of a few years back. The Celtics will be all about the playoffs this year, but fantasy basketball is all about the regular season; when the final round of your draft comes along, don't be afraid to stash one of these sleepers on your bench.
Sleeper: Bobby Simmons
Playing for the Clippers in 2004-05, Simmons posted a career-best PER of 16.11, and was productive across the board. His overall numbers weren't astonishing -- 16.4 points, 5.9 boards, 2.7 dimes, 1.4 steals, 85 percent shooting from the line -- but the aggregate of them made for a very intriguing fantasy player, a poor-man's Caron Butler, for instance. Simmons parlayed that season into a pretty big contract that will pay him more than $9 million this season and over $10 million next season. He was a bit of a disappointment right away in Milwaukee, but for fantasy owners his 1.4 3-pointers per game sort of made up for the drop in production across the board. So what will he do in New Jersey? Well, if he can stay healthy, maybe quite a bit. He'll get a chance to start the season in the starting five, and when you're talking about grabbing someone in the final rounds of a deep fantasy draft, that's not a bad place to start. He's got a chance to be special in steals and 3s, and if he can get to the line three or so times per game, he'll have some value as a free-throw shooter as well. Don't get all excited and draft him too early, though; he's only worth picking up if you can nab him in the final couple of rounds.
Bust: Vince Carter
Here's where it starts to get ugly for VC. He's still an extremely productive player, but he's now on the wrong side of 30 and there are some signs that he may be coming back down to earth. Even though he played more minutes per game last season, he scored nearly four fewer points per game. Why? Well, for starters, he stopped going to the line as much. After averaging seven free-throw attempts in '06-07, he averaged only 5.6 last season. That points to a lack of aggressiveness. What's more, with Richard Jefferson now in Milwaukee, Vince's offense is really the only proven game in town. Teams are going to load up on Vince, and he'll either force bad shots or not shoot enough to do the sort of scoring that's made him an elite fantasy star in the past. Unless you really need his assists, I'd rather have Jason Richardson, Caron Butler, Kevin Martin or Kevin Durant, and if you do need the assists, just take Hedo Turkoglu.
Aside from Carter and Devin Harris, there's a decent chance the Nets will be entirely irrelevant in terms of fantasy. You've heard my piece about Vince, but I really like Harris this year. If he can pick his field-goal percentage up to where it was in Dallas, he has a chance to be an elite fantasy point guard. Out of all the Nets' big men, Josh Boone is the safest bet. If you need rebounds in the late rounds, he might be worth a gamble. Other than Boone, I don't think any of them will be consistently playing more than 25 minutes per game. Yi Jianlian's talent is intriguing, and Sean Williams could certainly be a force in blocks, but they'll both be useless if they don't play more than 20 minutes a night. The situation, of course, bears watching. At least one or two of the bigs is going to have some value, but I wouldn't waste my draft picks. Be vigilant on the waiver wire and play the hot hand, because that's likely how coach Lawrence Frank will do it as well.
Sleeper: Jamal Crawford
I could not be any higher on Crawford for this season. The knock on Crawford has always been his shot selection. He has hovered right around 40 percent from the floor during his entire Knicks tenure, and has never averaged more than 20.6 points per game on better than 41.6 percent shooting overall in a full season of action. That aside, Crawford does a lot of things well. On a terrible defensive team, he'll get you a steal per game. Last season, he shot over 86 percent from the line and was one of only nine players to average 20 points and 5 assists. He tied Raja Bell for seventh in the league with 176 3-pointers made for the season. Bumping him up in your rankings requires a bit of faith that new coach Mike D'Antoni's system can improve Crawford's shot selection without negatively impacting his scoring, but I think that faith is warranted. He's not worth a third-round pick in any but the deepest leagues, but I wouldn't hesitate to use a fourth-round pick on him if he fits what your team needs.
Bust: David Lee
Can anyone be a bust when no one expects anything of anyone on this roster? Lee's a solid player and a fan favorite, and he seems like a great fit for the D'Antoni's system. The problem is, I think he's the one Knick around whom there is a little too much optimism. In our ESPN.com Draft Kit, we've got Lee ranked just three spots behind embattled teammate Zach Randolph. I think the impression is that if Lee got the same minutes as Z-Bo he'd be just as productive, but it's simply not the case. Last year, Randolph played 32.6 minutes per game to Lee's 29.1. When you consider that Randolph outperformed Lee by around 6.8 points and 1.4 rebounds per game, Randolph seems like a much better option. And even if Zach does finally get traded, Lee has never shown the ability to create his own offense. Yes, there will be plenty of rebounding opportunities with D'Antoni's increased pace, but until Lee shows that he's more than a 10-and-10 guy, I'll go with the guy who has proven he can be a 20-and-10 guy in the past.
From where I'm sitting, things are looking pretty exciting for the Knicks as far as fantasy basketball goes. While there may be no sure things, there are lots of intriguing pieces. Depending on the other owners in your league, you may find Knicks players either slipping in drafts or getting snapped up way too early. Chris Duhon is the starter at the point, and while he has never really been productive, he'll be playing alongside some talented offensive players and could be a good source of assists (but watch the field goal percentage -- it's bad) in the later rounds. Nate Robinson is an interesting player, in that he puts up good numbers when he plays, but I think it's a risk to expect Nate-Rob to get more than the 26.1 minutes per contest he averaged last season. Quentin Richardson has been a decent player in the past, but he doesn't seem to be anymore. He was a great rebounder for his position for a long time, but even that fell by the wayside last season. Even with D'Antoni in town, I don't think he's draftable unless you need the trey-bombs. In keeper leagues, it may be worth taking a flier on Gallinari in the last round of your draft; he's a fit in D'Antoni's system and you can always drop him if he appears to be a year or two away from contributing. The point is, you need to keep an eye on this team and watch how things shake out. I think we'll learn a lot from the preseason about which guys are worth a spot on your roster (and whether Randolph and Marbury are still with the team).
Sleeper: Thaddeus Young
Sometimes, our expectations are confusing. Young was, believe it or not, a lottery pick a year ago. He had a good rookie season in which he improved a lot, and he became a productive regular after the All-star break. Why is this surprising? Young came into the league with as much talent as anyone not named Durant or Oden last year, so why are we tempering our expectations this year? Young shot better than 41 percent on 3-pointers during his only season of college basketball at Georgia Tech, so he could become a good shooter from distance for Philadelphia, a team desperate for some long-range shooting. To me, Young seems comparable to Shawn Marion, another player who blew up after an appropriately impressive rookie season. He's got a chance to be an elite contributor in steals this season as the starting small forward, and the options behind him on the bench are none too impressive. I'm predicting 14 points, six rebounds, 1.8 steals, and better than 50 percent shooting from the floor, and I think he's worth drafting ahead of guys like Jamario Moon, Al Thornton and Marvin Williams.
Bust: Louis Williams
Let me qualify this first: I like him a lot, and I agree completely with his being ranked right where he is on ESPN.com as of this writing (129th). But I'm very high on this Philadelphia team, and I actually think all five 76ers starters are being ranked too low across the board. The reason I say Williams could be a bust is that I don't think his numbers will improve significantly from last season. Barring an injury, Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala are both going to play big minutes, and because this team should be winning a lot, there might be less opportunity to play guys who aren't the starters. Williams will play; I just don't think he'll play more than the 24.7 minutes per game he averaged after the All-star break last season. This means he'll likely average around 13 points, three assists, a steal, and a 3-pointer per game while shooting around 44-45 percent. Because he's a popular player, chances are someone in your league will draft him too soon, and in the unlikely event that one of the Andres gets hurt, they will be glad they did. If, like our rankings suggest, Luke Ridnour, O.J. Mayo, Chris Duhon and J.R. Smith are already off the board, go ahead and draft Williams. If not, those guys are all better options in most cases.
As I wrote in the previous paragraph, I love this team. I think Elton Brand's presence should make the rest of the team more efficient. When you replace a player who is unproductive (Reggie Evans) with a player who is great (Brand), the game gets a lot easier for everyone. That means more open looks for Iguodala, Young, Williams, Rush and anyone else who gets minutes off the pine. It also means more opportunities for Miller to create. It means Samuel Dalembert should never have to be put into the terrifying position in which he has to pass out of a double team. Everyone gets to focus on what they do best. Sure, in the case of Miller and Iguodala you can probably knock a point or two off their scoring averages from last season, but you can expect more significant increases in the peripheral stats, especially shooting percentage. Don't be afraid to bite a little early on any of the Philly starting five. I think you'll be rewarded all season long.
Sleeper: Jermaine O'Neal
Under normal circumstances, you want to shy away from guys like O'Neal. He is brittle -- the last time he played more than 70 games in a season was 2003-04 -- and he's been shot worse than 44 percent the past two seasons. Still, he shut it down for most of the second half of last season, playing only sparingly in April, and has been adamant in interviews this summer that he's healthier now than he's been in years and is excited about the fresh start in Toronto. He's not sure how teams are going to deal with the combination of him and Chris Bosh in the paint, and, frankly, neither am I. Remember what happened the last time O'Neal got a change of scenery? He became a superstar. And even though it seems like he's older than the hills, the man will be just 30 years old this season. I say you should ignore all the problems and focus on the positive: O'Neal's been good for at least two blocks per game every season for the past eight, and when he's healthy he's still a great source of points and rebounds. If it's coming down to Emeka Okafor in the fifth round or Jermaine in the seventh, you can sign me up for the latter every time.
Bust: Anthony Parker
Parker has spent the past two seasons flying under the radar a bit. He's a solid contributor who knocks down plenty of 3-pointers without hurting your shooting percentages in the slightest. Throw in four boards, two dimes and a steal and you've got a nice player who, in fantasy, brings a lot of nice stuff to the table without taking anything off. The important word here is "nice." He doesn't do anything spectacular besides hit 3s. He's also 33 years old and showed a significant drop in his ability to get to the line last season. If people are expecting Parker to get a bump in minutes with Carlos Delfino and T.J. Ford out of town, I think his age precludes that possibility. He will stay the same or get slightly worse, which is what tends to happen to players when they are 33. Unless you've been drafting nothing but wild cards for the first nine rounds, why not take a flier on someone with some upside, say Thaddeus Young, Rudy Fernandez or J.R. Smith?
Like most people, I'm interested to see how the Bosh/O'Neal tag team fares (I'm optimistic), and like most people I'm a big, big believer in Jose Calderon even though he's been hurt a bit this summer. Grab Bosh in the second round and Calderon whenever Baron Davis comes off the board (probably third round, but sooner if you're scared of Baron not being able to go 82 games ever again -- ever). In part because of injuries, the Raps had eight guys average over 20 minutes per contest last season, and that's unlikely to happen again. With O'Neal in the fold and Ford out of town, they've got a much more obvious starting five, and I expect all five to be reasonably productive. If you're looking to take some chances, start with Kris Humphries. He was productive when he played last season and is in line for a big bump in minutes if O'Neal misses any extended time (which is always a distinct possibility). Then there's always Andrea Bargnani, the former No. 1 pick who just oozes potential but can't seem to put it all together. In fact, that's what this whole team sort of feels like, but I think this could be the year they actually make it happen.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.