When the Phoenix Suns open the season on Nov. 1 versus the Dallas Mavericks, they'll be without three starters from the previous season. Both Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson were traded away, but the one unexpected loss is Amare Stoudemire, who was found to have cartilage damage in his knee during an arthroscopic procedure on Tuesday.
Before his knee issues became public, Stoudemire was largely considered the top fantasy center for the coming season after posting averages of 26 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 2004-05. The likelihood now is that he'll sit until some time around the February All-Star break. The fact that he's expected to return for the final two months of the season makes him draftable in fantasy leagues, but instead of a top six pick, he could now fall some 90-100 picks later. Personally, I could envision taking him somewhere between picks 80-100 and stashing him in an IL spot. When he returns, he'd certainly be a huge boost for a fantasy roster during the fantasy playoff stretch run.
So how does Phoenix fill the hole left by Stoudemire until he returns? Well, one thing is for sure: It won't be one individual player picking up the majority of the slack. Kurt Thomas, acquired from New York in exchange for Richardson, will certainly be leaned on for more low-post scoring and rebounding. But Thomas is a rugged, New York-style banger and not a high-flying uber-athlete like Stoudemire. In other words, Thomas can only do so much.
Odds are that Phoenix will become even more of a small-ball team without Stoudemire. Point guard Steve Nash will have this team running as often as possible. Nash won't have the luxury of hitting Stoudemire in motion for the easy dunk anymore, which could negatively affect Nash's assists total, if only slightly. Look for swingmen like Raja Bell, Jimmy Jackson and even Leandro Barbosa to benefit in the scoring column. And Jackson, who averaged 6.1 rebounds two years ago, can help on the glass, too. But the player who will perhaps be leaned on the most is ironman Shawn Marion. He was ninth in the NBA in minutes last season, and he could very well see his court time rise into the low-to-mid 40s per game.
Marion is one of the most versatile fantasy players in the game, contributing positively in all standard roto categories. He was expected to move back to small forward with Stoudemire in tow and the addition of Thomas. But now Marion will likely be asked to remain at the power forward position. From there, he has a good chance to average 20-plus points and at least match his 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks from last season. For what it's worth, Marion averaged 28 points and 11.5 boards in the two games Stoudemire missed last season. On fantasy cheat sheets, Marion's name is as good as anyone's once LeBron James and Kevin Garnett are off the board.
As it stands, Marion remains a top five fantasy pick, and Nash remains one of the top few fantasy point guards. Thomas could wind up averaging close to 13 points, 11 rebounds and a block, with solid shooting percentages. That would warrant a top 50-60 pick in drafts. Other expected starters, Jackson and Bell, are worth flyers in the later rounds, as either one is capable of stepping up and becoming a 15-point per game scorer with some positive peripheral numbers thrown in. Finally, fantasy owners should keep an eye on Boris Diaw, who starred for France in this past summer's European Championships. He is capable of doing a little bit of everything and it's possible that his playing time will increase significantly without Stoudemire, as Diaw can play everywhere except center, and has been spending time at power forward in practice while Stoudemire has been out.