The NBA lockout has ended but many details of the 2011-12 season remain unknown. Camps and free agency won't officially open for another week, and then we'll have a blistering two-week period during which teams attempt to conduct an entire off-season and preseason's worth of business. The lack of prep time means early drafters in particular are going to have to go with their gut more often than usual when it comes to building their fantasy teams.
Of course, we're here to help as much as possible, but when it comes down to it we're all here for the same reason: to win fantasy basketball leagues. To that end, I've also had to go more on instinct than information in my early mocks and drafts. What follows is opinions of some notable players that I've developed in this early stage of planning (or late, depending on how you look at it). I started at the top of the O-Ranks and worked my way down, identifying players that stood out for one reason or another.
• Al Jefferson, UTA, FC - Dominant after the Deron Williams trade [splits], and reports are that he's worked hard this off-season and is in phenomenal shape. The team setup in Utah is very similar to his dominant 20/10 days in Minnesota, and it's easy to forget that he's only 26 years old and now a few (healthy) years removed from major injury. No, I'm not buying that a busted Mehmet Okur or a raw Enes Kanter are going to limit his minutes. What I am buying is shares in Jefferson around the R1-2 turn.
• Amar'e Stoudemire, NYK, FC - I'm not telling you to not draft Amar'e this season, I'm just saying that he's at the mercy of Carmelo Anthony when it comes to touches and could also see his defensive numbers take a hit if the team signs the type of center they actually need. Early-to-mid R2 may still feel right for Amar'e, but be aware that nothing is a given here. As for the Chris Paul noise: if he ends up with the Knicks, it will be as a free agent next summer.
• Eric Gordon, LAC, SG - What needs to be said first is that Gordon is one of my favorite players. My bias leads me to believe that he'll finish the season in the top 12 if he can stay healthy - I know, a major "if" given the history, but that's still not something you can say about every R3 pick. Take a look at his numbers during a 29-game stretch from last season (11/20-1/20) for a refresher on potential that's yet to be fully tapped: 24.5 points, 48% FG, 83% FT (5.6 FTA), 2.3 threes (42% shooting), 4.6 assists, 2.4 turnovers, and 1.3 steals. Mo Williams is an ideal backcourt foil - he's adept off the ball and an excellent shooter - and there's that Blake Griffin guy to help keep opposing defenses honest, but Gordon has the skills to shine in almost any scenario.
• Steve Nash, PHO, PG - Take a guess at Nash's scoring average and FG% after the All-Star break last season and then click this link. How far off were you? I'm having real trouble using a R3 pick on Nash in early mocks, despite what you assume will be gaudy assist totals. That's just one scoring category and, even if you can envision an upcoming season free of pelvic instability, you must acknowledge that Nash's per-game stats have suffered in recent seasons when he's had less recovery time between games.
• Brook Lopez, NJN, C - I dealt with Lopez's disappointing 2010-11 season in June. He tumbled all the way down to 46 in the season-ending ranks (the horror!) and was one of only three players (Dwight Howard, Amar'e Stoudemire) to average at least 20 points and 1.4 blocks per game last season. Don't draft him for rebounds, draft him for what will be as large of a positive FG% impact as anyone in the league outside of Howard, thanks in large part to all those dimes from Deron Williams.
• David West, FA, PF - West will likely be fine for roto leagues, generally speaking, but we're talking about a 31-year-old coming off major knee surgery and likely on a new team that doesn't also roster the best point guard in the NBA. Early drafters have to proceed with serious caution here.
• Jrue Holiday, PHI, PG and Kyle Lowry, HOU, PG - These two are close in o-ranks and close to my heart. I'll happily draft either in R4 and team needs can help decide which player to pursue. Grab Jrue for better defensive numbers and percentages, Lowry if the added threes do you more good.
• Tyreke Evans, SAC, G - Say something disparaging about Evans and the usual reply is "20-5-5!" It's true that he achieved a rarity by putting up those numbers as a rookie, but he is one of only eight rookies over the past 12 seasons to see at least 37 minutes per game, so his own scope of opportunity was another rarity. His per-game rank during that rookie season was 71st, and his career numbers include middling percentages (44% FG, 76% FT), low-volume threes (0.6 per game), and high-volume turnovers (3.1 per game). Full health and significant fantasy improvements will be needed to legitimately quiet the doubters. And have you seen the collection of players that Paul Westphal is supposed to coach to some level of success?
• Tim Duncan, SAS, FC - Perhaps those of you saying that the compact schedule won't affect the league's crusty vets much will turn out to be right, but I'd be interested in hearing from a h2h manager who does not foresee Gregg Popovich doing his best to keep Duncan on the bench as much as possible, particularly when it's the "win or go home" portion of the fantasy season. Outside of the Spurs being in a battle down to the wire for the eighth playoff seed in the West, is this not completely inevitable?
• Carlos Boozer, CHI, FC - Take a look at Boozer's season-ending ranks over the past four seasons (reverse chronological): 141, 13, 210, 14. If that trend continues, then another top-15 season is on the way, but at this point I get an uneasy feeling when considering him in R6. Interestingly enough, he set a career-best mark for usage in 2010-11, but it will take across-the-board improvements in actual production for him to simply justify a pick at that stage of the draft. The real question is how much his overall line will remain limited, even when healthy, by what Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah do for the Bulls on a nightly basis.
• JaVale McGee, WAS, FC - Compare McGee's 2010-11 production with Serge Ibaka's and you are faced with striking similarities. It's downright uncanny. But nobody is talking up McGee's upside quite like Ibaka's, mostly because they are polar opposites when it comes to approach and team situations. McGee still has yet to "mature" in the way we apply that word to professional athletes, and Flip Saunders has yet to have much of a positive influence on him. If that changes in any way this season, McGee is going to have a serious impact and he's being drafted three rounds after Ibaka. And when it comes down to it, all we care about in fantasy is the final numbers.
• Brandon Jennings, MIL, PG - Jennings shot 39 percent from the field and averaged a meager 4.8 assists in 2010-11, and usage hog Stephen Jackson has been added to the mix in Milwaukee. I can say without hesitation that Jennings will not be on a single one of my rosters this season, and I'm in a lot of leagues.
• Jared Dudley, PHO, GF - Dudley has the current distinction of being on everyone's sleeper list, which of course means he's not a sleeper at all. He's currently slated to inherit Vince Carter's starting spot and certainly projects to be a solid fantasy contributor - he's made 42 percent of his career three-point attempts, and his career per-36s include 5.9 boards, 1.4 threes, and 1.5 steals. There are plenty of good vibes here but the buzz around him isn't leaving much room for downside.
• DeMar DeRozan, TOR, GF - DeRozan's numbers made huge gains throughout the 2010-11 season [splits] and he's quieted some lingering concerns that he's more athlete than basketball player. His ability to finish and get to the foul line will help bump that scoring average up even further in his third season, and any improvements in combined threes-steals-blocks will ensure a serious return on draft-day investment.
• Austin Daye, DET, F - It's not always a guarantee of future success, but you have to at least be impressed with Daye's per-36 minute averages of 1.5 threes, 6.8 boards, 1 steal, and 1 block after two seasons of madness and dysfunction. The Pistons' starting small forward gig is his to lose, and you have to think that Daye and the majority of his teammates are approaching the season with a renewed vigor.
• Arron Afflalo, DEN, SG - Denver's gutted depth chart means yet another expanded role for the solid and efficient fifth-year player. Afflalo's averages when he attempted at least 10 field goals in 2010-11 included 16.9 points on 53-percent shooting and 2.2 threes in 36 games. He's attracting his share of suitors as a restricted free agent, but the Nuggets have plenty of cap and have made re-signing him a priority.
• Corey Maggette, CHA, F - Paul Silas is now on record as saying that Maggette will have to carry the team's offense. If there is one thing Maggette is not, it's shy. You won't likely find a bigger source of offense in the later rounds, but note that his scoring and massive FT% help will be attached to a lot of turnovers (high relative to his overall production). Two percentages are up in the air: over the past four seasons, his FG% has ranged between 45-52, while his 3PT% has ranged between 25-38.
• Kenneth Faried, DEN, PF - Faried was a stat juggernaut at Morehead State and his athleticism, energy, and tenacity are most certainly going to translate to the next level. His offensive game is a work in progress, but his defense is NBA-ready and his team situation is nearly ideal. He'll step into a steady role, particularly if Nene does not return, and will be surrounded by complementary players and an excellent coach. Get ready for lots of boards, blocks, and put-backs from this ROY dark horse.
• Omri Casspi, CLE, GF - Casspi has a clear shot at consistent starts for the Cavs after never really finding his footing under Paul Westphal in Sacramento. His ability to hit the three (career 37%) should put him on your late-round target list.
• Jeff Teague, ATL, G - Yet another preseason injury is affecting Teague's fortunes, but this time for the better. Kirk Hinrich's injured shoulder will keep him out through the month of December, reaffirming Teague's expected role as the starting point guard. His quickness gets him to the rim on offense and creates steals on defense, and he'll be particularly useful for fantasy if his threes fall consistently (38% in 2010-11).
• Ricky Rubio, MIN, PG - Rubio's court vision and passing abilities are truly special and well-documented. But fantasy is a numbers game and in most cases we're dealing with nine categories, and Rubio is very likely to struggle in a number of other areas. What figures to initially work against respectable assist and steal totals is a low scoring average, sub-par shooting percentage, minimal threes, and plenty of turnovers. Rubio will stock highlight reels from the outset, but consistent fantasy success is going to be a bit more elusive.
• Gary Neal, SAS, SG - Neal averaged 1.6 threes on 42-percent shooting in just 21 minutes per game as a rookie, and George Hill's departure frees up minutes and expands his role. Neal has already proven he's a fantastic spot-up shooter, but the Spurs will now ask him to be more assertive on offense, both in creating his own shot and facilitating for others. Neal fits the bill as a last-round specialist with nice upside.
Generally speaking, my advice to you would be to mock draft as much as possible in the near future and put off your drafts that count for as long as possible. The mocks will help you get a better handle on player valuations - both your own and those of others - while we all wait for more specific player and team details to emerge as the preseason progresses. We're all in the same boat here, so those managers that are most prepared to make decisions a bit more on the fly are going to be at a clear advantage.
photos via Getty Images