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Don’t Look Now, But These Guys Are Actually Ballin’

Nene
Honestly, I wasn’t sure we’d ever see a stretch of production like this from the Brazilian big man. It had been almost three years since he had shown anything on the court. His 03-04 season was a promising second year, as he put up 11.8/6.5/2.2 with 1.5 steals on 53% shooting in 32.5 mpg, but he regressed the year after that as he struggled with injuries and playing time, suffered a lost season the next year after tearing his ACL three minutes in, and never got going this year after dealing with lingering effects of his knee injury. With his ridiculous $60 million contract in hand, it was reasonable to question his motivation to fight through the adversity, but Nene has finally turned the corner. After giving some solid minutes off the bench at the end of January he entered the starting lineup at the beginning of the month and has been fairly remarkable. In his last 8 games the line looks like this: 18.9/7.1/1.8 with 1.0 steals, 1.3 blocks on 60/59 shooting. Were it not for that last number, that would be a perfect line. Unfortunately that 59% from the line has come on 7 attempts per game, which means he’s doing some serious damage for teams that are starting him. But the fact that he’s getting to the line so much shows how well he’s playing. There’s an explosiveness in his game that most of us forgot was there. His 60% shooting is possible because of all the dunks and gimmes he gets by attacking the basket. His most unique fantasy trait has always been his ability to help out with steals from the center position, and though 1 steal in 33.5 mpg isn’t too much to get excited about, it’s still nice to have. Last night he snagged 4, in addition to 2 blocks, while shooting 7-of-11 from the field. Besides his lingering injury and lack of production, it was hard to get excited about Nene because of all of his frontcourt competition. That concern seems to have subsided for the time being, though. Yes, Reggie Evans and Eduardo Najera are still around, but Nene is the man making all the money, and as long as he his healthy and playing at his current level, there’s no reason George Karl will ease up on his minutes. They have been cautious with him all year and just now seem to be loosening the reigns, but the 33.5 mpg he’s averaging so far this month seems to be a good number to expect. He’s just 24 years old, and that’s a time when big men tend to really kick it into high gear. It’s possible that this is his highest gear, but that’s still quite valuable for a free addition to your team.

Andray Blatche
This one is so exciting that I’ll talk about him again even though BV mentioned him the other day. And I get to talk about him in tomorrow’s TR, as well. Perhaps you remember Blatche’s story – drafted in the second round out of high school, carjacked and shot in the chest during the preseason last year, understandably never really got it going. But that didn’t stop him from being one of our favorites, since he was one of the few players on the Wizards that we could actually project great things upon. Not that there was really any basis, but the Wizards usually don’t get high schoolers (well, except for that one … shudder) or foreigners, the upside guys. So we locked onto Blatche, who always hustled in those rare instances he got on the court. Perhaps he hustled a bit too much, picking up fouls, generally playing out of control, but it was fun to watch. And you could tell he loved to fill up the stat sheet. Thankfully, Eddie Jordan decided to ditch the Jarvis Hayes as starter experiment (next it’s time to ditch the Jarvis Hayes as Wizards experiment) and has inserted the 20-year-old second year player into the starting lineup. He’s done exactly what the Wizards have needed, and that is bring tons of energy to the floor. He crashes the offensive glass, flies around on defense, and generally plays like an overexcited 20 year old should. In just 107 minutes in the last 5 games he’s grabbed 20 offensive rebounds (40 total). In last night’s win against the 76ers he blocked 4 shots to go along with his 11 and 10 on 5-of-7 shooting. He’s actually shot the ball surprisingly well over the past five, with just one 2-for-11 outing dragging down his average. But while we have every reason to be excited about Blatche, fantasy players should temper their expectations. He still hasn’t topped 27 minutes in a game this year, and it’s hard to see that happening regularly. Eddie Jordan is using a deep rotation now, and once Etan Thomas comes back from suspension, he’ll have him, Brendan Haywood, Calvin Booth, Darius Songailia and Michael Ruffin at his disposal for the two big man spots up front. And he’ll mostly likely use all of them. And then Antawn Jamison will be back (please, soon). Blatche is probably most effective in 20-25 minutes per game right now as it is. But remember his skill set for the future. Ernie Grunfeld thinks long-term, and Blatche is almost certainly a big part of that plan.

Mike Dunleavy
OK, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire in Indiana, but Dunleavy is doing something to impress Rick Carlisle, because his minutes are through the roof. He entered the starting lineup immediately for the Pacers, but saw more than 32 minutes in just one of his first 6 games. Since then, it’s been hard to get him off the floor. He’s averaging 38 mpg in his last 7, and that includes four games in which he’s seen 40+ minutes. You know by now that just about anyone in a situation like that is bound to have some fantasy value, and Mike Dunleavy qualifies as “just about anyone.” He’s been a surprisingly good fit at as big SG in the Indiana lineup, connecting on at least 2 3s in each of his past five games, while getting to the boards and dishing some assists. Even his shooting is slightly improved, up to 45% this month. It’s made him the #76 player on the rater in the past 15 days, which is about as good as it gets for Dunleavy. He’s a sure-thing fantasy starter, which you haven’t really been able to say before. Being able to slot him at SG is an advantage because he really helps you out in boards but doesn’t hurt you in 3s or steals. Basically, Dunleavy has become one of those guys who doesn’t really hurt you and can even contribute to a winning fantasy team. It is important that he continues to see so much PT; if that 38 number drops to 32, he becomes much more borderline. But his well-rounded game seems to be going over well with the coaching staff. He may have only seen 32 minutes last night, but that still tied him for the team lead with Jermaine O’Neal and Danny Granger on an evening in which the Pacers bench was especially effective.

New! Updated! Top 20!

The cavalry is coming.  Carmelo‘s back, Chauncey Billups is back, Rashard Lewis is back, Paul Pierce is back, Michael Redd is on his way.  But wait!  Steve Nash is hurting, as is Allen Iverson, as is Elton Brand, as is Jason Kidd.  So we may have a lot of shakeup here.  Let’s take a look.

1. Kevin Garnett, F (2)
And, he’s back.  Rising to the top of the list for the first time since January of 2006, KG has earned it with that steady consistency that has made him a top pick for the last decade.  The FG% is down, but the FT% is up to a career-high level.  Meanwhile, his blocks are up to their highest in 4 years.  Let’s be honest here – KG’s game never really dropped, it was more our infatuation with LBJ and Shawn Marion and our worries that KG would totally flip out.  KG and Marion may flip-flop 1 and 2 for awhile, but that’s more a testament to the Matrix than a knock on KG.

2. Shawn Marion, F (1)
Most guys, you only have to worry about one person getting injured, but with Marion you have two worry about two – both him and Steve Nash.  In the three games since Nash has been hurt, Marion has struggled offensively, averaging only 11.7 points and shooting 42%.  Now, he’s picked up his game in other areas, grabbing 13 steals in those three games, and picking up 18 boards against Chicago, but the lack of scoring is a minor concern and we’ll have to keep an eye on how he continues to perform sans Nash.

3. Dwyane Wade, G (6)
Despite missing time, Wade has played so well he’s still at number two on the APR and is having a career year.  Actually, it’s more like he’s having a career 2007.  Since the new year he’s averaged 30 ppg, he’s shooting over 50%, and is averaging 2.5 blocks.  He stays at number three because a) there’s no reason to think he’ll keep up this incredible pace and b) he’s still an injury risk, despite his toughness.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, PF (4)
The stats say that he should maybe be a spot or two down on this list, but two things keep him here – position scarcity and career consistency.  It would make me feel a little better, though, if he started hitting more threes again.

5. Kobe Bryant, SG (5)
Kobe is better than Gilbert.  Let’s just put that one to rest.  The thing with Kobe is that it wouldn’t surprise me to see him score 35 ppg in March, but it also wouldn’t surprise me to see him get hurt and miss the whole month.

6. Gilbert Arenas, PG (3)
I discussed Gilbert yesterday, so there’s not much to add here, except did you hear that he moronically predicted he was gonna score 50 in his NEXT game against Portland?  DAMMIT GILBERT.

7. LeBron James, SF (7)
LeBron doesn’t deserve to be this high right now.  He’s at 15/20 on the total/average player rater and his best quality is only that he’s stayed healthy.  Still, I can’t put him lower than this.  I just can’t.  Let’s see what happens over the rest of the season, because I can’t imagine he’ll stay this bad.  Then again, I can’t believe it’s as bad as it is already.

8. Ray Allen, SG (9)
Allen has been playing some of the best offensive ball of his career since returning from his injury.  He put up 30 ppg on 49% shooting in January and while his FG% has dropped in February, the points are still at 29.  The return of Rashard Lewis, though, may mean Allen will return to career levels – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

9. Elton Brand, PF (11)
He’s back in the top 10 on the TPR but you only have to look at Tracy McGrady to know what back problems can do to a fantasy stud.  Let’s hope this is a short-term problem.

10.  Steve Nash, PG (8)
I blame myself totally for the shoulder injury.  I wanted to keep him at 10 all year long, but then last month I upgraded him to 8.  Now he’s hurt.  Sorry about that, Steve!

11.  Jason Kidd, PG (10)
He’s back in the top 10 on the TPR but you only have to look at Tracy McGrady to know what back problems can do to a fantasy stud.  Let’s hope this is a short-term problem.  Boy, that sounds familiar.  There’s also the speculation that he may be sitting out so that he doesn’t get hurt while the Nets try to trade him … we’ll see.

12.  Pau Gasol, FC (N/A)
Gasol makes his first-ever appearance thanks to his strong recent play (11 boards and 2.7 bpg in 2007).  He probably doesn’t belong this high, but injuries are really hurting the second half of this NUT20.

13.  Ron Artest, SF (N/A)
You know, Artest reminds me of that old website realultimatepower.net, about the ninjas.  Remember that?  I think I first saw it in college, it’s pretty funny.  You can also substitute Ron Artest for “ninjas” and it’s pretty accurate.  For example: “Ron Artest is the ultimate paradox. On the one hand he doesn’t give a crap, but on the other hand, Ron Artest is very careful and precise.”

14.  Andre Iguodala, SG (16)
The question with AI2 is can he co-exist with another scorer and still put up these kind of numbers?  It’s going to be an interesting offseason in Philly, and Iggy will be an interesting draft pick next year.

15.  Tracy McGrady, GF (N/A)
He’s back in the top 10 on the APR over the last month, but you only have to read the about Elton Brand and Jason Kidd above to know what we think about T-Mac.  Nonetheless his owners have to be thrilled with his recent production, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic between being able to put in T-Mac and the next guy onto this list…

16.  Tim Duncan, FC (N/A)
Don’t look now, but Duncan is quietly having a nice little bounce-back year.  He’s at number 13 on the TPR and is on pace to play in 80 games for the second year in a row.  His FG% is at it’s highest since his rookie year, and while he’ll never be a Top 5 pick again, he may be a first-rounder next year due to his center eligibility.

17.  Rashard Lewis, F (N/A)
Welcome back Rashard, and none too soon!  The shooting may be an issue and I’m not sure how I feel about him not playing with the protective glove, but he seems to be ready to roll.

18.  Caron Butler, SF (13)
I discussed Butler yesterday as well.  Let’s hope he has a nice game heading into his first All-Star appearance.

19.  Allen Iverson, G (12)
Get well soon AI.  Hopefully the All-Star break will be enough.

20. Paul Pierce, GF (N/A)
We’re glad to see Pierce back of course, but if Boston is really going to tank the season, how long will he really be playing?  He’s a big-time candidate to shut it down early.

Dear Washington Wizards,

Seriously, Wizards, I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing and really, I don’t care.  Enough of the Tuff Juice, Agent Zero, best-dressed contests, lame fights, whatever.  The fact is you’ve got the best chance you’ve had at winning the conference in twenty-five years.  Who’s counting, you say?  I’M COUNTING.  So it’s time to get your tails in gear and beat crappy teams like Portland when they come into the Verizon Center.  There’s not really a move to be made here unless the Grizzlies decide they want to give you Pau Gasol, so you’re stuck with what you’ve got.  That means you, Brendan Todd Haywood and Etan Thomas.  Let’s chat for a minute about some of the players we here at FBB root for unabashedly:

Gilbert Arenas
What, you mean he’s not as good as Kobe?  Shocking!  Really, though, I think you have to chalk this up to a simple mid-season swoon.  Gilbert’s temporarily lost his shooting touch, his boy ‘Tawn is hurt and that means defenses can focus more on Gil, the rest of the team isn’t playing well and he’s getting embarrassed by Kobe and then by himself for making a crazy prediction.  (Side note – I think that even Gilbert didn’t expect to get 50.  I think he said that in an attempt to get ABC to pick up the game because it wasn’t being televised elsewhere.)  I think that while this part of the season is going to be tough for fantasy owners, in the long run it’ll make Gilbert a better player.  He’s not as good as he was during his incredible December, but he’s not as bad as he is playing right now.  Give him a few weeks to get his head straight (the All-Star break is coming at a GREAT time for Gilbert), and I think he’ll end up somewhere in the Top 10 on the player rater when all is said and done.

Caron Butler
This is one that I’m a bit more worried about.  Caron has carried my fantasy team while Rashard Lewis was out, but now he seems to be suffering from All-Star letdown.  To put it bluntly, he just seems to be smelling his own shit a little too much these days.  Back in the eaerlier parts of the year, he was getting his points with open mid-range jumpers and with tough offensive rebounds and putbacks.  Now, he’s backing out a bit farther on the mid-range jumpers, and trying to break down his man off the dribble, which just isn’t one of his strengths.  He goes to the rim with no hopes of actually hitting the shot, just looking for refs to bail him out, but he hasn’t earned that status.  Again, losing Jamison is coming at an awful time for Butler, and it doesn’t help that no one else is really stepping up, letting defenses key in on Butler and Arenas.  But unlike Arenas, Butler played well above his typical level early in the year and he could be in for a let-down in the second half.  While he’ll still give owners good value for the 5th-round pick or so that they spent on him, don’t look for Top-15 value like he’s given you so far this year.

Antawn Jamison
I’ve been down on Jamison for awhile – yes he’s a great scorer but I just think he’s too soft, not to mention an awful defensive player.  But you know, ,he sure does space out that defense, and he’s got that veteran leadership thing going for him … but that’s not important in terms of fantasy.  What’s important in terms of fantasy is that he’s not due back until early March.  So that means that he’s due to miss at least 7 of the Wizard’s 33 remaining games.  The sooner he gets back, the sooner we can hopefully get out of this mess.

Brendan “Brenda” Todd Haywood
Here’s the thing with Brendan – he’s the same player he was when he came into the league six years ago.  He’s good for 20-25 minutes, decent rebounds, shoddy points and a block or two.  Here’s the other thing – the front court is about to get a lot more crowded.  Now that Michael Ruffin is back, Darius Songaila is healthy, and Andray Blatche is earning minutes, Haywood might be looking at a cut in minutes.  One of Eddie Jordan’s favorite lineups this year has been going small with Jamison as the de-facto center.  Now that there are three guys (Ruffin, Songalia and Blatche) who can play the 5 in the “small” lineup and allow Jamison to play the four, that means less minutes for Haywood and Etan Thomas both.  That also means that Haywood will be unhappy, and when he’s unhappy he’s generally unproductive.  Let’s just say I’m not too high on Haywood right now.

Andray Blatche
Oh MAN, am I ever excited about Andray Blatche.  He’s a complete energy machine, he shows up on the boards, he’s disruptive on defense, and … well, he fouls a lot.  Still, he’s only 20 years old, he’s 6-11, can play inside and out, and right now he’s the best story on the Wizards.  Think Jared Jeffries but with athletic ability and hand-eye coordination.  Ladies and gentlemen, I think we may have a sleeper for 2007 right here.

Jarvis Hayes
Well, thanks for playing, Jarvis.  This was his last shot at earning a real contract after this year and he pretty muich blew it.  I still think that the injuries held Jarvis back more than people think, but the fact is that when your best quality is you jumpshot, and yet you only shoot 39%, well … you do the math.

Don’t Worry, You Can Trust Them

One of the toughest tasks at the beginning of the year is to know where to slot players coming off career-best seasons. Was that as good as it gets or did they establish a new norm? Today we’ll look at three players who were coming off surprisingly strong seasons last year, were probably passed over one time too many in your draft, and have proven this season that they shouldn’t be doubted moving forward.

Mehmet Okur
Lost in all the talk about Carlos Boozer’s all-star season and Deron Williams sophomore campaign breakout is the ascension of Mehmet Okur to Legitimate Fantasy Force. He ended last season at 33/42 on the player rater, but it was easy to get the sense that not many people took him all that seriously. He’s a center who doesn’t block that many shots and likes to shoot 3s, he’s got Jerry Sloan to deal with, he doesn’t have a long track record of success … if you looked hard enough you could find reasons to pass on taking him. Doubtful that will happen in the future. If you’ve been watching Jazz games lately you know that Okur has been given a new nickname – “Money.” And it’s entirely appropriate because he has become one of the most reliable clutch shooters around. I remember watching the Jazz play the Wizards back on MLK Day, when the Wizards were still a good team, and Okur and Gilbert Arenas just traded huge 3s back and forth in the final minutes. It basically came down to who had the ball last in that one. The other night Okur was questionable with the flu but toughed it out and came through with some huge hoops in the fourth quarter against the Knicks to force overtime in a game the Jazz eventually won. His touch from the outside is simply sensational, and it has led to him becoming more enamored with the outside shot. He attempted 3.7 3pg in November, 4.4 in December, 5.8 in January and is up to 6.3 in the first three games of February. A bit odd for a center, but his owners certainly don’t mind. He’s currently 15th in the league in made 3s, an amazing competitive advantage from a center that makes up for his lackluster 0.6 blocks. Okur has also ceded some of the work on the boards this year to Boozer and rookie Paul Millsap, but his overall line of 18.1/7.5/2.0 with 1.8 3s on 47/78 shooting is fantastic. It’s more or less identical to what he did last year – a few more 3s and a few less boards this time – and it puts him at 39/48 on the player rater, slightly off last year’s pace. Still, many folks thought last year was a career year and Okur has proven those people wrong. He’s a legit, clutch player who at 27 years old is in the midst of his prime and hasn’t missed a game in three seasons. He’s established himself as one of the top threats on a newly high-powered Jazz offense and should be looked at as a third/fourth round pick for the foreseeable future.

Tony Parker
Parker, like Okur, is another player who tends to fall in drafts because his skill set isn’t typical for the position he plays. We like our point guards to rack up the 3s and steals, and Parker simply doesn’t do that. But what he does do is score, and score efficiently. He is a legitimate anchor in FG% from the PG position, which is even rarer than Okur’s prowess from the outside. Parker is currently the 9th ranked player in FG% value. Every other player in the top 15 is a PF or C, except for Steve Nash. Besides Nash, the next highest PG in FG% is Dwyane Wade down at #35, with Jose Calderon the only other in the top 50. If you know this strength going in, it can really help you shape your team. He may never top last year’s 54.8%, but his 52.8% this year is close enough. Parker can simply get to the hoop and finish, and the presence of Tim Duncan means that he doesn’t have to do it 20 times a game. By keeping his attempts around 15 per game, his percentage stays higher. His actual shooting has also improved this year, as he is knocking down more jumpers and is shooting a career high 78% from the line. This is especially big, as it is the first year when he hasn’t had negative value in that category, which is clutch for a PG. So the steals and 3s – and assists, sort of – aren’t really there. Appreciate Parker for what he is, which is the 40th ranked player right now. He’s another incredibly durable guy in his prime who is clearly established at the top of his team’s hierarchy. Consider this year his established level of play.

Jason Terry
Somehow Terry is one of the most perennially underrated players around. It was somewhat understandable when he was toiling in obscurity in Atlanta, but you’d think things would have changed in Dallas. Not the case. Terry went 55th on average in ESPN drafts, slipped to 47 in my league, and even though he hasn’t been particularly impressive this year, there he is at #36 on the player rater. Unlike Terry’s first year in Dallas, his role is secure now. In 04-05 he saw just 30 mpg, and even though he managed to put up very impressive numbers, people were understandable skeptical about his ability to repeat that production with the same playing time. He’s now a consistent 35 mpg man, and what’s most impressive about Terry is how his game has transformed over the years. Back in Atlanta he was a classic best option on a bad team guy. He piled up the stats, but missed enough shots to be a real drag on your FG%. He’s at just 45.4% this season, but that’s still very acceptable for a PG/SG. Most importantly, it hasn’t meant fewer 3s, as he is hovering right around a pair of treys per game for the second consecutive season. That Terry’s numbers are so similar to last year’s is comforting. The assists are up, the scoring’s a bit down, and his once very nice steals are below average. But the Terry you see now is the Terry to expect in Dallas. If you see a trend here, it’s that of players establishing themselves as a top option on a reliable team. We love consistency and health here at FBB, and Terry, like the other two players featured today, gives that to you. With Dallas, you know that on most nights it will be Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Terry giving you the best lines in the box score. Terry is signed for the long haul in Dallas, and as long as he stays there, it’s time to start finally appreciating him.

Head-to-Head’s Up: 2/12-2/18

The All-Star Break is coming up, and H2H fantasy managers have a challenge on their hands with NBA teams only hitting the floor once or twice this week.
Here’s a look at week 2/12-2/18:

Two Games: Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Golden State, Houston, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Memphis, Milwaukee,  New Jersey, New Orleans, New York, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, Toronto, Utah.

One Game: Boston, Charlotte, Indiana, Miami, Minnesota, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington.

So what’s your point?  Do you need a point?  Here are five PGs that you should have in your lineups even though you probably didn’t start them last week.

Plug ‘em in, Plug ‘em in:

T.J. Ford, PG:  Raptors’ coach Sam Mitchell said that Ford would have his starting job back once he got back to full strength, despite backup Jose Calderon’s inspired play in 8 starts (14/3/10 avg).  T.J. now finds himself back in the saddle after his minutes have inched up every game since returning from a sprained ankle: 16, 17, 21, 26, to 28 minutes in his start last night.  Now that he’s healthy, we can expect the Raptors’ floor general to see around 30 minutes a game.  Calderon will still get his share, but he won’t contribute in enough categories coming off the bench to have a fantasy impact.  Last week both guards were start-worthy, but now’s the time to make the switch… sit Jose down and rev up the Ford.

Shaun Livingston, PG: You gotta give Sam Cassell credit for holding off the youngster for two seasons now, but Livingston has earned more playing time by elevating his game this year.  The Clippers are having a down year, but should be in the thick of the playoff hunt ‘til the end.  Livingston returned to the SLU last night as Cassell was dealing with the flu.  Coach Dunleavy would love for Livingston to continue to improve his game and remain the starter, while Sam I Am serves as the veteran sub.  Shaun is shooting an impressive, career high 46.5% from the floor and has started 27 games this season.  As a starter he’s averaging 12/4/6 with 1 steal and 0.5 blocks.  He has yet to add three-point range to his repertoire (only 5 for 15 this season), but his contributions in other categories definitely make him worth your while.  Have you all noticed the striking resemblance between Livingston and Andre Miller?  Well their stat lines will often look similar as well.  With two games on tap, Sly Sliv deserves the starting nod over Miller (only one game).

Smush Parker, PG: I’m not really a fan of Smush (or sludge or smog for that matter), but he’s posting numbers similar to last season’s “breakout” campaign and is currently on a good run.  Parker’s value comes mainly from his steals (1.6) and treys (1.4) but he’s also scored double digits in 10 of his last 11 games.  As a starting point guard, his 2.3 assists per game have got to be worst in the league, but perhaps with Odom healthy we might see him push that number closer to 4.  The Lakers host the Knicks and Cavs this week, so Smush should be in for a couple decent outings.

Steve Blake, PG:  Did you see the busted lip Ron Artest gave Blake last week?  Dude looked like he was strugglin’.  Blake will never be more than a borderline fantasy starter, but that’s what this column is all about.  Here is another one of those weeks when the ex-Terp/Wizard should be in your lineup.  Iverson has sat out 5 of the last 6 games with a bum ankle and will probably remain sidelined until after the All-Star Break.  This just gives Blake the opportunity shoot more and a chance at more assists.  Take a look at what he’s done so far in February: 12/3/9 with 1.2 threes and 1.0 steals.  Those are some very solid numbers from a waiver wire PG.  The Nuggets host the Warriors and their league-worst defense (107.4 ppg), before visiting the T-Wolves on Valentine’s Day.

Jarrett Jack, PG: While BV may have overvalued Jack a bit on draft day, I certainly underestimated the second-year guard going into this season.  Jack has proven himself as a capable starting NBA guard and shown significant progress over his rookie season.  His contributions have been stellar (12/3/6), particularly in the thefts department (1.3).  He’s shooting a very respectable 44.7% from the field and a pristine 88.2% from the charity stripe.  I’m sure the Blazers are pleased they stuck with him rather than overhyped Sebastian Telfair (now third string on a Celtics team that has lost 100 straight games).  Yes, Jack’s numbers took a slight hit when rookie Brandon Roy returned from injury and went on a tear, but February has actually been Jack’s best month of the year.  He’s averaging 14/4/7 with 2 steals and nearly 1 three per game over his last five.  Keep JJ in your lineups for two matchups this week.

Transaction Reaction

Pickup: LaMarcus Aldridge
Drop: Keith Bogans
If Aldridge does indeed take over as the starting center in Portland he should be worth owning and using, but as much as I like the rookie’s game, it’s still hard to envision much consistency over the rest of the year. He gets into foul trouble on a regular basis; it’s easy to envision a bunch of games in which he picks up two quick ones and plays about 7 minutes in the first half. Zach Randolph and Brandon Roy are clearly established as the top offensive weapons on the team, so Aldridge will have to work for consistent offense. But he blocks shots and has solid percentages, making him a valuable commodity. In roto leagues it’s pretty common for teams to find themselves needing to make up games at center toward the end of the season. If that’s the case, a guy like Aldridge can be especially useful. Bogans’ first two games as a starter were very poor, but 17/2.5/3 with 3 3s in the last two aren’t bad. But then you put him in the lineup and he’s back to the 6/3/1 guy. Not worth it.

Pickup: Rajon Rondo
Drop: Tim Thomas
The steals are for real. Rondo had the reputation coming out of school and has certainly lived up to it. He has 10 games of three or more steals this season and only 8 games of 30 or more minutes. If he can stick in the starting lineup – he’s averaging 38 mpg as a starter in the last three – he can be a difference maker in that category. Steals is a category that can get bunched up around this time of the season. A player like Rondo can help gain two or three points on his own in the right circumstance. But he’ll need a few weeks to do that, and that depends on Paul Pierce. The way his recovery has been going so far, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Rondo get that chance. Rondo’s has also lived up to his shooting reputation, which isn’t good news. His 41/63 percentages are lame and he only has 4 3s on the year, which hurts from a PG. He’s certainly a player to continue watching as he gets big minutes, to see what kind of numbers the future may hold. Tim Thomas’s last game shows why he can’t be trusted. Four straight games of at least 17, then a 3-point outing. Bench players are just too unreliable, and their hot streaks don’t always coincide with when you have them in your lineup.

Pickup: Shaun Livingston
Drop: Mickael Pietrus
When Livingston’s shot is falling it just makes him so much more effective. It sounds overly simple, but it’s true. The assists haven’t been there lately – just 10 in his last four games – but he’s re-earning the trust of Mike Dunleavy and his teammates and his playing time is on the upswing, seeing 25-28-30-37 minutes in the last four games. He’s been making up for the lack of assists with handfuls of steals, totaling 16 in the last 6 games. Still, unless he rejoins the starting lineup – ideally at the expense of Sam Cassell – it’s hard to see him having consistent value. This was sort of a make or break year for Pietrus and he certainly didn’t break. But it doesn’t look like he really made anything out of himself either. His combination of 1.3 3pg, 0.7 spg and 0.8 bpg makes you think he should have at least some value, and he does, but those numbers come with about 31 mpg. Can you really see Pietrus getting any more than that this year, or any other year?

Pickup: Rudy Gay
Drop: Andrea Bargnani
An exchange of rookies. May as well go with the one who’s starting, but we all know how it goes with Gay. Just type “gay transaction” into the search box, make yourself a John Amechi joke, and then read what I’ve written in the past on Gay. Because the same holds now. After a stretch of games in which he saw close to 30 mpg, Bargnani seems to be topping out around the 22 mpg mark. That’s a huge difference, the one between making a guy worthy of being on your bench and between being waiver wire fodder.

Pickup: Peja Stojakovic
Drop: LaMarcus Aldrige
Remember how last time I said Aldridge would be appearing in future TRs? Well, he’s here multiple times. As for Stojakovic, I’m skeptical. It doesn’t sound like he really wants to come back this year, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for him to come back. Personally, I wouldn’t be wasting a spot on him right now, especially as we move on in the year and those teams at the bottom of the standings stop making as many moves, leaving more quality options out there for the taking.

Pickup: Mickael Pietrus
Drop: Rajon Rondo
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. Not so much a day later, I suppose.

Pickup: Matt Barnes
Drop: Charlie Bell
Barnes was back to borderline value the last two games with 11/4/2 with some help in steals, blocks and 3s. And he did launch 7 3s in just 24 minutes the other night. And I suppose if Stephen Jackson gets taken away in shackles he could be in for some good games again. But really, why even bother predicting anymore with the Warriors? I wouldn’t get too excited about Barnes right now, though. Just remember those glorious weeks around the new year. Bell’s had 31 starts this year in which he’s played a very healthy 37.2 mpg. In those games: 13.8/2.9/2.7 with 1.6 3s, 1.2 steals on 42% shooting. Yeah, that’s about right. Just enough to offset the bad shooting, nothing to really fall in love with. It’s possible he keeps his starting job when Michael Redd gets back, but if you need to drop him, he’s droppable.

Pickup: Marcus Banks
Drop: Jason Williams
BV had his preemptive strike on this one back on Wednesday. Williams had a decent little run – and that’s all it was, a decent little run – and has fallen to injury again. If he gets healthy for a stretch run, don’t forget about him.

Pickup: Ike Diogu
Drop: Matt Harpring
That game against the Grizzlies last week was a peek at Diogu’s skill set. He totaled 19 points on just 10 attempts from the field, hitting 6 of those and making all 7 from the line. He also grabbed 9 boards, blocked a shot and – of course – picked up five fouls, all in just 23 minutes. He didn’t get the start when Jermaine O’Neal sat out against the Sonics, and when he saw just about the same amount of PT in that game he hit only 2-of-7 and 5-of-8 for 9 points to go along with 10 boards. People compared Diogu to Elton Brand, at least as a best-case scenario, but to me it looks like Zach Randolph is a better comparison. It’s still hard to tell if he’ll be able to get any blocks, and it’s possible he’ll be a strictly points/boards/percentages guy. But let’s wait until he sees 35 mpg regularly for a long stretch before deciding that for sure. If Jeff Foster and Troy Murphy are healthy, Diogu still might need a bit more than a Jermaine O’Neal injury to have fantasy value.

Pickup: Luke Walton
Drop: Jerry Stackhouse
Walton should be back in another week or two, and he’ll certainly have his starting job waiting for him. Maybe his shot will come back with him. He dropped to 41% in December, and Walton has the kind of little-bit-of-everything game where if one of those little bits becomes a negative, that really hurts him. He could make a solid utility guy again in deep leagues by the end of the month. Stackhouse, bench player, inconsistent, low FG%, yadda yadda.

Drop: Bostjan Nachbar
That’s it. No pickup. Just dropping Nachbar. I loved that.

Add: Smush Parker
Drop: Mike James
This was a move I made. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the sunk cost. Not just in fantasy, but in most of life, too. I traded Marvin Williams for James a month or so ago, hoping James could snap out of his season-long funk. But that just isn’t going to happen. Should I hold onto him just because I traded for him? Would it make that trade look bad? Who cares? His future performance and his past inclusion in that trade are two completely separate entities and need to be treated as such. So rather than hold onto James for pride, I dumped him for Parker, who before a couple of off games was doing what made him so sneaky valuable last year. I picked him up in time for his game against the Wizards – knew there were going to be lots of points – and he came through with 20/3/3 with 2 3s and a steal on 8-of-16 shooting. Not eye-popping, but effective. He had a streak of eight consecutive games in double figures broken the next night, but he made up for it with 6 steals, the second time in three games he did that. He’s up to 1.6 spg on the season now after averaging 1.7 per game last year, and that’s where he needs the number to be to have value. His streak might be over and I pulled him out of the lineup for last night’s game, thankfully, but by all measures he has more value than James right now and for the foreseeable future.

The Emergence of a Fantasy Stud: Andre Iguodala

There aren’t too many reasons to watch the 76ers these days. The team is pretty lousy, its franchise-defining star is gone, and thanks to playing in the Atlantic division, they are often playing a team that’s just as pathetic. Judging by all the empty seats at the Wachovia Center for home games (half sections in the lower level completely empty), the people of Philadelphia largely agree. But for some reason I’ve been watching lots of 76ers games lately and there’s something that’s become apparent, and that’s the fact that Andre Iguodala has blossomed into a legit fantasy superstar.

We were high on Iguodala coming into the season, even if he was slightly disappointing in the 05-06 season, coming just short of predicting a full-fledged breakout: “All of the ingredients are still there – durability (82 games in both seasons), tons of minutes (wouldn’t be surprising to see him push 40 mpg this year), a well-rounded game with no real weakness and one category in which he could possibly be dominant (steals).” That has all held true, and with the departures of Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, Iguodala has really had a chance to shine. We all knew he would benefit when the 76ers would benefit cleaned house and he has fully taken advantage of the opportunity, especially of late. The Sixers aren’t playing half bad basketball, winning 7 of their last 11, including 3 of 4 on the road. Andre Miller and Iguodala are proving to be a decent little combo, and Iguodala has really taken it upon himself to be the leader on this team. Even in the lousy East the Sixers are already basically playing out the schedule but Iguodala is playing with incredible passion. Games against the Warriors, Nets and Bobcats right before the all-star game aren’t exactly games to get up for, but Iguodala has been playing these games to win. He logged 43 minutes last night after logging 48 (in OT) and 45 in the two prior.

In the last 11 games Iggy is averaging 22.9/6.1/7.4 with 2.3 steals on 47% shooting. Those are serious numbers, especially in assists and steals. It was the steals that always made him so appealing, after averaging 1.7 in not even 33 mpg his rookie season. That number held steady despite seeing 5 more minutes last year, but now he’s accumulated the most steals in the league up to this point in the season, jumping ahead of Shawn Marion last night. Marion is a decent reference point, but a far from perfect one. Iggy is certainly more on the SG/SF end of the spectrum while Marion is clearly a rebounding force at PF. But he’s working toward being a seven-category contributor like the Matrix. Iggy’s aggressiveness and accuracy from the stripe and his pass prowess have powered his rise this season. The blocks are unlikely to ever really be there, but there’s still hope for the 3s. He’s taking more than ever this year, they just aren’t falling. Expect him to work hard to add this shot to his arsenal. For a guy who averaged just 8.4 FGA per game last year, his assertiveness over the last few weeks has been very welcome. He’s averaging 15.8 attempts per game over that span, leading the team in attempts in 7 of those 11 games. In the four games he didn’t take the most shots, the team lost three times.

The best thing that Iguodala has going for him is the future of the team. Unless the Sixers hit the jackpot in the lottery, they won’t really have a choice but to feature Iggy as their main man for at least the near future. And even if Kevin Durant or Greg Oden end up in Philly, it won’t be an immediate takeover. Iguodala is locked into an ideal fantasy situation. He’s one of the most durable, high-minute players in the league, has a pass-first PG who can get him some easy baskets, and is the default number one option. And for the first time, he appears to be relishing that role. He currently ranks as the #11 player in the game on the player rater, down to #25 on the APR. But that average is #11 over the past two weeks, and while this may not be the new norm, it may be closer to it than many people realize. The rest of the season and perhaps the next couple will be Iguodala’s extended chance to prove he’s an all-star, a legit building block for a contending team. It remains to be seen whether that’s actually the case, but in fantasy we don’t always care about that. He’s entering his prime, will play more minutes than just about anyone in the league and has a very well-rounded game. Don’t be shocked if you see us advising taking the new AI in the second round next year.

Why I Picked Up Marcus Banks

OK, so here’s what happened.  Yesterday morning, when I read that Steve Nash missed the last half of the game Tuesday against the Suns with shoulder discomfort, I picked up Marcus Banks.  Let’s go through the quick hits here:  1.  No, I’m not a complete moron.  2.  Yes, I know who Marcus Banks is and I’ve seen his FG%.  3. No, I’m not trying to tank the season so that I can draft Greg Oden next year.  That’s not even how our league works!
 
Anyhow, last week I talked about pre-emptive strikes and this is a pre-emptive strike right here.  Not only the move, but this column is actually a pre-emptive strike to DM, who kindly wrote to say, “marcus banks? really? really?? man, that’s gonna be a fun TR to right on thursday night!”  Let’s take a look at the two biggest factors that led me to make this move because it can shed some light on some bigger trends going on right now in the league, and because DM is a smelly pirate hooker.
 
Factor Number One: Returning stars aren’t always a good thing.
Now, my team hasn’t been spectacular this year but I’m coasting along in 2nd place thanks to a couple of over-achievers and a couple of fill-ins like Rasual Butler and Charlie Bell.  Well, a funny thing is happening to the Rasual Butlers and Charlie Bells of the world – they’re losing their value through no fault of their own.  Butler was a fine fantasy player while the Hornets struggled with injuries, putting up almost 15 ppg with 2 threes and nearly a steal and a block, but now that David West and Chris Paul are back, he’s down to 20 mpg in February and is back in fantasy irrelevance.  Same deal – sorta – with Bell, who wasn’t all that much better without Michael Redd and Mo Williams in the lineup but still should be heading back to the waiver wires now that Williams is back and Redd is close.
 
But the thing is, now that these stars are coming back, the ripple effect is going to be felt hard on the waiver wires.  As guys like Paul, Redd, Rashard Lewis, and Paul Pierce work their way back into the lineup, it means that guys like Gerald Green, David West, Rasual Butler, and all the other patch-up players are going to lose their value and owner will be looking to replace them.  Even guys like Kwame Brown returning will have some significance in the fantasy world because Andrew Bynum will lose a lot of his value.  All I’m saying is, the waiver wire is going to be a lot tougher to navigate over the next few weeks.  And for those of us who have been doing a little patchwork to cover holes in our teams, those holes might be a little more exposed than we’d like them unless we act fast.

Factor Number Two: The Garbage Spot comes into play
Way back in November I blabbed for awhile about how to man your bench and, more specifically, the concept of the “garbage spot,” where you can pick up and drop players who might not necessarily have any real value but could in a couple of things if everything goes right.  You know who I dropped for Banks?  Jason Williams.  I’d picked him up a few weeks ago and he actually gave me a couple of decent games back in Mid-January.  But now he’s hurt, Eddie Jones and Gary Payton are back, and  when you think about it, who’s going to have more value over the next week, WIlliams or Banks? 

Even if Banks hardly does anything, he is a prime example of a garbage spot guy.  I’m giving up practically nothing to get him, and I’m relying on him for absolutely nothing, but IF Nash is out for a significant amount of time, and IF Banks is a de-facto 30 mpg replacement, he could be a significant pickup for my squad over the nex couple of weeks.  Keep in mind, as well, that the Suns are looking to deal Banks and could use this opportunity to showcase him.  Basically what I’m saying is this – I know there is no more than maybe a 15% chance that Banks has any value over the next week.  But so what?  I didn’t give up any value to acquire him, and odds are I’ll drop him in a few days once Nash is back and never think of him again.  But if – however unlikely it may be – Banks turns into something valuable over the next few weeks, maybe I’ll write another column bragging about it.

Stone-Cold Locks

If there’s one thing that we learned from the Super Bowl on Sunday, it’s that it’s pretty easy to out-think yourself.  I mean, seriously, how could anyone possibly pick the Bears to win (PR I’m looking at you) with Rex Grossman at QB?  Indy was a stone-cold lock on Sunday Night, but it was pretty easy, with two weeks to think about it, to convince yourself that the Bears could overcome their quarterback and win.  Similarly, it’s easy to convince yourself that some things that we know to be true about fantasy basketball and with that in mind, here are some other stone-cold locks as we move towards the second half of the NBA season.

Baron Davis is going to hurt your team more than he helps it over the final few months.  All of the elements are in place here for Baron.  One, he’s starting to complain of minor injuries, the latest being a wrist issue and some calf problems.  He says he’ll play through it, but history and his coach tell us otherwise.  Two, the Warriors are slipping out of the playoff picture, they’re 2.5 games out now and unless Minnesota or the Clippers start collapsing they should be out of the hunt by mid-March.  And, three, it’s just about that time for Baron.  Last year, Baron basically shut it down in mid-February, coming back part-time for a few games but never really being playable after that point.  The year before, he shut it down in mid-January, only returning after he got dealt to Golden State.  The year before that, he missed nine straight games in March/April – right during the fantasy playoffs.  So you can see the trend here.  Davis owners have to be happy with how things are going so far this year – the FG% is up, he’s missed only a few games, he seems to be playing more under control … but don’t out-think yourself here.  If you can get equal value for Baron, move him now.  NOTE: I wrote this before Baron sat out against the Pacers, but obviously that just proves my point.

Stromile Swift will have major value for about 4 days.  Swift has probably disappointed as many fantasy owners as anyone over the course of his career.  First he was being held back by Hubie Brown who didn’t play anyone more than 25 mpg.  Then he just couldn’t get enough court time behind Lorenzen Wright and Pau Gasol.  The he went to Houston and just flat-out stunk.  Now he’s back in Memphis and is on the verge of his yearly break-out-then-break-apart.  When swift sees minutes, he’s still a good-if-not-great fantasy player.  In games where he’s seen over 30 minutes this year (granted there have only been  7 of them), he’s put up 15.1/7.7 with 1.7 blocks and 0.7 steals.  Those numbers are pretty close to his per-35 minute stats, and once Pau Gasol gets dealt, or once Swift himself gets dealt, there will probably be an opportunity for him to play well for 3 or 4 games.  Here’s the way to play this one:  Pick up Swift now, or at some point when you’ve got an extra roster spot.  Wait until the streak happens, and deal him to a Center-hungry squad for a nice 8th-round value or so.  That’s how I’d play it, at least.

Jermaine O’Neal is a going to miss some time.  You know, you could pretty much do a cut and paste with what I had to say about Baron here.  First, he’s dealing with some injury problems already, struggling with a bruised knee, and this is on the heels of some ankle problems which were preceded by an “unknown virus.”   Two years ago he missed about six weeks between March and April, last year it was eight weeks between January and March.  There have been some loose rumors about O’Neal being dealt before the trading block, which also throws some uncertainty around him, though you can’t imagine there’s much validity to those rumors.  Still, you have to worry about that ‘building for the future’ aspect of the deal the Pacers made last month.  Al Harrington was the best player in that deal and you can make an argument that Stephen Jackson was the second best player.  If they’re really building for the future, O’Neal may be the big piece they send out.  Even if it doesn’t happen before the summer, it might make sense for them to shut him down at some point so he doesn’t injure himself late in the year and hurt his stock.  Oh, and that reminds me:

Good players on bad teams are bad players for good fantasy teams.  We’ll tackle this more in the coming weeks, but we simply can’t forget about how approximately 70% of the NBA decided not to play the last few games last year.  This led to fantasy players scrambling for the Rashad McCants‘s of the world to try to salvage their season.  Guys like Ray Allen, Samuel Dalembert, Wally Szczerbiak, or Mike Miller are all good bets to sit out the last week or two of action.  Meaning if you can get even value for them now, you need to start considering it.  That’s not really a stone-cold lock, but this is going to be an interesting trend to watch as the year progresses.

Contract Year Push?

Every year we spend a bit too much time at the beginning of the season wondering who will be extra motivated to put up huge numbers in a contract season. I feel like this angle gets overplayed a bit, but it’s certainly something worth taking into consideration, especially as we enter the stretch run. So let’s look at some of the big names headed for free agency and whether they can be expected to take it to another level in the season’s last two months.

The best of the upcoming free agents don’t really need to do make a big push in the season’s second half. Chauncey Billups and Vince Carter can be pretty assured that as long as they don’t suffer a serious injury, they will sign a maximum contract in the off season. Both players are established stars, and no matter what happens over the last 40 games, they will be getting major money.

It gets more interesting when we move down to the next tier of players. Rashard Lewis has a player option that he seems very likely to use, and he is indeed someone who has something to prove in the season’s second half. Lewis probably would like to think he’s deserving of a max deal, but he’s not really considered a superstar and has never been the #1 option on his team. Fantasy basketball vets probably appreciate his game more than most folks, and that may include GMs around the league. Lewis won’t have the benefit of the big stage of the playoffs to make a statement, so when he returns in a week or so he’ll have around 30 games to remind people what he can do. Lewis was playing at his normally high level before suffering his unfortunate hand injury, checking in at #11 on the average player rater. He’ll have plenty of motivation to put up big numbers as the Sonics season slips toward irrelevancy. If he gets off to a slow start in his first few games back, be ready to pounce on a worried owner.

We look to be in the midst of Gerald Wallace’s contract push right now. It’s no secret that Wallace is absolutely on fire. In 10 games since returning from a shoulder injury, he’s averaging 21.9/9.5/2.9 with 0.8 3s, 2 steals and 1.1 blocks. He’s #20 on the 15 day rater, and if he was shooting free throws at merely the league average he’d be just outside the top 10. Although he’s missed only one stretch of seven games this season, Wallace probably has earned the “injury-plagued” tag, or at least the slightly less serious “injury prone.” Wallace has always been valued most for his all-around contributions, but it looks like he’s trying to prove that he can be a go-to scorer as well. After all, the big money usually goes to the guys who put the ball in the basket. Wallace reached 20 points in 11 of 55 games last year; he’s done it 10 times in 40 games this season, including three of his last four. The increased scoring has helped owners deal with the alarming drop in blocks, from 2.1 last year to 0.9 this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wallace exert more effort on the offensive end from here on out. His defensive prowess is already established; it’s his offensive game that’s more in question. Wallace still makes a risky trade target because of his tendency to get banged up and because his monster lines make him seem more valuable than he really is in his owner’s eyes. In my experiences, people hate trading super-high upside guys like Wallace for anything short of a star.

Darko Milcic is another player to watch. I had a premonition before the season that the Magic might limit his minutes in attempt to keep his market value down, but that seems only half true. His minute have indeed been lower than most people hoped, but it’s mostly been because he hasn’t earned any more time. We might be frustrated that Tony Battie is averaging 24 mpg to Darko’s 22.4, but it’s hard to blame Brian Hill, since Milicic didn’t really earn the extra PT. With the Magic slumping, though, it looks like the tide could be turning and Darko looks to be taking advantage of his opportunity. He’s averaging 27.7 mpg in his last three, putting up 15.7/6/1 with 2 blocks. It would certainly help Milicic’s financial future if he has a solid end to the season, but he’s a 7-footer with some at least decent experience now who will only be 22 when next season starts. He’ll be cashing in, the question is simply how much. It’s not out of the question that he gets an offer of more than $10 million per year, and good numbers for the rest of the season could make that happen.

Don’t need to talk about Mo Williams much. We all knew he was set to be this year’s version of Mike James, and he’s done just that. If there was every any question as to his motivation, his play since returning from a shoulder injury has made them irrelevant. Screw taking a few games to get back into shape. He went for 30/6/10 in 40 minutes in his first game back and is averaging 24/4.2/5.8 with 1.6 steals and 1.6 3s in his last five. He’s also averaging 5 turnovers per contest, but that just tells you that he’s trying to make things happen all the time. When Michael Redd comes back he’s going to get his shots, but Williams sits at #43 on the average rater right now and he should improve on that as he looks to cash in big time.

Some lower level players that might have extra incentive to turn it on in the season’s second half: Andres Nocioni, if he can find himself some consistent playing time; Anderson Varejao, in the same boat; FBB all-time favorite Steve Blake; Mickael Pietrus; Luke Walton, who hopes to continue his career year when he gets healthy; Chucky Atkins, who is in the midst of his big push; Jason Kapono, who has extra incentive to continue launching those 3s; same with Charlie Bell; Travis Outlaw, who could be someone worth watching at least in the season’s last weeks; Morris Peterson, should the opportunity present itself.