Preseason Burning Questions
Those of us who inhabit everyday society in the grown-up world spend much of our time pondering life's difficult, and often unanswerable questions. For instance:
If there are debates before the presidential election, why aren't there debates between opposing head coaches before important playoff series to help indecisive viewers decide who they want to root for?
Why is the tradition of "bringing snack" not upheld for soccer matches played by adults?
And is it appropriate to wear a suit of chain mail and wield a battle ax at the company Halloween party?
In the world of fantasy basketball, questions of a less abstract but equally important nature fill the air at this time of year. And as the season opener draws nearer by the day, here's a look at five critical, but as of yet unanswered questions from NBA training camps:
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1. Is it worth investing in this year's rookies?
The short answer: Yes, but as the knight advised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, if you must choose - choose wisely.
The long answer: Last year, Al Thornton (16.3 ppg in 8 preseason games) and Corey Brewer (27 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks on October 20, 2007) drove up their draft positions with formidable training camp performances, only to play limited minutes early in the season, sending invested fantasy owners into a remote control-annihilating fury.
The lesson here is that leaning heavily on a rookie (or rookies) can be a deeply frustrating endeavor, not unlike coaching a youth football squad (in both instances, the kids don't always perform with the level of maturity you expect). For every Tim Duncan (21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.5 bpg his rookie year in 1997-98), Kevin Durant (20.3 ppg last season) or LeBron James, there are two dozen Corey Brewers (5.8 ppg as a first-year pro). So if you do become tempted to go rookie hunting in the middle-to-late rounds, do yourself a favor and assume that whatever rookies you choose won't pan out, then be pleasantly surprised (or if you prefer, maniacally boastful) when they do.
If you can't resist the suspense of relying on this year's rookies for stats, please make sure that the first one off the board is O.J. Mayo. The 20-year-old etched a training camp masterpiece on Monday against Indiana (26 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 6 three-pointers and 5 steals) and appears to have secured not only the starting two-guard gig in Memphis, but more importantly, the right to fire at will in Marc Iavaroni's offense. The impending accumulation of stats (tempered by what will no doubt be some ghastly shooting lines) makes Mayo something of an exception: a rookie who appears ready to produce some big-time lines immediately.
The two others in that category are Greg Oden, who should quickly develop into a rebounding and shot-blocking force in Portland, and Michael Beasley, whose scoring touch will translate effectively to the pros. (If you are drafting Beasley, just understand that you're targeting him largely for points, rebounds and perhaps the occasional three, but you may not get much in the way of steals and blocks.)
There are other rookies worth drafting (Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Rudy Fernandez and Russell Westbrook all warrant a flier in standard-sized leagues), but your emotional health will be significantly more stable if you regard them as high-upside options to monitor on your bench as opposed to linchpins of your starting lineup.
2. Whither Lamar Odom?
The short answer: Though there would appear to be some cause for concern, there's plenty of reason to believe that the man known as "The Goods" will be just fine.
The long answer: Hollywood, not surprisingly, has provided one of the most prominent preseason dramas this month, with Odom struggling early in training camp while Phil Jackson has toyed with the notion of bringing him off the bench.
In a situation like this, it's important to disregard all the chatter and look at the bottom line. Despite all the concerns, Odom is perennially among the most versatile performers in fantasy basketball, and there's no reason to think that will change in 2008-09. During his four years as a Laker, Odom has averaged 15.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 4.4 apg, while adding close to a steal and a block per night.
That's the kind of production that normally warrants a hefty price, but right now, Odom can be drafted at a discount. The fact is, coaches use the threat of coming off the bench as a motivational tool all the time, and Trevor Ariza - while no doubt someone the Lakers want to employ more this year - is ultimately not going to poach the better part of Odom's minutes. Even if Odom is coming off the bench at the start of the year, he should join the starting five before too long. Not only is he one of the four best players on a team with title aspirations; he also happens to be performing under the all-important motivational spotlight of a contract year.
So instead of being deterred by the slightly negative buzz, use it to your advantage. While others are letting Odom drop a round or two in your draft because of what they see as his uncertain status, use some forward thinking to realize that in the long run, the panic will prove to be unwarranted. The best kind of risk to take is a move that others see as risky, but one that you know is actually a safe bet. Quietly draft Lamar Odom with confidence.
3. Will Russian submachine guns be in season this fall?
The short answer: Yes, but they're not as fashionable as they once were.
The long answer: Much like Odom, Andrei Kirilenko has seen his draft value drop this preseason amid speculation that he, too, may come off the bench. The key difference between Kirilenko and Odom is that Kirilenko's season-to-season performance has been somewhat volatile in recent years, particularly during a disastrous 2006-07 season that saw him average a career-low 8.3 ppg. He rebounded with a nice all-around line last year (11.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.2 spg and 1.5 bpg) but has not been a dominant fantasy force since 2005-06, and if he's coming off the bench for Jerry Sloan, his performance could suffer. Remember, this is a guy who famously wept about his role on the team during the 2006-07 playoffs. Not to say that having a good cry every now and then is severely detrimental to fantasy value, but at the same time, AK-47 clearly doesn't have the most rock-solid mental fortitude in the NBA.
Some measure of concern is founded, but if you're the bargain-hunting type, there's plenty of reason to like this situation, because the opportunity is there to get an outstanding role player on the cheap. Don't draft him expecting a return to the glory days of 2005-06 (15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 3.2 bpg), but if you're willing to make a small leap of faith and believe that this AK still has some ammunition left, you have an opportunity to secure an excellent and inexpensive supporting player for your squad.
4. Can Camby and the Caveman coexist?
The short answer: Most likely. But if one of the two has trouble adapting, it will not surprisingly be the one whose name sounds like "Caveman" (Kaman).
The long answer: Much has been made of the new pairing of big men in L.A., with concerned fantasy owners wondering whose stats (Marcus Camby's or Chris Kaman's) might be negatively impacted by Camby moving to L.A. On the offensive side, Camby's move to L.A. (and his move to power forward) shouldn't have a significant impact on either player. Camby neither shoots nor crowds the paint enough to adversely affect Kaman's post game.
However, one area where the two players could negatively impact one another is on the glass. Each averaged a career-high in boards last year (Kaman with 12.7 and Camby with 13.1), and it's very difficult to see either of them reaching that number again, as there just aren't that many rebounds to go around. If you had to bet on who will lead the Clippers in rebounding, Camby seems like the safer choice, because while Kaman asserted himself like never before last year, he did so without Elton Brand sharing the paint. With Camby in the fray, it's easy to see Kaman playing a secondary role on the glass when both are in the game.
As for blocks, it's not likely that a move to power forward will truly affect Camby's annual 3-block-per-game production, but if you're expecting 2.8 bpg from Kaman again this season, you probably should temper those expectations.
Even though Cavemen are notoriously slow to evolve, this situation shouldn't be a disaster. Expect Camby's numbers to remain largely the same (aside from a slight dip in boards), while Kaman's numbers dip somewhat across the board. The downgrade for Kaman comes in part because of Camby, and in part because it's unrealistic to expect the oft-injured and somewhat flaky big man to replicate his enormous stats from last year. Kaman has clearly arrived as an elite fantasy center, but with a prominent power forward once again sharing the paint this year, expect something less than the 15.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg and 2.8 bpg he averaged in 2007-08.
5. And what of the point guard platoons?
The short answer: Jump ship (or don't board the ship in the first place).
The long answer: One of the definitive moments in the Academy Award-winning film Platoon comes when the soldier named King stabs himself in the knee as a means of extracting himself from the Vietnam War.
Fantasy owners staring down the barrel of a point guard platoon should consider a similar course of action (that is, getting out of the situation by any means possible, not necessarily breaking out the bowie knife and plunging it into the kneecap).
If you can't force yourself to stay away entirely, make sure not to lean heavily on a platoon situation like Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions in Milwaukee or Earl Watson and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, no matter how much you may like one of the players. Even if you remember Sessions' 20-point, 24-assist gem from last April and just know he'd have a breakout season if given 30-plus minutes a night, you can't ignore the reality of the situation: With Ridnour around, Sessions faces a very significant obstacle to get the minutes he needs.
No question that in a vacuum, both players have fantasy value, but we're not in a vacuum - we're in Milwaukee (difficult to accept sometimes, I know). No matter who's named the starter, the backup figures to steal upwards of 20 minutes a night, thereby limiting his platoon mate's value. If you can't resist the intrigue of a Sessions or a Ridnour, just make sure you're drafting one of them as a contingency in the late rounds, and not a staple of your starting lineup. Anything beyond that would be shooting yourself in the foot (not to be confused, of course, with stabbing yourself in the knee).