More than any other season in recent memory, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA campaign begins with a vast array of unanswered (or in some cases, unanswerable) questions. How will players respond to a schedule more compressed than a FIAT that’s just been stomped by a brontosaurus? Will rookies have enough time to get acclimated and produce? Will veterans like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett even be able to walk come April? And on a more existential note, what does it mean for world peace when the player named after it can barely make a wide-open jumper?
So as the first full week of the NBA season begins – and the fourth season of Roundball Stew with it – we attempt to answer some of the key questions that are on all of our minds (or at least on mine). Off we go…
Will Blake Griffin produce top-25 fantasy value? My belief, I regret to say, is no. And the reasoning behind that belief is simple: Through three games (two preseason games plus Sunday night’s opener), Griffin has shot 66.7 percent (16-for-24) from the line and collected exactly zero blocks. Those were his two most glaring statistical weaknesses as a rookie, and though I can see him improving in points, rebounds and even steals this season, the missed free throws and lack of blocks will continue to restrict his value.
And for the record, I have absolutely no Griffin bias – he happens to be one of my favorite players in real life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t swat (or even attempt to swat) enough shots on defense to balance out the missed free throws. At this point, I would be stunned to see him land in the top-25, and wouldn’t be shocked to see him ranked outside the top-50 (he was 83rd in Basketball Monster’s 9-category rankings last year).
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Is this the year that Pau Gasol and Amare Stoudemire impersonate Kevin Love and start hoisting a ton of threes? The short answer is no, but it is notable that Pau attempted two threes in the Lakers’ opener after shooting one per game (and going 1-for-2) in the preseason. Additionally, there’s the fact that Stoudemire – who’s playing more on the perimeter than ever before – went 2-for-2 on threes in the Knicks’ opener after averaging one attempt per game (and going 0-for-2) in the preseason. There’s no reason to think that either of these PF/C’s is going to approach 1.0 threes per game, but even 0.5 per game would be significant for their value, and both have the shooting range to do it.
Which rookie other than Kyrie Irving is ready to make the biggest fantasy impact in 2011-12? That would be Kemba Walker, who visibly elevates the Charlotte offense to another speed when entering the game, not to mention the fact that Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has in multiple instances (including on a Charlotte preseason broadcast) compared Walker’s competitive drive to his own. Walker isn’t likely to immediately supplant D.J. Augustin as the starting PG, but I would expect him to be playing 30-plus minutes per game sooner rather than later.
Other rookies with intriguing potential: Brandon Knight (who could get significant run at PG for the Pistons early), Markieff Morris, who is fighting Channing Frye for playing time but represents a higher-upside version of Frye, and Jimmer Fredette, who’s a backup right now but should still play plenty (and whose shooting range definitely translates to the NBA). Looking deeper, there’s also no doubt in my mind that Warriors swingman Klay Thompson is ready to produce if/when Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis or Dorell Wright suffers an injury.
Who are some early mid-round picks I’m somewhat deliriously excited about? A few that come to mind are Kyle Lowry, Marcus Thornton and Danilo Gallinari. Despite a coaching change in Houston (Rick Adelman to Kevin McHale), I see Lowry improving on his breakout 2010-11 to become a potential top-25 fantasy option. Meanwhile, I envision Thornton finding a way to score 18-plus points per game with plenty of threes despite playing alongside chronic over-dribbler Tyreke Evans. And Gallinari is set to become Denver's No. 1 scoring option, giving the 23-year-old a chance to reach the 18-20 ppg range for the first time in his career.
Who are some of my other favorite unheralded players? To be clear, I’m talking about players who were likely taken toward the end of your draft, or in more rare cases might be available on waivers if you’re playing in a very shallow league. And some of the names that fit this category are: Gerald Henderson (who may get off to a slow start after offseason surgery but should eventually be worth the wait) and Paul George, who’s gotten enough buzz at this point that he might not really be unheralded anymore. Another player I'll throw into this category is Ryan Anderson, whose value is quickly ascending after his 25-point, nine-rebound, six-three opener. I would still be surprised to see Anderson average more than 15 ppg or so, but the combo of points, threes and blocks makes him a very promising option right now.
What player consistently drafted outside the first round has the best chance to produce top-10 value? My prediction: John Wall. Turnovers (3.8), a lack of threes (0.5), injuries and rough shooting (41.0 percent from the field) were big issues during his rookie year, but let's not forget that Wall averaged 17.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 9.1 apg, 3.1 spg and 1.0 threes last November, and has a strong shot to produce top-20 value even if top-10 is a bit ambitious (and it probably is).
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During this compressed schedule, what’s the smart philosophy on aging players such as Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd? I’ll admit some bias here because I’m bored by their lack of upside, but nevertheless, I’m staying far away from these three, because though they’re still able to produce when active, I see too much potential for injury and/or forced nights off in Garnett and Duncan’s future. And the 38-year-old Kidd was already maddeningly inconsistent even without a crazy schedule.
A few exceptions to my avoid-players-in-mid-30’s rule: Chauncey Billups (jumper is still quite buttery, and he’s playing with something to prove), Ray Allen (still somewhat ageless at age 36) and Manu Ginobili, who may miss some games but provides enough value when active to make up for it. I also wouldn’t worry too much about Steve Nash, because I trust the mad scientist Phoenix training staff to keep the 37-year-old on the court.
Is the column over already? Indeed it is. But the Stew will be here every Monday in an effort to make some sense of the mayhem that will undoubtedly be the 2011-12 campaign. And next week, we come to you with our boldest, most futuristic column yet – and by that I mean a column written in the year 2012. Happy New Year.