Less than two weeks remain before the NBA begins its regular schedule and, you know, I haven't had a single conversation with a fellow sports fan about the impending season.
It's a shame, really, because I love pro basketball and think the product is on an upswing after a post-Jordan dip that saw scoring rates plummet and creativity squelched by physicality. But the NBA just isn't a buzz topic the way it was 10 or 20 years ago. Sure, it'll be more of one come playoff time, but that's what, seven months away?
Anyhow, that lament brings me to fantasy basketball, an increasingly weak sister to baseball and football (the insane popularity of which threatens to block out the sun). Because I love the NBA, I enjoy fantasy hoops and wish more people would play it and talk about it. Will LeBron James have the greatest fantasy season of all time (remember, nobody played in Wilt's day)? Will Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire bounce back from injury? Can Chris Paul add a three-point shot and become the next great point guard?
These questions all interest me more than wondering whom to start as a third wide receiver Sunday. But this Joe has to go with the flow, so I'm unlikely to write too many more fantasy hoops columns this year. But for now, here are a few preview-type thoughts.
The key to winning at fantasy basketball is understanding that points can't be your primary concern. Like it or not, most formats give equal value to assists, free-throw percentage, three-pointers, blocks and steals. I think we all know that the league's leading scorer is more valuable in reality than the guy who makes the most three-pointers. But that's not necessarily so in fantasy.
Not only are these ancillary categories weighed as heavily as points, several - assists, blocks, three-pointers and steals, to a degree - are dominated by relatively small pools of players. In other words, Ben Wallace blocking shots or Steve Nash passing for assists give you greater relative strength than Kobe Bryant averaging 35 points per game.
So I look to put a stranglehold on those categories while also drafting guys who will score enough to keep me in the middle of the pack in points. This often entails looking past the most glittering names in favor of lesser-known guys who help in five or six categories. Shawn Marion is sort of the emperor of the breed and a surefire top-five pick in any sensible fantasy league.
For example, I once had a team built around Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. Can't beat that star power, right? Well, I ran away with points, rebounds and blocks, but Duncan and Shaq consigned me to last in free-throw percentage, and Iverson's poor percentage on a huge number of shot attempts counteracted their excellent percentages from the field. I finished third.
On the other hand, I built a team around Marion, Andrei Kirilenko and Steve Francis a few years back and ran away with the league title. So versatility and dominance in the nonglamour categories are key. How do you build that?
Well, take the best player available in the first round. My top 10 would go something like James, Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Bryant, Gilbert Arenas, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen (threes galore), Nash and Elton Brand.
I think Arenas might be my favorite fantasy option this year, because he gives you everything you get from the more glamorous Kobe or Wade, but you can probably snag him lower. He's the dominant scorer among point guards, he shoots a high percentage on a huge number of free throws so he anchors you there, he has assists, ranks among the league leaders in steals and makes more than two three-pointers per game. And if he shoots .447, as he did last year, he won't hurt you badly there. That's a pretty ideal profile for your top player.
Anyway, if you don't draft a point guard in the first round, take one in the second and make sure you get another in the third or fourth. There aren't many elite assists guys, and the best point guards (Arenas, Nash, Iverson, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Mike Bibby) will also help in steals and/or three-pointers.
You should also pick up a rebounding and shot-blocking anchor in the first three rounds. I like Chris Bosh in the second round, because he's a terrific young player on the rise and sure to be the featured guy on his team. If you don't get one of the two, look for the more offensively crude Dwight Howard a few rounds lower.
Once you get into the middle rounds, look for those unusually versatile guys. Rasheed Wallace isn't a great scorer or rebounder at power forward, but he's the rare frontcourt player who blocks shots and makes a lot of three-pointers. Charlie Villanueva might be cut from the same cloth. Josh Smith is a great shot blocker who might be eligible at guard.
Don't reach for a center because the middle class at the position is pretty deep. You could go for Mehmet Okur, the rare post player who makes three-pointers. Or you could go for the injury-prone Marcus Camby, whose rebounds, blocks and steals are lovely when he plays. As you round out your point guards (I like to start three), look for Raymond Felton, who may always live in Paul's shadow but gives you many of the same statistics at a much lower draft slot.
And finally, always try to avoid guys who might hurt you on free-throw or field-goal percentage. Shaq from the line is the obvious example, but guys like McGrady and Baron Davis can be equally damaging from the field.
Go to www.baltimoresun.com/fantasy for a podcast on fantasy sports.