Wizards stars Arenas, Butler real deal for league players

The Baltimore Sun

With all the craziness around the NFL playoffs and the end of the college football season, it's easy to forget that the NBA regular season is chugging along.

A lot of people seem down on pro basketball, but I still enjoy NBA fantasy, so let's check in on the leading story lines this season.

The stars are out in Washington: Baltimore has a strange relationship with the Wizards. They're sort of the local team. We can watch most of their games on cable. But they exist at a distance. Well, I'm here to tell you that the Wizards are a lot of fun, both for general basketball fans and fantasy enthusiasts. They're led by a superstar in Gilbert Arenas, they play at a fast pace and they're porous enough on defense that the other team's star usually looks good against them.

Arenas has built on a brilliant 2005-06 by becoming the best fantasy player in the sport this season. He scores in bunches, gets to the free-throw line a ton, accumulates steals with his gambling defense and makes a ridiculous 3.2 threes a game. His shot selection may not be the greatest in real basketball but in fantasy, he makes a decent enough percentage (.442) that it doesn't drag down his overall value.

We all knew Arenas was good, but Caron Butler has been the real revelation in Washington. Who knew you could get an All-Star small forward for Kwame Brown? Butler is averaging 21 points, shooting great percentages from the field and line, rebounding at a stellar rate for his position and dishing almost four assists a game. He's a tremendous all-around package and he's fun to watch, because he does everything with such strength and purpose.

2. Is LeBron James stagnating? James was the consensus top pick entering the season and many expected him to take another quantum leap to the Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson realm.

He hasn't.

It's hard to diss James because he remains a tremendous player and he'd still only be a senior in college. But his scoring is down, his shooting percentage, assists and rebounds are the same and his defense hasn't improved. He also looks oddly listless for stretches of many games.

James set a ridiculous curve for himself with his play as a teenager. When a guy is trying to become the greatest ever, you worry about these plateaus. We'll just see if he resumes climbing.

3. A new class of swingmen: In looking at the best 40 fantasy players so far, I see four or five guys who were popular sleeper picks a year or two ago but followed with mildly disappointing seasons. Mike Miller, Luol Deng, Josh Howard and Andre Iguodala always seemed to have the varied skills we look for but didn't develop as quickly as hoped. Well, they're here.

Miller is having an under-the-radar great season in Memphis, averaging 17.1 points, more than four assists and a tremendous 2.9 threes a game.

Iguodala has taken advantage of Allen Iverson's departure from the 76ers to increase his scoring and assist numbers while maintaining his shooting efficiency and strong defensive numbers.

Deng has become a tremendously efficient scorer for the Chicago Bulls. I wish his assist, steal and block numbers were a little stronger to round out the package, but he looks like he'll make a few All-Star teams.

And Howard has played like Shawn Marion lite in Dallas, helping fantasy teams in every way imaginable, from increased scoring to threes to blocks. He's the perfect fantasy player actually - unspectacular in any one area so he never gets picked too high but good in every way. Actually, all of these guys are like that.

4. Where are the centers? With Yao Ming injured, there's not one center among the elite fantasy performers now. Shaquille O'Neal was always flawed because of his free-throw shooting, but he's breaking down physically as well.

Yao and Marcus Camby are also injury prone.

The next wave seems to include guys who are good defensively but can't score, such as Golden State's Andris Biedrins or guys who can score but can't shut down the middle, such as New York's Eddy Curry. Andrew Bynum of the Lakers appears promising and of course, Greg Oden is biding his time at Ohio State. But for now, the center position looks as sketchy as it ever has.

Fortunately, there are plenty of decent options, and you don't have to waste a high pick to get one, so I'd hardly call the shortage of Kareems or Olajuwons a problem for fantasy players.


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