Some key points

The Baltimore Sun

Between the Ravens' coaching search, baseball's steroid woes and all things Terps, we don't get many chances to talk NBA in this town.

It's a reality that fans of professional basketball have to accept. But fantasy sports, bless them, create a community without boundaries, one that need not be moored to parochial concerns.

So, in this space, we're going to look up, realize that the NBA regular season is almost half over and delve into some intriguing story lines.

1. The young point guards have arrived.

For years, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd reigned unchallenged atop the world's lead guards. But there's a new king.

Chris Paul was awfully good in his first two seasons, but his across-the-board improvement is breathtaking. He's on pace to blow away career highs in scoring, assists, steals, three-pointers, field-goal shooting and free-throw shooting. If only he could rebound like Magic Johnson.

Seriously, though, Paul has emerged as a dominant player, one who can't be stopped going to the basket and might score 35 one night, only to dish out 15 assists the next. According to the Player Efficiency Rating (PER), an all-inclusive offensive statistic devised by ESPN's John Hollinger, he's a serious Most Valuable Player candidate. PER rates a player's per-minute productivity.

You might think the Utah Jazz is kicking itself for not drafting him in 2005. But the Jazz got a pretty good point guard, too, in Deron Williams. He's not quite as quick as Paul or as dynamic a scorer. But he shoots more efficiently.

We might have our Nash and Kidd for the next five years. Lucky us.

Oh, and if you want to be shocked, look at how the Toronto Raptors' Jose Calderon is playing. He's supposed to be a backup, but as a 50 percent shooter who can average nine assists a game, I'd take him over injured starter T.J. Ford.

2. The centers aren't so bad.

Basketball fans have bemoaned the lack of quality big men for a long time, but the criticism no longer rings true. Sure, Shaquille O'Neal might be washed up, but that doesn't leave Yao Ming and Tim Duncan alone among excellent post players.

Dwight Howard has fulfilled his promise as a new-age Moses Malone. The dude envelops rebounds and tries to dunk everything. His free-throw percentage limits his fantasy value a tad, but he's no Shaquian albatross. Other than LeBron James, he's the most valuable long-term commodity in the sport.

It doesn't stop there.

Marcus Camby is as much a defensive force as ever, and he's now miraculously healthy. Amare Stoudemire qualifies at center, and he's a great enough scorer that his relative rebounding and shot-blocking weaknesses are forgivable. Andrew Bynum is hurt now, but at age 20 he looks like a double-double guy for the next 10 years.

And Bynum might not be the best center in Los Angeles. Goofy Chris Kaman is suddenly good for 18 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks a game.

Even Brendan Haywood is playing inspired basketball. With Greg Oden on the way, we might be looking at an oasis of excellent center play.

3. Caron Butler is waaaay better than Kwame Brown.

Well, we knew that, but he continues to make the 2005 Los Angeles Lakers-Washington Wizards swap look like the biggest NBA heist this decade. Butler keeps expanding the limits of his game. With Gilbert Arenas out, he's Washington's go-to scorer. And he's actually shooting more efficiently than ever before, especially from long range. His passing is better, and he piles up steals. Butler is a top-10 fantasy player, and there's no way anyone could have predicted it three years ago.

4. Get Kobe Bryant ... now!

The league's greatest scorer has played it low-key this season, averaging only 27.6 points a game. But with Bynum hurt, he has averaged more than 40 during his past three games. And he averaged more than 36 a game after the All-Star break each of the previous two seasons. So if you need points and are willing to trade a star rebounder or defender for him, now is the time.

5. Rookies

Well, they really haven't been that exciting, have they?

Kevin Durant is averaging almost 20 points a game, but he's shooting often and badly enough that he might not be a starter in some fantasy leagues. He's at least a year away from stardom.

Yi Jianlan has been inconsistent after a great start. Al Horford has arrived as a rebounder but not as a scorer. Jeff Green disappears in too many games.

Sean Williams looks like an elite shot-blocker but not much else for now.

I wouldn't target any of them in a fantasy league.

6. LeBron James is carrying my fantasy team just as much as he's hefting the Cavaliers.

Yep, he's still pretty good.

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