(Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Last week I talked about the impressive start of the Boston Celtics. After rattling off eight consecutive wins to start the season, the Green Machine grounded to a halt on Sunday, thwarted by the new-look Magic. An emerging young team in the extremely soft Southeast division of the Eastern Conference, Orlando looks like a lock to make the playoffs this year after finishing below .500 last season. They had just about as busy an offseason as any team in basketball outside of those Boston Celtics. Orlando made waves by signing Rashard Lewis, the marquee free agent of the offseason and a player whose outside game is the perfect complement to the interior banging of man-child Dwight Howard. They also re-upped Jameer Nelson with a big five-year deal, let Darko Milicic walk, brought in Billy Donovan, watched Billy Donovan walk, brought in vacuum-cleaner-salesman-turned-NBA-coach Stan Van Gundy, watched Grant Hill walk to Phoenix, and hired Patrick Ewing (who had a lot of success with Yao Ming in Houston) to coach Howard. So far, so good.
Orlando is now 9-2, with their only losses coming against perennial title contenders Detroit and Phoenix. They’re riding the superhuman presence of Dwight Howard on the block, who has blossomed into the best big man in the Eastern Conference at the age of 22. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 14.3 boards and 2.4 blocks on 57.5% FGs. Who said the true center is a dying animal? Meanwhile, Howard’s new partner in crime has been every bit as good as advertised. Rashard is averaging 21.2 points, 4.8 boards, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.3 threes (!) on a tidy 51.4% FGs, 85.4% FTs, 48.2% three-pointers with just 1.8 TOs a game. That’s efficiency. And with all the attention those two draw, Hidayet Türkoğlu has also stepped up as a solid option on offense, averaging 17.4 points, 6.0 boards and 3.6 assists a game while hitting 1.8 threes per.
Unfortunately, we’re not completely sold on Jameer Nelson. Orlando has committed to the young man as their quarterback of the future, but he could end up holding them back. It seemed like a mistake to give him all that money before the season when Nelson was coming off a disappointing campaign where he averaged just 13.0 points and 4.3 assists on 43.0% FGs. Nelson is a solid ballhandler who can take it to the rack and makes some nifty passes. However, he’s also a better scorer than distributor, lacks a quality outside shot and is simply too small to guard many of the NBA’s elite points. At just 6’0″ tall, Jameer gets pushed around all over the floor by bigger, savvy guards like Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Gilbert Arenas and Dwyane Wade. I’m a huge Lewis and Howard fan and I’m pulling for these guys, but I just can’t escape the feeling that they’ll only go as far as Nelson can take them.
Up and Down Game
Rajon Rondo: Rajon Rondo is shooting a putrid 47.4% FTs and that drives his ranking down, but he only attempts 2.1 free throws a game so it really doesn’t affect your bottom line that much. Meanwhile, he’s playing within the flow of the offense and not forcing his shot outside, which has allowed him to shoot a fantastic 57.5% FGs. That paired with his 4.8 assists and 1.9 steals makes Rondo a very strong PG option for teams gunning for FG%. He’s also been piling up assists in recent games, something that should continue as he gels with the new stars.
Sean Williams: Williams has undoubtedly been added in all competitive leagues, or should have been, and now that he’s in the starting lineup expect his strong play to continue. The Nets have been searching for a dynamic presence around the basket since the departure of Kenyon Martin, and the rookie looks more than capable of providing it. He’s a high-energy player who flies to the basket on both ends and will be a major source of blocks. Character concerns bumped his stock down before the NBA draft, but before his suspension Williams was the best shot blocker in the country and he has 16 rejections over the last five games. Expect the offense to come, too, because Jason Kidd makes anybody who can run and jump look good.
Juan Carlos Navarro: Marc Iavaroni should bring a high-powered offense to Memphis this season, but the guard situation has been a mess. There are a lot of mouths to feed and no set rotation. Navarro appears to be establishing himself as one of the primary options, though. He has good chemistry with Pau Gasol and has had no trouble adapting to the NBA three-point line. Navarro has 10 triples in his last three games (thanks to 8 threes against the Hornets last week), and is shooting 47.4% from behind the arc on the season with modest assist totals.
Andray Blatche: Blatche is probably best known for trying to pick up an undercover cop he thought to be hooker the night before signing a contract extension this offseason, but his basketball game is starting to make people forget. At 6’11”, Blatche is extremely athletic and will continue to find minutes off the Wizards’ bench. There’s also been talk of moving Caron Butler to the off-guard position, which could eventually free up a spot in the starting lineup. Over his last five games Blatche has played in 20+ minutes every night and turned in 12 swats over that stretch. Those in need of blocks should strongly consider him.
Devin Harris: Devin Harris is the unquestioned PG in Dallas now, and he’s been producing a career line so far. Harris has missed a few games already, but over the last week he’s averaging 14.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.0 steals and just 1.7 TOs. It wouldn’t surprise us if he continued to put up lines like that all year, and he will shoot a solid FG%.
Jamario Moon: Moon is the out-of-left-field star of the season so far. Nobody expected the 27-year-old undrafted free agent to get much playing time this year, but he’s actually started for the Raptors the last four games. In that time he’s provided fantasy squads with a very strong across the board line of 10 points, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 steals, 5.8 boards and 0.8 three-pointers. Our sources at Hoops Addict say he’ll stick, so he needs to be owned right now, especially in roto leagues.
Andrew Bynum: Even before Kwame Brown went down, it was clear that Bynum was the Lakers real center. Brown will be sidelined indefinitely with a sprained MCL in his left knee, and it will open up a lot of playing time for Bynum. The guy just turned 20 last month, so there’s plenty of upside here, and he’s already averaging a near double-double with 10.4 points, 9.7 boards and 1.2 blocks on 56.5% FGs and 76.2% FTs. If you need a center, he’s a good target right now.
Andrew Bogut: Bogut supposedly focused on his defensive footwork and conditioning this offseason, and it’s starting to pay off. After a slow start to the season the awkward Aussie has put up 8 blocks, 22 rebounds and 44 points on 19-for-29 FGs in the last two games. He looks like a major breakout candidate at the center position.
Slow It Up:
Nenad Krstic: Coming off offseason knee reconstruction, Nenad hasn’t looked like himself all season. The emergence of Sean Williams (above) is going to make matters worse, and we wonder if it might be time for the Nets to shut hum down for a while. Krstic got 29 minutes of playing time on the 12th, and his knee didn’t respond well. Since then he hasn’t topped 16 minutes, 6 points or 2 boards. You can probably cut him if there’s anything attractive out there.
Kevin Durant: Kevin Durant needs to understand that he can’t coast on his rare athleticism anymore. Against the bigger, stronger, smarter and more athletic NBA defenders he can’t force his shot now. Last week head coach P.J. Carlesimo said, “He’s a volume shooter, not that he’s not a good shooter, but he’s got to get a lot of shots.” That’s all well and good, but if he’s going to continue to hoist 17.6 shots a game and only hit 37.4% of them he’s not much use to fantasy owners. Durant hasn’t provided a real boost in anything outside of points thus far, and Jeff Green is the best rookie in Seattle right now. We think Durant will start to shape up as the season wears on and could be a good buy-low candidate for teams in need of points, but his game is ugly right now.
Gilbert Arenas: It’s going to be very difficult for Arenas to live up to that first-round draft position this year. He could still do it, but it’s sounding more and more like that sore knee is going to be a lingering problem that could sideline him at any point. Arenas has been sitting out practice with regularity, getting his knee drained periodically, and sat out Saturday’s game with knee soreness. He’s also struggling mightily in the second night of back-to-back games and will likely continue to continue to miss games here and there all season. If you can find somebody willing to give you a top-15 player for Arenas, pull the trigger.