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Thursday, March 18, 2010
'Tankers' produce sleepers

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

"Tanking" is an ugly word. No NBA team wants to be accused of submerging its winning attitude in the pursuit of ping-pong balls. It depresses players, coaches and fans alike. I'd hate to accuse a team of even contemplating it.

So, let's not call it "tanking." Let's call it "walling."

But for the savvy owner? From great chaos comes great opportunity.

This is the part of the season when I devote a massively disproportionate amount of fantasy brainpower to the bottom 10 teams in the standings. Think of John Hollinger and Chad Ford's very definitive Future Rankings, but turned on their head.

Let's call this our "No Future" Rankings. I'm listing teams with the following criteria: record (so you know just how out of it the team is), pace (so you know how much fantasy opportunity a team regularly offers itself), minute distribution (so you can see how many players regularly get a chance to produce) and hidden upside (so you can see if a team is stashing any untapped athletic potential on its bench.)

We'll count down from the worst of the "tankers" to the best.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 14-54
Pace: 91.3
Minute Distribution: 35+/0, 30-34/1, 25-29/5
Hidden Upside: D-plus

On paper, the Timberwolves should be offering much more to hoops owners. But over the past week, the Timberwolves feature one player averaging more than 1.02 on the Player Rater. And at a lowly 3.26, Al Jefferson's ranking over the past seven days is the lowest team-leading ratio on this list.

Aside from Wayne Ellington offering some situational help in 3s, this is a pretty depressing bunch. Two big building blocks -- Kevin Love and Jonny Flynn -- are actually regressing, with Love residing in Kurt Rambis' doghouse and Flynn losing time to Ramon Sessions. (For more, read David Thorpe's recent Rookie Watch.)

JaVale McGee
JaVale McGee's ability to block shots makes him a decent fantasy option in deeper leagues.

8. Washington Wizards

Record: 21-45
Pace: 94.5
Minute Distribution: 35+/1, 30-34/2, 25-29/1
Hidden Upside: C

When Shaun Livingston becomes your new starting point guard, it's time to start devoting extra time to deciding whom you're sending as your lottery representative. And to think, at one point, I was actually excited about Al Thornton getting back his starter's minutes. Then I remember that Al Thornton is basically everything I dislike in a fantasy player: He's inefficient, doesn't hit 3s, posts mediocre defensive stats, is streaky and is a poor rebounder. But aside from that, by all means, pick him up.

Since gaining a starting role, JaVale McGee has been up and down but can at least be counted upon as a cheap source of blocks. If you're into inspirational stories, you can give D-Leaguer Alonzo Gee a whirl, but you'll have to wait; although Gee went for 13 and 10 on Tuesday, he is so far off the radar that he hasn't been added to ESPN leagues as of this writing.

(Fun fact: If you want to protest the NBA's in-season waiver-wire policies, you can add Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center, where he still qualifies as a Wizard.)

7. Sacramento Kings

Record: 23-45
Pace: 96.9
Minute Distribution: 35+/2, 30-34/1, 25-29/0
Hidden Upside: B-plus

I wrote earlier this season that from a fantasy perspective, the Kings were one of the NBA's most frustrating teams. They have a roster teeming with young upside, are playing for the future and have a historically offense-friendly coach in Paul Westphal. I also wrote that a trade would certainly help matters. I was wrong. Kevin Martin's departure did the Kings' glut at forward few favors -- it just added to the problem by allowing the uber-efficient Carl Landry to suck up 35.8 minutes a night.

A quick perusal of the roster leaves me with a mildly cantankerous sensation; why is Jason Thompson averaging only 24.8 minutes per game? Why is Donte Greene starting? What's happened to Omri Casspi this month? What's happened to Spencer Hawes all season?

6. Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 23-44
Pace: 94.0
Minute Distribution: 35+/2, 30-34/1, 25-29/4
Hidden Upside: C

I've found it hard to recommend anything about the Sixers this season. Injuries, the Allen Iverson situation, and difficulty picking up a new offensive system have all combined to make the Sixers perhaps the most unappealing team for fantasy basketball purposes.

Well, it may not be much, but it's just plain nice to have something positive to say about a Sixer for a change. Jrue Holiday has survived the shakeups in Philadelphia's backcourt rotation and finally emerged with a starting job. Holiday has responded with some rookie-wall-defying stat lines. He's grouping elite steals potential with solid 3-point shooting and rebounding to go with his increasingly gaudy assist totals.

Brandon Rush
Brandon Rush's all-around game can boost many teams' prospects late in the season.

5. Indiana Pacers

Record: 22-45
Pace: 99.9
Minute Distribution: 35+/3, 30-34/2, 25-29/0
Hidden Upside: C-plus

I've been writing about Brandon Rush a lot lately, mainly because of his unique mix of blocks, steals and 3s from the shooting guard spot. After a little mini-drought in the blocks department, Rush responded by swatting four shots Wednesday to go along with two steals and two 3-pointers. Nothing flashy, but he can help teams in deeper leagues in need of a short-term boost.

At this point, I'm pretty sick of seeing Earl Watson get minutes at A.J. Price's expense. Price boasts some of the best per-48-minutes numbers around and seems to need only 22-25 minutes per game to register on the fantasy radar. Let's hope Jim O'Brien decides to give him more of a shot as the season winds down; Price is the kind of player who, down the stretch, could help win a tight race.

4. New Jersey Nets

Record: 7-60
Pace: 93.8
Minute Distribution: 35+/3, 30-34/1, 25-29/0
Hidden Upside: C

Courtney Lee may be a Net and a former member of the Magic, but he's a Warrior at heart. I can't think of any guard this side of Oakland who's been as hit-or-miss as Lee. If you're looking for a high-risk/high-reward add, you can't do any better. Just be prepared for some pronounced lows.

If you want a steadier hand at shooting guard, rookie Terrence Williams is quietly having a nice little month. He doesn't hit 3s and isn't too hot on the defense end but provides a good mix of points, rebounds and assists.

3. Detroit Pistons

Record: 23-45
Pace: 91.3
Minute Distribution: 35+/1, 30-34/3, 25-29/1
Hidden Upside: B-minus

Detroit actually gets a bump on this list due to two recent injuries. Will Bynum and Jason Maxiell have filled in admirably for fantasy LVP candidates Rodney Stuckey and Ben Wallace. Tayshaun Prince has been one of the better adds over the past month and offers a very underrated line of all-around production.

All Jonas Jerebko needs to join Maxiell, Bynum and Prince as late-season steals is about an extra three or four minutes per night. Surprisingly, the Pistons can offer owners a good deal of all-around help. If it weren't for their Spurs-like pace, Detroit would certainly rank ahead of the next team on this list.

Steve Blake
The veteran Steve Blake is still good for a number of assists.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 25-43
Pace: 94.8
Minute Distribution: 35+/1, 30-34/2, 25-29/3
Hidden Upside: C-minus

None of the available Clippers on the wire is exactly brimming with upside, but they do offer several solid yet unspectacular late-season choices. Need 3s? Try Rasual Butler or Travis Outlaw. (OK, Outlaw does brim with upside from time to time.) Assists? Try Steve Blake. Need at backup center? Drew Gooden hasn't been too terrible. No names that blow you away, but again, the Clips can provide steady waiver-wire value for needy owners.

1. Golden State Warriors

Record: 18-48
Pace: 102.3
Minute Distribution: 35+/4, 30-34/0, 25-29/1
Hidden Upside: A

Even by Don Nelson's kooky standards, the Warriors' unpredictability has reached new heights this season. Thanks to one talent-dumping trade (Stephen Jackson) and several injuries too many, the Warriors have had one of the shortest rotations in the NBA all season.

After the All-Star Weekend, Nelson has basically turned the Warriors into a reality show. The show centers on how Nelson can take just about any D-Leaguer in the world, toss him a jersey and squeeze 30 points out of the guy. Of course, we may never hear from that player again, but it certainly makes for some late-season waiver-wire fun.

As of this writing, the hottest unknown Warriors are Reggie Williams and Chris Hunter. In comparison, Anthony Tolliver is a grizzled vet.

Look, no team is as frustrating to scope for wire help, but in Nelson's defense, no other team can offer D-Leaguers who go from call-up to 22 points on 4-of-6 from the 3-point line (Reggie Williams on Wednesday). Nelson is trying to prove a point to someone, and you might as well ride his predilection for newcomers to a bump in your standings.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.