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Thursday, December 29, 2011
If You're Hard-Core: Early risers, fallers

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

NBA basketball isn't back. To my untrained eye, after watching about five games, it's still only about 85 to 90 percent back.

But even though many NBA squads are presently offering Summer League levels of basketball, the stats still count. This is live, people.

I don't know about you, but I still have a couple of drafts to go. And with several teams still in the final stages of filling out their rosters, we're experiencing some heavy rotational pull: trying out different player combinations and parsing out court time.

Even in a normal season, I try to pay some extra attention to the way coaches end up filling out their lineups, as speculation usually gives way to a few early-season surprises. But with the abbreviated training camp, it'd behoove us to take a real long look at several teams still seemingly in a state of flux.

Dallas Mavericks

Delonte West
Delonte West has been one of the few surprises in an otherwise disappointing Mavericks start.

It's early, but it's been an unquestionably ugly first week for the defending champs, as Rick Carlisle attempts to meld several new yet aged pieces into some semblance of a starting lineup. Maybe Mark Cuban was wise to keep his cap powder dry until 2012, but Tyson Chandler has been sorely, sorely missed.

As of this writing, it looks like Brendan Haywood is going to have to average at least 25 minutes per game at center out of sheer desperation. His second game wasn't as horrific as his first, so keep an eye on him as bench material, especially when he starts blocking shots again.

Lamar Odom was ejected in his first game and went 1-for-10 from the field in his second game. But, more importantly, he's already playing more than 30 minutes per game. Carlisle might have to play Dirk Nowitzki at center for some long stretches this year, meaning Odom will be in line for heavy minutes, maybe even more than he had in Los Angeles. I still like Odom's chances long-term; he's a good buy-low opportunity.

I've made about thousands of Vince Carter jokes in my lifetime, but this present, Elvis '77 incarnation of Vinsanity is just plain hard to watch. The Mavericks will give Carter a chance to play himself into shape, but Carter could find himself stuck with 20-23 minutes per game if he doesn't pull it together by mid-January.

Sneaky-good pickup Delonte West is the most direct beneficiary, as he could end up siphoning off minutes at both guard spots. If you need cheap steals, West might be a solid add.

Finally, keep an eye on Rodrigue Beaubois, because if this turns into a lost season, Beaubois' minutes could spike in the interim.

New Orleans Hornets

I wrote about the CP3-less Hornets last week, but Eric Gordon's knee issue came out of the blue. His brittleness will always be a factor, so don't forget about Marco Belinelli if you need 3s and some low-grade scoring punch at SG.

Late signee Carl Landry figures to steal minutes from Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman, muddying what looked to be a promising fantasy frontcourt situation. Still, there should be enough minutes for all three to be productive. Landry might actually end up being something of a poor man's David West: nice points and rebounds, but you'll need to get your blocks elsewhere.

Los Angeles Clippers

Just a quick update here: Chauncey Billups is already entrenched at SG, but Mo Williams is still averaging 25 minutes per game in his first two contests. Williams should hold onto some value in medium to deep leagues. I still think there might be a trade in his near future, but for now look to him for 1-2 steals and 3-pointers a night.

Ryan Gomes has probably gotten more minutes at small forward than he should. Hopefully, Caron Butler asserts himself and pushes Gomes back under 20 minutes per game. He's a little beaten up around the edges, but Butler still offers a lot of statistical diversity. He's going to be a nice depth guy for fantasy teams this season, contributing something in every box score.

New York Knicks

Landry Fields
Landry Fields will continue to get his chances to produce thanks to all the injuries in the Knicks' backcourt.

Look, Baron Davis. You should get some rest. Save yourself for the playoffs, because those of us in deep leagues who took Toney Douglas in the later rounds are about to be rewarded. Douglas' second game was a clunker, as the Knicks ran into the newly-minted defensive buzz saw that is the Golden State Warriors, but he's going to average a solid 13 points a night. Even better? Douglas is averaging 5.5 3-point attempts to date.

Thankfully, Mike Bibby has stayed around 20 minutes per game, meaning Landry Fields has grabbed enough minutes to prove he can contribute in medium to deep leagues. His all-around game against Golden State (14 points, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 3-pointer) was a nice preview of what to expect if he gets steady court time. With Iman Shumpert out for a few weeks, Fields will get every opportunity.

And I've written this before, but keep an eye on Bill Walker. He runs hot and cold, but there are numbers to be had if he can carve out a spot in Mike D'Antoni's rotation.

New Jersey Nets

Last-second scramble Mehmet Okur will eventually pay dividends for both the Nets and his owners. It's just going to take some time. Don't start Okur, but he's worth the bench spot if you can afford to be patient. His out-of-position production from behind the arc can be very valuable, especially in head-to-head matchups.

I wasn't buying Anthony Morrow as the season-long answer at shooting guard this preseason. Marshon Brooks should eventually provide Avery Johnson with enough reasons to give him Morrow's job. Brooks could offer owners some Jordan Crawford-like numbers: inefficient, volume-based scoring with the occasional 3-pointer. Speaking of Crawford …

Washington Wizards

It's looking more and more like the starting power forward for my 2012-13 Washington Bullets (look, even former owner Irene Pollin wouldn't have a problem changing the name back) is going to be … Perry Jones III. That's because "Captain" Andray Blatche is bravely leading John Wall & Co. firmly into the upper echelons of ping-pong ball ownership. Thank Dr. Naismith it's only a 66-game season. In the meantime, look for Nick Young and Jordan Crawford to swap roles sometime before the end of January.

If Blatche continues to struggle/Tweet, Chris Singleton could end up logging 25 minutes per game by All-Star Weekend. I'm intrigued by Singleton's willingness to shoot the 3 (three attempts in two games) and his defensive potential (four steals in two games). If the Wizards keep getting blown out, he'll get the minutes to develop his raw offensive game.

Charlotte Bobcats

During the preseason, the question here was "How long will it take for Kemba Walker to bump D.J. Augustin to the bench?" Judging from the early returns on Augustin (19.5 PPG, 7.0 APG, 2.5 3PM), it could be awhile.

Many owners in deeper leagues were licking their chops at the prospect of Bismack Biyombo swatting shots at will this season. He's still a solid keeper-league add, as the Bobcats' thin frontcourt could end up producing a surprise fantasy contributor at some point.

Continue to monitor D.J. White's upward trend, as he's taking advantage of Tyrus Thomas' ankle injury to the tune of 8 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks a night. He's flashed potential in the past, so keep an eye on him, as White could prove to be a surprise value pickup, along with …

Toronto Raptors

James Johnson. Give the man 27 minutes per game and he'll give you Fantasy Poutine, a delicious and hearty mix of stats that might be short on flash but long on substance. What fissure in the time-space continuum has to occur to give this Johnson the starting SF job ahead of Rasual Butler? There's Doug Christie-potential here, people, trust me.

On a less positive note, continue to monitor two brewing time-shares between Jose Calderon/Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson/Ed Davis. Johnson/Davis is especially frustrating given both players' upside.

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