Let’s be real – this time of the year isn’t all that urgent for 95 percent of the fantasy basketball playing public. Aside from the fact that two-thirds of the reports you read will be total crap, most owners have plenty of time to see how the dust settles after the draft and free agency.
The other five percent of you are grinding, borderline-OCD about it and perhaps you play in a rookie keeper-league that selects before Thursday’s big draft. I’m not going to sit here and try to predict where guys fall with any certainty – our guys Ed Isaacson and Doctor A have you covered there – but I will set the stage for the type of fantasy value that could be had in each location that holds a top-8 pick.
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Biggest Need: Small Forward
Other Needs: Interior Scorer
Fantasy Situation: The Cavs will have their eyes on two small forwards in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, and barring a total surprise either guy will get all the minutes that they can handle in Year 1 should they don the Wine and Gold. New Euro-hire David Blatt is the anti-Mike Brown, and should inject some flamboyancy to the offensive end. As an understudy of the Pete Carril Princeton offense some concerns about Kyrie Irving pounding the air out of the ball should be mitigated. It’s also possible that some dead weight gets trimmed via trade, and a thinner group consisting of Jarrett Jack, Dion Waiters, Spencer Hawes, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao could get clipped. With Milwaukee and Philly both prime fantasy destinations, an all-out fantasy gamble prior to the draft on either Wiggins or Parker seems like a fine play within any reasonable context. For what it’s worth I like Wiggins as a player a lot more than I like Parker.
Biggest Need: Back up the truck (everything). There is not an untouchable player on this roster after Larry Sanders’ bust of a season.
Other Needs: I guess I can expand here. Brandon Knight was the one bright spot last year in terms of productivity and he still has a ton of holes in his game -- including finishing, free throws, point guarding and defense. Ramon Sessions belongs on another team. O.J. Mayo could really use the carb-restricted diet I have lost fifty pounds on. Khris Middleton is a nice player but you’re not writing home about him. John Henson regressed at the end of the year and Larry Drew was not a fan, though an increasingly dysfunctional organization as Herb Kohl felt around for the exits certainly contributed to the charade. If we’re talking needs, here, Drew should be as ‘interim’ as ‘interim’ gets with motivated new ownership around to make sure he’s developing and not tinkering. It became clear that Kohl was more enamored with Ersan Ilyasova than the coaching staff or management, which is probably why he has been yo-yoed in and out of the lineup for the duration of his big money deal. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a bright future but he is still very raw and wasn't able to force Drew into playing him last season, which shouldn't really have been necessary in a tanking season but that's how it went. Henson, Antekounmpo and Knight are all worth planning around, but they're not going to tilt the draft in any one direction.
As an aside, if you don't think the Bucks were tanking last year as Kohl was marketing the team then I have some swampland in Florida you may be interested in.
Fantasy Situation: The Bucks have pinned their hopes – not just for turning the franchise around – but also for getting some public dollars for a new arena around their top overall pick. They openly tanked last season and were supported by a vocal portion of their fan base in doing so. This won’t be the year that they try to get cute (at least I think they won’t). They need a big name guy to sell to the city of Milwaukee, and with plenty of team needs I think they’ll take the best player available. Assuming Wiggins goes first that will be Jabari Parker, even if I hate his defense and his Derrick Williams’ like Tweener status.
Parker is a big character guy from a big name school in Duke and the Bucks are going to wrap their entire arena effort around him. For those not schooled in the Bucks' future in Milwaukee, if they don’t get a new arena then the team could be moved out of town. There are a handful of powerful owners that want a team moved into the larger market of Seattle, and there are a tremendous number of big media voices that will try to pick apart Milwaukee’s perceived issues in securing their building. The new Bucks owners didn’t get into this endeavor to lose their team right away, so they’re going to take the safe pick and do everything in their power to make it look amazing.
Biggest Need: See Milwaukee.
Other Needs: The only players the Sixers can turly hang their hats on are Thaddeus Young and Michael Carter-Williams. Nerlens Noel may end up being a good or even great defensive big, but as a mid-level lottery pick in a bad draft nobody should be banking on his future after a significant knee injury. I do think that MCW can be a solid player, but the jury is still out on his ability to defend quicker point guards, shoot consistently, and whether or not his production will look remotely similar in any non-tanking situation. As usual, the answer will likely be in the middle of the two extremes you’re picturing in your head right now. The rest of the roster makes Milwaukee’s group look like a bunch of All Stars.
Fantasy Situation: The Sixers don’t seem to want to play Nerlens Noel as a five-man, and that’s going to severely limit their playing style if they can’t find a center with some shooting range. Joel Embiid might fit the bill there but who knows how bad the foot thing is. Some draftniks are looking at Dante Exum here, too, and there has been talk that MCW is on the block – which would make sense in that case since Exum profiles a lot like him. That seems like a lot of work to get to the same place unless you’re cashing in on MCW’s probable high point in perceived value, and you’re absolutely sure Exum can be that guy.
Overall, I wouldn’t be entirely sure that Brett Brown is going to run a track meet every year – since this past year it was obviously an attempt to junk up games. But there should still be some elements of that approach with youth and athleticism as their defining attributes. Embiid carries his own unique risk in both the real world and in fantasy drafts, but if he was to land in Philly it would be a pretty good place for him to land with a good coach and nobody to push him for playing time. To be clear, owners are drafting him as a keeper only this year. Beyond that, even though not everybody is sold on Exum’s ability to play point at the next level, he might be the value play among the top-3 probable draft picks because Philly is such fertile fantasy ground.
Biggest Need: Point Guard
Other Needs: Depth, upside and a dominant scorer. Can Victor Oladipo play point guard at the NBA level? Sure, he’s a starting caliber point guard prospect based on his defensive abilities alone. If we fast forward three seasons he’d be a fine signal caller in the association, though it’s doubtful he’d be pushing the elite tier of Point Gods for a spot in their group. The Magic would love to move him off the ball and have him work on his outside shooting over time, all while pairing him next to a more traditional point guard to give the lineup a potentially elite one-two punch. Dante Exum would be a good start toward that calculus, assuming you think he's a one and not a two, since the duo could cross-match on the defensive end.
Beyond that, the Magic have a lot of good, promising players that aren’t going to be elite anytime soon. Nikola Vucevic and Arron Afflalo are starting-caliber NBA players, though statistically they will certainly fade when the roster accumulates more depth. Tobias Harris’ ankle injury was a doozy and Jacque Vaughn didn’t do him any favors with some of his rotations, but he’s also headed toward being a decent starter with some upside if he continues at his trajectory. Moe Harkless is a project but it’s too early to rule out his chance at contributing meaningful minutes for a good NBA team. Kyle O’Quinn showed that he can be a serviceable backup this year. Jameer Nelson needs to exit stage left and find a contender that will nurse him to the finish line every year.
Fantasy Situation: Unfortunately, unless the Magic make a trade to get rid of their quasi-depth in the starting unit, the only position that would bring with it a surefire fantasy hit is point guard. This, of course, assumes that Nelson moves along, because the Magic might decide to bring Exum or another point guard prospect like Marcus Smart along slowly. However, if you’re gambling on Exum before Thursday’s draft it’s good to know that a team like Orlando is looking at point guards in case he falls past Philly.
Biggest Need: Small Forward/Wing
Other Needs: Coach that’s willing to develop players and not seek wins. Backup scoring big man.
Fantasy Situation: I understand what Ty Corbin wanted to do in keeping both Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter in the center position while playing Marvin Williams as a stretch four. He’s getting paid to win and somewhere along the lines the Jazz decided it simply wasn’t worth pressing Corbin to see if Favors and Kanter could play together heavy minutes. You’ll note that new coach Quin Snyder has already come out and said that developing players is one of his biggest concerns. That’s probably not a coincidence.
Whether or not he’s able to help Enes Kanter get his feet off the ground when he jumps, or help Favors expand upon the flashes of four-man game he has shown at times is a separate issue – this team needs a legit small forward in the worst way possible. Richard Jefferson just wasn’t cutting it. Gordon Hayward can slide over and play the three, but that only seems beneficial if the Jazz can get a shooting guard that can bury the triple. Alec Burks just isn’t that guy right now. With Trey Burke apt to get at least another year to show that he can improve into a starting-caliber point guard, the hope for fantasy owners looking at Utah’s pick is that they find a partner to trade with in order to get a wing player instead of duplicating talent via a ‘best player available’ selection. As an aside, a guy like Julius Randle would be an ideal pick for them if they decide it’s time to cut bait on Enes Kanter via trade.
Biggest Need: Big Man.
Other Needs: Depth, high-end talent, and did I mention big men? Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are end-of-the-rotation guys on any good team, and Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are tepid prospects at this early stage of their careers. Sullinger has shown decent promise but his stats were inflated on a bad team, and his injury and weight concerns speak for themselves. Olynyk has a long ways to go before any team would plan around him as a constant.
Fantasy Situation: Assuming Joel Embiid’s foot injury isn’t a deal-breaker for teams (and it’s hard to believe anything you hear at this time of year), he would be a boon for the Celtics if he fell this far. Brad Stevens proved to be a little of a tinkerer in his handling of the bigs last year, but I’m going to wait until he has better players before labeling him a fantasy liability in that regard. Of course, owners drafting Embiid in these crazy pre-NBA draft leagues have to know he could miss all of next year.
Beyond the big man situation, the Celtics are going to always be in the rumor mill but until something happens they’re pretty well set with Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and unfortunately for them they’re stuck with Jeff Green. Green could always get groomed to play some four and Bradley’s injury concerns are ever-present, but still anybody but a big man selected on draft day will have some hurdles in fantasy leagues.
Biggest Need: Organizational Direction.
Other Needs: Point guard, big men, and general depth. Whenever they have their assessment of what Kobe Bryant can give them, the Lakers will need to figure out how they want to leverage one of the league’s marquee franchises in order to acquire high-end free agents. Steve Nash is done, injury-prone Jordan Farmar has very low-end starting upside, and Nick Young is better on TMZ than he is for a contending team. Pau Gasol doesn’t fit a rebuild and the only big man the Lakers should have in future plans is Ryan Kelly, as he showed decent versatility and could be useful off the end of a winning bench. Wes Johnson could play spot minutes for a contender. This leaves the Lakers as a team with plenty of reasons to make moves in the next 30 days, and on draft day they should probably go for the best player available.
Fantasy Situation: This is a good spot for owners looking at the middle of the lottery for fantasy value. Julius Randle could make some noise if he lands there, as could Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas, Doug McDermott or any of the offensively polished players going in mock drafts between 5-10.
Biggest Need: Get out of the awkward zone.
Other Needs: The Kings have a Moneyball player in Isaiah Thomas for the point guard position, but they don’t know if they can afford him because they feel they need to sign Rudy Gay in order to improve the franchise’s credibility overall. They have bad, duplicative holdings at the power forward position in Jason Thompson and Carl Landry. Derrick Williams needs to take a big step that would qualify as surprising if he's going to be a contributor for a winner. Quincy Acy and Reggie Evans are nice role players for contending teams but they kill spacing and aren’t a great fit for this squad. Bad money from previous ownership is winding down. The new regime is hooked into their McRookies, Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore, and in the case of McLemore the jury is still out on if he can pull it all together to reach his potential. And for the millionth straight year it seems, McCallum is the other option keeping the franchise, fans and media from getting behind Thomas in full, despite Thomas making the detractors look silly in each of three straight years.
Whatever the Kings do, they have an anchor tenant in DeMarcus Cousins, and Gay is probably an overspend if they choose to keep him at the expense of the younger, cheaper talent in Thomas. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money in the NBA, though, and quality players will be more apt to play on a roster with other bigger name players. Ideally, the franchise sucks it up and finds a way to pay both guys. If Gay doesn’t totally crap out in the first three years of a theoretic deal, it’s probably still a win for a team devoid of next-level players. He’ll need to improve his defense and keep from being a take-turns player on the offensive end. I worry about his athleticism at the tail-end of his deal when the Kings would theoretically be contending. Cousins is the league's most physically dominant big man and Gay needs to improve the way he plays off of him, even if we should all give Rudy a tip-of-the-cap for the efficient basketball he played much of the time.
Overall, the Kings need outside shooting in a bad way. Defenses packed the paint and doubled their Big Three relentlessly. McCallum is a nice improving player but he saw a lot of garbage time when he put up big numbers and it’s safe to say he hasn’t been thoroughly tested. If he can’t develop something close to the sweet jumper that Thomas has, the Kings and Cousins will see even more feet in the paint. It’s a huge gamble letting Thomas go at the relatively low dollars he’ll command, but one way or another the franchise needs to either put their full faith in him or try what’s behind door No. 2.
Fantasy Situation: Ideally, the Kings would draft either a rim-protecting power forward or a stretch-forward and give them 30 minutes per game or more in a developmental season. But that’s not going to happen while Thompson, Williams and Landry are still around, and even an ideal offensive pick in Doug McDermott would be a tough sell in fantasy leagues. Likewise, it’s much too early to give up on McLemore so any shooting guard selection will probably be in for a timeshare early on at least. With Thomas being used as trade bait it’s possible a backcourt selection like Marcus Smart could work out, but we’re really guessing at that point. In the end, the Kings will be one of the more aggressive teams in the next 30 days so planning around them is probably a fool’s errand.