As basketball season draws closer and closer, so does one of our favorite things about basketball- fantasy. Fans all across the country will start preparing for fantasy drafts as the season approaches. Some of the toughest decisions in fantasy for me is finding the best starter from a tier of players. For example, the difference between LeBron James’s and James Harden’s fantasy production will be small, because each player performs at such a high level that they can give you plenty of points or fill up the stat sheet for your team. However, picking a starter between three mid-tier guys can be much harder.
Finding the sleepers and avoiding players headed for regression is one of the challenges in a fantasy draft. The point of this column is to help you with some of these choices. I will find three mid tier players at a position and break them down, finding the best choice, so that on draft day when all three guys are left on the board and it is your pick, you will know who to choose.
This week, the position is center and the players in question are Brooks Lopez, Dwight Howard, and Greg Monroe. These three are rated 6th, 7th, and 8th, respectively, at center in the ESPN 2014 Draft rankings. Chances are that one of these three could end up being your center if you miss out on one of the top tiered guys, like Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.
Each of these centers has had significant changes to their teams over the course of the off-season, which will impact the fantasy projections for them immensely. Dwight Howard joined a new team, heading to Houston to team up with James Harden and gang. Both Monroe and Lopez didn’t switch teams, but their teams changed a lot, with Monroe’s Pistons adding major free agent piece Josh Smith through free agency, and with Lopez’s Nets adding Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce via a trade with Boston.
Dwight Howard is going to benefit greatly from having James Harden to run pick and rolls with this season. Those two will be nearly unstoppable when running the NBA’s bread and butter play, and Howard can expect lots of points and dunks when healthy from that play alone. The two question marks Howard has this season are his defensive ability and health. Howard’s biggest advantage over the two other big men is not only his offense; Howard can fill up your blocks and rebounds columns if he plays to his potential on defense. But the biggest difference between Dwight four years ago, when he won the defensive player of the year award, and Dwight now is his back. Howard was discomforted much of last season by a bad back, so the injury risk is there for him as he enters the back half of his NBA career. Howard gives fantasy owners plenty of upside with his potential to return to his Magic form and be a top 5 center, but the downside is risk of a nagging back limiting his on court abilities.
Brooks Lopez has become one of the premier offensive centers, ranking first among centers last year with around 20 points per game. Lopez also has a questions about his health though, because some reports say his right foot is acting up again. If Lopez enters the season with injury issues, and starts the season in a suit on the sidelines, it will be hard to warrant use of a high draft pick on the Nets’ center in your draft. Along with the injury concerns, his team did get better this off-season as well. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce joined the Nets to bolster the team’s championship hopes. Garnett doesn’t figure to have too much of an impact on Lopez’s play or minutes, because KG will be closely monitored in the regular season to make sure he doesn’t play too many minutes. Lopez should expect about the same production level as he had last season, and is the safest pick of the three players. He should averaged around 18 points, 6 boards, and one or two blocks a game this season, and would be a good starting fantasy center if healthy for your team.
The final center in the pick three trio is Greg Monroe, who at 23 is the youngest of the group. Monroe had a great season last year, nearly averaging a double double with 16 points and 9 rebounds. The arrow is pointing up for Greg Monroe, which makes him a good selection in a keeper format. But with the addition of Josh Smith to the Piston’s frontcourt, Monroe may be sitting on the bench in crunch time. Smith’s addition may ultimately push Monroe right out of town. The Pistons other big man, Andre Drummond, along with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith will be tough to mesh together. Eventually, the Pistons may find Monroe would be a better trade target and might flip him for another young wing player at the trade deadline. A trade could help Monroe’s fantasy value, because he would probably be traded to a team who needs a good starting center, and he would have an opportunity to get more minutes and more buckets. This is purely speculation, but fantasy owners should keep this in mind before they pencil Greg Monroe in as their starting center.
Out of the three centers this year, my verdict would be selecting Dwight Howard in your draft. Howard has the potential to be a top 5 center running pick and rolls with Harden this season, and has less risk than the other two centers. I am really worried about Monroe being squeezed out of the crunch time rotation, and Lopez’s foot is also a cause for concern. I see Dwight taking steps back in the right direction offensively and defensively in Houston, and he should be the one out of the trio of centers to lead your fantasy team to a championship.