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Offseason Extra: Five burning questions

Fantasy Writer
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The 2012-13 season offered no shortage of surprises. We saw the peerless LeBron James continue his reign as the top overall Fantasy option, but each individual position saw some old faces take steps back and some new ones step up to the elite levels. The disappointments also were there. We saw players such as Michael Beasley and Kenneth Faried fail to live up to lofty expectations while Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum were forced to miss the entire season due to injuries they suffered last season.

It is not too early to start looking ahead toward next season, as there are plenty of questions in need of answers. While it would be impossible to address everything, we tried to focus on the top issues most Fantasy owners are concerned about as we slowly inch toward the next season.

1. With Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Love and Danny Granger all coming off major injuries, where does their Fantasy value stand heading into the 2012-13 campaign?

This is a tough one as Fantasy owners were burned by all four. Love gave owners the most during the 2012-13 campaign as he appeared in 18 games and put up his usual high-end numbers, averaging 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in each of those contests despite shooting 35 percent from the field. However, Granger was limited to just five games while Rose and Bynum never stepped a foot on the court. The question now becomes which of the four will not only be healthy heading into next year, but which will be ready to contribute from day one?

We will start with Granger as he seems to be the one with the most question marks. The 30-year-old underwent surgery on his left knee back in April to deal with the patellar tendinitis that forced him to miss most of last year but is hoping to be ready to return for the start of training camp. We aren’t so sure about that as the Pacers will likely be a lot more cautious with his recovery this time around as the last thing they want to do is rush him back. However, it isn’t just Granger’s knee that concerns us the most, it is his declining production. The former All-Star has seen his scoring and shooting percentage decline in each of the last three full seasons and the emergence of Paul George could alter his minutes and role on the team. While we aren’t saying Granger is done, we are saying his average draft position should be a lot higher than the 65.5 it was last year heading into the fall. Target him in the middle or even late rounds in most draft formats and hope he can outperform his new draft standing.

Bynum is another interesting case as Fantasy owners have been burned by the 7-footer numerous times. He has undergone four knee surgeries over his eight seasons and has appeared in 70-plus games just once in his career, so most are used to him being in and out of the lineup. However, he especially left owners high and dry after never stepping on the court this past season, despite holding an ADP of 25.9. By all accounts, Bynum’s recovery from his latest procedure that removed debris from both of his knees is going great as he was even spotted dancing on his vacation in Spain. While that is far from a clean bill of health, all signs point to him being ready to roll once training camp starts, albeit no one knows where the soon-to-be free agent will be playing. Still, the 25-year-old averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and 1.9 blocks during his last season on the court in 2011-12 and he will remain a starter no matter where he winds up playing. Bynum is a classic example of a high-risk, high-reward type of player, so owners who like to roll the dice should plan on targeting him in the early rounds at the thin center position.

Like we mentioned above, Love was the most productive option on the list this last year despite only playing in 18 games after re-fracturing his hand back in December. However, he is expected to have a clean bill of health heading into the fall, which is great news for Fantasy owners and the Timberwolves. Love will also have a healthy and more experienced Ricky Rubio running the point, which should create easier scoring chances for the 24-year-old. However, just because Love is expected to be healthy coming into the season, doesn’t mean he will stay that way. He has appeared in 70-plus games in just two of his five years in the league, so there is some concern about his durability. Still, there is no denying his talent when on the floor as Love has proved to be one of the more productive Fantasy options around. He has averaged 20-plus points and 13-plus rebounds over his last two full seasons and there isn’t much to suggest that won’t be the case again next fall. As long as he is healthy, owners should plan on grabbing Love in the first round in all formats next Draft Day.

Rose’s situation is slightly different from the three previously mentioned players as he was actually medically cleared to play in February, but opted not to take the court as he seemed to have some problems getting over the mental aspect of his return. That decision did not sit well with Bulls’ fans and most of the Fantasy owners who wasted a pick on him, especially after reports surfaced stating how good he looked in practice. While there seems to be some concern about Rose’s mental state, we think that has been blown out of proportion a bit. There was no reason for Rose to rush back this season as the Bulls likely weren’t going anywhere even if he was on the court. Now he will be 18 months removed from his surgery once training camp rolls around and based on what doctors have said and his practice reports, all signs point to him being his usual must-start self on the court next year. While owners may be hesitant to spend a first-round pick on Rose like in years past, he likely won’t be on the board very long. Based on how things look right now, owners should plan on spending a very early round pick on Rose next fall.

2. Will Kobe still be Kobe?

Even coming off a major injury and turning 35 during the offseason, my gut tells me not to count out Kobe Bryant. For years, we have been waiting for the seemingly inevitable time when Bryant falls off, but it hasn't happened yet. After his scoring dipped to 25.3 points per game in 2010-11, he simply turned around and put together his sixth and eighth-highest scoring seasons over the last two.

Unfortunately, at his age, this might finally be the year the predictions of a downfall come true. Bryant is recovering from surgery to repair his torn Achilles, suffered during the last week of the season. The history of players recovering from this particular injury is not great, especially for players who have suffered them late in their careers. Eleven players suffered a ruptured Achilles from 1992-2012, and only four of them recovered to play at a similar or higher level as prior to their injury , according to research done by BasketballProspectus.com

We can look at a pair of Hall of Famers as the best and worst case scenarios for Bryant's recovery -- Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins was able to return from his injury at the age of 32 and play in five more seasons, averaging 21.5 points per game and making a pair of All-Star games. On the other end of the spectrum, Thomas' Hall of Fame career came to an early end after his Achilles injury.

Bryant has vowed to return to the floor, but we're reminded of Chauncey Billups' identical vow. And return Billups did, 10 months after his injury, for all of three games, before being shut down for another two months this season. Billups scored a career-low 8.4 points per game in 2012-13, and it would not be a surprise if Bryant suffers a similar fate. I still want him on my Fantasy team when he does come back, but with the extended issues Billups faced, along with the lost seasons from other superstars like Love and Rose, I'm not willing to invest much in him on Draft Day.

3. With the emergence of young stars like Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Kyrie Irving, who are the top five guards heading into 2013-14?

With Bryant and Dwyane Wade's injury concerns and advancing age, there is definitely room among the top tier of guards. Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Chris Paul should be holdovers from last year's top-five, but the final two spots are up for grabs from a number of suitors.

The case for Curry is a pretty easy one to make, as Curry put together the finest shooting season in league history and only increased his onslaught as the season went on. Concerns about the stability of his surgically repaired ankle have not abated, which is just about the only argument against his placement in the top five. However, with averages of 26.0 points and 7.4 assists per game after the All-Star break, I feel confident slotting him right behind Paul.

Irving's case is pretty similar to Curry's -- when he's healthy, it's bulletproof. Unfortunately, Irving is healthy even less often than Curry, having missed 38 games in his two-year career. Irving does pretty much everything you want from a point guard, however, and we can take solace in noting that his injuries have generally been unrelated -- a fractured hand, sprained shoulder and toe injury are just some of the injuries that have hampered him since college. The fact that there is not one lingering issue for Irving seems like a plus and makes it easier to place him near the top five.

Wall and Holliday come from opposite ends of the spectrum, as Holiday looked like a sure-fire top-five guy in the first half, while Wall came on strong after the All-Star break. Holiday likely wilted under the stress of carrying a lottery team for huge minutes for the first time in his career, and he should have more help next season. Even with that, I think Wall's got the inside path on a top-five spot coming into the new season, thanks to his pedigree and the presence of a better team surrounding him. Wall averaged 20.7 points and 7.8 assists per game after the All-Star break.

Other options for the top five: Deron Williams, Damian Lillard, Monta Ellis, Tony Parker

4. Can someone finally dethrone LeBron as the king of Fantasy?

James has been one of the most dominating Fantasy options we have ever seen, finishing as the top scorer in all standard formats in eight of the last nine seasons, including each of the last six. Most thought James’ run would come to a screeching halt once he decided to take his talents to South Beach, but that has certainly not been the case. In fact, LeBron has comfortably taken home the top honors in two of his three seasons in Miami and the best may be yet to come from the 28-year-old. He has shown the ability to play all five positions on the court as well as tailor his game to whatever the situation dictates.

However, James’ durability has played a major role in his recent dominance as he has never missed more than six games in a single season. That is especially impressive considering how much abuse he takes on a nightly basis, and it is a big reason why no one has been able to overtake him for the top spot in Fantasy. Kobe Bryant was the last player to finish ahead of James, in terms of Fantasy points, back in 2006, and Kevin Durant seems to be his only real challenger moving forward. Durant has finished second to James in each of the last two seasons and appears to be just starting the prime of his career. The 24-year-old has shown he has the scoring and rebounding prowess to match James and is even a better shooter than LeBron from three-point range and the free-throw line. However, James’ assist totals continue to push him over the edge as the King has averaged 6.9 dimes over the past three years while Durant posted a career-high 4.6 this past season.

While we do believe Durant is primed to eventually take over as the No. 1 overall option in Fantasy, we think James will be able to hold him off for at least one more year.

5. With a clear hierarchy at the top of Standard Fantasy formats, what does the top of a Rotisserie league look like right now?

Head-to-Head scoring formats are generally obsessed with gaudy totals in the big three categories (points, assists, rebounds), but Rotisserie lets you open up the player pool a bit more and find guys who contribute in a variety of ways. As a result, you'll end up with inherently different top-to-bottom rankings for players.

LeBron is pretty much the consensus top option in Head-to-Head, but we would not begrudge anyone who takes Kevin Durant at the top of the draft in Roto. However, there are arguments to be made for a few other options in that spot depending on how you want to build your team. These include a healthy Kevin Love or Stephen Curry, thanks to their absurd rebounding and three-point shooting, respectively.

Snagging Durant first over James is basically a calculated risk that the soon-to-be 25-year-old is going to continue improving, while we have seen the best from James already. Durant became the first scoring leader to ever shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line, while improving his across-the-board game with career highs in assists, blocks and steals per game. Durant, more than any other player, contributes at least something in every single category. The only thing holding him back from toppling James is his lagging assist totals, since that continues to be the toughest category to fill in Roto.

This is where Chris Paul comes into the discussion. He has yet to average fewer than 9.1 assists or 15.9 points per game in the last six years. He also has led the league in five of those six seasons in steals. You can basically win two categories with Paul as your top guy. Unfortunately, lingering health concerns, as well as the fact that he does not play huge minutes at this point in his career, limit Paul to a tier behind James and Durant. He is a safe option, but until he plays 38-plus minutes per night like the rest of his peers, Paul’s upside is a bit limited.

The two most intriguing options that could end up being the top Roto options are Love and Curry, who each combine one elite skill with a solid all-around game. Love is the best rebounder in the league, and his combination of that with three-point shooting makes him one of the most unique options around. In 2011-12, he averaged 26.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 1.9 3-pointers per game. Unfortunately, his recurring problems with a hand injury might scare some Fantasy owners away, leaving you with a good bargain even in the first round.

Curry is already arguably the best high-volume three-point shooter in the league, and he only got better as the season wore on. Curry averaged 26.0 points and 7.4 assists per game after the All-Star break, while making more than 4.0 3-pointers per game at a 46.1 percent clip. If not for his surgically repaired ankles, which cause us to hold our breath every time Curry goes down awkwardly, Curry would already be a top-three option. You might not draft Curry first overall, but he has the ability to be the top Roto option as soon as this coming season, and could feature the highest return on investment of anyone in the first round.

The key for a Roto league is making sure you have a balanced team, which is why James obviously makes sense as the top option -- he added an elite three-point shot and is just an average free-throw percentage away from being a true plus in each category. There are a few challengers to his throne, but James’ continued excellence and lack of any apparent weakness make him the safest bet on Draft Day.

This is how we see the first round of a Roto draft going, if it were done right now.

1. LeBron James, SF, Heat
2. Kevin Durant, SF, Thunder
3. Chris Paul, PG, Clippers
4. Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves
5. Josh Smith, SF, Hawks
6. Stephen Curry, PG, Warriors
7. Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder
8. Deron Williams, PG, Nets
9. James Harden, SG, Rockets
10. Carmelo Anthony, SF, Knicks
11. Dwight Howard, C, Lakers
12. Paul George, SF, Pacers

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