2009 NBA Preview: 10 Breakout Candidates

What constitutes a “breakout” season? To me, it’s a talented player who has been in the league at least one year who is about to see a big increase in minutes. Here is a list of 10 players (in no particular order) who I think will have career seasons in 2009-10.

1. Tyrus Thomas, Bulls
The 23 year-old is entering his fourth season and will probably be the Bulls’ starter at power forward. He averaged 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in 27.5 minutes last season, and an increase in minutes would enhance those numbers. Now that he has an effective mid-range jump shot, he can use that and his athleticism to get to the basket.

2. Anthony Randolph, Warriors
Randolph is a popular breakout pick this season after a great summer league and flashes of brilliance in his rookie year. He only played about 18 minutes per game last season, and is playing almost 28 minutes in the preseason, starting every game in which he’s appeared. Don Nelson may not start him during the regular season since he’s been battling some injuries, but expect him to get plenty of run this year.

3. Anthony Morrow, Warriors
Let’s stay in Oakland, shall we? Not to read too much into preseason stats, but through eight games, the second-year Morrow is averaging 22.0 points on 58% shooting (52% from 3PT). He’s going to come off the bench, but that might not last for long if Stephen Jackson eventually gets traded. Morrow is one of the league’s best shooters, nailing almost 47% of his threes a year ago.

4. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
With Yao Ming out and Tracy McGrady hobbled, the Rockets don’t have a whole lot of offensive options and Brooks is one of the best shooters the team has. He averaged 11.2 points in 25 minutes per game last season. If he gets 32-35 minutes per game, he should average somewhere in the 14-16 ppg range.

5. Louis Williams, 76ers
He’s a very different player than Andre Miller, the guy he’s being asked to replace. He isn’t going to drop a lot of dimes, but the guy can score, and if he gets starter’s minutes his averages are going to jump. In the preseason, he’s averaging 14.9 ppg in 27 minutes of PT.

6. Courtney Lee / Chris Douglas-Roberts, Nets
I’m listing them both because it’s not clear which will be the Nets’ starting shooting guard on opening day. It may not matter because the other might be the starting small forward. In the preseason, CDM and Lee are averaging 18.5 ppg and 17.0 ppg, respectively. While Devin Harris and Brook Lopez are likely to lead the Nets in scoring, Lee and Douglas-Roberts could both average 12-14 ppg.

7. J.R. Smith, Nuggets
Smith has already had a breakout year (in his first season with the Nuggets), but the departure of Dahntay Jones gives Smith the chance to start. George Karl started Jones last season because of his commitment to defense, so it’s just as likely that he finds another defensive-oriented off guard to fill that vacated role. Smith has the talent to start, but can he keep his head on straight and play enough defense to keep Karl happy? (By the way, he’s suspended for the first seven games.)

8. Channing Frye, Suns
After a nice rookie season (12p/6r) in New York, Frye wasn’t as good in his second season and landed in Portland where he didn’t get much run. Now he’s the starting center in Phoenix and is averaging 12.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in 26.8 minutes of playing time. The Suns are awfully thin on the front line, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Frye ends up playing 30-35 minutes a game.

9. Julian Wright, Hornets
While he isn’t shooting particularly well (41%) in the preseason, it appears that Byron Scott has finally given up on Peja Stojakovic and is ready to hand over the keys to Wright, who has started all six preseason games in which he has appeared. He’s a great athlete and versatile player, but the big mystery with Wright is his three-point shooting. He hit 10-24 attempts in his rookie season, but just 2-21 in his second year. The Hornets need shooters for Chris Paul to pass to, so if Wright doesn’t start knocking down shots, Scott might go back to Peja.

10. Hakim Warrick, Bucks
Warrick is leading the Bucks in preseason scoring with 14.4 ppg. He’ll battle with Luc Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova and Joe Alexander for minutes. Scott Skiles will likely start Mbah a Moute at one forward spot because he’s a great defender, but the other is up for grabs. Regardless, Warrick should get plenty of minutes and is on a one-year contract, so he’s very motivated.

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2009 NBA Preview: Atlantic Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis.

Boston Celtics (5)
Normally, the return of a healthy Kevin Garnett would be enough to thrust the Celtics back to contender status, but with the way the rich got richer this summer in terms of talent, GM Danny Ainge knew he had to improve his team, so he went out and signed Rasheed Wallace to give the C’s another big body up front. If everyone is healthy, minutes are going to be a problem, as Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins deserve to play, but one might get squeezed out by Garnett and Wallace. In the backcourt, the big question seems to be the overall attitude of Rajon Rondo, who is running out of time to sign an extension. It is unlikely that he and the Celtics will come to terms by the end of the month as the two sides are reportedly far apart in perceived value. Marquis Daniels was brought in to shore up the backcourt, so the Celtics will once again head into the season with a deep and talented roster. But can everyone stay healthy? If Garnett, Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are all feeling good come playoff time, the Celtics will be a serious threat to make the Finals.

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2009 NBA Preview: Impact Rookies

Every year, first-year players greatly impact the NBA regular season. They tend to thrive on bad teams for two reasons: 1) the best players generally go early in the draft to struggling franchises, and 2) those teams need their services so they play heavy minutes. In fact, over the last three years, the players that made the All-Rookie First Team played an average of 29.0 minutes per game. Playing time is opportunity, and with opportunity comes production.

Over that span, players that were named to the All-Rookie First Team played on teams with a combined 500-730 (.407) record. Only four players — Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa on the 2006-07 Raptors, Luis Scola on the 2007-08 Rockets and Michael Beasley on the 2008-09 Heat — played on teams with a winning record. The other 11 players were on teams that averaged 25 wins.

Looking ahead to the 2009-10 NBA season, there are a number of rookies that will get big minutes on bad teams. I’m going to rank them in order of what I perceive to be their talent plus their opportunity, because a rookie needs both to succeed in his first year. Fantasy hoopsters should take note: Rookies can be great picks on draft day, if you know which ones to pick.

1. Blake Griffin, Clippers
In the preseason, Griffin is averaging 14.7 points and 8.5 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per game. The Clippers found a taker for Zach Randolph to clear the way for Griffin to start at power forward, and he should be a fixture there for the next few years. I expect he’ll get 33-35 minutes per game during the regular season, so 16-17 points and 9+ rebounds are a reasonable expectation. From a fantasy perspective, he’s currently PF19 off the board, but will likely finish as the PF11 or better if he stays healthy. 10/27 Update: He didn’t stay healthy. Griffin will miss six weeks with a stress fracture in his knee.

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2009 NBA Preview: Central Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis. Be sure to check back on Saturday for the preview of the Atlantic Division.

Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
By now, everyone knows that LeBron James is set to become a free agent next summer. Feeling the proverbial heat, the Cavs swung a trade for Shaquille O’Neal hoping that he’ll be able to put the team over the top. It would be tough for LeBron to justify bolting Cleveland if the franchise is coming off of a championship, so the Cavs are “all in.” In addition to acquiring Shaq, they signed Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and re-upped with Anderson Varejao. It might take some time for this roster to gel, but there’s no doubt that the Cavs have enough talent to go the distance. While making the transition from a declining Zydrunas Ilgauskas to a declining Shaq has its advantages, it’s going to be tough for LeBron to find driving lanes with Shaq and Varejao clogging the lane. Neither can shoot the ball effectively outside of 10 feet, so their defenders will be better able to get to the paint to help on LeBron. Look for the Cavs to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with LeBron and Shaq, which will force Shaq’s defender away from the basket. This should help, but there still is the matter of Varejao’s man defending the basket. It’s crucial that the Cavs get good shooting from Parker, Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson. Those players have to make the defense pay when it sags to help on LeBron. From a salary cap perspective, the Cavs realized that it wouldn’t do any good to have cap space if the payroll number keeps falling, and the Varejao signing ate up whatever space they would have otherwise had. In the unlikely event that Shaq turns out to be a complete disaster, they could always move him before the trade deadline in a last-ditch attempt to retool before the playoffs. For obvious reasons, of all the teams in the league, the Cavs may have the most riding on the 2009-10 season.

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2009 NBA Preview: Southeast Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis. Be sure to check back on Thursday for a preview of the Central Division and on Saturday for the Atlantic Division.

Orlando Magic (4)
The Magic were busy this summer, but did they get better? Only time will tell. Vince Carter, Brandon Bass and Jason Williams are in, and Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston are out. Orlando fended off a strong run from the Mavs for the services of Marcin Gortat, and actually played Mark Cuban and Co. pretty well by stealing the up-and-coming Bass away in the process. It appears that Bass may start at power forward, which would move Rashard Lewis to small forward. Since the mismatches Lewis created at power forward were one of the Magic’s strengths last season, this may not be written in stone. Orlando also has the option of starting Mickael Pietrus at small forward and moving Lewis back to PF. But the biggest change to the lineup is the loss of Turkoglu and the acquisition of the 32 year-old Vince Carter, who will likely take over Turkoglu’s initiation of the offense. But keep in mind that the Magic made their playoff run without the services of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson, and his return will be a significant boost to an already strong roster. The Magic didn’t just tinker with their Finals roster from last year, they made a pretty major overhaul, so it will be interesting to see how this group gels. Stan Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the NBA, and the regular season should provide plenty of time for the Magic to work the kinks out. A deep playoff run is likely.

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