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Fantasy Basketball 2011-12: James Harden Rising, Kobe On The Decline

This NBA season, there are a number of stars primed for a breakout. Luke Hughes tells you which players are ready to emerge and who's falling fast.

Dilip Vishwanat

Click Here to see Part I - Fantasy Rankings for #51-100

Part II - Fantasy Rankings for #1-50

Blake Griffin’s new Kia Optima commercial didn’t just rouse my excitement to see to Griffin and the Blakers (ok, Clippers) take the court this season but it was also a terrific reminder of just how far the high flying youngster ascended during the 2010-11 NBA Season.

No, I’m not referring to him ascending from the floor to nearly the top of the backboard to throw down an alley-oop -- although it does get me all starry eyed – rather I’m talking about Griffin’s meteoric rise to the top of the NBA, in just his rookie season.

Before last season, Fantasy Experts pegged Griffin as another average player, projecting his season at about 14 points, 8 rebounds and a couple assists per game. Boy, were they wrong!

Blake blew up like a firecracker on the 4th of July, making fools of these so-called "experts" from his very first night on the floor – scoring 20 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out 4 assists in a season opening loss. From that moment forward it was the Blake show in LA, and across the NBA for that matter.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and of course Griffin all made some fantasy owners very happy last season, emerging as Fantasy superstars and far exceeding their mid-round values. Yet, while Blake and the boys were making strides up the fantasy food chain, typically reliable cogs like Tim Duncan, Ray Allen and Elton Brand struggled to contribute at their usual elite levels.

This season there are a number of stars primed for a breakout but only a handful will actually pay big dividends for fantasy owners. There’s always speculation about former lottery picks and of course the hope that Greg Oden will stay healthy for a full season, but ultimately only a few preseason predictions actually come to fruition each year. It’s those lucky few, who actually choose the right breakout stars, that will be swimming in their winnings, a la Scrooge McDuck, come May.

Here’s to hoping that my inhibitions are correct and if not that you’re smart enough to ignore my dreadful suggestions.

A list of 5 breakout performers as well as 5 Falling stars for the upcoming 2012 season:

Emerging Stars

James Harden, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

2010-11 Stats: 12.2 ppg, 2.1 apg, 3.1 rpg,

Hughes 2012 Projections: 18.4 ppg, 3.2 apg, 3.8 rpg

Here’s an easy one, normally I don’t like taking the easy road -- don’t ask my mother on that one – but in this case, Harden’s eventual rise to superstardom is too significant to merely gloss over.

Many pegged him as a prime ‘bust’ candidate after falling well below his projections as the 3rd Overall pick in 2009. Last year’s postseason served as Harden’s initiation to the club, as the bearded one, averaged better than 31 minutes per game, a sizeable increase over his 26 mpg regular season average, while scoring in double digits in 10 of the Thunder’s 15 playoff games. 

This year, Harden is expected to see more floor time and should have an expanded role in the offense, which means more opportunities to torment opposing defenses and hang 15-plus on a nightly basis.

Ty Lawson, PG, Denver Nuggets

2010-11 Stats: 11.7 ppg, 4.7 apg, 2.6 rpg,

Hughes 2012 Projections: 14.1 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.6 rpg

Another likely candidate, Lawson skyrocketed his up on the fantasy radar after last season's playoff series with the Thunder. Four double-digit scoring outings in the five-game series, including a 27-point outburst in the Nuggets only series victory, were plenty to jumpstart the Lawson bandwagon.

After the Carmelo Anthony trade in mid-February, Lawson immediately saw an increased role in the offense. Nuggets' head coach George Karl put his faith in his 2nd year point guard, bumping Lawson's to the starting job and increasing his floor time from about 24 mpg to almost 32 minutes a game. With his new role as the primary point guard in Denver, the 24-year-old and Lawson repaid that trust with production, averaging about 14 points and 6 assists over the season's final 25-games.

Now, Lawson looks to improve upon his strong finish and with added playing time and a more prominent role in the offense, he should see an immediate boost in his stats.

DeMarcus Cousins, C, PF, Sacramento Kings

2010-11 Stats: 14.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 0.8 bpg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 16.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.1 bpg 

Cousins is always a risky pick because of his volatile attitude and unpredictable behavior. However, the 5th Overall selection in 2010 has the upside of a baby giraffe – you just can’t tell how high his ceiling could be. 

His rookie season was filled with ups and downs, he’d dominate the floor at times, such as recording 7 double-doubles in 9 games in early March, but would completely disappear at others – scoring just 3 points and grabbing just 1 board in the very next game, following that streak’s conclusion. It’s as if he’s Jekyll and Hyde, only the Kings are hoping for the beastly Hyde to destroy the opponent and not himself.

It’s a true flip of the coin to predict which Cousins will show up in 2012, but given the immense potential I would take a chance on a monster season from the 21-year-old Center.

Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers

2010-11 Stats: 12.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.1 bpg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 14.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.1 bpG. 

The missing trait for Hibbert has always been his lack of a mean streak. If the Pacers’ giant could get a little more aggressive on the glass and improve his inside scoring he would be a 20-10 guy every night.

The anger was certainly on display at times in 2010-11, as Hibbert pulled in a number of 14 or 15 rebound nights, but the consistency became the bigger issue. Similar to Cousins, Hibbert seemed to play reverse roles on certain nights. In mid-December 2010, Hibbert scored 17 and snagged 14 rebounds in Boston, but the very next night scored just 2 points on 1-of-10 shooting and managed only 3 rebounds against New Orleans. That type of play is worrisome from a borderline All-Star center.

This season, with the addition of David West to the frontcourt, Hibbert has the opportunity to truly dominate from the Center position and get close to the double-double numbers he should be averaging.

Eric Gordon, G, New Orleans Hornets

2010-11 Stats: 22.3 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.9 rpg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 27.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.2 rpg 

The key piece to the CP3 deal, it’s apparent in watching the kid play why the Clippers were so reluctant to include him in any deal. Gordon’s scoring ability ranks up there with the best in the league -- Lebron, Durant, Kobe – it’s just about fine tuning that skill moving forward.

Before suffering an injury that kept Gordon sidelined for 26 games, the 22-year-old was in position to compete for the scoring title, averaging better than 25 points per game before the injury. Gordon did return from his time away with less of a scoring touch, averaging just 17 points over the Clippers’ final 13 games, but he did begin to feel more of his passing ability, dishing out 5 assists or more in that final stretch run.

Gordon is now in a new city without a fellow star, such as Griffin, to bear the scoring burden, meaning he has the potential to shoot even more than his usual 17 shots per night this season. Playoffs may not be in the cards this season but the scoring title may be sitting atop Gordon’s mantelpiece come season’s end. 

Buyer Beware

Andre Miller, PG, Denver Nuggets

2010-11 Stats: 12.7 ppg, 7.0 apg, 3.7 rpg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 10.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 2.9 rpg

For the very same reasons that Ty Lawson is on the opposite end of this list, the aging Miller is likely on the decline. 

Miller’s 2011 was spent leading Portland’s makeshift offense and the 12-year veteran did a solid job, averaging nearly 13 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds a night. Sadly, with Lawson’s emergence, those numbers should take a big hit in 2012.

Unless he’s sent packing to lead another team’s offensive attack, Miller will see a steady drop in minutes (32.7 mpg in 2010-11), which in all likelihood is just the start of his transition to a bench role in the league. 

Kobe Bryant, G, Los Angeles Lakers

2010-11 Stats: 25.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.7 apg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 23.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.3 apg 

In no way am I insinuating that Kobe is going to have a dramatic fall from grace or even miss the playoffs, but Bryant’s got a lot on his plate. Phil Jackson’s absence will have an impact on Kobe’s performance, it will be interested to see how the Lakers cope sans-Triangle, but what might be an even bigger loss is that of the recently departed Lamar Odom. 

Odom’s absence means a bigger workload for the Lakers big 3 – Kobe, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum – but for Bryant alone, it represents even more responsibility. With Odom, the Lakers had an insurance policy on Bynum’s knees and a complimentary scorer for Kobe on the wing.  Not to mention, Odom’s presence offered the Lakers another leader to rely both on the court and in the locker room. 

The Black Mamba will maintain his killer instinct regardless of his team’s makeup, but with an added workload and responsibilities Kobe’s stat lines are likely to take bear the biggest brunt.

Carlos Boozer, F, Chicago Bulls

2010-11 Stats: 17.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.5 apg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 16.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.6 apg

Boozer is a legitimate Top-30 fantasy player, when healthy – a few keywords right there. He’s had serious trouble staying on the court for a full season, playing more than 60 games in just 5 of his 9 NBA seasons. Last year, Boozer missed the first 15-games with a knee injury and went on to miss another 9 due to injury throughout the rest of the season.

This year, the Bulls will be relying on Boozer to stay healthy but if he’s unable they have quality depth waiting in the wings with Taj Gibson, who started 19 games and played up to the task in Boozer’s absence in 2011. 

Gibson should see increased time this season, limiting strain on the 31-year-old Boozer’s knees and back, and Bulls’ center Joakim Noah is expected to see an expanded role in the offensive sets meaning less opportunities for Boozer to dominate on the blocks. 

Paul Millsap, F, Utah Jazz

2010-11 Stats: 17.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.4 spg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 14.8 ppg, 7.1 ppg, 1.2 spg 

Millsap has seen a meteoric type rise since his first consistent court time, during the 2008-09 season -- thanks in large part to, none other than, another Boozer injury. Millsap has been a steady fantasy presence ever since, averaging 13.5 point and 8.6 rebounds in that first season, followed by an 11.7 and 6.8 year in 2009-10.

Last season was Millsap’s first as a full-time starter and he certainly repaid the good faith showed in him with a monster season for the Jazz. Even with the impressive campaign, the undersized big man (6’8", 253-pounds) could face some hindering issues this season, limiting his fantasy potential.

A young core, full of talented bigs – Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter – paired with an expectedly terrible team isn’t a good fit for the stunted forward. Millsap could certainly see less floor time with the emergence of Kanter and Favors not to mention the ever present possibility of a trade.

Jose Calderon, PG, Toronto Raptors

2010-11 Stats: 9.8 ppg, 8.9 apg, 1.2 spg

Hughes 2012 Projections: 8.6 ppg, 7.6 apg, 1.1 spg 

The Spanish guard has the size to be an above average point guard in the NBA and he’s proven his value over his first 6 seasons with the Raptors. Calderon has steadily contributed on both sides of the court, averaging almost 10 points, 7 assists and a steal a night in his career. But, much like Boozer, Calderon has had trouble staying on the court for a full 82-game season.

Calderon has played a full season just once in his 6-year career (2007-08) and has missed more than 10 games in 4 different seasons. His health is a great concern for the rebuilding Raptors and with a healthy and potential ridden Jerryd Bayless waiting in the wings, it could be time for Calderon to take a step back and let the youngster steer the ship.

Now, at age 30, Calderon is looking at sharing the point guard duties with the younger Bayless and could be looking at a potential trade if the 23-year-old Bayless performs at the high level – averaging 22 points and 6 assists – he did over the final 8 games of 2011.

Still Coming this week...

Thursday: Top-10 sleepers of 2012

Friday: Mock draft