SI Now: Who will be Miami's biggest challenger in the Eastern Conference?
On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix discusses how stacked the NBA's Eastern Conference is and why the healthiest team in the conference will end up being the favorite headed into the NBA Finals.
With the NBA season openers around the corner, here's some cheat sheet material for your fantasy draft.
Questions? Make sure to get at me on Twitter @briansflood. And for more fantasy basketball draft preview, check out our late-round picks advice and our old faces, new places.
• DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings --The Kings new ownership and head coach Mike Malone have made it clear that Cousins is the cornerstone of the franchise. The 23-year-old big man has a chance to emerge as an elite fantasy player in his fourth season. Last season Cousins was mediocre after receiving tons of preseason hype.
The hype was warranted, as he averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds in 2011-12. Even in a down season Cousins managed 17 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while constantly landing in the previous regime's doghouse. He's not even close to his ceiling, which could result in 25-plus points and double-digit rebounds per game. He also racks up a ton of steals for a big man and should set a career high in blocks this season because of an expanded role. If everything falls into place, Cousins will provide first-round value in fantasy leagues.
• Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns -- The Suns traded for Bledsoe over the summer and fantasy owners everywhere rejoiced. Last season, when backing up Chris Paul for the Clippers, Bledsoe started 12 games when Paul was nursing an injury. In those 12 starts, Bledsoe averaged 13.4 points, 4.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Bledsoe could lead guards in steals and blocks combined now that he's out of CP3's shadow. And he has a chance to be an absolute fantasy monster. You'll need to grab Bledsoe in Round 4 if you really want him, as he's received a lot of attention in fantasy circles.
• Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards -- The third overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Florida is ready for fantasy stardom. Beal was solid as a rookie, averaging 13.9 points with decent production across the board. For much of the season Beal was battling a nagging ankle injury that resulted in constant lower-leg issues that ended his season early. Beal is 100 percent healthy and looks like an All-Star in the preseason. He's talented enough to make the leap to 20-plus points with a ton of treys on a nightly basis.
• Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets -- Lopez will be an elite center if some of Kevin Garnett's passion rubs off on him. KG will at least make sure he's more aggressive on the boards. Lopez appears to be over nagging injuries and should improve his 19.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game averages. He also blocked 2.1 shots last year and shot 52 percent from the field.
• Jeff Green, Boston Celtics -- After sitting out the 2011-12 season with a heart condition, Green returned last season to play in 81 games. He played well in limited action, contributing in almost every fantasy category. The Celtics cleaned house in the offseason and someone has to fill up the box score for the rebuilding team. Green will contribute across the board and is capable of averaging one three-pointer, one block and one steal per game without hurting you anywhere.
• Andre Drummond, Detriot Pistons -- Remember when Amar'e Stoudemire was healthy and could jump out of the gym? That's Drummond. He only turned 20 on Aug. 10, but could be ready to emerge as an elite fantasy player. He was limited as a rookie but displayed enormous potential when on the court. He averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes as a 19-year-old rookie. He doesn't make free throws, but also doesn't attempt enough of them to sink your percentage. He's a sleeper to lead the league in both blocks and rebounds.
• Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks -- The eight-year veteran is still only 27 and is finally playing for a good team. Ellis should thrive with the opportunity he has in Dallas and he'll be given every opportunity to surpass his career averages of 19.4 points, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
• Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs -- Leonard should turn into a fantasy stud who does a little bit of everything. He managed 1.1 three-pointers, 1.7 steals and didn't hurt your percentages last season. He's not finished improving, and 15-plus points, eight rebounds with a block, steal is realistic for Leonard in his third season.
• Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz -- Favors has been productive in limited minutes throughout his career and now Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are finally out of his way. The Jazz cleaned house this offseason and the result is Favors is a candidate for breakout fantasy player of the year. His ceiling is about 20 point, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. Favors blocked 2.6 shots per 36 minutes last season, making him a sleeper for the block crown with an increased role.
• Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz -- If Favors doesn't lead the Jazz in scoring, it will be Hayward. Mark him down for 18 points and a steal per game with 150 three-pointers on the season. He benefits from the loss of Millsap and Jefferson almost as much as Favors.
• O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee Bucks -- The Bucks are counting on Mayo to be their offensive focal point and it could result in a career season for the USC product. He should hit a ton of threes, with decent steal numbers and about 18 points per game. He played in all 82 games last season and comes with minimal risk.
• John Wall, Washington Wizards -- Wall would be a fantasy MVP candidate if he started to hit three-pointers. He's completely acceptable near the end of Round 1 but a terrific value in Round 2. Remember, at one point Derrick Rose couldn't hit a trey. The career paths of pre-injury Rose and Wall are strikingly similar. Wall could have a season similar to Rose's MVP campaign of 2010-11.
• Brandon Jennings, Detroit Pistons -- Jennings is dealing with an extremely painful tooth injury, but it won't change his game. He is slipping in drafts because of the injury logo next to his name, but it's only a tooth injury. He'll be fine once he's cleared to play and I expect big things in his new home. The Pistons are expected to be one of the most exciting teams in the league and Jennings will be an offensive focal point. He could approach 20 point, seven assists and two steals per game with a ton of three-pointers.
• David Lee, Golden State Warriors -- Lee is a true warrior that will play through pain and come close to 20 points and 10 boards per game. He's extra special when eligible at center. Keep in mind that you'll need to pair Lee with a block specialist, as he doesn't contribute much defensively. Having someone capable of leading the league in double-doubles is a luxury in the middle rounds.
• Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers -- At one point this preseason I grabbed Kobe in Round 3 of a mock draft. He's one of the greatest players of all time, but obviously coming off a major Achilles rupture. We have no idea when he'll return at this point. But it's Kobe. Do you want to be the guy who passed on Kobe for a Goran Dragic-type player? As with Westbrook, your core players need to be sure things to gamble on Vino.
• Chris Bosh, Miami Heat -- I expect a big year from Bosh, who knows he must perform like a max-salary player if he wants to remain in South Beach beyond this season. Pat Riley will do whatever it takes to keep LeBron, and Bosh won't be in the plans if he continues to decline. He should improve upon his 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks from last season, but he won't approach his career season of 2009-10. Keep in mind, that career season came the last time he was auditioning for LeBron.
• Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs -- Go ahead and draft Duncan if he's available after Round 5. You won't regret it. He's the best power forward of all time and a lock to help your fantasy team in the percentages, rebounds, blocks and points. Just make sure to trade him around the All-Star break before the Spurs start resting up for the postseason.
• Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat -- Wade slips very far in some drafts. He shouldn't go outside the Top 35 in category-based formats. Yes, it's annoying when he misses games and he's always hurt. But when healthy he's a first-round talent and don't forget that LeBron can opt out of his contract following this season. Wade might want to prove that he's healthy enough to still win a handful of rings during LeBron's next contract. If you do draft Wade, wait until he drops 40 on national TV and then trade him. At the end of the season he'll rest up for the real playoffs while crushing your fantasy squad.
• Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies -- Randolph slips to Round 6 or 7 in every draft and you can pencil him in for 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. He's not a sexy selection anymore because he doesn't offer much upside. Sometimes it's nice to know what you're going to get and Randolph is as consistent as anyone at his position.
• Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder - The No. 3 overall on my draft board before aggravating offseason knee surgery that will keep him sidelined for at least the first month. Westbrook was as durable as anyone prior to the injury and he's still only 24. It's very temping to draft him in Round 4 and hope he returns at full strength. We learned with Rose last season that this strategy is extremely risky. You need a rock-steady core of healthy players if you want to gamble on Westbrook in the middle rounds.
• Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics -- If you have an injury spot on your roster, go ahead and snag Rondo after your starting lineup is completely filled. He doesn't currently have a timetable for his return from ACL surgery but recently declare himself "87 percent." A late-December return appears possible and Rondo should dominate the ball for the rebuilding Celtics once he's cleared.
• Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers -- Thompson enters his third season with a chance to improve upon his 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game of last year. He's an absolute steal at his average draft position if he can reach 15 points, 10 rebounds and a block per game. Oddly, Thompson has switched his shooting hand from left to right in the offseason. Yes, he's shooting with the opposite hand. He thinks it will improve his FG percentage, and who are we to argue?
• Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic -- The No. 2 overall pick is probably the rookie to own this season but he's hardly a sure thing. Oladipo is known more for his defense and I'm concerned about his ball-handling ability at the NBA level. He should help in the steals department immediately and has enough upside to warrant consideration
• Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder -- The Thunder turn to Jackson to run the point until Westbrook returns. He's talented enough to get off to a fast start and will be a trendy early-season pickup. Beat the hype and start him on opening night as your fourth guard.
• Trey Burke, Utah Jazz -- The star out of Michigan would be my choice for best fantasy rookie if he didn't need surgery on a fractured index finger. He'll return about five weeks into the season. Burke might need a few weeks to adjust to the speed of the NBA, but has tremendous upside over the long haul.
• Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder -- My super sleeper for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He's a terrific late-round pick with tremendous upside. The sophomore out of Connecticut only appeared in 23 games as a rookie, but averaged 17.4 points per 36 minutes. He's going to be relied upon for a huge role this season and is not afraid to shoot. He can score and the Thunder need it with Westbrook missing the start of the season.
• Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets -- He should receive plenty of playing time until Danilo Gallinari returns from injury. And it might be a while before Gallinari can suit up. Chandler is a sneaky good fantasy option when healthy. He contributes in three-pointers and steals.
• J.J. Hickson, Denver Nuggets -- I thought Hickson would emerge into an All-Star a few years ago. While that probably won't happen at this point, he should provide the Nuggets with a near double-double on a nightly basis.
• Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats -- This is not a full-blown endorsement but Zeller could surprise people. A near double-double with decent block numbers isn't too crazy of a projection for the former Indiana star if he's given ample minutes. Zeller probably has just as good of a chance to ride the pine, hence the risk.
• Wesley Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers -- He seems to be a perfect for Mike D'Antoni's offense. His lack of upside makes him more of a player to monitor on the waiver wire but he's an option in deeper drafts. A move from small forward to power forward in D'Antoni's offense could result in big things.
• Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder -- In some roto-style leagues, an owner will draft Serge Ibaka too early just for his blocks. Ibaka does dominate the category, but Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan should battle Ibaka for the block crown and can be taken significantly later. Don't reach for Ibaka.
• Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats -- The Bobcats made a splash this offseason, inking Jefferson for three years at big money to become the face of the franchise. Jefferson is already nursing a sprained ankle and has missed a chunk of the preseason. He is a very productive fantasy asset when healthy, capable of 20 points and 10 rebounds per game with a handful of blocks. Jefferson typically gets drafted in the second round for fantasy purposes and you can find similar players, such as Detroit's Greg Monroe, in the middle rounds.
• Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers -- Griffin's fancy dunks and commercial endorsements have made his name greater than his game. He really doesn't do anything except dunk and rebound. He's really not much more valuable than a J.J. Hickson-type player.
• Andrew Bynum, Cleveland Cavaliers -- Bynum didn't play last year after multiple knee injuries and signed with the Cavs in an attempt to rejuvenate his career. He hasn't played in more than 65 games in a season since 2007 and he's not even ready for the start of this season. It was recently newsworthy that the seven-footer is finally "playing in 3-on-3 scrimmages." He's the riskiest player in the NBA for fantasy purposes.
• Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers -- The rookie from Syracuse will handle the ball a ton this season. While he will probably help fantasy owners with assists and steals, he will absolutely destroy your FG percentage. The Sixers won't contend this season and MCW will have the green light on offense. He couldn't even shoot 40 percent in college.