When it comes to rating my favorite sports to play, watch and cover, both for real and for fantasy purposes, basketball wins hands down.
From my days growing up with bare rims in the schoolyards of the Bronx, to my freshman year at Syracuse when one of the guys who "had next" one afternoon was a sophomore named Derrick Coleman, until now, I can't get my fill of this game. (How many other fantasy writers can you name who've guarded a first overall NBA pick?).
Like many of you, my fantasy hoops draft was this week and came out of it pretty happy. My partner, (SI Deputy Managing Editor David Bauer) and I were able to grab Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and Brad Miller. We usually invest heavily in young players too and this year was no exception with Dallas's Devin Harris, first overall pick Dwight Howard and Clippers point guard Shaun Livingston among the players on our squad who can't yet legally buy a drink. At the other end of the spectrum we targeted and landed Gary Payton (even with his broken hand). How could we take Payton, who is coming off the worst year of his career and was outwardly miserable when he found out he was a Celtic? It makes a lot more sense than you think.
Every year as the NBA season approaches, I get deeply involved in SI's NBA Preview issue. From pitching story ideas, crunching statistics, compiling starting lineups for every team or formulating the Player Value Ranking, I immerse myself in the league for at least eight weeks. Although it's my job, it's also a labor of love.
However, for as much as I find out about the league every year, my old college roommate (and dead-eye shooting two-guard) always seems to know more. In fact, I have never met anyone not actually in the business of knowing about basketball with more useful opinions on the inner workings of each NBA team than he does. A self proclaimed hoopaholic, Steve Henderson has been one of my most trusted hoops sources for years and he convinced me that Payton is primed to have a huge comeback season.
Since my guy Steve is one of the few people who somehow watches more basketball than I do and is almost always right in his NBA analysis, (he clued me in on some rookie shooter the Kings had a few years ago named Peja Stojakovic) he's exactly the kind of guy you want to hear from if you have a fantasy team. This season, in addition to my views, news and ratings, I've asked Steve to keep me appraised of what he notices in the league, too, and from time to time I'll keep you up to date with what he comes up with. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Steve's argument that convinced me about Payton goes like this: Lost in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter's triangle offense last year with the Lakers, Payton is now in a system in which the ball is right where he needs it to be, in his hands. Payton has always been an emotional player who feeds off of his own successes. In Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal taking nearly every shot, Payton wasn't given latitude to succeed the way he thought he should -- by scoring and creating plays off the dribble. With the Big Aristotle and Karl Malone down on the blocks, there was no space for Payton to post up, negating what has traditionally been one of his most successful offensive options.
Now with the Celtics, Payton can once again (rightfully) see himself as a team's leader. No one else is even close. While Paul Pierce is the team's best player, Payton is someone who makes the rest of his teammates better, something Boston hasn't had since at least the mid 1990's and arguably since Larry Bird left. As the Celtics begin to gel, Payton will become more intense, more vocal and get back that old swagger that made him "The Glove" in the first place.
Remember, just 18 months ago Payton was considered a top five point guard and in the thinned out landscape at the point, he could get close to that level again.