The dawn of a new NBA regular season is rapidly approaching, which means the moment everyone's been waiting for is finally here—the start of fantasy basketball.
Whether you're looking to rebound from a disappointing 2011-12 campaign or hoping to build on a successful one, the time to do your due diligence has officially arrived.
As important as it is to find draft sleepers and unexpected fantasy prodigies, there's no selection more important than the first.
Subsequently, knowing which players to target from the beginning, knowing which stars are the cream of the fantasy crop, is half the battle.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.5 steals, 3.2 turnovers, 57.3 percent shooting, 49.1 percent free-throw shooting
Meet Dwight Howard: a highly coveted, yet widely overvalued fantasy big man.
For the better part of the decade, Howard has been the go-to center in fantasy drafts. But (spoiler alert) that simply isn't the case this year.
Though Howard showed plenty of two-way prowess in his debut with the Lakers, a number of mitigating factors will force his draft value down.
We should expect him to maintain a respectable point-total, high field-goal conversion rate and ridiculous rebounding line, but we must remember he is the self-imposed victim of poor free-throw shooting.
Shooting below a 50 percent clip from the charity stripe last season is a major red flag, as is the reality he must acclimate himself to a new offensive system, one that calls for him to pass more. That means we can also expect plenty of more turnovers for the self-proclaimed "Iron Man."
Despite a promising return, we cannot completely neglect to acknowledge his back remains anything but tested.
So, while Howard is still a fantasy gem who should be picked early, be weary not to select him too high when there are better options still on the board.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.9 assists, 0.1 blocks, 1.8 steals, 44.8 percent shooting, 59.7 percent free-throw shooting
It's time to bank on Rajon Rondo becoming more than a two-category filler.
As the primary facilitator in Boston—and one who is nearly void of a backup—there is no doubt that Rondo's assist totals stand to trounce, or at the very least match, his mark of 11.9 per game last season. His constant vigilance within the passing lanes on defense will also continue to result in plenty of steals per contest.
Where we must expect an improvement, though, is in his points per game and field-goal percentage. I fully believe that Rondo will not only boast a visibly altered, statistically improved jump shot, but will also set a career-high in points per contest.
Boston spent a pile of money increasing the potency of its offensive attack, yet Rondo will look to shoulder more of the scoring load in the absence of Ray Allen and amidst the aging bodies of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Also, though the Celtics enhanced their ability to rebound with the additions of Darko Milicic and Jared Sullinger, Rondo's 4.8 mark on the glass isn't going anywhere.
And neither should you when you find Rondo on the board early. While his ability to clean up his turnover issues remains a concern, it shouldn't detract you from using him as a fantasy pillar.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 0.6 steals, 2.2 turnovers, 50.1 percent shooting, 78.2 free-throw shooting
It's never a bad idea to lock down Pau Gasol early in a fantasy draft. Even now.
Though the presence of Dwight Howard is likely to deter some from drafting the power forward immediately, keep in mind that Gasol is no stranger to playing alongside post-inhabiting centers. After all, he put up a sound fantasy stat line next to Andrew Bynum just last season.
Gasol also stands to benefit from the presence of Steve Nash. He is one of the better pick-and-roll bigs in the league and should thrive off the higher-percentage shots Nash is bound to create for him.
Will the Spaniard's point-totals decrease? Most likely, but not by much, and such a small decline will ultimately lead to an increase in field-goal percentage and a decreased number of turnovers.
Whether or not Gasol is a top-15 player in the NBA is debatable. Whether or not he is a top-15 fantasy choice is not.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 steals, 2.6 turnovers, 43 percent shooting, 80.4 percent free-throw shooting
One man's injury is another man's fantasy.
Though Amar'e Stoudemire is only expected to miss up to three weeks, he's been fighting a losing battle to stay healthy for over a year now. His latest setback is also cause for Knicks head coach Mike Woodson to relegate him to the second unit, at least initially.
While Anthony will no longer attempt to score 30 or more points a game, he may still wind up doing so. The situation not only calls for it, but his production comes almost effortlessly at the 4.
That said, such a mentality also shows he will have more of an inclination to pass, ensuring he'll drop three to five dimes a contest without breaking a sweat.
Don't read too much into his underwhelming field-goal percentage last season. When he spent all of last April playing "out of position," his conversion rate jumped to 49.5 percent.
Simply put, building your fantasy team around a slimmer, new-and-improved, likely-to-spend-a-majority-of-his-time-at-power-forward Anthony is anything but a bad decision.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.5 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 44.8 percent shooting, 70.2 percent free-throw shooting
Before you opt to select Dwight Howard this fantasy season, ask yourself one question: Is DeMarcus Cousins still on the board? If he is, then you'll want to think twice about taking Howard.
Cousins put up gaudy numbers last season—a stat line worthy of being compared to Howard's—in just 30.5 minutes per contest. Just imagine how he'll fair now that the dazed and confused Kings will be leaning on him more than ever.
The simple facts are that Cousins is a versatile scorer who can light up the defensive side of the ball just as much as Howard. His 44.8 percent field-goal mark may be a slight deterrence, but that should increase slightly with the emergence of a competent floor general in Isaiah Thomas.
Factor in his stellar free-throw shooting, which is 20 percentage points more efficient than Howard's, and you have a fantasy goldmine.
One that warrants being taken before the man-child himself.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.0 steals, 3.1 turnovers, 46.9 percent shoot, 87.2 percent free-throw shooting
Three words to live by this fantasy season: Take. Kyrie. Now.
After an impressive rookie campaign and a questionable offseason from Cleveland's front office, the stage is set for Irving to completely dominate the fantasy stat lines this season.
Not only is the point man a deft scorer and evolving playmaker, but he shot nearly 47 percent from the field last season to go along with his otherworldly 87.2 percent free-throw percentage. He also converted on 1.4 threes per game, shooting a 39.9 percent clip from beyond the arc.
That's a little thing we like to call prolific efficiency.
Though Irving will need to limit his turnovers moving forward, he is a definite sleeper in the steals department. He averaged one per contest during his inaugural campaign, and now that he's more accustomed to the league's pace and more familiar with player tendencies, a mark closer to 1.5 or two is well within reach.
Don't hesitate to pull the trigger early on Irving.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.2 steals, 3.5, 43 percent shooting, 84.5 free-throw shooting
No, I'm not kidding.
Kobe Bryant may be 34, he may have nearly two decades worth of NBA-related wear and tear on his legs and he may be preparing to play off the ball more, but he's still a fantasy gem.
What most people fail to realize is that Bryant's offensive inclinations will not be forced to change that much in the wake of the new-look Lakers. He has spent the past four years playing alongside Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard's tendencies aren't that much different from Andrew Bynum's.
The cause for concern here stems from Steve Nash, the man who has taken the ball out of Bryant's hands.
Sure, Bryant's point-totals will suffer—though 24 or 25 points per game is still a good estimation of his potential impact—but his value from the field and in the turnovers department will greatly benefit from his off-ball movement.
And don't use the he-won't-average-38-minutes-per-game argument either. He probably won't average as many minutes, but don't expect a significant drop-off, either. Los Angeles is overwhelmingly talented, but far from deep, meaning Kobe will still need to spend an ample amount of time on the floor.
So, while plenty of things have changed in Tinseltown, Bryant's value as a fantasy stud isn't one of them.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.2 steals, 4.0 turnovers, 40.7 percent shooting, 84.3 percent free-throw shooting
Deron Williams is going to run circles around fantasy leagues this season.
Brooklyn added a plethora of capable weapons that Williams now has at his disposal, which ensures that he will have no trouble averaging an upwards of 10 assists per game. This also affords him the luxury of not forcing his own offense, positively impacting his field-goal percentage and turnovers per game as well.
Don't sleep on Williams' ability to put up 20 points a night, though. A healthy Brook Lopez coupled with the perimeter threat of Joe Johnson makes for porous defenses just begging to be exploited at the rim by the Nets' point guard.
If defense is your concern, don't let it be. Not with Williams. He's great at reading opposing point guards, intercepting passes and poking unprotected handles away.
As much as the Nets have changed over the course of one offseason, one thing remains the same: Williams' ability to be a fantasy powerhouse.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 blocks, 0.9 steals, 2.0 turnovers, 51.2 percent shooting, 80.4 percent free-throw shooting.
Anyone who doubts LaMarcus Aldridge as a top-seven fantasy selection is sorely mistaken.
Not only did the power forward put up a fantasy stat line to make owners' mouth water last season, but he stands to make even more of an impact this season.
Seemingly overnight, the Blazers turned into a team that is, once again, almost entirely dependent on Aldridge. Who will be the Damian Lillard's go-to option as he learns how to run an NBA offense? Who will Meyers Leonard look to create space for in the low-post? And who will Nicolas Batum defer to when forcing his own offense isn't an option?
Aldridge, three times over.
On a suddenly inexperienced team, Aldridge is Portland's end-all, be-all. He'll be the first-option on offense and leader on defense. His point-totals, rebounds, assists and blocks per game all stand to increase this season. His field-goal percentage may dip a bit courtesy of an increased number of shots, but he's still a threat to shoot 50 percent.
Aldridge may not be a household name just yet, but that doesn't mean he is undeserving of a spot among the fantasy elite.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.7 steals, 2.6 turnovers, 49.7 percent shooting, 79.1 percent free-throw shooting
Who are you calling old?
Dwyane Wade may be 30 and his knees may be rockier than Colorado, but he remains one of the best options to build your fantasy team around.
Not only is the shooting guard still inclined to attack the rim, thus ensuring an impressive field-goal percentage, but he is one of the most balanced producers in the league.
What Wade lacks in durability, he makes up for in his tendency to rebound, dish the rock, force turnovers and, most notably, block shots. For proof of this, look no farther than his 1.3 swats per night last season, a mark that led all guards in the league.
Wade's surgically repaired knees are cause for concern and enough to keep him out of this year's top-five, but when on the court, he's proven to be nothing short of a statistical machine.
If he slips in your draft due to his injury-riddled past, you would do well to snatch him up.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.4 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 45.8 percent shooting, 63 percent free-throw shooting
No, this is not a misprint.
Josh Smith will enhance every part of your fantasy attack that isn't free-throw shooting. He's a two-way powerhouse who has been give the reins to the Hawks, a reality he will thrive under.
Not only will Smith's point-totals increase dramatically, but this is the year he'll turn into a double-double machine. His shot-blocking and turnover-inducing abilities haven't gone anywhere, and with a bit more freedom on the offensive end, he should develop a penchant for attacking the rim, considerably upping his 45.8 percent conversion rate.
Though the verdict on whether or not Smith is a player a team like Atlanta can build around has yet to be rendered, there's no such quandary for a fantasy team.
This year, if you're looking for a player to assemble your frontline—and team in general—around, Smith's your guy.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.2 blocks, 1.7 steals, 3.6 turnovers, 45.7 percent shooting, 82.3 percent free-throw shooting
It's not easy being Russell Westbrook.
Not only do critics continue to underestimate his impact as a floor general, but he's viewed as a loose cannon despite shooting nearly 46 percent from the field last season.
While no one is denying Westbrook could improve as a facilitator, his 5.4 assists per game mark last season remains a fantasy asset nonetheless. Let's not overlook his points per game either, because those buckets aren't going anywhere; don't be surprised to see him put up 25-plus a night this year.
Factor in his rebounding prowess and ability to force turnovers, and it's clear the Thunder have two top-tier pillars to move forward with.
And even clearer that you have a categorically dominant fantasy star to bring on board.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 0.1 blocks, 2.4 steals, 2.1 turnovers, 47.8 percent shooting, 86.1 percent free-throw shooting
For the Clippers to remain title contenders, Chris Paul is going to have to continue to do it all.
Not only should you expect a heightened sense of scoring aggression on Paul's part this year, but with plenty of added firepower on the perimeter, look for him to drop upwards of 10 assists per game as well.
His 47.8 percent shooting clip is also something you can continue to bank on, as it's right around his career average. In addition, Paul remains one of the most efficient passers (4.38 assists to turnover ratio) the game has ever seen, ensuring he won't cripple you in the turnovers department the way other point guards can.
Paul's numerous bouts with injury—most recently with his thumb—are of slight concern, but he's missed just eight regular season games over the past two years, so proceeding with caution simply isn't necessary.
In fact, the only reality you must be cautious of is missing out on one of this year's best fantasy prospects.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.4 steals, 3.8 turnovers, 49.6 percent shooting, 89.6 percent free-throw shooting
Kevin Durant's fantasy value has never been higher.
It's nothing short of a rarity to see a volume scorer boast the efficiency of Durant. He has the scoring prowess of a Carmelo Anthony, yet boasts the efficiency of a LeBron James.
The small forward is coming off a career year that saw him average a career-high in rebounds, assists, blocks and field-goal percentage. Those 28 points per game of his led the league as well, if that means anything to you.
Though we'd love to see his 3.8 turnovers per contest drop to around two, it's hardly a deal breaker, especially for someone who stands to make up for it by winning you the oft-undervalued free-throw battle.
If you're looking for a first-round choice to ensure you make it well into your league's postseason crusade, look no further than the Association's most talented, most well-rounded scorer.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.9 steals, 3.4 turnovers, 53.1 percent shooting, 77.1 percent free-throw shooting
To those that implore you to draft Kevin Durant before LeBron James this fantasy season I say: Maybe next year.
James isn't just the best player in the NBA, he's the obvious choice if you find yourself with the first pick in your fantasy draft.
In LeBron, you have a perpetual triple-double threat, and a player who will always be in the top 10 of points and steals per game while making significant contributions to the rebounding and assist departments.
His efficiency from the field as he continues to refine his three-point accuracy (36.2 percent in 2011-12) and develop his post game is nothing short of invaluable. He shot a career-best 53.1 percent from the field last season, a category he has improved upon in each of the last five seasons.
What many are trying to turn into a neck-and-neck battle really isn't a battle at all.
Because—mediocre free-throw shooting aside—LeBron remains the most prolific fantasy commodity there is.