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The NBA is set to start a 66-game season on Christmas Day, and I have to say this pleases me both as a basketball fan and as a fantasy basketball participant. The first seven or eight weeks of the season - like the first month or so of baseball season - have always been a mess of waiting for stars to get their butts in gear while trying to determine which fast starters are really flashes in the pan. With a shorter season this year, the top 50 fantasy players are really going to have to come out and show their stuff immediately.
This is not to say there won't be bumps in the road. For example, we don't yet know where free agents like Nene Hilario, David West and Tyson Chandler will land (the free agent signing rush is likely to start Dec. 9). There also have been question about the availability of players who signed contracts to play in China, like Wilson Chandler. The upcoming season will not be without surprises.
Here's my early attempt at ranking the top 20 fantasy players:
1. LeBron James, SF, Miami: This will be the year Miami really rides him, with no worries about fatigue. I'm betting on both MVP and, finally, a championship.
2. Kevin Durant, SF, OKC: My No. 1 last year showed a gap or two in his game last season, but is still improving. He could easily make an argument for the top ranking.
3. Kevin Love, PF/C, Minn: Multi-talented breakout big man of last season (sorry, Blake Griffin). Could be even more dominant in a shorter season.
4. Derrick Rose, PG, Chi: Some rankers still argue for Chris Paul as the top PG and a top 3 pick, but Rose is far better in every facet but assists, and is still improving there.
5. Chris Paul, PG, NO: His shrinking numbers argue for a lower slot, but a potential trade to New York or elsewhere could change everything.
6. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami: The aging superstar may yield a bit more to LeBron, but a shorter slate will help his health.
7. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas: The aging champ has nothing to prove anymore, but that should free him to have at least one more great season.
8. Dwight Howard, PF/C, Orl: We're no longer expecting his FT percentage to surpass 60%. Meanwhile, PPG and RPG were both up last season.
9. Stephen Curry, PG, GS: In line to post his first 20+ PPG season, though would be nice to see him beef up other stats, too.
10. Pau Gasol, PF/C, LAL: Mr. Consistency looks to gain from new coach Mike Brown's system, which won't be so Kobe-centric.
11. Deron Williams, PG, NJ: Looking to bounce back from a wrist injury, and the Nets will need him to do it all, not just steer the offense.
12. Russell Westbrook, PG, OKC: PPG and FTs jumped last year, pushing him into top five PG realm.
13. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C, Por: Another big man who broke out last season. Could be really impressive if he gets to the line more.
14. Kobe Bryant, SG, LAL: See No. 10 above. Still among the top scorers, but the buzz is that the shorter schedule and new system will hurt him.
15. Monta Ellis, SG, GS: With Curry, the other part of the Warriors' impressive 1-2 back-court scoring punch. Faded late last year, but is a good bet to return to 25 PPG.
16. Carmelo Anthony, SF, NY: PPG was slightly higher after last year's trade, and seems like he's added three-pointers to his repertoire.
17. Rudy Gay, SF/PF, Mem: Injury derailed a fine start last year, but he should inch up in all categories, including above the 20 PPG level.
18. Al Horford, PF/C, Atl: His stats trended a bit downward last year, but this should be his season to average a double-double, with few turnovers for a big man.
19. Al Jefferson, PF/C, Utah: One of the most buzzed-about veterans this season, looking for a return to double-double territory.
20. Amar'e Stoudemire, PF/C, NY: Put up MVP-like numbers until 'Melo came to town and a nagging back injury returned. Likely a feast or famine year.
We'll return with a fantasy football playoff outlook next week.
* Yahoo!'s Big(ger) Board likes Durant at No. 1. I can't blame them, but I think we'll finally see the best LeBron has this year.
* Bleacher Report features its own top 100, including Paul at No. 3. They better hope he gets traded.
* Opposing Views has the experts saying that the short season will affect rookies. So don't go get Jimmy Butler just yet.
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