Lessons from a lockout-altered NBA season:
1. It's a serious chore squeezing fantasy basketball drafts in and around the holiday shopping season.
2. It wasn't a normal NBA season; therefore it wasn't as good as it could have been.
3. It was still good, though.
I was asked to write about the biggest value picks of the just-concluded fantasy hoops season. I believe there's more than one way to assess fantasy value, particularly in a season as chaotic as this one. So I've come up with three lists. The first list (Draft-Day Steals) contains players who proved to be bargains for where they were selected in drafts and won in auctions. Next are the In-Season Saviors, a list of players who weren't drafted at all but became huge fantasy factors. Finally, there's the list of value gone unmaximized, the injured stars (What Might Have Been).
It was a close call among Lawson, Brandon Jennings and Mike Conley, who had an ADP of 73 and finished 26th on the Player Rater. Jennings (58.4 ADP) was drafted later than Lawson and ended up ahead of him on the Player Rater (No. 10). No question, the 22-year-old made great progress this season. However, I'll take Lawson's superior percentages and slight edge in assists over Jennings' advantages in points, 3-pointers and steals. Among full-time point guards, only Steve Nash shot more accurately than Lawson, who finished at 48.6 percent from the field. Other point guards will get more assists, steals and 3s, but Lawson is more than respectable in each of those categories, and his shooting makes him a difference-maker in fantasy.
Here's another guard who's on target -- Harden went from 43.6 percent shooting in 2010-11 to 49.1 percent this season. Impressive as that is, his biggest fantasy attribute might be his foul shooting. Harden averaged six free throw attempts per game and connected on 84.6 percent of them. Only three players got to the line more often than Harden while shooting at least as well: Kevin Durant (86.0 percent on 7.6 attempts), Kobe Bryant (84.5 percent on 7.8 attempts) and Corey Maggette (85.6 percent on 6.5 attempts, albeit in only 32 games). Really, though, the presumptive Sixth Man of the Year improved across the board. In his third season, Harden also established career bests in points, rebounds, assists and 3-pointers made.
I feel like I should mention Nicolas Batum, since he finished 43rd on the Player Rater (after having an ADP of 99.7) and he's, you know, actually a small forward. George is the Pacers' starting shooting guard, but we'll pounce on his SF eligibility in ESPN.com leagues to review his emergence. The second-year pro has grown as a player and, notably -- and literally -- as a person. His ability to amass steals and 3-pointers is special in the fantasy game. Of the players who were at least his equal in steals (1.6 per game) this season, only Jennings bettered George's 1.4 treys per game. I'm cutting that kind of thin, because Wesley Matthews (2.0 3s, 1.5 steals) and Mario Chalmers (1.6 3s, 1.5 steals) did similarly well in the triples/takeaways combo. Of course, George was significantly more valuable than those two.
Power forward was all about value. Ryan Anderson (from an ADP of 119 to 25th on the Player Rater) made a massive leap, and Serge Ibaka's (51.4, 11th) shot-blocking went from just awesome to super colossal unreal. Kris Humphries (89.6, 48th) also deserves props (although the fact that he didn't re-sign with the New Jersey Nets until the very end of the very hastily assembled preseason undoubtedly depressed his ADP). However, Millsap is my choice. Among qualified NBA leaders, he finished fourth with 1.8 steals per game, trailing only Chris Paul, Conley and LeBron James. The only other PF-eligible players who approached Millsap in that category were Gerald Wallace, DeMarcus Cousins and Josh Smith (1.5, 1.5 and 1.4 steals, respectively). Millsap edged Russell Westbrook in takeaways while outrebounding Kevin Garnett. If you sprung for him early in the sixth round of a 10-team draft, you received a player who excels or contributes in six categories. That's value.
In December, a lot of us wondered whether Bynum could ever stay healthy. Certainly I did. So what happened with that? Oh yeah -- in a season in which stars went down left and right, Bynum dominated while missing just six games. (He'd averaged 31 DNPs over the previous four seasons.) Along with his career-best 18.7 points per game, Bynum was third in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.8) and sixth in blocks (1.9) in 2011-12. Enough said.
All of these players had a preseason ADP of 140, which means they went undrafted in a majority of ESPN.com standard leagues. With the exception of Nikola Pekovic, all finished in the top 75 in the final Player Rater rankings.
In early March, I grabbed Dragic out of free agency in a 16-team roto league. Over the next six weeks, I climbed almost 20 points in the standings and cruised to the championship. I'm guessing a few of you have a similar story to tell. Dragic started Houston's final 26 games and made 28 starts overall. The numbers are simply glorious. In those contests, he averaged 18 points, 8.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 3s. His percentages were .490 from the floor and .839 from the line. Honestly, with those starting stats, he holds his own against Chris Paul. This summer, Dragic will be a prized free agent. This spring, he was a fantasy kingmaker.
Thompson's stats were significantly enhanced by the lack of depth and experience around him, but the rookie was nonetheless impressive. Of course the big numbers in his 29 starts are the 18.1 points and 2.1 3s per game, but by shooting guard standards, Thompson also contributed in rebounds (3.2), assists (3), steals (1.1) and blocks (0.5). In addition, he shot 90.6 percent from the stripe as a starter (albeit on just 2.2 attempts per game). Thompson will have to defer next season, when (hopefully) Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut and David Lee all are healthy, but his future sure seems bright.
SF: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Final Player Rater rank: 58
Patient fantasy owners (certainly not me) got their reward with the second-year pro. Despite starting most of the time, Hayward scored in single digits in 18 of his first 34 games. But after getting blanked in 20 minutes off the bench March 18 against the Lakers, Hayward started Utah's final 21 games, averaging 15.8 points and 1.4 3s. Again, I'm fudging at small forward since Hayward is primarily a shooting guard. But on that note, here's one reason I'm already looking forward to next season: Between Hayward, George, Thompson and -- fingers crossed -- a healthy Eric Gordon, shooting guard should be a much easier position to fill.
Ilyasova also teased and tantalized fantasy owners. He started the season's first seven games but never logged more than 29 minutes. From mid-January to mid-February, he came off the bench and slowly morphed into a Turkish Kevin Love. During that span, Ilyasova had seven games of at least 11 rebounds, although he scored in double digits only six times. After producing a season-high 23 points in 35 minutes against the New Orleans Hornets on Feb. 15, Ilyasova regained his starter's spot. Two games later came the astounding 29-point, 25-rebound showing against the New Jersey Nets. (Imagine what he could have done if he hadn't fouled out with two minutes left.) Post-break, the 24-year-old averaged 16.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.1 3s, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, with percentages of .552 and .796. Good stuff there.
C: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves
Final ESPN.com Player Rater rank: 119
Pek could almost go in the next section with the other players whose promise was limited by injury. From early March to early April, he missed 10 games and was limited in several others. Despite the setbacks, in 35 starts this season, Pekovic averaged 15.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 0.6 steals, and put up solid percentages for a big man. Another reason I'm already looking forward to next season: Sometime, hopefully before 2013, this Timberwolves fan will again be able to watch Love, Pekovic and Ricky Rubio on the court together.
What Might Have Been
A quick list of players who appeared to be huge draft-day prizes but had their seasons ruined by injury:
PG: Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Final preseason ADP: 102.3
Fantasy owners suffered with Rubio's dreadful 35.7 percent shooting, but had he maintained the numbers, he would have been sixth in assists and second in steals. Of course, Rubio has company in this sad spot, in the form of Kyle Lowry (45.6 ADP).
Although he played in just five of the Kings' final 13 games, Thornton still finished at 63rd on the Player Rater. But fantasy owners who relied on his 18.7 points and 2.1 3s per game were hurting down the stretch.
SF: Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets
Final preseason ADP: 62.9
Oh, Gallo. He was solidly in the top 30 into early February, but he never regained his shot. It's weird, though: Before his first injury, Gallinari was shooting 44.7 percent overall, but just 31.3 percent from downtown. After his return, he shot 35.8 percent from the field, even though he improved to 35.2 percent from distance. Is it safe to assume that, post-injury, he was hesitant in traffic?
Bargnani averaged 23.5 points over his first 10 games. It's all projection and assumption on my part, but to me, Bargs was one of the big victims of the compressed schedule. That calf just never had time to heal. While I'm enjoying this hindsight view, what were the Raptors thinking having Bargnani play 40-plus minutes on those back-to-back nights in January, right after he'd missed his first six games?
Varejao's 10.8 points, 11.5 boards and 1.4 steals per game is pretty nice production for someone who was, in a lot of standard leagues, an 11th-round pick. Too bad it lasted only 25 games.