Target small-market stars
A few weeks ago during my weekly chat (Tuesdays at 11 a.m. ET), a reader asked why the San Antonio Spurs get no publicity, even though they're typically among the NBA's best teams. At the time, they had won five straight and, as it turned out, were going to win five more before losing to the Portland Trail Blazers last Tuesday. I didn't get around to answering that question, but I continued to ponder it. The answer I came up with is that they're in a small market and are boring to watch, which is not a good combination for getting publicity.
I don't say that to be mean, I say it because I've been in their shoes, at least as a fan. When my beloved Detroit Pistons exploded on the scene last decade by playing hard-core defense on their way to a surprise championship, they were the darlings of the NBA. The Pistons had a great storyline, because they didn't have a star, played like the ultimate team were portrayed as cartoon characters and everyone "feared (Ben Wallace's) fro!"
Unfortunately, once that initial buzz wore off, all we were left with was an incredibly boring team to watch, because the Pistons were a small-market club that had no offensive stars and played ridiculous team defense. The end result was that even when they were cranking out 10-game winning streaks like the Spurs have this season, nobody cared because the team was so boring even its fans could barely watch, and the Pistons' market share was too small to garner any other interest.
This brings me to this week's GTR topic: good players on small-market teams that are boring to watch. What does that have to do with fantasy trades? Good players on boring, small-market teams will cost you less in a trade than good players on teams that are fun to watch or get a lot of pub. In other words, image is everything in determining the trade value of a player. Other owners will almost always prefer to acquire a player who is getting a lot of press or who plays for an exciting team to watch. With that in mind, let's examine some ballers you should be able to acquire on the cheap because their teams are running under the radar.
Kyle Lowry, PG, Houston Rockets: His team is a respectable 20-14, the same as the Los Angeles Lakers, and seventh in the NBA in scoring, but the Rockets still aren't getting much read in the national press. Lowry is emblematic of that, because even though he's sixth overall on the Player Rater, based on averages, he isn't generating the same buzz as guys he ranks above -- guys like Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose. Under coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets' style is not that exciting to watch, and Lowry's 15.6 ppg and 41.7 percent shooting aren't going to make any fantasy owner's eyes pop open. Nevertheless, Lowry's the kind of player who can bump up on a triple-double on any given night and will chip in quality 3-pointers (1.8 per game) and swipes (2.0). He's comparable to Stephen Curry in what he delivers, but Curry plays on an exciting team and gets more press than Lowry, so the Rockets point guard should come cheaper in a fantasy trade.
Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies: This season, the Grizzlies are averaging just 93.5 points per game, of which Conley is chipping in just 13.2. Toss in an unenticing 42.8 percent mark from the field and you won't see a ton of interest in the young point guard. Still, he's at the top of the NBA with 2.5 steals per game. That he averaged 2.7 steals in 17 January games and 2.5 steals in 13 games this month implies that he's capable of maintaining a pace well above 2.0 spg the rest of the season. Since you can get Conley at a discounted rate compared to other swipers, such as Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul and Westbrook, he makes for a an excellent trade target if you need steals.
Andrea Bargnani, C/PF, Toronto Raptors: We should preface any discussion of Bargs by noting that it remains unclear when he will return from his severely strained calf muscle. It sounds like he could be back this week, but that's not a timetable we can bank on, so you can probably already get him at a discount. Even when healthy, though, the NBA's only team north of the border rarely generates press south of that border. Combine his injury, location and that the Raps are 10-23 and are averaging the third-fewest points (89.2) in the Association, and you have a terrific high-end trade target.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder: I almost didn't include Harden in this list, because even though the Thunder are in a small market they're really fun to watch and are getting plenty of pub because of their stellar record and superstars Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Still, the star power of Durant and Westy, and even the freakish nature of Serge Ibaka's game, draw so much attention that a sixth man like Harden doesn't get noticed often. That shouldn't be the case, though. Harden is a stud already and his career arc is still headed upward. I expect a strong finish from him in the second half, so don't sleep on him.
Marcus Thornton, SG, Sacramento Kings: Only the New Orleans Hornets have a worse record in the West than the Kings, so no one is paying attention to this team. It can also be difficult to watch because it is so young and all over the place as it develops as an NBA squad. That's fine for those of us trying to get a good deal on a player like Thornton, though. He likes to chuck it often, which has led to an average of 18.2 points and 2.2 3s per game. And while his propensity for chucking more than six 3-pointers each game has left him with a poor 41.5 percent mark from the field, he makes up for it by being aggressive on defense, averaging 1.5 steals per game. Overall, you can acquire a guy who can score, swipe and bomb 3s at a reasonable price.
David Lee, Golden State Warriors: Looking for a perfect example of how press biases can play a role in the perception of how well a player is playing? Look no further than Lee. Remember the 2009-10 season? That was Lee's final campaign with the New York Knicks, and he was a nationwide sensation. Aside from his free throw shooting, the rest of his production this season is comparable to what he churned out that final season in New York, the media capital of the world. Lee, despite being in a big city now and playing well on an exciting team, just isn't getting the same nationwide interest as he was in the Big Apple. It's no surprise, but it's definitely an advantage for fantasy junkies who can now acquire him in a trade far cheaper than they would if he was still cranking out these numbers under the bright lights of NYC.
Paul George, SF/SG, Indiana Pacers: Averaging just 12.1 points per game, George probably wouldn't be generating any noise in the national press regardless of where he was playing. However, I think the 43.6 percent from the field, 1.7 3s per game, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals are just a starting point for what we should expect from the youngster in the second half of the season. I won't be surprised in the least if he averages at least 15 points, 2 3s and 2 steals and shoots 45 percent in the final 4-6 weeks of the season. He's a terrific second-half sleeper, and I guarantee the national press will be late to the party on this one. Go get him before he kicks it into gear.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.