Finding assists from non-point guards
Over the past few seasons, I've refined the foundation of my draft strategy to two basic pillars: draft at least four center-eligible players, and draft either Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Deron Williams.
Both pillars have to do with the fantasy concept of scarcity. There's positional scarcity (like tight end in fantasy football), and categorical scarcity (like steals in fantasy baseball).
My center-eligible emphasis is purely positional. In a game where No. 1 centers are hard to come by, it's always good to try to corner the market at the 5 especially when you've got a couple of atypical producers like Andrea Bargnani who can give you small forward-like numbers.
The point guard aspect is mostly categorical, but given the developing statistical trends at point guard, it's also an act of sheer self-preservation.
During the past couple of years -- with rule changes increasingly favoring offenses -- we've witnessed the arrival of a new breed of superproducers at point guard. If you don't grab one of the big four (although Raymond Felton is currently pushing for membership), you're going to be scrambling to compete in assists for the entire season.
Look at it like this: When you've got four players accounting for almost a quarter of the available assists in a 10-team league, you've got an incredibly top-heavy stat. By top-heavy, I mean that it's a statistic weighted toward the top. You have the top 13 percent at a position producing 25 percent of the available stat. And due to the fact that assists are the primary domain of one position, it means that you won't find elite producers at other spots on the floor.
An average 10-team league will employ about 30 point guards at any given time. The average point guard in this situation averages approximately 6.9 assists per game. That's about what Devin Harris averages. Harris is a borderline No. 1 point guard, but he's getting doubled up by Rondo in the assist column this season.
Further complicating matters is how difficult it is to deal for elite assist producers in-season. If you've ever tried to swing a deal for Chris Paul or Deron Williams, you know what I'm talking about. It's hard to trade someone away who's probably responsible for about 75 percent of your team's production in a single category. If you can find an owner desperate/gullible enough to do a two-for-one, you've lucked out. But I have found over the years that it's harder to acquire a healthy Chris Paul than a LeBron James.
So you don't have one of the big four, and you're looking to make a move in assists. Where do you go?
You can stockpile point guards, but if you start more than three at a time, you're going to take a hit in rebounds and blocks.
I'd recommend looking at top assist producers at other positions. If you get a couple of these players to go along with a Derrick Rose or Jose Calderon, you've got a puncher's chance at fighting to a draw against a Deron Williams-led team in the assists column.
I'd start with the PG/SG slot. In my opinion, there is no more valuable position slot in fantasy basketball than the elusive PG/SG.
Although the NBA is full of combo-guard types, ESPN.com offers only six heavily rostered players with the classification: Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis, Jamal Crawford, Rodney Stuckey, Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans. That's it. Most waiver wires will bounce around with Beno Udrih, Kirk Hinrich, Lou Williams, George Hill and Toney Douglas.
The value of a PG/SG is obvious; excepting Crawford (only about 3 assists a night) you're getting point guard-type numbers out of what can be one of the emptier statistical spots in your starting lineup. You're also building depth in case injury should strike your No. 1 point guard.
But when you're looking to squeeze out a few extra assists at the non-point guard positions, it's best to take a look at real-life NBA team trends. Specifically, teams with one of two qualities: those that lack a dominant point guard and those that have a high assist rate.
Assist ratio can be found on the Hollinger team stats page. It calculates the percentage of a team's possessions that end in an assist. One thing you'll notice about the top 10 teams in assist ratio: Four of them have superproducers at point guard. It shows you don't have to necessarily play a high-paced style to rack up a lot of assists. Unlike a lot of other fantasy categories (points, 3-pointers), assists have just as much to do with efficiency as they do volume.
No dominant point guard
Atlanta Hawks: There were a lot of stories this offseason on how the Hawks would thrive in Larry Drew's offensive system. It wasn't as sexy a storyline to track as say, "The Decision," but the Hawks have emerged as a nice little fantasy success story in 2010-11. With Mike Bibby on his last leg, a lot of preseason rumblings predicted Jeff Teague ascending to lead point guard duties. But Bibby has hung on, putting up pedestrian numbers (I'm talking Mike James pedestrian) while seeing his assists migrate elsewhere. The end result is five players averaging more than 3 assists a night, with the most pleasant surprises being Josh Smith (3.9 APG) and Al Horford (3.3). By the way, it's no surprise the Hawks also own the No. 2 assist ratio in the NBA at 17.1 percent.
Los Angeles Clippers: With Baron Davis hobbled much of this season (and every season), the Clippers have turned to rookie Eric Bledsoe (4.9 APG) while waiting for Davis to round into shape. While Bledsoe has filled in admirably -- perhaps locking in a time-share for the rest of the season with Davis -- the Clippers have looked to take pressure off him by spreading the assist opportunities to Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin. Gordon has held steady at just under 5 assists a game, while Griffin continues to climb over the 3 APG mark, a heady total for a power forward.
Golden State Warriors: So far this season, the Warriors are producing like a more stable, better-medicated version of a Don Nelson squad. Watching Stephen Curry, I wonder if Keith Smart should be pushing him into more traditional point guard duties, but the truth is he doesn't have much choice. With inefficiency king Monta Ellis locked into an odious long-term deal, Curry will be forced into the distributor role by way of an uneasy coexistence. Meanwhile, both David Lee (3.7 APG) and Dorell Wright (3.2) make for excellent sources of out-of-position stats.
Assist ratio rich
Philadelphia 76ers: Doug Collins is sneakily turning the 76ers into an underrated source of fantasy production. He's got Jrue Holiday flirting with 7 assists a night to go along with Andre Iguodala (5.5) and Lou Williams (3.5). If you're looking for a super-sneaky comer at center, Spencer Hawes has started earning more playing time as of late. He's proved to be a good passer (for a center) in the past, and could be a nice sleeper assists man given the minutes.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs have actually been a little less depressing on the fantasy front this season. Their big three has expanded to add two other fantasy-worthy contributors in Richard Jefferson and George Hill. But I've also been impressed with the growing assist totals of the omnipresent Tony Parker (7.0 APG), Tim Duncan (3.3) and Manu Ginobili (5.0). Boring yet efficient, the Spurs should finally start giving fantasy owners some new names to consider as their big three continues to gray and bald. (Sorry, Manu. Great season, BTW.)
Indiana Pacers: Jim O'Brien has long been one of my favorite fantasy coaches, thanks to his potent yet largely unheralded offensive system. Fantasy owners usually gravitate toward Mike D'Antoni, but O'Brien's system is always good for a couple new names a season. The problem for Indiana has always been its annoying amount of time-shares, with a sky-high seven players averaging more than 20 minutes per game. But the Pacers boast a couple of the NBA's better-passing young big men in Josh McRoberts (3.7 APG during the past 15 days) and Roy Hibbert (3.2 APG for the season).
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.