Early Player Rater surprises
Can Lowry, Hawes, Harden, George and Chandler remain elite fantasy options?
At this point in the NBA season, each team has played between four and seven games. That may not sound like a huge difference, and over the course of the entire season maybe it really isn't, but if you've played seven games to someone else's four, you've certainly had more chances to accumulate stats. That's important in fantasy basketball; that's why, for at least the first few weeks of the season, we're going to focus more on per-game averages than raw totals.
Fortunately, the Player Rater lets us do just that, so with that in mind, let's look at a few of the biggest positive surprises so far and see whether these current top-30 players can keep up their hot starts. (Rankings based on per-game averages through games of Jan. 3.)
Kyle Lowry, PG, Houston Rockets (2): At first glance, his 18-assist performance against the Atlanta Hawks on New Year's Eve looks like the outlier. That many assists in one game is a lot, especially when he's played in only five games, but Lowry is good and contributes across the board in fantasy, so the fact that he's been playing this well is not a major shock. On the other hand, he's definitely not the second-best player in fantasy. He's been a terrible outside shooter in nearly every season of his career, so his poor start from the 3-point line is definitely a bad sign. He averaged 1.4 steals per game in 34.2 minutes last season, so to expect him to keep averaging better than two per game is overly optimistic. Most important, he's been extremely consistent in his assist rate over the course of his career, and the odds are low that he continues anything close to the career-high pace he's set in that category so far this season. He's a good player with the potential to be a top-30 fantasy guy if everything breaks right, but trading him to someone desperate for assists might not be such a bad idea, even this early in the season.
Spencer Hawes, C, Philadelphia 76ers (9): Everything about Hawes' performance through the first four games of the season has been pretty fluky given his past performance, so the question isn't whether he'll remain a top-10 fantasy player (he won't), but rather, which elements of his performance most likely might continue. The answer, I think, is probably none. His 1.8 blocks per game don't seem so out of line given that his minutes have increased from 21.2 last season to 33.3 this season, but it's more likely he ends up closer to 1.5. He's not a black hole on offense, but there's also nothing in his past that suggests he will keep averaging 4.0 assists per game. He's been a mediocre rebounder for a center for his entire career, so the fact that he's put together four straight double-digit rebounding games likely won't happen again. Finally, after never averaging better than 0.6 steals per game, he's averaging 1.3 so far this year, and that might be the biggest fluke of all. Three of the four defenses he's faced have been firmly entrenched in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency, so it makes sense that he's been this good so far offensively, and his value, at least this season, probably will never be higher than it is now. If he has a good game against the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday, you might want to use that as a chance to turn him into a better player.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder (18): Harden was one of the more hyped players coming into fantasy drafts this season. However, guys like that often end up falling short of their draft positions, but it doesn't appear that will be the case with Harden. He possesses an amazingly efficient all-around game that doesn't appear likely to slip much from where it sits. Yes, he probably will slide back a bit from the 5.9 rebounds per game he's averaging so far, but he also probably will start making more than 29.4 percent of his 3-pointers (he's at 35.6 percent for his career). His field goal percentage doesn't look so special until you realize he's taking a ton of 3s and constantly getting to the line. Once he's at the line, he's a major asset; while he might not shoot 90 percent, he was at 84 percent last season and certainly could improve. All told, the comparisons to Manu Ginobili, at least in terms of fantasy, are starting to look accurate; maybe the only difference will be that Harden can stay healthy. If Harden stays in the top 20 all year, I won't be surprised.
Paul George, SG/SF, Indiana Pacers (24): George is the classic roto guy: He contributes a little in every category so he ends up being worth a ton without really being great in any particular category. Since he's carrying most of his weight in 3s made so far this season, the important thing to consider is whether he can keep making 2.4 per game. The answer, of course, is no, he absolutely cannot. George shot 29.7 percent on 3s last season and made 0.7 per game in 20.7 minutes. Those minutes are up to 33.7 this year, and it's reasonable to expect him to improve a bit (he was around 40 percent for his career at Fresno State), but he's shooting 63.2 percent so far this season! Knock him down to 40 percent (which is still probably too generous) and he's only making 1.5 3s per game instead of 2.4. That might not sound like much, but it would take his Player Rater position from 23rd to around 35th, and that's not including the corresponding declines in points and field goal percentage. I'm not trying to knock George down, because he's a really good player who was drafted outside the top 100 in most leagues and is an excellent value, but he's probably not a top-25 guy just yet.
Tyson Chandler, C, New York Knicks (28): This might sound crazy because of the way he's perceived, but Chandler isn't really a great shot-blocker. For example, last season, in a season in which he absolutely revitalized the Dallas Mavericks defense, he averaged 1.1 blocks per game and finished 26th in the league in that category behind Marcin Gortat and Dwyane Wade, who, by the way, is a shooting guard. More important, he's been blocking around 1.1 shots per game since 2006-07. So let's look at Chandler's 2.2 blocks per game the same way we looked at George's 3-point shooting. Bring him back down to 1.1 and he's drops from 28th to around 58th, making him only slightly more valuable than Greg Monroe, for example. That's just a reminder to watch out for the Player Rater early in the season, especially in a category like blocks, where one great game (Chandler blocked six shots against the Boston Celtics in the season opener) can carry a player for weeks.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.