Long-term value for '11-12 surprises
Now that the trade deadline is far behind us and the dust has settled, it seems like a good time to take a look ahead to next season. This season continues to be a strange one, so it probably comes as no surprise that the top of the Player Rater is chock full of surprises. The real question is how easily these players can sustain their performances for the rest of this season and into next season.
With that in mind, here are the five biggest (positive) surprises in the top 20 on the Player Rater so far this season:
(current Player Rater ranking in parentheses)
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder (8): A ton of shooting guards were drafted ahead of Harden coming into this season, but only Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have outperformed him. That's pretty impressive when you consider the fact that he doesn't even start on his own team and plays just 32.1 minutes per game. Harden does a little bit of everything, contributing in a big way in points, assists, 3-pointers, steals and especially his percentages both from the floor and from the line. His 3-point shooting is his best category, but it's always valuable to find a guy who helps you as much as Harden in both of the percentages. In fact, of players in the top 10 in free throw shooting on the Player Rater, only Harden's teammate Kevin Durant helps you more in field goal percentage. It'll be tricky to know where to draft him next season, as it's hard to pull the trigger on a guy in the first two rounds who isn't even a starter. But given his efficiency and the minutes he plays, as well as the fact that he's missed just seven games total in his three seasons, there's a case to be made for him as a late first-rounder in a deeper league.
Steve Nash, PG, Phoenix Suns (9): Nash's average draft position in ESPN.com leagues was 29.1, and no matter how high you were on his potential coming into this season, you probably didn't have him finishing in your top 10. Nonetheless, Nash continues to play significant minutes at age 38 (he's the fifth-oldest player in the entire league), and continues, somehow, to actually get better in fantasy leagues. He's taking fewer shots, but other than that, his game doesn't really seem to be changing much. He's still averaging more than 11 assists per game, and he's still posting shooting percentages like we've almost never seen before in the NBA. The 54.3 percent he's shooting from the floor this season would be a career high even in his miraculous career, and if that's the result of his taking fewer shots, I would think his fantasy owners are OK with that. I'm not worried about the rest of this season at all, and think he'll continue to find himself in the top 10 on the Player Rater, but next season he's going to slide down in drafts for the same reasons he did this season. Once again, there's a good chance he'll have proven all of us wrong a year from now.
Paul Millsap, PF, Utah Jazz (11): Millsap wasn't even in the top 50 in most drafts heading into this season, probably because we assumed he'd sacrifice playing time with the emergence of guys like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. In a sense, we were right: he's down from 34.3 minutes per game last season to 32.0 this season, and that's a pretty significant drop-off for a player of his caliber. He's managed, however, to turn himself into an elite fantasy player by getting even better in areas in which he was already great. Last season, he led all power forwards by averaging 1.4 steals per game; this season, he's at 1.8 and no one else is even close. Last season, he averaged 7.7 rebounds per game; this year he's at 9.0 despite the drop in minutes. Yes, his shooting percentage has slipped a bit, but he's made up for that by improving his free throw shooting and turning the ball over a bit less often. He's still not an elite shot-blocker -- in fact, he's not really elite at anything except for grabbing steals -- but in the aggregate, he's been the eighth-best player in all of fantasy basketball this season, and that's no fluke. I can't say I'd be shocked if I saw him taken late in the first round of a draft next season.
Ryan Anderson, PF, Orlando Magic (14): In some ways, Anderson is the most interesting case of all, because his value is drawn so heavily from one category, 3-point shooting, which is notoriously fickle from season to season. While you can expect Steve Nash to put up a relatively similar number of assists given roughly the same number of minutes played, Anderson's 3-point shooting could change drastically given any sort of change to his percentage on such shots. It's a good thing for Anderson that Dwight Howard has agreed to return to the Magic for one more season, as that should mean Anderson will continue getting similar looks next season, but the moment Howard finds himself on another team is the moment Anderson's value takes another hit, so that's another factor entirely out of Anderson's control. He has a bit of value as a rebounder and as a free throw shooter, but other than that his game is remarkably one-dimensional. Add it all up and even if Anderson does wind up finishing this season in the top 15 on the Player Rater, I'd have a really hard time spending a draft pick in the first two rounds on a guy I'm drafting mostly for 3-point shooting; it's just too risky that he has an off-year or that Howard ends up getting traded.
Serge Ibaka, PF/C, Oklahoma City Thunder (20): I thought about writing about Marc Gasol here, because he's outperformed his average draft position even more than Ibaka has, but Gasol's well-rounded game is a natural fit for fantasy leagues, and Ibaka's volatility -- as well as the fact that in many ways he's having a worse season than he did a year ago -- makes him a little more interesting to consider. In 82 games last season, Ibaka wound up 36th on the Player Rater, and yet slipped a little from that number in fantasy drafts heading into this season despite the fact that he's a young player on the rise. Accordingly, his scoring as well as his percentages have declined so far this season, while playing nearly the same number of minutes per game. His rebounding has ticked up a bit, but the truth is that with Ibaka we're really only talking about one category: blocks. Ibaka's value in blocks is the biggest number in any category anywhere on the Player Rater; that is to say, Ibaka carries more value in blocks than any other player carries anywhere. Even stranger, the season didn't start this way. In the month of January, he averaged 2.5 blocks, which looked a lot like the 2.4 blocks he averaged last season. Since then, he's been on a tear, averaging 4.3 blocks in February and 3.5 blocks in March. It's certainly within the realm of possibility that he puts up 4.0 blocks per game for an entire season at some point in his career. It's not as crazy as it sounds; in the 1980s and 1990s, the league leaders in blocks -- one-dimensional guys like Mark Eaton, Tree Rollins and Manute Bol, and superstars like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Dikembe Mutombo -- routinely averaged better than four blocks per game. Ibaka might be the next guy on that list, and if he is, he's going to be a top-20 fantasy player for a long time, even if the vast majority of his value comes solely from his ability to block shots.