NBA Skinny: Boom, bust, and bonanza

We’re no more than a few days away from crowning the NBA’s next champion and entering an off-season fraught with trepidation. Before we begin this journey into the unknown, let’s take a look back at some of the standouts from the 2010-11 fantasy season, broken down into three groups: boom (players that well out-performed their draft position), bust (players that failed to deliver on high expectations), and bonanza (undrafted players that delivered huge dividends as free agent additions). We’ll start with the boom…

Note: ADP = average draft position, Rank = Season (total), PerGame = Season (avg)

Dorell Wright(notes), GF, GSW (ADP 137.9, 69%, Rank 14, PerGame 18)
Wright’s impact on the fantasy landscape this season can best be summed up by his place atop the MVP lists for both roto and h2h. Simply put, you competed if you drafted Wright or added him post-draft. He set a Warriors franchise record with 194 threes and comfortably led the league with 380 combined threes, steals, and blocks (Monta Ellis(notes) was second with 328). Of all the big numbers from Wright, which one was the most surprising? That would be 3,148 minutes played, more than twice his previous career high and good for fourth in the league. Nothing about his statistical performance says fluke when you look at the per-minute numbers he’s compiled over his entire career. Wright clearly has the stuff to remain a top fantasy option moving forward, and all that would remain to be seen is how he might handle even more offensive responsibility. If Ellis (or Stephen Curry(notes)) were to end up elsewhere and be replaced with a lower-usage option, Wright would have to shoulder more of the scoring load - and deal with more defensive attention. The Warriors may look to make changes before next season, so we’ll have to wait and see how Wright’s role could change. One thing is for sure, the 2010-11 season was a near-perfect meeting of skills and opportunity.

Kevin Love(notes), FC, MIN (ADP 42.1, Rank 5, PerGame 4)
Love was a fourth-round pick on average but finished the season in the top five thanks to a number of superlatives (20.2 points, 1.2 threes, 15.2 boards, 85% FT on 6.8 FTA) and a line that didn’t really hurt you anywhere (47% FG, 2.5 assists, 2.1 turnovers, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks). His season rank was even more impressive when you consider that he averaged only 28 minutes over the first nine games and missed nine games at the end of the season. Love was the No.1 player in fantasy for a period that lasted nearly three months (from Nov 12 to Jan 31), starting with his 31-point, 31-rebound effort against the Knicks - in 38 games during that stretch, he averaged 22.8 points on 49-percent shooting, 89-percent foul shooting, 1.5 threes, and 16.3 boards in 39 minutes. There’s no reason to think that Love won’t be drafted in the early stages of Round 1 in 2011-12, and there’s little reason to suggest that he won’t warrant the spot. Who happens to be coaching the team will undoubtedly play a factor in where Love is specifically slotted, and any potential improvements in steals-plus-blocks would just be gravy, given the rest of his line.

LaMarcus Aldridge(notes), FC, POR (ADP 53.4, Rank 10, PerGame 19)
Aldridge proved that those glowing reports about players dedicating off-seasons to improving their game aren’t always fluff pieces. Aldridge worked hard in the summer of 2010 to add strength and translate it to more assertiveness and physicality on the court, and things clearly went according to plan. His dedication and Brandon Roy’s(notes) injury problems paved the way for career highs in minutes (40), scoring (21.8), free throw attempts (5.5), and boards (8.8), while he matched career marks in assists (2.1), steals (1), and blocks (1.2). LMA was as good as any player in the game during the middle of the season - in 34 games from Dec 15 to Feb 28, he averaged 25.4 points on 53-percent shooting, 9.7 boards, 2.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 41 minutes. Another top-10 season may be a reach with Gerald Wallace(notes) now in the fold, but Roy’s perpetual limitations will help ensure that Aldridge doesn’t fall too far in future season ranks.

Serge Ibaka(notes), FC, OKC (ADP 135, 91%, Rank 28, PerGame 37)
Plenty of people liked Ibaka heading into the season, but that ADP shows that even his most ardent supporters underestimated his second-season improvement by a substantial margin. Ibaka led the league in blocks (198) despite finishing 93rd in minutes (27 per game) and flourished after the Thunder traded Jeff Green(notes) - over the final 26 games of the season, he averaged 11 points on 51-percent shooting, 8.5 boards, and 3.2 blocks in 30 minutes. Kendrick Perkins’(notes) presence removes the burden of primary post defense and frees him up for even more blocks as a help defender, and the team’s bevy of talented offensive players will only serve to help him expand his own efficient game. There really aren’t many mysteries here - Ibaka is a supremely-gifted athlete and, at just 21 years of age, has a tremendous future ahead of him. Just don’t be thinking he’ll fall much past the third round (if at all) on draft day next season.

Elton Brand(notes), FC, PHI (ADP 85.1, Rank 19, PerGame 26)
Very few people pegged Brand for a vintage season, but he delivered thanks to Doug Collins’ positive influence on the 76ers and a truly clean bill of health. Brand’s per-minute scoring has been steady for three seasons, but his efficiency spiked in 2010-11 (51% FG, career-high 78% FT, career-low 1.3 turnovers) and he was back up to 35 minutes in 81 games played. Throw in solid defensive numbers (8.4 boards, 1.1 steals, 1.3 blocks) and you’ve got yourself a top-20 fantasy season. The 76ers will largely be the same team in 2011-12 (Thaddeus Young(notes) and Spencer Hawes(notes) are restricted free agents), which should put Brand in a good spot for success once again. He’ll creep back into the top 50 in drafts but may not climb high enough to remove the potential for another year of dividends, provided he can stay healthy and approximate this season’s minutes.

Derrick Rose(notes), PG, CHI (ADP 30.7, Rank 7, PerGame 14)
Rose exploded in his third season, combining a largely-expected hike in points (25) and assists (7.7) with a dramatic increase in threes (1.6) and top-20 foul shooting (86%). There was talk of an improved outside shot entering the season, but it wasn’t on display in FIBA play or the preseason, and Rose lifted his impact at the foul line from a slight negative in 2009-10 (4.3 FTA, 77%) to the fifth-largest positive in the league (6.9 FTA, 86%). Those numbers from the charity stripe spiked around mid-season, as well - Rose averaged 7.9 attempts and 90-percent shooting over his final 48 games. That huge positive helped offset the hit his field goal percentage (45%) suffered at the expense of threes - they accounted for 24 percent of his shot attempts (19.7 FGA, 4.8 3PA) after just four percent during the 2009-10 season (17.6 FGA, 0.8 3PA). Of course, 45-percent shooting is not bad for a point guard and he did plenty otherwise to negate the drop-off, including upping his steals (1.1) and blocks (0.6). The only question that remains for next season deals with how early in Round 1 you’d grab him, provided you have no major concerns of a regression at the line.

Up next are the busts. There was no shortage of disappointing players, but we’ll deal with five that created some serious drama for fantasy owners and left much to be desired when it came to season-ending ranks.

Joe Johnson(notes), GF, ATL (ADP 28, Rank 99, PerGame 107)
Johnson had a disappointing season by just about any measure. His production was down across the board in 2010-11, with his most notable drop-offs coming in threes (1.2 per game, career-low 30%) and steals (career-low 0.7). The Hawks’ motion offense has to be given a share of the credit, while it also should be noted that he dealt with elbow, knee, toe, and thumb injuries over the course of the season. The most puzzling aspect of Johnson’s season was a statistical outburst that started shortly after he returned from his elbow injury in mid-December. In 21 games between Dec 22 and Feb 5, Johnson averaged 24.1 points on 49-percent shooting, 1.9 threes (38%), 4.2 free throws (82%), 4.3 boards, 5.6 assists, and 1.9 turnovers - in his other 51 games, those averages fell to 15.8 points on 42-percent shooting, 1 three (26%), 3 free throws (79%), 3.9 boards, 4.3 assists, and 2.1 turnovers. He won’t be quite as bad in 2011-12 if his three-point shooting normalizes (career 37%), but his days as a third-round pick and playing 40 minutes nightly do appear to be behind him.

David Lee(notes), FC, GSW (ADP 13.7, Rank 52, PerGame 48)
Any rationale for Lee’s drop-off in production overall has to be linked to the ugly infection in his left (shooting) elbow that manifested itself after his collision with Wilson Chandler’s(notes) tooth just eight games into the season. Lee missed only eight games but took much longer to get back to 100 percent, as evidenced by his season splits. Lee’s PerGame rank over the final three months was 25, it climbed to 18 over the final two months, and he was the fifth-ranked player over the final month of the season (15 games, 18.9 points, 57% FG, 85% FT, 10.8 boards, 2.9 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks). We’re a ways from knowing how exactly Mark Jackson will influence the Warriors’ offense, but for now I’m only looking at this past season as an opportunity for a reasonable discount on Lee as a third-round pick in 2011-12.

Brook Lopez(notes), C, NJN (ADP 17.8, Rank 45, PerGame 58)
It was a bumpy ride for Lopez and his fantasy owners this past season - take a look at his monthly splits for the full picture. Everything outside of his scoring average declined, and he was berated by his coach via the media because of sub-par rebounding numbers. I can’t help but give some credit to Avery Johnson himself for Lopez’s season - calling him out as he did certainly qualified as poor coaching form, and it’s a challenge to identify positives from the Nets’ 24-win season that were a direct result of Johnson’s influence. Lopez’s rebounding numbers couldn’t help but shrink next to Kris Humphries(notes), who finished second only to Kevin Love in total rebound rate, and you might be surprised to learn that Lopez finished just outside the top 20 in offensive rebounds (this following top-10 finishes in each of his first two seasons). Some other positives? He hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, has career 50/80 percentages, and has averaged 19.6 points and 1.6 blocks over the past two seasons. Oh yeah, and he’s playing with Deron Williams(notes) now, who helped him dramatically increase his volume of shots around the rim towards the end of the season (Lopez was a top-30 player over the final six weeks). This all is my long-winded way of saying that perhaps Lopez, at age 23, isn’t quite as bad as the volume of vitriol suggested. He’s certainly going to fall at least a few rounds in drafts next season, but I wouldn’t bet against something of a rebound. Higher percentages and an improved assist-to-turnover ratio would lead to exactly that, regardless of whether or not he’s back above eight boards per game.

Anthony Randolph(notes), FC, MIN (ADP 79.9, Rank 298, PerGame 268)
We’ll start with the good: Randolph averaged 15.5 points on 53-percent shooting, 6.7 boards, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 blocks in 24 minutes over his final 13 games, and his per-36s were once again impressive (18.6 points, 9.8 boards, 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks). That of course pales in comparison to the bad… Randolph was out of the Knicks’ rotation by the time training camp ended, which wasn’t so long after Mike D’Antoni had gushed over his expected versatility and stat-stuffing potential. He couldn’t grasp the team’s offense and was eventually called out by D’Antoni for his lackadaisical and terribly inefficient play. And he only saw extended playing time down the stretch for the T-Wolves because both Kevin Love and Darko Milicic(notes) dealt with injuries, while Minnesota ended the season with 15 consecutive losses. And so it goes with Randolph, who proved that it wasn’t just Don Nelson holding him back - that purported potential won’t begin to be realized until his brain starts to catch up with his body. Until that happens, he’s nothing more than a project with some physical gifts that rarely emerge within the confines of effective team basketball.

Darren Collison(notes), PG, IND (ADP 43.4, Rank 90, PerGame 119)
Plenty of fantasy owners went all-in with Collison in the anticipation of a breakout as the Pacers’ primary point guard. But he never saw true starters’ minutes, averaging 30 per game, and failed to deliver dynamic numbers in a Pacers’ offense that struggled with consistency all season. Interestingly enough, Collison’s best run of the season came immediately before and after Jim O’Brien’s firing on Jan 30 - in 22 games between Dec 31 and Feb 12, he averaged 15.2 points on 46-percent shooting, 86-percent foul shooting, 0.9 threes, 6.1 assists, and 1.4 steals in 32 minutes. But even those best numbers were a far cry from production - and playing time - as a starter for the Hornets. Collison could emerge as a post-hype target in 2011-12, but it won’t just be due to a progression of skills and further acclimation with his coach and teammates - he’s going to need those true starters’ minutes that most of us were expecting this past season.

Lastly, let’s touch on the biggest difference-makers that went undrafted in most or all leagues. For fantasy owners, these players were a true bonanza of production.

Wesley Matthews(notes), GF, POR (Rank 38, PerGame 59)
You won’t be blamed for not having high expectations for Matthews coming into the 2010-11 season. He was slated to back up Brandon Roy and his splits as a starter for the Jazz weren’t particularly impressive to begin with. But Roy’s situation quickly deteriorated (compare these reports from Oct 14 and Nov 9) and Matthews stepped his game up, averaging an efficient 16.9 points (45% FG, 84% FT, 1.7 turnovers), 2.1 threes, and 1.4 steals in 69 starts. Matthews has toughness and skills that are easy to like, but it’s too early to set expectations for next season. We need to track a recovery from PRP therapy on his right ankle, play wait-and-see with Roy, and it also should be noted that Matthews’ numbers fell to 13.9 points, 1.8 threes, 2.5 boards, and 1 steal in 31 minutes after Gerald Wallace arrived in Portland (including playoffs).

Kyle Lowry(notes), PG, HOU (Rank 49, PerGame 41)
Aaron Brooks(notes) suffered a left ankle injury just five games into the 2010-11 season, but not many people were thinking that he’d only make two more starts for the Rockets at the time. Brooks’ injury proved to be serious, Lowry took hold of the starting job for good, and Brooks was eventually traded to Phoenix. Lowry was a superb fantasy performer after he fully recovered from a preseason back injury, posting a top-30 impact from Dec 1 forward (62 games, 35 minutes, 14.6 points, 2 threes, 4.1 boards, 6.7 assists, 1.3 steals). Lowry had been a steady per-minute producer throughout his career, and threes were the single drastic improvement in those numbers during his breakout. Lowry shot 26 percent from deep through his first five seasons (101 of 382) and hit 38 percent last season (129 of 343). How early you’ll draft him in 2011-12 comes down to whether you see this improvement as part of a progression of skills at age 24 or an anomaly that will correct.

Marcin Gortat(notes), C, PHO (Rank 63, PerGame 77)
Gortat’s ranks for the full season are all the more impressive when you consider that he averaged just 16 minutes in 25 games for the Magic (4 points, 4.7 boards, 0.8 blocks). But Gortat quickly established himself with the Suns and played plenty despite only making 12 starts in 55 games. Gortat ranked 35th in PerGame after the All-Star break (34 minutes, 15.3 points, 56% FG, 10.6 boards, 1.5 blocks) and there are plenty of reasons to stay optimistic now that he’s (finally) the undisputed starter. Gortat is strong, athletic, and has developed some mid-range ability, his two-way skills honed during years of practice against Dwight Howard(notes). As you might expect, Gortat benefitted greatly from playing with Steve Nash(notes) on offense - 79 percent of his field goals with the Suns were assisted, a full 20 percentage points ahead of the league average. Nash is in the final year of his contract but has an expressed desire to remain in Phoenix, which bodes well for Gortat in the short-term. Ponder for a moment where you plan on drafting Joakim Noah(notes) and Marc Gasol(notes) next season and then compare the advanced stats found here.

Chuck Hayes(notes), FC, HOU (Rank 81, PerGame 80)
The Chuckwagon emerged as a Court Report favorite as he gradually gained more playing time and responsibility for the Rockets while the season progressed. His numbers after returning from an ankle sprain in mid-January were stellar - in 43 games, he averaged 9.2 points on 52-percent shooting, 9.7 boards, 3.5 assists, 1.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 33 minutes. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, but there is a mutual desire for him to remain with the Rockets, and it’s a move that looks even more necessary with Brad Miller(notes) on the shelf indefinitely following knee surgery. It’s unusual for someone with Hayes’ size (6-6, 238) to make his mark as a defensive-minded post player, but his reputation is now firmly staked. No matter where he’s playing next season, he’s a good bet to see 30-plus minutes of playing time and keep delivering those diverse fantasy lines.

Kris Humphries, PF, NJN (Rank 92, PerGame 117)
Humphries was third on the depth chart at power forward to start the season, but Avery Johnson didn’t like what Troy Murphy(notes) and Derrick Favors(notes) were bringing in the early going and Hump had his chance by the team’s eighth game. He was an immediate success (18 boards in his first start) and never looked back, averaging 29 minutes, 10.5 points on 52-percent shooting, 11.1 boards, and 1.1 blocks in 67 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Humphries posted per-36 averages of 9.8 boards, 1 steal, and 1.1 blocks in six seasons before his breakout and his career rebound rate (18%) is similar to notables such as Tim Duncan(notes) (18.5%) and Emeka Okafor(notes) (18.4%), so there are few reasons to bet against more solid defensive numbers moving forward. Humphries is an unrestricted free agent but his remaining the starting power forward for the Nets seems by far the most likely scenario, especially considering the proximity to the New York media.

Tony Allen(notes), GF, MEM (Rank 93, PerGame 92)
Allen was yet another per-minute producer waiting for everyday playing time, having compiled career per-36s prior to the 2010-11 season that included 14.1 points, 5.1 boards, 2 steals, and 0.7 blocks. Allen’s opportunity came when Rudy Gay(notes) suffered his shoulder injury in mid-February, as he had averaged just 15 minutes over his first 45 games (but still managed 1.6 steals and 0.4 blocks). His playing time rose to 30 minutes over his final 27 games, during which he averaged 13.7 points on 55-percent shooting, 3.7 boards, 2.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks. Those massive defensive numbers and the huge contribution to field goal percentage put him among the true fantasy difference-makers down the stretch, and his grit was a key as the Grizzlies went 27-13 over their final 40 games. He’ll challenge for the steals crown as an everyday player next season - his career steal rate is 3.3% while, as a comparison, Chris Paul’s(notes) is 3.4%.