If you're one of my longtime readers, then you already know that when I predict a player's fantasy value, I put a premium on raw basketball talent. That can come in the form of superior physical skills like Russell Westbrook has, or that can come in the form of pure fundamentals and heart like Greg Monroe has. If a player is really talented, then he will force a coach to make him a bigger part of the offense, and his raw talent will help him outplay his opponents on any given night.
However, there are plenty of mitigating factors that play a role in whether a player long on raw hoops talent will be able to translate that skill into high-end fantasy production. Who his coach is, what style of offense the coach plays and the talent level of his teammates can make the difference between a big statistical season and a mediocre letdown. Let's examine four players whose production this season has been affected by outside factors and determine whether they're worth trading for.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Even though their biggest roster move during the brief preseason was trading backup forward Lamar Odom for a draft pick, no team has gone through more changes than the Lakers this season. That's because coach Phil Jackson retired and took the triangle offense with him. Aside from a one-season gap when Jackson left the team in 2004-05, the triangle has been the only offensive structure most of the players on the Lakers have known in their careers.
The triangle is based on deliberate ball movement and players being in the right place at the right time. New head coach Mike Brown brought in a more traditional offense that focuses more on getting max scoring from the team's best player, just as he did while coaching LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The changes in Kobe Bryant's production from what we had grown accustomed to as a central part of the triangle O to his new role are not surprising. Because he has the freedom to shoot when he feels like it -- not just when the offense comes to him -- he's averaging 4.8 more shots and 5.2 more points per game. In fact, he's averaging more than 30 points per game for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Because he's handling the rock more, he's also dishing out more assists, and turning over the rock more often, than any season since the 2004-05 season, when Kobe wasn't able to lean on Jackson and the triangle. The 3.7 turnovers can be a bit gruesome in leagues that count them as negative, but the fact Bryant has managed to maintain his usual 45.5 field goal percentage and low-80s free throw percentage is a great sign for his long-term success this season.
We have to be a little concerned about his health, since he began the season with a hand injury, is 33 with 15 seasons under his belt and is expending more energy in the new offense. However, Bryant has developed an ability to play through nearly any injury in recent years, so I'm fully on board with trying to acquire him in trades. I expect him to continue his elite play and finish in the top 10.
Danny Granger and David West, Indiana Pacers
The Lakers have just three players scoring in double figures: Kobe (30.5 ppg), Andrew Bynum (15.9) and Pau Gasol (15.8). Having three or four guys scoring at least 10 points is pretty typical for most teams in the NBA, even those that spread touches around. However, the Pacers are taking teamwork to a new, and arguably ridiculous, level; they have seven players averaging double digits in scoring.
The teamwork is great for the team -- they are 11-4 and would have the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference if the postseason started today -- and probably great for the confidence of reserves such as Tyler Hansbrough and George Hill, who are managing to average 10-plus points despite playing just 25 minutes per game. However, teams that spread around the rock this much tend to kill the overall fantasy value of their top ballers.
Their best player, and best fantasy option, is Granger, who may be disappointing his owners more than any other player in the league right now. However, his diminished production has little, if anything, to do with the share-the-rock approach used by coach Frank Vogel. It has more to do with Granger himself and some bad luck. He hasn't been able to shake his sprained ankle completely, and he's clearly been limited as a result. In fact, despite averaging 4.1 fewer points than last season, Granger is attempting only 0.5 fewer field goal attempts per game. The drop in scoring comes from shooting 35.5 percent from the field, an embarrassing number even for a guy who has had trouble reaching the 43 percent mark in recent years. Because of his ankle, he also hasn't been taking it to the rim as much, which has led to him taking 1.5 fewer free throw attempts per game.
I was down on Granger entering the season because he wasn't going to be the sole offensive option on the Pacers like he was at his peak fantasy value. That meant other owners took him a round or two before I considered taking him. However, at this point, those owners who drafted him early must be tired of seeing his hideous box scores and would probably trade him on the cheap. I'm buying at this point, because once he's fully healthy, he should score at least close to 20 points per game while adding some 3s, steals and blocks. This is the perfect time to buy low on him.
I was also down on preseason acquisition David West entering the season. West is a solid NBA big, but his fantasy value with the New Orleans Hornets was tied very much to having superstar point guard Chris Paul giving him choice scoring opportunities and playing 35-39 minutes per game. Just looking at the general depth of the Pacers' roster and their lack of a high-end point guard, it was clear he'd have a very tough time coming close to what he did with the Hornets. Sure enough, he's taking 4.5 fewer shots, scoring 7.1 fewer points, shooting below 50 percent for the first time in three seasons (45.5 percent) and posting his lowest rebounding tally (6.9) since his 2004-05 sophomore campaign. He may have stretches of success, but I wouldn't recommend acquiring him, even on the ultra-cheap.
West's rapid decline should stand as a great example in the future when you are assessing a player whose value depends more on his role than his raw talent, especially when he doesn't block shots, steal balls or drop treys.
Deron Williams, New Jersey Nets
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. D-Will was stuck in Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's rigidly structured offense for the first five-plus seasons of his NBA career. Not having the freedom to simply go out and "ball" drove him crazy. Eventually, it also drove Sloan into retirement and Williams to be traded to the Nets during last season.
We didn't get to see how well he could perform in a different uni last season, because an injury limited him to 12 games with the Nets. He has 17 games under his belt this season, though, and his production has been underwhelming across the board. The results aren't that surprising and may even have D-Will yearning for Sloan's structure and the talent level of the Jazz compared to the lack of talent on the Nets.
Despite taking a career-high 15.7 shots per game this season, his 18.1 points-per-game average is his lowest mark since 2006-07. That's largely because he isn't taking the same quality shots he was with the Jazz, so his field goal percentage is a career-low 37.8 percent. This is the same point guard who shot 50.7 percent from the field in 2007-08 and has averaged a 45.9 field goal percentage for his career.
Another negative effect of changing offenses is that his turnover average of 4.3 is 0.8 higher than any season with the Jazz. On top of that, the 8.4 assists per game he has posted this season is the first time he has been below 9.3 per game since his rookie campaign. While a new system is part of the reason his dimes are down, the other reason is that the Nets don't have any scorers to finish his passes. Until Brook Lopez returns to action, the Nets' top scoring options beyond D-Will are a rookie (MarShon Brooks), a rebounder (Kris Humphries) and an undrafted overachiever (Anthony Morrow).
Once Lopez is back in the mix within a few weeks, I expect some improvement from Williams. However, I think we aren't going to see max fantasy production from him unless the Nets somehow add a stud scorer (Dwight Howard?) or he gets shipped to a new team. Buy low on him if you can get him at a good price and cover up his poor field goal percentage. Just don't expect him to return to his elite production unless things change around him.