If you've been reading my fantasy basketball column with any regularity this season, you know how I feel about the role a head coach can play. Whether it's wacky Don Nelson in Oakland or the personnel changes made in Oklahoma City or Phoenix, we've seen how one man can affect the fantasy game greatly.
What doesn't often occur is when a coach makes a creative lineup choice that takes a marginal fantasy option, and because of one added stat category, he comes much more valuable. In general, it comes down to playing time, right? Give a guy more minutes, you'll see better production, and vice versa. How often can an established player suddenly provide us a totally new skill?
Maybe you haven't been watching, but one of the top point guards in fantasy this month has been Richard Hamilton of the Pistons. I know, Richard Hamilton? This is a two-guard with a career assists per game average of 3.4, someone whom you could count on for 4 per game in Detroit, but not much more. The Pistons always had someone else to run the offense, namely Chauncey Billups. When he was dealt for Allen Iverson, it didn't help Hamilton's plight. If anyone should have become more valuable, it was Rodney Stuckey. He was just horrible in January, though, opening the door for something new, something nobody had ever considered.
When Iverson's sore back rendered him useless to the Pistons a few weeks ago, Stuckey didn't step up like he had in December, when Iverson started declining. Hamilton did. Hamilton is one of those players nobody in fantasy looks to draft, unless they have Shaquille O'Neal types and need free-throw percentage. None of Rip's numbers tend to stand out, which is why his ESPN average draft position was in the 70s. You'd draft him, but not feel great about it.
However, those who owned Hamilton as an afterthought or picked him up off free agency on a whim in February have surely been rewarded lately. I watched Hamilton in a few recent games, and it's pretty easy to see how he has all of a sudden become John Stockton: He has the ball all the time, and he knows where to send it to register an assist. But how does someone like this enter Tuesday's game with 14, 5, 16 and 12 assists, respectively, in his previous four games? Those are big-boy point guard numbers! Kudos to Pistons coach Michael Curry, although it hasn't really resulted in his team earning more wins. The Pistons are playoff-bound, but it's hard to miss the postseason in the East. I'm just mesmerized by how Hamilton went from, for extreme's sake, 2.4 assists per game in November, to his current 8.4 per game in March.
He's still not a great fantasy player, but it is efforts like these that can really affect fantasy basketball. In roto leagues, there's less than a month left, and the assists category remains a volatile one. In head-to-head leagues, we're already in the playoffs, and being able to garner a lot of assists from your shooting guard position is quite the boon. Other than rebounds, when a player's energy and opportunity can result in a change at times -- we're talking about Josh Smith here -- I can't think of another category that can be affected like this. Players don't all of a sudden block shots or hit 3s, you know. Those are not skills everyone has. In theory, every player at this level can pass or rebound, though.
Alas, Hamilton is still only No. 43 on ESPN's Player Rater for the past 15 days, but considering how valuable those assists are -- he's eighth in the league during that span -- I'd say he's making a huge impact. No, you're not getting steals, and his field-goal shooting has been erratic, but if you need assists, let's just say Michael Curry, and fantasy owners, stumbled onto something special here.
Hamilton is normally in the news this week every season, but not for his play. With the NCAA tournament beginning this week, I am reminded of this trivia question: Name the only active NBA players to have won championships at both the NBA and NCAA levels? Hamilton is the obvious one, winning titles with the Pistons and Connecticut. Who is the other active player? Answer later
So I got to thinking, what other coaches could greatly affect fantasy hoops like this with a small change in philosophy or a lineup adjustment? I'm not talking about playing time here. If Denver's George Karl would give Chris Andersen 30 minutes a night, I'm convinced we'd get 12 boards and 4 blocks per night from the big power forward. No, I'm talking about a Hamilton-like "birth of a new stat." So let's play "what if"
• Andrea Bargnani, SF/PF/C, Raptors: He's a 7-footer in size only, not the way he plays. He's more of a Dirk Nowitzki type who would prefer to stay outside the arc and shoot 3-pointers, but what if the Raptors didn't have Chris Bosh down low, or Jermaine O'Neal (before he was traded) and Shawn Marion (now) to rebound? Bargnani is averaging a poor 5.4 rebounds per game, and while he can block shots, he rarely seems aggressive enough on defense to do so, settling to let others do the dirty work. Nowitzki didn't start rebounding until his third season, and was never a major shot-blocker. I think a little coaxing and motivation -- plus the potential absence of Bosh, necessitating Bargnani play bigger -- could get the 23-year-old Italian to produce a consistent 8 boards and 2 blocks per game.
• Vince Carter, SG, Nets: Devin Harris is doing a fine job at the point, averaging 7 assists per game, but remember that April when Carter did that while also scoring 29 points and hitting nearly three 3-pointers per game? It was two seasons ago. Then last year, in the final month of the season, he upped his assists again, after Jason Kidd had been dealt. If Hamilton can average double digits in assists, I'm convinced Carter can do this, and all it would take is a Harris injury to make this happen. I've seen enough of Keyon Dooling over the years to know the Nets don't gain much if he's running the team. Why not let Carter be Kobe the final weeks? And if you don't think Kobe could average 10 assists a night, you're not paying attention.
• Luis Scola, PF, Rockets: Just let him shoot! Scola is capable of scoring 20 points a night, but he rarely gets enough chances. The Rockets don't really run plays for the rugged Argentinean, even with Tracy McGrady out of the lineup. Aaron Brooks averaged more shots per game in February and a lot more this month, taking over the Rafer Alston role of hitting open 3s, along with Ron Artest, when defenses collapse on Yao Ming. I don't know if Scola has enough space to score more with Yao in play, but as we all know, Yao's middle name isn't exactly durability. The Rockets lost two of the three games Yao missed this season, and Scola didn't get more shots. If Yao misses more, I think Scola could score in the high teens consistently, and would thus be owned in a lot more than 54 percent of leagues, as he is now.
Howard (Illinois): "Eric, you sure were right about the Suns-Warriors game on ESPN Sunday night being awesome for fantasy! I've followed your advice about loading up on players facing bad defensive teams, and it got me into the head-to-head playoffs. I also remember early in the season when you said Shaquille O'Neal would keep up his fine play. I didn't believe, but now I do."
Karabell: Yeah, it was obvious heading into last week that the combination of the running Suns and the defenseless Warriors would make for a big fantasy night. Phoenix scored a league-best 154 points, and allowed 130, and nobody seemed to blink. Way to go, Don Nelson, you're still a fantasy MVP in our book! As for Shaq, I really think the combination of the Suns desperately aiming for a playoff berth and the absence of Amare Stoudemire has motivated the big fella to stay on the court. On Sunday, he dunked his way to 26 points, hitting 11 of 13 field goals. His rebounds and blocks are down so far in March, but he's hitting two of every three field goal attempts, and he's not slowing down. In this case, it paid to have faith in Shaq (and Don Nelson!). One thing to watch, though, is that the Suns are slowly slipping out of contention; they're now a full four games behind the Mavericks for the final playoff spot, with 15 games to play. If the Suns don't close the gap soon, I doubt Shaq will be pushed much in April.
Finally, back to our trivia question: Who else joins Hamilton as active NBA players with NBA and NCAA titles to their credit? He's not exactly a star fantasy option, so maybe you forgot, having made a field goal on Monday for the first time in more than a month. From the Charlotte Bobcats, it's Nazr Mohammed! He won with the Spurs and at Kentucky. Enjoy the tournament and don't forget about the final weeks of the NBA season!
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.