In fantasy basketball, we are constantly trying to gain an advantage by finding value where it is unexpected. We can do this by paying attention to players other people might be ignoring, but we can also do it by avoiding players other people are (we think) wrongly optimistic about. Basically, we are often searching for flukes in one way or another. By flukes, we mean players who vastly underperformed or exceeded their normal level of play for a given period of time.
This is why so many of us knew that Hedo Turkoglu would be a disappointment last season. Turkoglu had exceeded his normal level of play during his final two seasons with the Orlando Magic, mainly because he was the only person on his team who could create a reliable shot for himself or a teammate in a half-court offense. Once he went to a team where he could have more traditional roles, his numbers went down to their normal levels. It was easy to see this coming, which is why so many people had Turkoglu listed as a bust before last season. If you drafted him last season based on his previous season's production, you likely were disappointed.
What is important to remember here is not that Hedo Turkoglu is bad at basketball. He's not. Rather, it's that basketball is always a game of situations. It matters who your teammates are, who your coach is, how fast your team plays, how many guys can play the same position as you, etc. When you are looking at players who improved or faltered dramatically over the course of one season, the situations surrounding a player are extremely important to look for.
In this column, I'll take a look at some examples of players who overachieved or underachieved last season and try to figure out whether it was a fluke or a long-term change.
Channing Frye, PF/C, Phoenix Suns: Frye ended up a top-40 fantasy player last season, which was a remarkable turn of events to anyone who paid attention to his previous two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. Basically, his season was about on thing: He made a ton of 3-pointers and shot an extremely high percentage on them. More importantly, he basically shot nothing else. Of players who made at least 145 3-pointers, only Jason Kidd had fewer 2-point attempts than Frye. So, Frye's 45 percent mark from the floor on the season (lousy for a 6-foot-11 center) wasn't a big deal because he wasn't taking many shots in the first place. On a per-shot basis, you got a lot of fantasy value out of Frye because he was making 3s, and his shooting earned him enough minutes that he was able to accumulate 5.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. None of those numbers are wildly impressive -- except the 3s, of course -- but it all added up to make him one of the more valuable fantasy commodities around.
However, Frye played most of his minutes last season in lineups with Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash, probably the best pick-and-roll combo in the league. With the defense sucking in to deal with Stoudemire and Nash, Frye (along with Jason Richardson) was often wide open for 3s. Stoudemire's gone now, and it's worth keeping in mind that Frye he's not making wide open 3s there's not much else for him to do on the floor. He's a middling rebounder and certainly isn't an elite shot-blocker.
There are no great recent comparisons for what Frye did last season. In the mid-90s, the Detroit Pistons' Terry Mills and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Danny Ferry put up similar numbers but on different style teams. Both of them never put up great numbers again after they became exclusively 3-point bombers. It's worth remembering that even though last year was his first season as a prominent player, Frye is already 27 years old. There's not a lot of time for him to be improving before the decline starts, and even though he may be his prime years, it's hard to see him getting as many open looks with Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez filling in for Stoudemire as Nash's pick-and-roll partners.
Corey Maggette, SF, Milwaukee Bucks: Last season with the Golden State Warriors, Maggette did something smart. He stopped shooting 3-pointers almost entirely. After attempting nearly two 3s per game the previous season, he tried just 0.7 per game last year. As a result, he was able to concentrate on what he is actually great at: getting to the free-throw line and scoring. According to Hoopdata.com, Maggette took 1.2 fewer 3s and replaced them with 0.9 more shots at the rim than the previous season. Since he wasn't making 3s at a reasonable percentage in the first place, cutting down on his attempts helped his game dramatically. His field goal percentage became a major strength in his fantasy game and accompanied his already-world class ability to get to the line and make free throws. Overall, he was the rare player who was able to be an important fantasy player without doing anything but scoring.
With Maggette, it's hard to say whether this trend will continue. He has had seasons in the past in which he stopped shooting 3s only to go back again the next year, and it's worth noting that the only season the Los Angeles Clippers were actually a good team, Maggette played just 32 games. It's encouraging that he's coming off a great campaign, but the Bucks team he'll be joining was a much slower-paced team last year than Maggette's Warriors.
On the other hand, he'll be playing with a true point guard this year in the quickly-improving Brandon Jennings, and he'll have a legit big man who is an elite passer in Andrew Bogut (assuming Bogut can stay healthy). Maggette will have to vie with John Salmons for minutes, but on a team that was desperate for scoring last season, Maggette should provide much-needed offense. I think it's unlikely he puts up the same numbers he did last season (think closer to 15 points per game rather than 20), but he should continue to be one of those rare players who provides a major benefit to your team in shooting percentage, from the floor and from the line.
Josh Smith, PF, Atlanta Hawks: Even more than Maggette, Smith seemed to figure out last season exactly what sort of player he should be. After years of coaxing, he finally quit taking 3s entirely, shooting only seven all season. By replacing all those 3s with an emphasis on getting to the rim, he finally got his field goal percentage up over 50, and just as importantly, he fulfilled his potential as a creator on offense, bumping his assist numbers up over four per game. As an added bonus, he seemed to get back a little of his old form as a defender, bumping up his average in steals to 1.6 per game and blocks to 2.1 per game.
Smith set a career high in rebound rate and a career low in turnover rate, and by all accounts it was his best season as a pro. Still, for a guy who hadn't attempted fewer than one 3-pointer per game since his rookie season to stop shooting 3s entirely seems, at first glance, to be a bit fluky. If things don't go as well this year in Atlanta, should we believe he'll be willing to rein himself in offensively and put more of an effort into getting to the rim?
In Smith's case, it seems like a good bet he has finally come into his own. He'll just be turning 25 this season, so while he's got a lot of games behind him he probably has some improving still to do. When you're as talented as Smith, it can take a while to figure out how best to harness what you've got, and his career-low turnover rate would seem to point to him getting close to putting it all together. There's not a lot of precedent for a guy only giving up the 3-point shot because most guys either keep shooting and get better or keep shooting and stay the same. In Smith and Maggette we seem to have discovered two guys who, at least for a little while, have rightly quit the long-range chucking. In Smith's case, it looks like a permanent move.
Devin Harris, PG, New Jersey Nets: There may not be a harder player to figure out heading into this coming season than Harris. In 2008-09, he averaged 21.3 points, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game, but in 2009-10 he was a major disappointment. His percentages in every category decreased leading to a career-low true shooting percentage, and his steals dipped to 1.2 per game, despite playing almost as many minutes per game as the previous season.
Before last season started, I wrote that Harris likely would be a disappointment because he's somewhat injury prone, and his style is to get into the lane and to the line. That's a bad combination, especially when you consider that he had to deal with playing on a team for which he was the only perimeter threat much of the season. If he was a great 3-point shooter, it'd be another story, but he's not. Harris needs space to operate, and when he doesn't have it he's simply not an effective player.
This season, I think things should be a little easier for Harris. He'll be playing for Avery Johnson, who previously coached Harris with the Dallas Mavericks. New additions Travis Outlaw and Anthony Morrow may not be superstars, but they can make 3s with great proficiency. Nothing creates space better than guys making 3s. Even better, the Nets have brought in Troy Murphy, another great shooter who can spread the floor from the power forward position.
This season when the Nets are on offense, the paint should belong to Harris and Brook Lopez exclusively. The hope is the added room to operate will help Harris boost his attempts at the rim. Last season, Harris got to the rim far less but had a career high in attempts inside 10 feet. Considering that the Nets should be better overall this season and that Harris' production in assists and rebounds remained unchanged from the previous season on a per-minute basis, it looks like Harris is a good bet to regain much of his 2008-09 form this coming season.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.