As dedicated participants in fantasy basketball leagues, as avid fans of the NBA and, in many cases, as huge math nerds, we know not to make too much of small sample sizes. Of course, this doesn't mean we completely ignore these stats.
Admittedly, I've given only passing consideration over the years to a previous season's splits (either by month or by half) when analyzing players' prospects for the season ahead. Naturally, I'd look at first- or second-year players and see if they finished strong, if maybe a light came on for them in March and April. Certainly I considered the splits of reserves who became starters, or vice versa, but that was about as deep as I'd go.
This year, though, I'm paying more attention to splits, and it's all because of the 2011-12 NBA lockout.
Not to dredge up bad memories, but let's briefly review last season. Rather than a month of training camp and a handful of exhibition games, teams and players had about two weeks of preseason, with a quickie free-agent period thrown in. Not surprisingly, the first two to three weeks of the 2011-12 campaign often seemed more like an extended preseason. So many players struggled with their conditioning and/or their shot early on that I figured it would be misleading to evaluate players for this coming (and thankfully) non-lockout season by considering their December 2011-January 2012 numbers. I believed that this season, splits could really tell us something.
As it turns out, that's half true. Yes, tons of players struggled at the start of 2011-12, and that does show up in many splits. But on the flip side, with everyone in the same boat post-lockout (more like life raft), many splits don't add much insight.
A case in point is Joakim Noah, who happens to be one of my favorite players in fantasy -- I guess because he's a demon on the boards and I don't view him as the injury risk that most others do. Anyway, by the numbers, Noah wasn't ready at the start of last season. In his first 15 games, he averaged just 6.7 points and 8.0 rebounds, after averaging a double-double the previous two seasons.
Over the final 49 games, though, Noah pretty much played up to expectations, posting 11.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks (compared to just 1.2 rejections early on). For 2011-12 as a whole, Noah finished with 10.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. And this is where the splits let me down. There simply isn't much difference between those two sets of numbers. Eleven points, 10 boards? Ten points, nine boards? Ten points, 10 boards? That's just about what you'd expect from Joakim Noah.
So I think it's safe to say that this season, most key players will post slightly better numbers across the board and leave it at that. Still, I did find some intriguing 2011-12 splits. The lockout is probably a factor in some of these cases, but certainly not all of them. Here are a few meaningful splits that I've noticed:
3-point threats: Russell Westbrook and Ty Lawson. It seems silly to mention players who will be drafted in the first two rounds, but I expect Lawson and especially Westbrook to be noticeably more valuable in this category in 2012-13.
Westbrook shot a lot more 3-pointers last season, eventually making a lot more too. He hit a career-best 0.9 triples per game, which was a significant improvement over 2010-11, when he averaged only 0.4. But if you look at his percentages from beyond the arc for each season, you might conclude that Westbrook made more 3s in 2011-12 only because he took more 3s (3.0 attempts per game last season versus 1.3 attempts the previous season). Again, though, that's only half right.
Westbrook shot just 26.4 percent from downtown (19 of 72) over his first 30 games. But over his next 18, he connected at a whopping 41.4 percent rate (29 of 70). Although he slumped the rest of the way (just 14 of 54, or 25.9 percent, over his final 18 games), I'm willing to attribute this to the compressed schedule. Westbrook did, after all, finish with the seventh-most minutes in the NBA last season. Given that he already has made some sudden and sizable statistical bursts over his brief career, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Westbrook average around 1.5 3s this season.
As for Lawson, I'll make it quick: He topped 40 percent from downtown in each of his first two seasons, and he did it again in the second half of 2011-12. However, in the first half, still in the shadow of the lockout, Lawson managed only 30.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. So don't be fooled by Lawson's 1.2 3s overall last season. By taking and making more from long range, he should have about 1.6 to 1.8 3s per game in 2012-13.
Improved accuracy: John Wall and Rodney Stuckey. Quite simply, Wall was a mess early last season. Through his first 15 games, he compiled a staggeringly bad 36.4 shooting percentage. Wall recovered over the final 51, shooting 44.1 percent and finishing at 42.3 percent overall. Maybe it's just me, but for a guard, 44 percent shooting looks much better than 42 percent shooting.
Stuckey is coming off an up-and-down season. Wait, make that down and up, then down again. He dealt with some early injuries, and because of more injuries, he played in only a handful of games over the final five weeks. It was all good, however, in February. Stuckey averaged 17.0 points with percentages of 47.1 from the field and 82.9 from the line. Am I making too much of a month? Perhaps, but the Pistons need scoring, and Brandon Knight is a young player who can hopefully improve as much as Greg Monroe already has. Also, I think I've established that I'll grant a few mulligans after last season. Bottom line: I really like Stuckey as a late-round option.
Improved approach: DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan's game log tells quite a tale. Showing no sluggishness whatsoever after the abbreviated preseason, DeRozan started the regular season on a tear. Over his first six games, he averaged 18.5 points while shooting an impressive 47.6 percent. He capped this opening burst with 25 points and five 3-pointers against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 4.
Then it got ugly. More like hideous. Over his next 18 games, DeRozan shot just 34.2 percent. Here's my story about the damage that will do to your field-goal percentage: In a deep league, I traded DeRozan straight up for Spencer Hawes, and Hawes was injured at the time.
DeRozan recovered, though. He averaged 18.5 points and 45.5 shooting in February; 18.7 points and 43.6 percent in March; and 16.7 points and 43.1 percent in April. My assumption is he fell in love with the jumper in the early going -- not even so much the 3-pointer, but the jumper -- before realizing that he needed to take it to the hole. I base this on the fact that in December and January, DeRozan attempted about 4.3 free throws per game; thereafter, he was close to 6.0 attempts per game. The upshot? I expect DeRozan to improve significantly on his 42.2 percent shooting of last season. He's another player I'll target late.
Improved health: David West. Entering last season, West was joining a new team and coming off knee surgery. So it's not surprising that his numbers declined sharply compared to his years with the New Orleans Hornets.
Although West averaged just 12.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 48.7 percent shooting in his first season with the Indiana Pacers, it's worth noting that he produced 15.2 points and 54.6 percent shooting in April and followed that up with a cumulative 15.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 44.6 percent shooting in the playoff series against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. The Pacers don't rely on West the way the Hornets did, but the fact that he's now about 18 months past his 2011 knee injury is a positive for his fantasy prospects.