The other day I was considering this NBA season and found myself thinking that nothing surprising had happened. The teams we expected to be great were great, the teams we expected to be bad were bad, and despite some interesting fluctuations in the middle (Bucks, Bobcats, Grizzlies, etc.), the final four teams in this season's playoffs will probably look a lot like the final four teams in last season's playoffs.
Then I realized something. The playoffs, generally, are where we end up making a lot of our judgments about who players are. We forget that from time to time in fantasy, where the regular season is king. In the playoffs, basketball is more about the game itself and less about the numbers for us fans. The things we will remember from this season -- despite our epic fantasy battles with our friends and enemies -- are still yet to happen.
And on that note, I started thinking about the individual players who surprised or disappointed me this season with their play. Perhaps new surprises will emerge in the playoffs, but this is based on what has been memorable so far. There is no shortage in either category, but here I'll just consider a few on either side of the fence.
Surprises (Player Rater ranking based on total stats)
David Lee, PF/C, New York Knicks (6): Lee has to be one of the most interesting players to consider as this season winds down. On a terrible team, he has spent the past five seasons turning himself into a perfect player for his system. Lee has been a great fantasy player for years, but this season he raised his free throw shooting from 75 percent back up to 81 percent and increased his assists, amazingly, from 2.1 per game to 3.7. Those are both major leaps, and coupled with his usual scoring and rebounding, he was a clear top-10 player all season. Next season? There's little that would surprise me from Lee. In the wrong situation, I think his numbers could fall off a cliff. Still, you don't have an individual season like the one Lee just had if you're not a really good, complete player. Unless he goes to an extremely slow-paced team, I would have no qualms with using a second-round pick on him, and if he stays on the Knicks, he's a first-round pick for sure.
Jason Kidd, PG, Dallas Mavericks (7): The years keep going by, and Kidd keeps somehow getting better as a fantasy player. He's done it by turning himself into an extremely dangerous shooter (amazing, considering the sort of numbers he was putting up in his prime), and using his quick hands to continue racking up tons of steals. This season, he finally started slipping a little as a rebounder, but as long as he stays near the league lead in assists, steals and 3-pointers, Kidd is going to be an extremely valuable fantasy player. The best part is, Kidd seems to know exactly what he's good at; he has posted career highs in true shooting percentage for two consecutive years now by reducing his overall field goal attempts while increasing his 3-point attempts. He knows where his value is: He sets up Dirk and the other Mavs and then goes and gets open. I never would have believed this at the start of the season, but if the Mavs' rotation looks the same heading into next season, Kidd's a definite late-first-round pick.
Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies (26): This shouldn't be much of a surprise; after all, this hasn't even been the best season of Z-Bo's career, and we've known forever that he's an extremely talented player. Still, his combination of scoring and rebounding never seemed to amount to the sort of well-rounded fantasy numbers we like to expect out of great players. This year, however, Randolph boosted his field goal percentage to .490, and threw in one steal per game for good measure as well. And, most importantly, he stayed healthy. It's that last bit that leaves me concerned heading into next season, as Randolph is definitely prone to missing half a season once every few years. Still, for this season, Randolph has definitely been a nice surprise.
Ray Allen (SG, Boston Celtics, 34) outperformed his average draft position yet again. It pays to remember that 3-pointers and free throw shooting will always be valuable in fantasy, no matter how old a guy gets. O.J. Mayo (SG, Grizzlies, 36) was a player I thought would tail off after an extremely successful rookie season, but I didn't count on his team getting so much better around him. Mayo did a great job of becoming a more efficient player, and his 1.3 steals and 1.7 3s per game were big all season. Corey Maggette (SF, Golden State Warriors, 57) was basically a forgotten man in most drafts heading into this season, and he actually played fewer minutes per game than he had since 2005-06 for the Clippers, but the Warriors' style seemed to suit him better this season, and, most importantly, he stopped taking 3s and shot nearly 53 percent from the floor. He has always been a great scorer, but he finally stopped doing all the things he wasn't very good at. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out next season.
Al Jefferson, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves (56): Jefferson never got going this season to the level he was at before the injury that cut his season short last year. He's definitely still an extremely promising player when he's healthy -- observe the 19 points and 10 rebounds he averaged in just 32 minutes per game in March -- but with the Wolves far out of contention just weeks into the season, it never made sense for them to push Big Al. That said, his numbers down the stretch have been good enough that he's still worth a second-round pick next season. With all his teammates a year older, Jefferson should be a key cog on an up-and-coming Timberwolves team.
Caron Butler, SG/SF, Mavericks (77): Butler has definitely been an improved player since arriving in Dallas just before the trading deadline, but his minutes have gone down, and his performance with the Washington Wizards was so uninspired that his overall numbers on the season are far worse than most people expected they would be. It's not for a lack of opportunity, either. Butler was playing almost 40 minutes per game for 47 games in Washington, and was an extremely long way away from the player who seemed like a consensus top-20 fantasy guy just a couple of seasons ago. He's not durable, and he has dropped off quite a bit in terms of his overall efficiency as a scorer in the past couple of seasons. Personally, everything remaining the same, I wouldn't draft him before the sixth round in any but the deepest leagues next season.
Emeka Okafor, C, New Orleans Hornets (101): I was convinced that Okafor would benefit hugely from playing with a great point guard on a faster-paced team than the slow-it-down Charlotte Bobcats this season, but it appears I was completely wrong. Okafor proved once again that he is surprisingly durable, but his scoring percentages and his rebound rate both went down, and he played less than 30 minutes per game, too. I'm not sure what to make of his situation for next season; the Hornets are completely capped out, and they don't have many other options at the center position. In addition, one would have to expect more consistent performances out of Chris Paul and David West (as well as their young guards, Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton), which should open things up a bit more for Okafor. He's still a very good rebounder and shot-blocker, so if you can stand the hit on your free throw percentage, he's worth drafting higher than his ranking has been this season.
Devin Harris (PG, New Jersey Nets, 104) missed nearly 20 games due to injury, but his numbers were also way down from last season's, even when he was healthy. He's a good bounce-back candidate for next season, though, as the Nets can't possibly be as bad as they were this time around. Eric Gordon (SG, Los Angeles Clippers, 119) looked ripe for improvement after a great rookie season, but he has more or less been treading water this season. He's still a great shooter, but for a guy like him to go from 85 percent from the line to 74 percent is a major red flag, especially when that guy plays on the Clippers. I still think he could turn into a great player, but I thought he'd finish this season ranked about 70 spots higher than he did, even considering the fact that he missed some time with injuries. Charlie Villanueva (SF/PF, Detroit Pistons, 123) signed a huge contract, and it looked as if he was going to be a major part of the Pistons' future plans. Then he ended up averaging just less than 24 minutes per game (the lowest number of his career, amazingly). I'm not sure what the long-term plan is here, but Villanueva has always had enough talent to be a great fantasy player if he ever gets the right opportunity.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.