Often, I find myself considering the reasons I love fantasy basketball (I promise, this will not be some long-winded, post-holiday missive). Basketball has always been my favorite sport, but when I was a kid, I was not the type of kid who would sit and watch an entire game; by halftime, I was usually out in the driveway playing. I don't play much anymore, yet I'm obsessed with basketball just as much as ever. It has something to do with numbers, and probably the many hours I logged staring at basketball cards over the years.
Still, this line of thinking usually leads me into trying to figure out where fantasy basketball can -- on some level -- help me actually learn something about how actual basketball works. To be sure, statistics can't provide us with a complete picture, but it is also undeniable that when we discuss the long history of basketball, our discussion usually centers on numbers. If you want to argue that Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time (which I do), you're going to lean pretty heavily on the six rings, but you're also going to lean on the insane combination of points, rebounds, assists, steals, and percentages -- the exact numbers we would use if we were discussing his greatness in fantasy basketball.
The other day, I started thinking about the term "all-around player." I rolled it around in my brain, and pretty quickly, I was looking at the Player Rater. This, I reasoned, is one instance in which fantasy basketball can help us. The Player Rater tells us how good individual players are at accumulating individual statistics relative to the league as a whole. In one category, these rankings can be an anomaly, but take all the categories together, and maybe we can start to figure out which players are good at everything (literally!).
What follows is the complete list of players who contribute positively in every category the Player Rater measures (in terms of per-game average stats). It may not seem at first like they are the best all-around players in basketball, but they do put together a combination of statistics unlike any other players. They can block a shot, dribble down the other end, and knock down a 3-pointer (or pass for one). They can step to the line and consistently make their free throws. They have a combination of skills other guys just might not have.
For the record, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Wilson Chandler, and Mike Dunleavy missed being on this list by the slimmest of margins. I appreciate their all-around contributions and wish them luck in bumping those numbers above the league average in the coming weeks, but I have to draw a line somewhere.
(Players' current Player Rater ranking -- based on per-game average stats -- in parentheses.)
Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder (2): Amazingly, Durant's worst category this year on the Player Rater has been his shooting from the floor. That's after shooting an impressive 48 percent from the floor (considering the shots he takes) for two straight seasons. Bear in mind, he was hovering right around 40 percent for the first month of the season and is currently at 51 percent for December. I have no doubt that his contribution in field-goal percentage will continue to increase for the balance of the season, so it's possible his 3.1 assists per game will end up being the weak link in his game, which seems about how it should be.
Rudy Gay, SF, Memphis Grizzlies (5): It's certainly no surprise that the first two gentlemen on this list play the bulk of their minutes at small forward. Gay's worst category is assists, and his 2.8 per game is slightly underwhelming even as it is helpful to many fantasy rosters. His numbers in every other category, however, are downright impressive, and he currently holds the much-coveted title of Player with the Best Worst Category in Fantasy Basketball. Unlike Durant, Gay's playing pretty far above his normal levels right now, and it will be interesting to see if he cools off his career-high percentages from the floor, the 3-point line, and the charity stripe. Oh, and he's also averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. I'd call him a good sell-high candidate, but I don't think I've ever seen a player average a career high in every single category five years into his NBA career before, and I wouldn't want to mess with it.
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks (6): The rest of the Mavericks graciously proved Nowitzki's value Tuesday when they lost at home to the Toronto Raptors by eight points while he sat out with a knee injury. Nowitzki is day-to-day, but seemed confident he'll be ready to go pretty soon. As for his well-roundedness, he isn't quite on the level of the previous two guys on this list; his contributions in points and field goal percentage are more valuable than any single thing Rudy Gay does, for example, but his contributions in assists and steals are worse than Gay's worst category. As such, Nowitzki is a subtler, more shocking well-roundedness. As always though, his value is in his consistency. Unlike Gay, Nowitzki's only career-high this year is in field goal percentage (which he has boosted to 55 percent, a number that would seem ridiculous if he wasn't Dirk Nowitzki). Best of all, he's playing his fewest minutes since his second season in the league, which should hopefully keep him fresh for the rest of the season.
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls (15): I was surprised to find that Rose blocks more shots per game than any point guards besides John Wall and (of course) Delonte West. Even more amazingly, blocks are not Rose's worst category; he is pretty middling in his percentages from the floor and the line (46 and 76 percent, respectively). Considering he shot 49 percent from the floor last season, his shooting percentage should climb slowly as the season wears on. And so his worst category is truly free-throw shooting, yet another surprise for a point guard. There has been a lot of talk about Rose not getting to the line enough, and plenty excuses given, but it's possible that he is just so amazingly good at playing basketball that he senses what seems to him to be a weakness (free-throw shooting) and simply eschews it (and the contact) whenever possible. He's an above-average free throw shooter, but it's possible he doesn't see it that way. Still, for a guy who was being drafted in the third round of most drafts, his all-around play and current ranking has to be a welcome surprise.
Paul Pierce, SG/SF, Boston Celtics (29): Pierce ended up just behind Rudy Gay in the race for the title Player with the Best Worst Category in Fantasy Basketball. For Pierce, that number is his 0.7 blocks per game, which, like Rose's 0.6, are just enough to be a positive contribution in fantasy. Pierce is showing remarkable efficiency this season, posting career highs in the percentages while boosting his rebounds and assists from last season. Given the way he's evolved as a player ever since Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston, I wouldn't expect Pierce's all-around game to suddenly drop off as the season goes on. He was an amazing shooter in college, and may have developed some bad habits when he was carrying terrible NBA teams in the early 2000s, but he's a model of efficiency now, and while he's not overwhelming in any single category, he's quite sturdy in all of them.
Arron Afflalo, SG, Denver Nuggets (65): Afflalo is such a good defender, I figured he'd be making most of his hay in the steals category, but it's actually his weakest one. He plays great defense, it seems, by not gambling; fortunately, that strategy has put him into the good graces of his coach to the point that he's averaging more than 35 minutes per game (key to any sort of real fantasy success). For a guy who takes as many 3s as he does (he's knocking down 1.5 per game), his 51 percent shooting from the floor is phenomenal, and he provides enough rebounds and assists that he's not carrying any dead weight in those categories. He's certainly not a superstar, but as far as role-players go, he's as good an all-around player as there is.
Matt Barnes, SF, Los Angeles Lakers (124): As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, I had to draw a line somewhere. That line, amazingly, allowed Matt Barnes to creep onto this list even while it was keeping LeBron James and Manu Ginobili off it. Suffice it to say Barnes has had some value this season instead of none. His contributions in each individual category are negligible, but he also doesn't actively hurt you in any of them. If you're trying to hit a games-played plateau, he's certainly a safe, non-toxic substance to put into your lineup from time to time. In the NBA, he seems to be useful in a pretty similar way.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.