The end of the season is close, folks. Most teams have played somewhere in the vicinity of 70 games, which means there are only 12 to go. For you mathematicians out there, that means there's only about 15 percent of the schedule remaining. As such, at this point, in roto leagues at least, it's going to be awfully hard for you to gain any drastic ground; your team pretty much is what it is.
And yet, in fantasy, there is always something barreling down the street toward us which needs our attention, and these days, that something is next season. Of course, with the possibility of a lockout looming, perhaps it's a little overly optimistic to start looking toward the future, but those of you in keeper leagues have already been dealing for weeks with next season in mind, and it's time I gave you a little attention.
As such, what follows is a list of players who have surprised everyone with their excellent performances this season (in fantasy basketball, at least). After discussing what has been so great about them this season, I'll give you a glimpse of why I think these players will be just as great next season.
(Current overall ranking in parentheses)
LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C, Portland Trail Blazers (17): More than any other player I can think of this season, Aldridge has entirely reinvented himself. Consider that for the entire four years of his career leading up to this season, Aldridge put up PERs within this small of a range: 17.17 as a rookie to 19.13 during his third year. What that means is that no matter what happened to his playing time, Aldridge was, by and large, the same dude. It also means that he wasn't really improving much. Amazingly, from nearly every distance, Aldridge's percentages have either gone down or stayed the same from where they were last season. And yet, we're talking about a player pretty much everyone agrees you now can absolutely build a franchise around. So what gives? Why is he playing so much more efficiently now?
Well, actually, it's exactly what everyone has been saying. He seems to have realized in the wake of Brandon Roy's injuries that his team needed him to be a force in the post. Since he hasn't changed much as a rebounder (he's grabbing pretty much the exact same percentage of rebounds he grabbed last season), the difference is simply the amount of shots he's taking inside 10 feet. According to hoopdata.com, last year he took 6.5 per game, and this year he's taking 10.6. That, friends, is a major difference, and when you add it to small improvements in the defensive stats and at the free throw line, you've got a top-20 fantasy player on your hands. That's not going to change next season, when he'll be 26 years old and right on the brink of his prime. He's just going to get better.
Al Jefferson, PF/C, Utah Jazz (21): Jefferson has not nearly outplayed his ADP (average draft position) the way Aldridge has, but his season has been promising in much the same way. Clearly, the Jazz are not in win-now mode anymore after losing Carlos Boozer this past summer and trading away Deron Williams at the deadline. Jefferson, though, is on the books for big money for two more years after this one, so it would appear the Jazz will have to build around him for the time being.
Actually, despite a rocky start to the season for Big Al, that might not be such a bad thing. It looks like Jefferson wasn't as healthy at the start of the season as many of us originally thought, because for the past couple of months he has been an entirely different player. Before the All-Star break, Jefferson was averaging 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and shooting 48.4 percent from the floor in 35.2 minutes per game. Since the All-Star break, he's playing like an All-Star. Check out these numbers: 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 53.6 percent shooting from the floor in 38.9 minutes per game. Now, he's probably not going to play 39 minutes for a whole season and stay healthy, but the point is that Jefferson is producing more efficiently during a long stretch than he has in a long, long time. I think he's healthy, and I think he's going to be a top-20 fantasy player again next season with the Jazz.
Kevin Martin, SG, Houston Rockets (23): I've always felt that Martin was built for fantasy basketball, he just couldn't stay healthy. This season, he's proving me right. Here is the entire list of things he is great at doing in real basketball games: scoring. But that's why scoring is so important. If you score your points in the right ways, you can be a great fantasy player. You need to take and make a ton of 3-pointers, and you need to get to the line a lot and shoot a very high percentage. Martin does these things, and he does them just about better than anyone else who plays basketball. On the Player Rater, he's currently first in free throw percentage value and fourth in 3-pointers made.
Then again, we knew all of this heading into this season, so why bring it up now? Mainly because it seems like the Rockets have figured out a way to keep Martin on the court. He's missed just two games this season, and has already played in more games this season than he has in any season since 2006-07. The key seems to be his minutes. At 31.7 per game, Martin is playing fewer minutes per game than he has since 2005-06, and fewer than anyone ahead of him on the Player Rater besides Manu Ginobili. I certainly can't predict the future, but it can't be a coincidence that his first healthy season in half a decade happened in the same season his minutes were reduced. I think he'll be just as good next season, only you probably won't be able to get him in the sixth round of your draft anymore.
Kyle Lowry, PG, Rockets (50): The last guy I'll write about doesn't seem like he's on the level of the other three, but heading into next season, it's very possible he will be. Lowry is a player who started to play well, was given a bigger role, and absolutely exploded to the point that he's now one of the really important fantasy players heading down the stretch of this season. He's turned himself, first of all, into a dangerous shooter, knocking down 38.4 percent of his 4.4 3-point attempts per game after struggling even to approach 30 percent from that distance for much of his career. And if that were all that was going on, I'd say it was a fluke and that you could ignore him, but since the All-Star break, he's averaging 17.4 points, 7.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds (really great for a guard), 2.6 3s and 1.1 steals in 35.2 minutes per game.
Clearly, that's not a ridiculous number of minutes for a starting point guard, which is exactly what Lowry now projects to be in the future. He has become an excellent finisher around the basket because of his strength, and he plays with a ton of energy, so it's reasonable to expect his steals to actually go up (after all, he's averaging 1.4 per game for the season). I don't see any way that -- given 35 minutes or so per game -- he won't be a top-40 fantasy player next season, and that is pretty amazing when you consider the fact that he wasn't even the starter when this season started.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.