The 2011-12 season is still young, and I think we're all still trying to figure out what exactly the condensed schedule means in terms of the sort of numbers players are compiling. For example, over the past three seasons, teams averaged 100.0, 100.4 and 99.6 points per game, respectively, which is about as consistent as you can get. This season? So far we're down to 94.6, a significant drop-off. Last season, 19 players averaged better than 20 points per game; this season we're currently at 11 such players.
Points, of course, are just one category, but the takeaway is this: This season, we can't rely only on raw numbers to form our opinions of what constitutes a productive fantasy player. Points are down in part because the league average field goal percentage has fallen from 45.9 percent to 44.2, and free throw shooting percentage has gone from 76.3 percent to 74.4. What's more, every category is affected differently; while points are down, steals and blocks per game are up. Fortunately, we have the Player Rater, which allows us to judge players based on how their stats compare to the league average at the moment.
The Player Rater also shows us -- even comparing this season's rankings versus last season's totals based on per-game averages -- that the changes have made the rankings more condensed than they were last season. It will be interesting to see whether that continues as the season goes along, but at the moment, only eight players have Player Rater values over 10.0. There were 22 such players last season.
With that in mind, let's look at a few players who are actually far better fantasy contributors this season than their numbers might suggest. (Player Rater rankings in parentheses are based on per-game averages.)
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls (5): Early on, Rose might be the best example of why this season is just a bit different. His scoring average has dropped from 25.0 to 20.7, and while he has made modest increases in assists and shooting percentages, he has shot worse from the 3-point line, and his rebounds and steals are down. Now, if you had no other surrounding information, looking at his stats this season and last season would lead you to believe he has been a disappointment in fantasy leagues so far. Instead, he's on pace to finish right around where he finished last season on the Player Rater. So what exactly is different? One big difference that stands out is the field goal percentage category. Last season, Rose's 44.5 percent shooting from the floor was a negative on the Player Rater, but this season his 45.0 percent shooting is a positive. Just that small difference is enough to keep him afloat despite the fact that he's carrying even less value in important categories such as steals and blocks.
Carmelo Anthony, SF, Knicks (8): Part of Melo's leap is because he has been much more of a passer this season than in years past; after averaging 2.8 assists per game last season with the Nuggets and then 3.0 assists with the Knicks, he's up to 4.4 assists per game this season. On the other hand, his shooting percentage has plummeted to 44.1 percent; he was over 46 percent during his time with the Knicks last season. He has averaged an extra point per game this season, but his rebounds are down compared to last season. All in all, it doesn't seem like Anthony is having a great fantasy season. Yet on a per-game basis, he's currently the eighth-best guy in fantasy, and he could easily finish in the top 10 if the league as a whole continues to struggle scoring.
Jrue Holiday, PG, 76ers (24): Holiday finished last season ranked 32nd on the Player Rater, and I expected him to improve, as it seemed like he was on the verge of becoming a valuable shooter who could also be a major contributor in steals and assists. A lot of that has panned out in the early going this season, but some of it hasn't. His scoring has jumped a little from 14.0 to 14.8, but that certainly doesn't make him a superstar, and while his percentages and 3-point shooting are up, his assists are significantly down, from 6.5 per game to 4.9. (Interestingly, teams are averaging almost the exact same number of assists per game as they did last season.) His rebounds have gone from being a slightly positive contribution to a slightly negative one. Like Rose, however, Holiday's slight improvement in field goal percentage has helped him on the Player Rater. Thus, although his numbers haven't improved much, he's actually jumped in fantasy value because of the strange season we're having.
Steve Nash, PG, Suns (38): Nash is the one guy on this list with a current ranking significantly lower than where he finished last season (18th in 2010-11). But he belongs on this list because of the sort of season he's having. If you've been following his box scores like I have, you might not have expected to see him anywhere inside the top 50 on the Player Rater, but there he is. He's playing fewer than 30 minutes per game for the first time since 1999-2000. His always-great free throw shooting has been compromised by the fact that he almost never goes to the line anymore (0.9 attempts per game so far this season). He simply doesn't rebound anymore (down from 3.4 per game last season to 1.6 this time around), and his scoring and assist numbers have fallen about as much as you'd expect given the drop in minutes. In another season, his overall value probably would have fallen even more than it has, but since he has managed to boost his field goal percentage while the league around him has not, Nash is still a valuable player in the fantasy game as well as in the real one.
Wesley Matthews, SG/SF, Trail Blazers (40): Matthews is particularly interesting, because his numbers look almost identical to the ones he put up last season. He has slightly improved his rebounding (3.0 to 3.7 per game), but that is offset by a decrease in assists (2.0 to 1.3 per game). He is still making 1.9 3s per game; he has been absurdly good from the free throw line; and, perhaps most strangely, he is still averaging exactly 15.9 points per game. The big jump is because he has been a better shooter from the floor, improving from 45 to 47 percent . Normally it'd be hard to imagine that such a slight improvement in one category would be enough to bump a player from 48th to 40th on the Player Rater, but in this particular season, when scoring and shooting percentage are at such a premium, Matthews is beginning to look like an upper-tier fantasy option.