Coming into this season, the big debate heading into fantasy drafts centered around the fourth overall pick. There seemed to be a clear top three -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul in some order -- and since there was no obvious fourth pick, that felt like the worst place to select in standard snake-draft formats.
To this point in the season, that logic has held in some ways, but not in others. If you take per-game averages, James, Durant and Paul have, in fact, been the best three players in fantasy. Amazingly, the only negative from any of those three players in any category is Paul's blocked shots; other than that, all three players are important contributors across the board.
However, this particular season seems to be one in which the importance of durability has increased. For one thing, the reduced total of possible games from 82 to 66 has put more weight on each game, and that makes each game more important in terms of a player's overall fantasy value. For another, the condensed schedule means that lots of players are missing games, creating some wide gaps between a player's overall value based on raw totals and his value based on per-game averages. Paul has played in 21 of a possible 26 games, for example, while Kevin Love has played in 27 of a possible 29. In each individual game, based on their average stats, Paul is a little bit better than Love, but Love's been better overall by a pretty wide margin because of the six extra games he's played.
These factors would exist in any season, but, again, they're a little more pronounced in this particular season with all its oddities and peculiarities of scheduling. The question of how much to worry about health is always a tricky one in fantasy basketball, but the Player Rater helps us make these sorts of decisions, especially when considering what sort of value we'll be able to get (and give up) in trades. Is CP3 a better fantasy player than Love for one game? Yes. Would 27 games of Love be better than 21 games of Paul? Yes.
What follows is a collection of three players with wide gaps between their raw value to this point in the season and their value based on average stats. Both rankings are included in that order in the parentheses.
Greg Monroe, PF/C, Detroit Pistons (Raw: 9, Averages: 17): Monroe's played in all 30 games thus far for the Pistons, and that means he's right around the league lead in total games played -- only the Bulls have played 31 games, and among top-level fantasy players, only Carlos Boozer has played 31. That gives Monroe an obvious advantage that pretty much explains the difference between his two rankings. Monroe, however, played 80 games as a rookie -- an impressive number -- and didn't miss a game during his two years at Georgetown, so it doesn't seem totally right to just say he's been lucky as far as health. Monroe has shown an amazing ability to improve quickly so far in his young NBA career, and that, in addition to his durability, seems to bode well for his chances of maintaining a top-10 ranking all season. At the foul line, for example, he was a 56.4 percent shooter before last season's All-Star break and a 71.0 percent shooter after, and he is shooting 82.1 percent from the line so far this season. That's the most drastic improvement, but really, he just keeps getting better across the board. Even within this season, he's brought his game up a level so far in February from where it was in January. Yes, Monroe's ranking on the Player Rater is probably a little inflated, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him keep that top-10 spot at season's end.
Mario Chalmers, PG, Miami Heat (29, 52): Ever since his rookie season, which was a surprise success in fantasy leagues, Chalmers has represented an example of what type of player can have value in a fantasy league. Of course, he's also been a major disappointment since his rookie campaign, but the success he had that season was the result of his ability to make 3s and get steals. It turns out that you don't have to be an amazing point guard to be a valuable fantasy player, you just need to get a few assists (he averaged 4.9 as a rookie, which is a pretty pedestrian number for a point guard playing 32.0 minutes per game), plenty of steals and make sure as many of your shot attempts as possible are 3-pointers. This season, his value has gone to another level, and it's because he's veered even further toward the 3-point line. Of his 7.6 field goal attempts per game this season, 4.2 of them have been 3s, and he's making them at a 46.3 percent clip. Considering he's actually raised his percentage from January to February, I'm inclined to believe that he can sustain it, especially since nearly all of his looks are wide open. His assists, meanwhile, have dipped from 4.9 as a rookie to 3.6 this season while his steals have dipped from 2.0 to 1.3, but he's just as valuable because he's making more 3-pointers and shooting them at a higher percentage. Consider that among players who have made as many 3s as Chalmers this season, only Deron Williams and Brandon Jennings have more assists, only Jennings has more steals, and no one is even close in terms of field goal percentage. Chalmers might slip a little from where he's been so far this season, but I think he's playing within himself enough that he'll be firmly within the top 40 for the entire season, as long as his bruised hand doesn't cause long-term issues.
Al Jefferson, PF/C, Utah Jazz (51, 35): Jefferson has missed a game here and there due to injury, and is a good example of how severely a player's value can be diminished just by missing the occasional game. Still, where value is concerned, he's also a good example of when it might be worthwhile to consider a player's value on a game-by-game basis, even in a season like this. While Jefferson's overall value puts him outside of the top 50 on the Player Rater when we take his raw totals, his per-game averages say he's better than guys like Marcin Gortat, David Lee, Josh Smith and DeMarcus Cousins. Yes, those guys are ahead of Jefferson because they've managed not to miss any games this season, but it is folly to assume they won't have the minor incidents that have kept Jefferson out of the lineup from time to time. This is one case where it's probably important to remember that most players won't play in all 66 games, even if they've managed not to miss any games yet. Jefferson's injuries haven't been serious, and they've allowed him to remain in the lineup for the most part. In fact, his scoring and rebounding are both actually up a small bit in February from where they were in January, so he may actually be getting stronger as the season wears on. Given that Jefferson missed just six games over the past two seasons, he's as good a bet to stay healthy as most players, and his value might be lower than it'll be at any point for the rest of the season. If you're getting desperate, dealing one of the other big guys mentioned above for Jefferson could help bump you up the rankings in your league while Jefferson climbs on the Player Rater.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.