Addressing categorical scarcity

I just want you all to know that it's not me, people. It's the stats. And the stats this season have been positively manic depressive. It's numerical bedlam. The streams have been crossed and we haven't even met Sigourney Weaver yet.

Games are being played at a reckless, feckless tempo, one that we're not used to. Feel that? Another tenth of the season just dripped away. We're a month in and are already almost one-third of the way through our schedule.

I made the decision back in December to make my columns less interpretive than I would in a regularly scheduled season. Why? NBA stats are padded-wall crazy enough without anyone trying to force an extreme point of view upon them.

Take the case of Blake Griffin, the most electrifying player in the NBA. Watching him play has the neurological impact of drinking a 96-ounce Red Bull. He's the reason I bought a Kia.

But Griffin is, according to the Player Rater, currently the 123rd-best player in fantasy.

Why, in a nutshell? Because he's eighth in the NBA in free throw attempts (111) and 144th in free throw percentage (.514) and doesn't do enough in blocks to overcome this huge deficiency.

Here's another way of looking at it: If Griffin were merely an average (75 percent) free throw shooter, he'd jump 82 spots on the Player Rater. If he were averaging an extra block per game (not too much to ask considering his size and athleticism), he'd jump 58 spots. What if he did both of those things at the same time? According to this year's stats, he'd be a top-10 fantasy player, a "super-elite."

And while he's offering elite rebounding numbers (third at 11.5 per game) and points (ninth at 21.0 per game), he's not far enough ahead of the field in boards and points that he can offset being that brick-tastic from the line.

Dwight Howard is even worse from the line (and has more attempts) but rebounds at a high enough rate (first at 15.6 per game) that he upsets the curve. Factor in his dominance in blocks (2.2 per game), and you have least a top-40 player.

When it comes to Griffin, remember this: Being elite, but not super-elite, in points and rebounds doesn't mean as much as, say, being elite in assists. This is because production in points and rebounds is more evenly distributed across the player pool.

Why? Because of categorical scarcity.

Just like the shooting guard position is suffering from dust-bowl levels of scarcity this season, there are certain categories that offer the same dynamic.

And in fantasy, it's important to pay attention to how production across the player pool in every category is curved. An orderly, flat line means that category will be more difficult to dominate or to make a huge leap in the standings. It lacks scarcity.

For instance, on the right is the curve for rebounds per game across the top 150 players in fantasy:

That's pretty flat and orderly, right up until we hit Kevin Love territory.

I make these curves all the time, because they help me identify where the spikes and divots are in production across the player pool in a given category.

The spikes in rebounds occur at 7.8 per game (Chris Bosh), 9.9 per game (Marcin Gortat) and 12.7 per game (Andrew Bynum). But otherwise, we're looking at a nice 45-degree angle.

Contrast that now with blocks per game on the right:

That's a lot closer to an "L." It's almost a right angle, actually. The distribution of blocks across the player pool is dramatically top-heavy. There are spikes and steps everywhere, the largest occurring at 1.1 (Joakim Noah), 1.5 (Elton Brand) and 2.2 (Dwight Howard).

Conclusion: It's easier to make a jump in your standings with blocks than with rebounds.

Having Marc Gasol as your starting center instead of Amare Stoudemire could help you make a leap of four to five spots in your league in blocks. Blocks per game is the primary reason Gasol is ninth on the Player Rater.

So since I did positional rankings last week, I thought I'd do a quick categorical ranking for you.

1. Blocks

Average rate/player: 0.55 bpg/Randy Foye, 55th in NBA
Leader: DeAndre Jordan (3.0 bpg)
Super-elites: DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, JaVale McGee, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, Samuel Dalembert
Spikes: 1.1 bpg (Joakim Noah), 1.5 bpg (Elton Brand), 2.2 bpg (Dwight Howard)

We've already looked at the graph for blocks, but here's another way to view production across the player pool: Where does the average player in a category rank in the NBA in that stat? Foye averages about 0.6 blocks per game and is ranked 55th in the league. That's actually very high for an average player.

Boil it all down, and if you want to lock down a category in a head-to-head league or make a dramatic climb up your rotisserie standings, acquire a super-elite shot-blocker.

But if you can't make a move in blocks, you can achieve almost the same effect by addressing your backcourt.

2. Assists

Average rate/player: 2.7 apg/LaMarcus Aldridge, 59th in NBA
Leader: Steve Nash (10.4 apg)
Super-elites: Steve Nash, Jose Calderon, Kyle Lowry, Ricky Rubio, Deron Williams, Chris Paul
Spikes: 5.2 apg (Darren Collison), 8.1 apg (Tony Parker), 10.4 apg (Steve Nash)

It's not quite the hard "L" that you'll find in blocks, but year-in, year-out assists are always near the top in categorical scarcity. The fact that Nash occupies a tier of his own in such a scarce stat? Regardless of age, there are precious few other players out there who could have such an individual impact on your team's fantasy fortunes.

3. Steals

Average rate/player: 1.0 spg/Norris Cole, 67th in NBA
Leader: Mike Conley (2.6 spg)
Super-elites: Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Iman Shumpert, Jeff Teague
Spikes: 1.4 spg (Delonte West), 1.7 spg (Jrue Holliday), 2.5 spg (Ricky Rubio)

Steals still has a little bit of an "L" shape to it, but it's laid out almost like a tiered staircase, with several little steps in production.

From a pure fantasy perspective, I can't ever recall a rookie who has ever made such an instantaneous and seismic impact as Rubio. It's not just that he's already super-elite in two categories, it's that he's super-elite in two of the scarcest categories. Top-10 status awaits, as soon as he locks down 35 minutes per game and raises his 2-point field goal percentage from .386 to a more acceptable rate.

4. 3-pointers

Average rate/player: 0.9 per game/Mike Conley, 68th in NBA
Leader: Ryan Anderson (3.2 3s per game)
Super-elites: Ryan Anderson, Ray Allen, Richard Jefferson
Spikes: Kyle Lowry (1.9 per game), Jason Terry (2.1), Richard Jefferson (2.4)

One would assume that 3-pointers would be as scarce as steals, but aside from the Lowry-to-Anderson range, this is a pretty vanilla curve. One interesting note: If you're a big man who can average even 0.33 to 0.50 3-pointers a game (like Stoudemire), you're providing a nice out-of-position stat.

5. Points

Average rate/player: 12.6 ppg/Jeff Teague, 67th in NBA
Leader: Kobe Bryant (30.2 ppg)
Super-elites: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James
Spikes: 19.1 ppg (Joe Johnson), 21.0 ppg (Blake Griffin), 29.1 ppg (LeBron James)

Points are more a tale of two curves. You have a soporifically flat line rising from Ronnie Brewer (7.2 ppg) up to Deron Williams (18.9 ppg). Then, once you get to Howard's 19.7 ppg (13th in the NBA), a second curve spikes right up to Kobe's league-leading 30.2 ppg.

6. Rebounds

Average rate/players: 5.1 rpg/Markieff Morris, 66th in NBA
Leader: Dwight Howard (15.6 rpg)
Super-elites: Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum
Spikes: 7.7 rpg (Chris Bosh), 9.9 rpg (Roy Hibbert), 12.7 rpg (Andrew Bynum)

You have Howard, Love, Bynum and everybody else. But if you have a guard who can chip in at least 2.5 boards a night ... you're ahead of the curve.

7. Field goal percentage

Average rate/player: .450/Jodie Meeks, 73rd in NBA
Leader: Tyson Chandler (.697 FG%, but only 76 FGA)
Super-elites: Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan (low attempts); then Dwight Howard, Marcin Gortat, Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, LeBron James (factoring in attempts)
Spikes: .545 FG% (LeBron James), .591 FG% (Marcin Gortat)

We move into slightly funkier territory with the percentage categories. They're flat, but they're weighted differently, as you need to take field goal attempts into account. Jordan hits almost 10 percent more of his shots than Gortat, but Gortat attempts three times the amount of shots Jordan does.

Advantage: Gortat.

(To get even deeper, I'd factor in 3-point attempts as well, but that's going to be a future column.)

8. Free throw percentage

Average rate/player: .763/Glen Davis, 90th in NBA
Leader: Jamal Crawford (.949 FT%)
Super-elites: Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Kevin Martin, Jose Calderon (low attempts)
Spikes: .518 FT% (Josh Smith), .605 (Landry Fields), .935 (Kevin Martin)

This isn't so much about spikes as it is divots. You have a few horrible free throw shooters at the bottom of the curve, then a prim and proper incline to the top. Think of Howard and Griffin as the "F" students who make James' 75 percent clip look Bill Sharman-esque in comparison.

My free throw MVP to date? Danilo Gallinari, who's only 10th in the NBA but has almost twice as many attempts (108) as Crawford (59).

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPCregan.