Heading into this season, we knew to expect a weird one. To make up for the lockout taking up the first two months of the season, the NBA decided to squeeze a 66-game schedule into the number of days in which they would normally play about 50 games, with some predictable and not-so-predictable results for Fantasy owners.
Nearly every team played either three or four games a week with the compressed schedule, as days off became a rare luxury. Each team played a three-games-in-three-nights stretch, which took much of the week-to-week strategy out of the season. When the best players were competing as often as they did this season, it was rare when a savvy lineup change made a big difference.
For Fantasy owners, the season predictably became less about finding the right matchups and exploiting the schedule to maximize games played, and more about riding the hot hand and finding the right replacements when injuries came up, which did quite often.
We had expected a compressed schedule to wreak havoc on older players, however, that narrative did not seem to be as big an issue, as smart coaches limited minutes when they could and gave days off when possible. Older players such as Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan managed to avoid falling off the cliff or suffering major injuries, while in-their-prime athletes like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard all suffered various aches and pains that limited them.
And while it certainly seemed like there were more injuries than ever this season -- leaving Fantasy owners scrambling all year long for replacements -- injuries were actually down for the year, according to BasketballProspectus.com. There was an average of 3.2 player games lost per scheduled game on the season, compared to 3.6 in 2010-11.
However, it is hard to deny that it felt like more big names were hampered by injuries than usual with 18 of the top-50 players by average draft position missing at least 10 games this season. That included some, like Rose and Wade, who dealt with nagging injuries throughout the year, as well as players like Brook Lopez and Stephen Curry who suffered major injuries that essentially had them lost for the season. All told, the top 50 highest-drafted players missed an average of 12.5 games last season, almost 20 percent of the abbreviated season's total.
With so many big names stricken by injury this season, the Fantasy owners who weathered the storm were those who got the most value out of their later draft picks and were able to find high-end options on the cheap in the draft and on the waiver wire, which brings me to my selections for the "All-Surprise" and "Waiver-Wire All Stars" teams.
Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets: Lawson was drafted, on average, as the 61st overall player and 26th guard off the board, slotting him as a high-end No. 3 Fantasy guard, which seems fair as he had never been a full-time point guard before and was set to split time with Andre Miller. However, the Nuggets leaned heavily on a two point guard system that saw Lawson establish a new career high in minutes played despite appearing in just 61 games. He managed to keep his high-efficiency ways up despite a tremendous increase in responsibilities, and finished just outside the top 10 in Fantasy scoring for guards, topping high picks like Wade and Tyreke Evans.
|1.||Deron Williams, Nets||98|
|2.||Steve Nash, Suns||99|
|3.||Eric Gordon, Hornets*||89|
|4.||Goran Dragic, Rockets||93|
|5.||Jeremy Lin, Knicks||61|
|1.||Kevin Garnett, Celtics||47|
|2.||Kris Humphries, Nets||99|
|3.||Ersan Ilyasova, Bucks||95|
|4.||Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers*||90|
|5.||Michael Beasley, Timberwolves||74|
|1.||Brook Lopez, Nets||74|
|2.||Chris Kaman, Hornets||94|
|3.||Roy Hibbert, Pacers*||99|
|4.||Javale McGee, Nuggets||90|
|5.||Spencer Hawes, 76ers||82|
|* Restricted free agent|
James Harden, G, Thunder: Harden was pretty much everyone's favorite pick for a big breakout in his third NBA season, but he was still being selected as the 89th pick and 39th guard on average in CBSSports.com Fantasy leagues. Ultimately, those who picked him as a breakout candidate were proven correct in a big way, as he vaulted to 16th among guards in scoring despite playing just 31.4 minutes per game as the Thunder's sixth man. Harden emerged as one of the NBA's most efficient offensive players, posting excellent shooting averages across the board and leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the added worth of a three-point make.
Ryan Anderson, F, Magic: Anderson earned a consistent starting position for the first time this season after beating out Glen Davis in training camp, and the versatile power forward absolutely thrived next to Dwight Howard, leading the NBA in 3-pointers made with 166, an average of 2.7 per game. Despite spending so much of his time out on the perimeter, Anderson also finished sixth in the league in offensive rebounds, a rare combination of talents that helped him jump from an average draft position of 51st among forwards to 25th in scoring.
Ersan Ilyasova, F, Bucks: At the beginning of the season, Ilyasova was barely on Fantasy radars with an average draft position of 163rd overall, which essentially left him as one of the final picks in standard leagues -- if he was taken at all. So Ilyasova's ascension into the top 30 of all forwards in Fantasy scoring is likely among the largest jumps made by any player, as he combined a similar skill set to Anderson in making his leap into Fantasy relevancy. Ilyasova surprisingly became one of the top rebounding forwards in the league, ranking 10th despite averaging just 27.6 minutes per game. He also hit 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers, second among forwards who made at least 50.
Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers: After the season Bynum had -- 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks per game while staying healthy -- it is incredible to think that Bynum was just the 11th center taken on average in Fantasy leagues. But there he was, sandwiched between Nene and Roy Hibbert, fine players both. The key for Bynum was that he finally stayed healthy for an entire season, while earning the trust of his teammates. Bynum is going to be the second or third center selected in drafts next year, and he earned that distinction with his elite play this season.
While drafting an elite player in the sixth round is part of how a successful Fantasy team is built, the savvy owner knows how to play the waiver wire to find the next big thing before their competitors. Some of these guys were solid for extended stretches of time, however, they all helped out in a big way after being complete afterthoughts on Draft Day. These five players will likely see some of the largest jumps in their average draft position from 2011 to 2012.
Goran Dragic, G, Rockets: Backing up Kyle Lowry for most of the season, Dragic was a non-factor for the first 10 weeks of the season. However, as soon as Lowry went down with a stomach infection, Dragic emerged as one of the best Fantasy options in the league, finishing no lower than 14th in Fantasy scoring among guards from Week 11 through Week 17. Despite being essentially an afterthought for the first half of the season (7.5 points per game in the first half), Dragic finished 22nd in Fantasy points and likely helped several Fantasy owners to titles with his sprint over the final month and a half of the season.
Jeremy Lin, G, Knicks: As much as Dragic burst out in the second half of the season, Lin was even better during the middle part of the year, finishing in the top 10 in scoring among Fantasy guards four out of five weeks from Week 7 to Week 11 before tailing off and suffering a season-ending knee injury. It is hard to say what Lin could have done in the second half of the season once the league figured him out, but for five brief weeks he adequately carried Fantasy teams and played like a first-round pick.
Gordon Hayward, F, Jazz: While the two guards listed above went undrafted in most leagues, Hayward was actually taken in some; his average draft position was 175. And for the first half of the season, he did nothing to disprove conventional wisdom. However, Utah began relying on him much more in the second half and he became a solid Fantasy option, averaging 14.1 points on 48.2 percent shooting over the final 34 games of the season. Hayward is a former lottery pick, so he has the pedigree to be a strong performer and he finally lived up to expectations while helping lead the Jazz to a surprise postseason appearance.
Kenneth Faried, F, Nuggets: It took a while for Faried, the NCAA's all-time leading rebounder, to earn the trust of his coach and a spot in the starting lineup but once he did, he emerged as one of the most effective rebounders in the league and gave Fantasy owners, especially in Rotisserie formats, a big boost off waivers. Faried averaged 11.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and just under a block and a steal per game while starting 31 games after the All-Star break. And he did all of that in just 25.2 minutes per game.
Nikola Pekovic, C, Timberwolves: Pekovic would have been second in the league -- behind Faried – in offensive rebounding percentage this season if he had qualified, as he picked up almost 16 of Minnesota's misses on the offensive side of the ball. He played in just 47 games, however, he made a strong case for Most Improved Player this season with most of his improvement coming in his ability to grab his team's misses at a high rate and convert them into points. Despite starting the season as a deep reserve, Pekovic averaged 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, finishing 25th among centers in Fantasy scoring while dealing with an ankle injury and limited minutes.
Obviously, it was not all positive as a number of players suffered major injuries and others simply disappointed with their play. When discussing the most disappointing Fantasy players of the season, the question you are faced with is how to deal with a player like Brook Lopez, who suffered two major injuries and essentially did not play this season.
Lopez was the fourth center taken on average in most Fantasy drafts, a number that was even high before he suffered a major foot injury just a few days before the season began. Perhaps no player provided less value compared to his draft position than Lopez, however, injuries are almost impossible to predict, especially when they are the traumatic, season-ending type.
For the "All-Disappointment" team, I will focus on those players who simply struggled to live up to expectations, when healthy, rather than those who just suffered major injuries. These are the guys who might have missed some time, but even when they were healthy, were not getting the job done as expected.
Raymond Felton, G, Trail Blazers: Felton was the 15th drafted guard on average in Fantasy formats at the beginning of the year, and it took a big April to even land him in the top 30 among guards in Fantasy scoring, as he spent most of the season shooting below 40 percent from the field and barely 30 percent from 3-point range. He came into the season overweight and apparently took four months to get into shape, and by that point most Fantasy owners who used a high pick on him were already on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
Kevin Martin, G, Rockets: Martin did struggle with injuries this season that cost him almost the entire second half of the year, however I feel comfortable putting him on this list because even when healthy, he stopped doing most of the things that made him successful to begin with. Never a particularly skilled playmaker or shot creator, Martin has thrived on getting to the line and making 3-pointers. However, this season, he posted his second worst 3-point percentage since his rookie year, his lowest free-throw per game average and his lowest scoring average since his second year in the league. He still scored 17.1 points per game, but combined with mediocre assist and rebound numbers, he became a less appealing Fantasy option than expected, as that represented a six-point drop in points per game.
Lamar Odom, F, Mavericks: If I had to select the most disappointing player in all of Fantasy basketball this season, it would be hard to go with anyone other than Odom, who was selected 50th overall on average before going on to put up 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game -- by far the lowest totals of his career -- before the Mavericks sent him packing for the final month of the season. Odom reportedly dealt with tremendous personal problems this season, and while Fantasy owners can feel sympathy for those issues, it is hard to ignore one of the biggest busts of the season.
Andray Blatche, F, Wizards: Blatche was nominally injured for most of the season, however the team made it clear that a lack of preparation and conditioning for the season was the main culprit for the 40 games he missed and the dreadful way he played. It is much easier to include Blatche on this list than Odom, who went an average of six spots before him, because his struggles were entirely self-inflicted. Blatche averaged just 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds this season, and is a strong candidate for the Amnesty clause as the Wizards will undoubtedly look to remove his contract. It would be a big stretch even to draft him next season.
Michael Beasley, F, Timberwolves: There weren't actually any centers who I felt really qualified for this list, since it was a pretty boom-or-bust position. Centers in the NBA this season either lived up to expectations or got hurt, and there was not a lot of room in the middle. Four of the top 10 centers by average draft position missed at least half of the season, and a fifth missed 27 games. The rest did pretty much exactly what was expected. So, much like the NBA fudges positions for their All-NBA and All-Star teams, I'll pull a similar trick and toss the former No. 2 overall pick in this final spot. And a well deserved selection it is, as he was drafted on average as the 59th player in drafts and finished an incredible 92nd in scoring among forwards. The emergence of more dependable options in Minnesota finally soured the team on him, as he played a career-low 23.1 minutes per game. As a likely free agent, he may struggle finding a team to give him a big contract and a starring role.
Free Agents and looking forward
Beasley could have been one of the premier free agents in the upcoming offseason if he had played better, but it will still be interesting to see where he lands as he could re-emerge as a key Fantasy player if he goes to a team starved for his versatile scoring ability.
This free-agent class is certainly more loaded than last year's group as at least one impact player -- Deron Williams -- is set to hit the market in his prime and a number of other incredible valuable players could possibly change hometowns.
The class has a number of veterans looking for one last chance, highlighted by Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett, as well as a couple of younger players like Dragic and Lin, as well as Eric Gordon with impressive potential who could see their value change in a major way by the time Fantasy owners begin preparing for Draft Day.