One of the general truisms in fantasy basketball is that it is easier to make up ground in steals, blocks and 3s and harder in the percentage categories.
But as the season progresses, I also like to keep tabs on which categories might be deviating from this rule. This is important, because I like to know in which categories it would be easiest to make up ground via the acquisition of a single player.
Think of it in terms of statistical concentration.
Each category has a top 50. If a player ranks in the top 50 in a category, it's safe to say he's a strong producer in that category. But which categories have the most unevenly distributed value among that top 50? If you laid categories out on a curve, which ones would be flat and which ones would spike?
Most importantly, in which category could I make the biggest jump with an individual trade?
To find out, I went though each category, and using a mix of totals, averages and the Player Rater, I was able to see which categories possess the most uneven distribution of value.
I was expecting to confirm that blocks, steals and 3s rated at the top. But after the crunching, I was surprised to find a different category in the pole position: assists.
In 2009-10, there has been no other category as easy to dominate with so few players.
Actually, on paper, it makes a lot of sense. Each team has one primary facilitator on offense, so it's easy to assume there are only going to be 30 or so players in the NBA averaging at least five assists a night. This generally holds true; no NBA team has more than two players in the top 40 in assists.
But when you look at the individual numbers, you're looking at a category that is incredibly top-heavy (its polar opposite would be rebounds, which are as flat as a pancake.)
According to my calculations, there are only 20 real difference-makers in the assist category.
(I've included Chris Paul and a couple of other players whose season totals have been depressed by injury, but should soon round into form. I'm not including Derrick Rose, who is going through a sophomore slump and is finding it hard to crack five assists a night.)
Among those 20, I broke it down by tier:
Tier 3 (10 players)
Tier 2 (six players)
Tier 1 (four players)
Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans Hornets (injured)
If you're looking for general trends, good luck. Elite-level assists are not broken down by which teams have the highest-scoring offenses. Despite playing on defensive-minded squads, Rajon Rondo and LeBron James rank third and fourth on the Player Rater in dimes. And despite Golden State's gaudy offensive output, you'd have to go all the way down to 20th on the Player Rater to find a Warrior (Stephen Curry).
No, when it comes to assists, it's important to just concentrate on the select few who are truly the movers and shakers at the position. If you own even two elite players at this position, you're going to be near the top in your league.
What are some specific strategies one could offer to compete in this category?
Own Steve Nash
If you own Nash, life is sweet. There is simply no other player in the NBA more dominant in a single statistical category. Nash gives almost three times as much production as Andre Miller. And the "Nash breaks down" argument is a red herring. Sure, with all the breathless reports about his various dings and lumbar strains, it's easy to assume Nash misses a significant amount of time each season. But over the past six seasons (since he came to the Suns and laid upon their magical training table), Nash has missed only about five games a year.
Nash is off to such a hot start that one has to assume he'll eventually fall back closer to Kidd and Rondo. But even then, you'll be the odds-on favorite to lead your league.
Trade for Chris Paul and/or Devin Harris right now
This is probably the final week you'll find a Paul or Harris owner whose resolve has dropped to the point that he or she would seriously entertain an offer, though.
Go under the radar
Most of the names on this list are pretty big names. You're going to have to give up quite a bit for any Tier 1 or Tier 2 player. But point guards such as Aaron Brooks, Andre Miller and Chris Duhon might be easier to acquire. Other players who might be productive via injury or trade would also qualify; Allen Iverson, Beno Udrih, Jason Williams and Jamaal Tinsley are current examples.
Look for non-point guards
In real-world terms of attainability, this should probably be your No. 1 strategy.
Of the 20 players on this list, only four play positions other than point guard: James, Wade, Iguodala and Roy. If you own one of these big names, chances are all you need is a solid Tier-2 point guard (like a Calderon) and you should be duking it out with the Nash and Kidd owners on a regular basis.
What if you don't have one of these four big names? Well, if you look just beyond the top 20, you'll see some other players who don't play the point that might be easier to acquire; Stephen Curry, Lamar Odom, Stephen Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu spring to mind. Pair one of these with a Tier-2 point and you'll be competing with the owner who snared Nash.
The good thing about this strategy is the paucity in available talent in assists at non-PG positions. Once you get below Trevor Ariza or so, the amount of assists available among non-point guards falls through the floorboards.
Trade for Marcus Camby, Nene, Tim Duncan or David Lee
There are only 15 centers in the NBA who average more than 1.5 assists a night. It might not seem like a big deal, but if you can find a center who averages 2.5 to 3.5 assists a night, you're padding your assist total at a position at which there are few assists to be found.
If you're starting Duncan against a team that has Dwight Howard, you're gaining 2.2 assists a night. That's the same difference between Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
(And by the way, I really wouldn't recommend trading for Camby except in an absolute emergency. Unlike Nash, Camby has only Donald Sterling's cold, hard slab of a training table to look forward to.)
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.