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Out-of-position production

11/15/2013 - NBA

Last week, we talked about how building a team via efficiency-based statistics was a crafty method for building a fantasy squad geared for season-long success; because the percentage categories are undervalued, it was smart to target them early in the season, since they were bound to regress to historical means.

But are there ways to find hidden, undervalued strength in the volume-based categories?

The short answer is yes. By looking for out-of-position production, we can find players with hidden strengths in the volume-based categories.

Now here's the long answer.

Out-of-position production is fueled by two sacred fantasy principles: positional scarcity and categorical scarcity.

For the uninitiated, positional scarcity takes Moneyball principles and applies them to a specific position as opposed to a statistic. As in, "Which positions contain the most and least amount of available value?" and "Which positions might be easiest to corner market within?"

In fantasy football, top-tier quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers tend to generate the largest amount of week-in, week-out production. But you also want to pay attention to which position has the fewest amount of top-tier choices, such as tight end.

In fantasy baseball, catcher has historically been the position with the least amount of offensive production. It's not the sexiest, most numerically driven position, but if you have one of the 2-4 high-end producers at catcher, building your team just became a lot easier.

In fantasy basketball, center tends to be the position with the fewest high-end producers. This has been diluted somewhat in recent seasons with the rise of so many PF/Cs, but in general, it's still the easiest position with which to corner the market. But because of all the PF/Cs out there, it's shifted importance onto the guard positions in recent years.

(In rock music, this principle applies to drummers. Anyone who's ever tried to start a band can tell you: Learn to drum and you'll never lack for available gigs. Plus it's far craftier from an anthropological perspective. Ask any bassist or keyboardist whom a drummer in an after-show social situation has ever aced out.)

Categorical scarcity flips this point of view.

Which categories have a top-heavy amount of numerical distribution? Which categories do a few top-end producers dominate?

In fantasy basketball, assists and blocks tend to be the most top-heavy stats.

This gets more complex in fantasy basketball because of how different statistics are also weighted across certain positions. For instance, guards generate more assists and 3-pointers, while big men generate blocks and rebounds.

(Swingmen are the statistical crossroads in fantasy hoops. You can find players with diverse statistical portfolios of every shape, size and combination. This is why I always preach not overreaching for a small forward unless he's an elite producer or grossly undervalued. There will always be other small forwards who bubble up on the fantasy radar over the course of a season.)

So with all of this in mind, I like to approach the value to be found in out-of-position production.

In doing this, we take the two scarcer positions (the PF/C area and the PG/SG area) and blend it with the scarcer categories (assists and blocks). We're looking for PF/Cs who generate PG/SG-type stats and vice versa.

So we want PF/Cs who can give us extra assists, 3-pointers and steals. And we want PG/SGs who can give us blocks and rebounds.

And we're not talking huge numbers on the surface. A center who can chip in three assists a night is doubling the normal production in assists for a starting fantasy center. Over the course of time, that extra 1.5 assists a night can make a big difference, be it in head-to-head or in a rotisserie format.

A point guard who can average even 0.7 blocks per game is doubling the typical production at his position. An extra 0.4 blocks per night, in a category where 2.0 or higher is elite? That's a tremendous amount of hidden value.

Let's take a look at some PF/Cs who can help us in guard-dominated categories.

Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves (2.3 3-pointers, 5.1 assists): Out of the top seven players in fantasy, Love best represents the ideals of out-of-position value. He gives you decent point guard-based numbers while vying for the league lead in points and rebounds. As to whether he can keep up this torrid, across-the-board pace, keep in mind he was headed in this direction before his injury problems began back in the 2011 season.

The new wrinkle for Love is in assists. At present, he's more than doubling his career average of 2.0 per game. The interesting thing is that his assist totals aren't handcuffed to Ricky Rubio's. On Wednesday, Rubio notched a career-high 16 dimes while Love still chipped in with (a positionally astronomical) six assists.

Spencer Hawes, C, Philadelphia 76ers (1.9 3-pointers, 3.2 assists): Hawes has turned into the mini Kevin Love, albeit with the added bonus of near-elite-level blocks. Throw in the fact that Hawes qualifies at the scarcer position at center, and you have perhaps the most sneakily underrated big man in fantasy.

With Hawes, the question people tend to ask is "Can he keep this up?" To which I say, "He already has." Take a look at Hawes' month-by-month totals for 2012-13. From December on, he was remarkably consistent, especially for a player who had built a reputation of being inconsistent. Hawes being so undervalued in drafts this season is an example of how groupthink can overwhelm the simple truths that numbers can provide.

I don't think Hawes is a sell-high candidate. He's due to regress by about 10 percent across the board, but he'll still remain a special fantasy center for the duration of the 2013-14 campaign.

Josh McRoberts, PF, Charlotte Bobcats (4.1 assists, 1.6 3-pointers, 1.0 steals): McRoberts has stolen a lot of the statistical thunder I was anticipating out of Cody Zeller. And while their semi-timeshare has blunted McRoberts' consistency, a look at his averages shows an emerging out-of-position production threat. The fact that he went for a season-high 19 points to go along with five 3-pointers and seven assists against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday shows that he can coexist with Al Jefferson.

Other out-of-position producers at PF/C: Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, David West, Paul Millsap, Tim Duncan, Kelly Olynyk

Now let's highlight some PG/SGs who contribute in blocks and rebounds.

James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets (0.8 blocks, 5.1 rebounds): It's not exactly breaking fantasy news that Harden is one of the best all-around performers of the past 10 seasons. But I just wanted to point out that he's on pace to average a career high in blocks. What's troubling is the word that his bruised foot might keep him out of back-to-backs for the foreseeable future. Oh, and the fact that he's only hitting 28 percent of his 3s so far this season.

Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers (5.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks): Carter-Williams' length and defensive potential was one of the main reasons for his rise to lottery pick status in this year's draft. I expected him to provide assists, rebound well and defend well. The offense has been a nice, unexpected bonus.

Eric Bledsoe, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns (4.3 rebounds, 0.1 blocks): While Bledsoe (obviously) has been fantastic to date, I'm a little disappointed that he seemingly left his shot-blocking ability back at Staples Center. In 2012-13, Bledsoe averaged almost a block per game (0.7 per game) in just 20.3 minutes of action. Generating blocks from the PG position is a very, very special skill, and it's interesting that it seems to have deserted him in the desert.