Targets for categorical improvement

Updated: February 26, 2013, 4:32 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

This week, I want to take a look at areas and categories where fantasy teams can improve in a hurry.

First place teams, take note; these are the same categories where teams can lose ground in a hurry.

Every year around this time, I spend a few days looking at the distribution of production in individual categories. It's sort of a "State of the Stats" tour through ESPN fantasy basketball.

The purpose of the tour is to gain a broader sense of how value is weighted within a certain category. Because the weight of the distribution goes a long way toward determining how easy or difficult it will be to make up ground in that statistic.

Allow me a brief hypothetical.

Each category in your league is a certain industry. In every industry, there is a finite amount of dollars to be earned.

You're an investor. Your broker is my 4-year-old son. My son tells you to invest in pogo sticks • well, because he really, really loves pogo sticks.

On the New York Stock Exchange there are 150 companies in the pogo stick business. Every year, people spend, say, $100 million on pogo sticks.

How is that $100 million weighted across the profits of the 150 separate pogo stick companies?

Do just a few top-level companies make most of that $100 million dollars? Maybe it's a "Big Pogo" situation; ten companies account for $80 million out of the total of $100 million, leaving the other 140 companies to fight over the last $20 million. So, only 7 percent of the 150 companies are making 80 percent of the profits.

This is top-heavy distribution.

But perhaps the wealth is spread more evenly amongst a larger amount of companies.

Maybe 75 of the top 100 companies make $80 million out of the $100 million, and there isn't a lot of disparity between the No. 1 company and the No. 75 company. So, 75 percent of the companies are responsible for 80 percent of the profits.

This would represent flattened distribution.

In fantasy, when you want to make up ground in your league -- to make rapid improvement -- you want to go after the categories with top-heavy distribution, and leave the flatter categories alone.

Then you look for the pressure points. Within those categories, where are the tiers of production? At what level does the per-game average constitute an elite level of production? 1.8 blocks per game? 2.0 blocks per game? With which players do those tiers begin and end?

That's where the graphs come in. (I apologize for this being a little wonky. I don't get out much. And I stay up super late.) But in the end, it's simple.

You need to identify which players make the biggest difference in the categories where you can make up the most ground.

And, ideally, you want to do this in the categories that historically tend to be undervalued, because that's where you can maximize trade value.

With these principles in mind, let's take a look at the categories I feel will be easiest with which to comprise a positive improvement for fantasy teams.

(I'm including two tiers of elite production here: "Elites" and "Megaelites," the latter is comprised of players capable of single-handedly powering a positive move in the respective category).

1. Blocks
Elite Level: 2.1 per game
Elites: JaVale McGee, Joakim Noah, Josh Smith, Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan
Megaelite Level: 3.0 and up
Megaelites: Serge Ibaka, Larry Sanders

If you look at the slope my graph to the right of the distribution of production in blocks, it's the equivalent of skiing off a cliff. You simply jump off, experience a 40-foot drop, and don't start experiencing an actual slope until around Bismack Biyombo.

(Graph represents how blocks per game are weighted across the top 150 players on the Player Rater. Also a nice game-by-game snapshot of the amount of hope John Cregan possesses over the course of a single Washington Wizards season.)

The tough aspect of blocks is that the category that the chief blocks producers also excel in -- rebounds -- is the flattest of the major fantasy categories. So you can acquire an elite blocks producer who may not move the needle that much in other areas.

The positive spin on this is that it will be easier to acquire an elite-level shot blocker than, say, an elite scorer. To me, Joakim Noah makes a great target, as he will still help you in multiple categories, including assists, a rarity amongst big men.

But owners looking to shake up the layout of their league in a category can dramatically do so by acquiring the services of Ibaka or Sanders. At this point in the fantasy season, there isn't a single move that will alter your team's production with greater severity than adding one (or both!) to your roster.

2. Assists
Elite Level: 8.2 per game
Elites: Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Greivis Vasquez
Megaelite Level: 9.5 per game
Megaelites: Rajon Rondo (out for year)

Since Rajon Rondo is out for the season, I'll expand the our dimes discussion to include "Near-Elites."

We can do this for assists because once we get beyond the top 25, production in the category begins to drop off. Near-elites average anywhere between 5.9 to 8.0 assists a game, from around Mike Conley up to Deron Williams.

Vasquez may be the easiest to trade for -- he's the least valuable of the elites -- but if you want a couple of late risers in assists, I'd recommend Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague. They're gaining steam in value, and also will help in steals and 3-pointers.

3. 3-Pointers
Elite Level: 2.5 per game
Elites: Carlos Delfino, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony
Megaelite Level: 2.8 per game
Megaelites: Kyle Korver, Ryan Anderson, Stephen Curry

The key to targeting 3-point help is to hone in on the players who can move the needle without kneecapping your field goal percentage.

Klay Thompson hits a solid 39 percent of his long-range attempts, but doesn't hit enough of his 2-pointers to boost his overall percentage to acceptable levels. The result is an inefficient overall field goal percentage of .420.

Randy Foye will net you 2.2 3-pointers a game, but actually is more accurate on 3-pointers (.417) than 2-pointers (.314), making for a disquieting overall percentage of .404.

We'd all love to go out and trade for Stephen Curry or Carmelo Anthony. But it will be easier to land a Ryan Anderson or Kyle Korver. As sleepers go, I really like Danny Green as a breakout candidate over the final part of the season.

4. Points
Elite Level: 20.8 per game
Elites: LaMarcus Aldridge, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving
Megaelite Level: 23.6 per game
Megaelites: James Harden, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant

Taken on the strength of raw data, points are as top-heavy as any of the previous categories on this list. With scoring, there are the Elites and Megaelites, and then there is everybody else. After Aldridge, the distribution dramatically flattens out, the angle becoming a gentle bunny slope to the bottom.

(As I've said before, I firmly believe that in fantasy, point production in elite fantasy basketball players should be viewed as a byproduct of elite production in other categories. Ignore points when you draft, and they will come if you draft well across the other categories.)

The problem with points in-season is • just try acquiring an elite scorer at fair market value without giving up another scorer. To get one of the 11 players listed here, you're going to have to pay a high premium. It's much harder to purloin a Dwyane Wade than a Larry Sanders.

If you're going to load up and try to go for an elite scorer, you might as well try for someone who's elite in multiple top-heavy areas. That would mean targeting Westbrook, Parker, Anthony or Curry.

Or you can just simply trade for Durant and/or LeBron. You know, because those guys are always on the block. As many a mediocre fantasy site has stated in the past • just "go get them."

5. Steals
Elite Level: 1.9 per game
Elites: Jeremy Lin, Russell Westbrook, Ricky Rubio
Megaelite Level: 2.2 per game
Megaelites: Mike Conley, Chris Paul

A high steals per game mark tends to be linked to strong point guard play, which is beneficial since point guards also do well in assists and, to a lesser degree, 3-pointers.

Unfortunately, there's also a link between a high steals average and low field goal percentage. All of the elites listed here will take a bite out of your team's shooting performance from the floor.

Of the high flyers in this category, I continue to believe Mike Conley is one of the more undervalued point guards in fantasy. He's solid in almost every category, and near dominant in the steals department.

Ricky Rubio is probably in for the most dramatic rise over the final part of the season, but it may be too late to tab him as a "buy-low" candidate at this point.

6. Field goal percentage
Elites: J.J. Hickson, Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh, Tony Parker, Al Horford
Megaelites: Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, LeBron James

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesAcquiring Dwight Howard to help your field goal percentage is advised only if you've already given up on free throw percentage.

With the percentages, things get trickier as far as listing an elite average; one must factor in the volume of attempts.

DeAndre Jordan is second in the NBA in field goal percentage at .601, but is only 15th on the Player Rater in field goal percentage because of his low attempts per game (6.2). Conversely, LeBron James is eighth in the NBA in percentage, but second on the Player Rater.

It's harder to make a move later in the season in the percentage categories. But in head-to-head leagues, it's just as easy to improve now as it was in Week 1.

When targeting an elite percentage player, I believe it's important to make sure they're not hurting you in the other percentage category. Dwight Howard is a nice, refreshing hunk of guarana to drop in your field goal percentage tank • but in your free throw percentage tank, he's a veritable bucket of sand.

7 (tie). Rebounds
Elite Level: 10.4 per game
Elites: J.J. Hickson, David Lee, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Nikola Vucevic, Omer Asik, Zach Randolph, Dwight Howard
Megaelite Level: 12.5 per game
Megaelites: Kevin Love (injured), Anderson Varejao (out for season)

I don't mean to demean the art of rebounding. It's the stat most closely linked to hustle, and you want those guys in your imaginary locker room. However, with Love and Varejao out, it's very, very difficult to stage a move in rebounds without acquiring multiple elites. It's just too spread out of a category.

7 (tie). Free throw percentage
Elites: Darren Collison, Kevin Martin, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant
Megaelites: Kyle Korver, Ryan Anderson, Stephen Curry

Here's a nice tidbit regarding free throw percentage; it's one of the leading indicators of strong overall fantasy production.

The other good news with free throws is that there are a couple of less-auspicious names you can target. Both Darren Collison and Kevin Martin will provide immediate assistance in both percentage categories, and can be had at a lower price than the other elites on this list.

John Cregan

Fantasy Basketball
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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