Lately I've been thinking a lot about the problem of perception as it pertains to fantasy basketball. Not to get all serious about it, but there are quite a few players out there of whom the perception does not match the reality whatsoever. So we have rankings systems (such as the Player Rater) to help us sort things out. Meanwhile, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of making trades, we at times tend to lean on perception a little too much.
By way of example, just the other day I offered a friend of mine Ryan Anderson in exchange for Dwight Howard, straight up. He needed, I reasoned, 3-pointers and free throw percentage, while I needed rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage. By just about any ratings system, Ryan Anderson fares far better than Dwight Howard in the fantasy game, with Howard's free throw percentage being the single biggest negative going these days. Still, my friend wrote back that he wanted to make the trade, but just couldn't pull the trigger. I understood. Dwight Howard is simply better at basketball than Ryan Anderson, and that creates a perception that he's more valuable in fantasy than he actually is (I should make clear that this league's format is rotisserie, not head-to-head).
I realized something when I got turned down: It's going to be difficult to sell high on a player like Ryan Anderson. He's playing out of his mind this season; over the past decade and a half, Anderson's 3.3 3-pointers per game this season is better than anyone not named Ray Allen has done. Anderson combines that rare 3-point stroke with a solid rebounding rate and a career-high 47 percent shooting from the floor. I'm tempted to say he can't play better than this, though it's certainly possible that I'm wrong. Still, because of his style (he doesn't generally create shots for himself) and limitations (he doesn't generally block shots or, come to think of it, play much defense at all), it's hard to think of him as one of the premier fantasy players in the game, so it's hard to get fair value for him in trades.
Who are some other players who are better than we think they are? Glad you asked.
(Ranking in the category based on per-game stats in parentheses)
Mo Williams, PG, Jazz (40): Here's another example in which I'm not sure exactly what we missed heading into the season. Williams is currently averaging 14.3 points, 6.9 assists, 1.4 3s and 1.0 steals. Those numbers, coupled with a 96 percent mark on free throws that will probably settle around 90 by season's end, have him well within the top 50 on the Player Rater, which is pretty impressive when you consider the fact his ADP was 89.0.
What did we think he was going to do in Utah? He's still just 29, and his assist rate, while certainly a bit above his average, is not a career high, and certainly not out of line with what he has done throughout his career when he didn't have LeBron James controlling the offense and turning him into a spot-up shooter. Mo, as always, remains a player who can handle various roles. He's a competent point guard who can set up shots for other guys, but when he has a creator on the floor with him, he can slide into the spot-up shooter role, and he's a killer from long range and in the midrange game. That makes him almost just as valuable, albeit in a different role, if for some reason he gets traded to a team that wants to use him more as a scorer, and it makes him worth holding on to (or trying to trade for, if you can).
Jason Richardson, SG/SF, 76ers (48): Richardson has one elite skill: 3-point shooting. He's making 2.4 3-pointers in 29.1 minutes per game so far this season. That's a lot, but on a team that's completely starved for someone who can space the floor, it's certainly not too far beyond our expectations for him, especially considering he has made right around two per game his entire career. He's traditionally a bad free throw shooter, but he has "remedied" that by simply avoiding trips to the line, and at 4.4 rebounds per game, his once-impressive board skills from the shooting guard spot has at least come back to levels in which he's chipping in and not hurting your team. Certainly he's unlikely to keep racking up 1.7 steals per game, but he should manage to keep himself over one per game (he hasn't had more than three in any single game this season, so it's not like there's an outlier skewing the early returns).
Basically, Richardson is playing better than we expected, but not enough to account for the fact he is currently a top-50 fantasy option after having an ADP of 117.4. As long as Philly keeps overachieving, Richardson is going to keep overachieving in fantasy.
Luol Deng, SF, Bulls (50): You may find this hard to believe, but Deng, in his age 27 season, right in the heart of his prime, is managing to be just about as good as he usually is at basketball! Yes, I know there were injury concerns last season, but Deng is not even playing as well as he's capable of playing, and he's still outpacing his ADP of 58.7. His 3-point shooting should begin to work its way back up to where it has been over the previous four seasons, he'll manage to accumulate marginally more steals and blocks as the season goes on and, most importantly, he'll keep leading the league as the only guy playing more than 40 minutes every night.
For all of that, though, if you try to trade him, you'll probably get rebuffed, because Deng just isn't exciting, and while he's in the top 50, there's not much chance he'll move up much higher than he is right now. He is what he is, and that's a lot better than we seem to realize.
Jeremy Lin, PG, Rockets (65): It has absolutely been a struggle for Lin this season. On Tuesday night against the Lakers, Lin finished with just 4 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds, and was on the bench when the Rockets' reserves, including backup point guard Toney Douglas, led the team past the Lakers. Prior to the Rockets' acquisition of James Harden, it seemed like Lin, a really good pick-and-roll operator, had the perfect opportunity to put up gaudy numbers on a terrible team. Instead, it often looks like Lin is playing out of his comfort zone. After attempting 5.2 free throws in just 26.9 minutes per game in New York last season, he's attempting just 2.4 in 34.4 minutes this time around. His jump shot seems to have left him entirely. And yet, here's what I don't get: Lin's average draft position (ADP) was 63.0, and he's currently 65th on the Player Rater in a season in which he has failed to live up to statistical expectations almost across the board.
Clearly, this is an example of a player about whom there is something we just don't understand. For one thing, he gets 1.9 steals per game, which puts him just outside the top 10 in the league. Also, among players listed at point guard, only Russell Westbrook and Tyreke Evans grab more rebounds per game than Lin's 4.2. His 6.4 assists per game are well within the top 20, as well. So for all his problems, Lin is actually meeting the fantasy expectations we had of him heading into this season, whether we're aware of it or not. Still, good luck getting anyone to believe it.