Fantasy basketball history: The Most Improved Players

Last week, I wrote about MVPs in the NBA normally not being the best in fantasy basketball. A couple questions popped into my head while writing that piece:

  1. Which players in fantasy basketball were one-hit wonders?
  2. What about breakout seasons, much like contract years in the real NBA?

Introducing, fantasy basketball’s most improved players! It was yet another excuse to reminisce about the recent history of the NBA and the players I grew up watching. I found 15 players — one for each season since 1998 — who may have swung the fortunes of their fantasy basketball owners.

Each player is also linked back to RotoMonster where their fantasy basketball rankings came from. It’s a neat site, one I’ve used for my most recent fantasy basketball postings.

Onto this list though. Let the reminiscing begin:

1998: Wesley Person, Cleveland Cavaliers

8-cat ranking: 16

9-cat ranking: 6

As I said in my post about the 1994 NBA Draft, I thought it was so cool his last name was actually ‘Person’.

With his 192 three-pointers, Wesley Person was the most valuable three-point shooter in ’98 ahead of Reggie Miller and Glen Rice, among others. He also became a nice source of steals. Outside of those two categories, Person didn’t do anything too good or bad. He was a steady all-around player that nearly ascended to the top of the fantasy basketball world, all while being a teammate to the immortal Shawn Kemp.

1999: ???

I actually skipped this season because, well, it sucked.

2000: Michael Dickerson, Vancouver Grizzlies

8-cats: 34

9-cats: 27

Michael Dickerson’s one of a handful of players in the early 2000s I hated to see their career cut short due to injury. I still have a page on my bedroom wall from the March 2001 issue of NBA Inside Stuff where veterans and coaches talked about up and coming players from that time. In particular, Derek Anderson talked about Dickerson:

“The most underrated guy in the league. I think he’s sort of like Clyde Drexler. He’s one of those guys who scores, does it all, plays hard and just wants to get a win. You can tell he’s come from a good, solid program. He’s just been in a situation where they’re not winning. But he still plays hard on both ends.”

Unfortunately, groin and sports hernia injuries forced him into an early retirement. 2000 was his best season overall when he played all 82 games and was a nice source of points, threes, and free throws for fantasy basketball owners. He wasn’t too damaging in any other category.

I’ll always remember Dickerson as an Arizona Wildcat. The same goes for Miles Simon. I’ve come to despise college basketball, but I’ll never forget when those two guys won an NCAA title in 1997.

2001: Antoine Walker, Boston Celtics 

8-cats: 5

9-cats: 13

Antoine Walker was actually a decent guy to draft in the 8-category leagues since turnovers don’t count, and he turned it over a ton, making his rankings between the 8 and 9-cats pretty drastic. Walker was also major minuses in field goal percentage and free throw percentage over the years.

In 2001, though, Walker became an unusual source of assists and steals for power forwards. He also exploded in three-pointers, becoming the most valuable player for that category ahead of Ray Allen (2001’s best overall player in both leagues) and Dirk Nowitzki. Top it off with taking less free throws, an element in the game he often struggled with, and Walker had a career fantasy year.

But it wasn’t enough for Walker to make an All-NBA Team. He actually never made one his entire career. Things happen when you start your career nearly the same time as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett while playing at a loaded position in general.

2002: Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards  

8-cats: 92

9-cats: 107

This is a reverse one-hit wonder, if anything. 2002 was actually the only time Michael Jordan played more than 50 games and finished outside the top 100 in either fantasy basketball league.

Since this was when he was a Wizard, let’s pretend this never happened. It’s much more fun to look at the 10 seasons Jordan went either first or second in fantasy basketball.

2003: Eric Snow, Philadelphia 76ers

8-cats: 32

9-cats: 36

Most categories for Eric Snow emit light red on RotoMonster, which explains why he finished out of the top 100 nine out of his 13 seasons. He was often a nice source of assists and steals though. In 2003, free throw percentage was thrown into the positives he gave fantasy basketball teams, shooting nearly 86 percent on 4.6 attempts per game. He was also a not-so-bad point-producer, which was nice given he was a role player on every team he played for.

But Snow was a valuable role player at that. In 2003, he was a great one for fantasy basketball teams as well.

2004: James Posey, Memphis Grizzlies

8-cats: 22

9-cats: 9

James Posey was kind of, sort of similar to Wesley Person in ’98: a solid contributor to threes and steals while not hurting his team too much in categories he didn’t specialize in. For a wing, he was also an unusual positive in field goal percentage.

What was best about Posey though was his production in the last two weeks of the season, normally reserved for the fantasy basketball playoffs. During that span, he averaged 22.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2.3 threes, 7.1 free throws on 80 percent shooting and shot 51.8 percent from the field through nine games. If that stat line was too long, it can be summarized as this: Posey killed it in six categories, enough to turn an average fantasy basketball team into a title contender.

2005: Larry Hughes, Washington Wizards

8-cat: 24

9-cat: 24

In 2005, Larry Hughes was a top-25 fantasy basketball player. Every other season but one (2004), he finished outside the top 100. That ranking in 2005 is even more shocking when he missed 21 games. Dwyane Wade pulled off a more extreme version of this in 2008, playing only 51 games while making the top 25 in 8-cats.

But to compare the two, Hughes was at least active for the fantasy basketball playoffs. He could’ve anchored a team in steals while not being too big of a minus in field goal percentage, and even though Hughes shot only 28 percent from three, he made one per game. So there’s that. He was also obviously a great contributor in points that season.

After signing with Cleveland, Hughes might’ve been the worst fantasy basketball player ever while making over $12 million per year in real life. My theory behind that terrible contract: Larry Hughes was on Dan Gilbert’s fantasy basketball team the season before.

2006: Mike James, Toronto Raptors

8-cats: 25

9-cats: 24

I laughed while looking at Mike James’ basketball-reference page. Look at all the jerseys he wore over his career:

mike james teams

It reminds me of international competitions when you see all the flags:

image-sports-the-olympics-flags

James will always be known for triggering my embarrassing, irrational excitement for the 2007 Timberwolves thanks to his 20 points per game in ’06. Anything was an upgrade over Marko Jaric.

He was a fine contributor in points, threes, assists, and free throw percentage the year before he came to Minnesota. 2004 was the only other time James finished in the top 100 in fantasy basketball, back when he was part of Detroit’s 2004 championship squad. I actually forgot all about that stage of his career. Add that with the ’07 Timberwolves and Mike James embarrassed my (lack of) basketball knowledge twice.

2007: Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix Suns

8-cats: 15

9-cats: 14

Leandro Barbosa was actually a solid fantasy basketball contributor for a few seasons, but he was huge in 2007. As a team, Phoenix owned that season in fantasy basketball with Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Barbosa all in the top 15 in both 8-cats and 9’s. (I already wrote about Shawn Marion’s dominance here.)

Barbosa logged a bunch of threes that season and was either a positive or microscopic negative in any category but rebounds and blocks, stats guards rarely produce anyway.

Looking back on the Suns of the mid-2000s is always depressing though. I’m not a fan of Mike D’Antoni, but those Nash-led teams were so fun and got so close to a title so many times. Bad luck and bad management was too much for them to overcome.

2008: Baron Davis, Golden State Warriors  

8-cats: 5

9-cats: 7

Throughout his career, Baron Davis was hot and cold both in fantasy and real basketball. He was rarely healthy after 2002, wasn’t a great free throw shooter, and in multiple seasons he was the biggest minus in field goal percentage for fantasy basketball. He often alternated with finishing seasons in the top 50 and outside the top 100.

But boy, Davis was a freak in steals and assists. In 2008, only Chris Paul provided better, well-rounded production in those two categories. Playing all 82 games that year also led to being a solid source of points, threes, and an above-average rebounder and blocker (!!!). Being healthy all season led to being a pain with field goal percentage and turnovers, but that was acceptable when he was one of the best in four other categories.

2009: Mo Williams, Cleveland Cavaliers  

8-cats: 26

9-cats: 25

Mo Williams was one of the Weirdo All-Stars along with Jamaal Magloire and a few others, but was also a unique point guard in fantasy basketball. Though he was one of the best three point shooters and rarely missed a free throw, he wasn’t a big contributor in assists. Williams also wouldn’t hurt teams in field goal percentage like most point guards would. Much of the lack of assists and boost in field goal percentage could probably be blamed on LeBron James. Once LeBron left Cleveland, Williams’ value in fantasy basketball plummeted.

2010: Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets

8-cats: 31

9-cats: 54

2010 was the only season where Aaron Brooks consistently started, and he did that for all 82 games. He was the most valuable three-point shooter in fantasy basketball, which helped with points as well. Assists and free throws were also positives that came with drafting him.

All of that made for one season where Brooks was a nice addition. He’s been ranked outside of 150 in every other. 2010 was also the season Brooks was the Most Improved Player of the Year. If only Houston could trade him to the Utah Jazz so he could win it twice.

2011: Dorell Wright, Golden State Warriors

8-cats: 20

9-cats: 13

In 2011, Dorell Wright was only a minus in one category: field goal percentage. It was an acceptable tradeoff when, like Aaron Brooks in 2010, he was the best three-point producer. He also produced in categories normally not reserved for small forwards: assists (while not turning it over too much) and blocks.

Overall, 2011 was a breakout year for Wright. It reminded me of Quentin Richardson’s 2005 campaign with Phoenix (here’s a statistical comparison). Richardson tailed off after that season while Wright has been a key reserve on bad teams until now, thanks to Portland storming out of the gates.

2012: Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers

8-cats: 14

9-cats: 19

2012 was Andrew Bynum’s most complete season, being a buy-low sell-high candidate at first until he played nearly every game, 60 out of 66 in a lockout-shortened season. He dominated in four categories (points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage) while being a pretty bad contributor in every other, ones where big men typically suffered though.

Then came 2013 when Bynum was the complete opposite of how he finished. He went from buy-low, sell-high to a waste of a first round draft pick in fantasy basketball. Maybe one day he’ll be a master in fantasy bowling.

2013: Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors

8-cats: 47

9-cats: 29

Last season, Rudy Gay joining the Raptors didn’t affect Amir Johnson’s fantasy basketball value, even though Gay could’ve been a small ball power forward in Johnson’s place.

His 2013 production didn’t really scream effective when looking at it, but little improvements were made in just about every category with the biggest coming in steals, giving him an advantage over most power forwards. Overall, no category was too big of a positive or negative for Johnson, which is different from most players in this post. 

And that’s what was nice about him. It kind of, sort of reflected his game in real life. He wasn’t the main man on the Raptors by any means, but he was one of the better role players despite playing with ball stoppers like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan.

This year, every player on the Raptors is a question mark in fantasy basketball because of the likelihood of a trade or two happening before the February deadline. We could see Johnson be used a little more if Gay is traded, or we could see him play less if he’s traded to an actual contender and not the East’s fourth seed that’s currently under .500.

Prediction for 2014

It’s hard to judge after only one month but…

Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia 76ers

Best fantasy basketball season: 2013

8-cats: 79

9-cats: 81

Spencer Hawes has done it all this year: score, score efficiently, rebound, pass, make threes, and also turn it over but whatever. Right now, he’s producing in categories some guards can’t even match, most notably the couple of threes per game.

He won’t shoot 49 percent from three all season though and that inevitable downfall will hurt his field goal percentage, but he’s in a situation where everything else can stay steady. The 76ers are really thin up front so he’ll consistently get over 30 minutes of play, at least until March and April. Eventually, Philadelphia will go into the tank, even if the Atlantic Division continues to be terrible. Who knows if Hawes starts developing “soreness” and misses a few games here and there, which would bring his ranking down at the end of the season.

But right now, Hawes is a top-10 fantasy basketball player. All but last year he was outside the top-100. He’ll finish somewhere in between if he can stay relatively healthy, but right now he’s been all that his fantasy basketball owners could ask for and more.

Just like every other player on this list.

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy basketball history: The Most Improved Players

  1. […] For another post about players who came out of nowhere in fantasy basketball, check this out. […]

  2. […] written about this before, but my theory behind Larry Hughes’ terrible contract: He was on Dan Gilbert’s fantasy […]

  3. […] mid-90s and early-2000s, save for Jason Terry. (There’s still time!) Also, former-Wildcat (and 2000′s Most Improved Fantasy Basketball Player) Michael Dickerson had a couple solid seasons with the Grizz before multiple injuries ended his […]

  4. […] somewhere among the fastest 25-35 teams in NBA history. They made me nominate Spencer Hawes for Most Improved Fantasy Basketball Player, and led one tweeter (and probably more) to believe Indiana would be unbeatable with Evan Turner. […]

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