The fantasy basketball season is coming to its conclusion, and if you are lucky to still be in the playoffs this late, then you already know what you’re doing. So I asked my ESPN colleague, Josh Whitling, if he’d like to partake in a correspondence that we could share with all of you. He said yes, so below is what you get this week. This “conversation” began this past Saturday night and concluded Tuesday morning.
Velasco: Josh, considering you’re a Seattle native that loves the NBA, I really hope Kevin Johnson’s ability to land an arena in downtown Sacramento doesn’t see fruition. I thought it was a travesty that the SuperSonics left town to go to Oklahoma City. Seriously, that’s your team! However, I’m also conflicted about the whole Kings-to-Seattle thing because I’d hate for the Maloofs to make a lot of money considering how they ruined a good thing in Sactown. Luckily, the legacy of White Chocolate will never leave.
Seriously, there was some thought before this season began that Kevin Durant, a would-be Seattle superstar who combines the skills of Tom Chambers and Dale Ellis if you think about it, could actually be better than LeBron James in a fantasy basketball sense this year. It could be argued, but I’d say that preseason potential prognostication has come true. Agree or disagree? And do you think these two will be the top two guys in pretend hoops for years to come? Who do you think could challenge them for that top spot?
Whitling: Thanks for the Sonics love! My expectations are tempered until it becomes official, although I have faith that there will be an NBA team in my city again at some point — too good of a market, potential ownership group, and legacy of hoops in the town. It is interesting to see how Sonics gear has become retro, and it’s entertaining to witness the ubiquitous Seattle hipsters donning vintage Supes’ gear because it’s ironic the team isn’t in town anymore.
As for the KD vs. LeBron debate, to me it’s not a very heated discussion on either side of the issue when comparing them in a fantasy or “real” sense. In the actual game, LeBron is the best player alive, hands down. His ability to control both ends of the floor and the fact he’s a proven winner at this point shuts the door on that conversation pretty quickly. But in the fantasy sense, it all comes down to KD’s dominance in the free throw department, and the magnitude at which he dominates LeBron in this category makes him the superior fantasy player. Durant registers a +5.04 ranking on the player rater in free throws compared to LeBron’s -0.11.
It’s safe to call their points, rebounds and steals a relative wash. LeBron’s field goal percentage and assists are superior, but Durant’s blocks and threes win out. So if the rest of the categories are relatively even (there’s no difference larger than 2.1 in any category on the player rater), free throws become the deciding factor, and the reason Durant’s overall 21.95 player rater ranking dwarfs LeBron’s 19.07. As a matter of fact, the gap between them is nearly as large as that between LeBron and number three ranked James Harden, who sits at 16.08.
LeBron’s physical freakishness and athleticism is something that Durant will never match, but Durant’s superiority as a pure shooter and ability to get to the line often with deadly accuracy sets him apart from a purely fantasy sense, and is the reason Durant is the better fantasy player. It doesn’t look like this will change either as Durant has taken a step forward in nearly every advanced statistic this season, boasting a career-high PER, assist rate, true shooting percentage, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point percentage while cutting down his attempts between 16-23 feet, all indications that he’s still improving statistically. LeBron has taken many steps forward in these statistics as well, but not across-the-board like Durant, and with Durant being just 24-years-old compared to James’ 28, KD looks to be the best fantasy player for the foreseeable future.
I mentioned Harden; you think he’s the number three overall pick next year over CP3?
DV: As a Brooklyn Nets fan, there’s just no way I can’t be biased here considering the show that Chris Paul put on against the Nets tonight. He was simply a maestro conducting the Los Angeles Clippers offense, but also dictating what the Nets defense was doing. He was a beast and while I think Harden’s skill set was finally unleashed and proven as a starter, if not superstar, it’s hard for me to pass up on CP3 as the third overall pick.
JW: Again, here’s another case where the hardwood and fantasy contradict each other. Paul is among my favorite players to watch and the third best player in the league in my opinion. But Harden has a skill set made for fantasy, and eclipses Paul on the average player rater due to his elite contributions in points, threes, steals and free throws (he’s top-10 in all four categories) and with above-average contributions in rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage. Harden even blocks 0.4 shots per game, which is helpful from the guard position. Maybe I’m biased because I have him locked up at a low price for the next five years in my longtime keeper league, but I think he’s established himself as the third best player in fantasy this season.
DV: Fair enough, but when you can get a player that produces every season and has a fairly big sample size like CP3, it’s hard to pass up, especially when he has the potential to lead the league in two categories — assists and steals. The other elite point guards like Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker either don’t shoot as well as Paul (currently 48.3 percent from the floor and 89.0 percent from the charity stripe), drop as many dimes (9.7) or steal the ball (2.4) with such proficiency. It goes without saying that CP3 is the best point guard in the universe and it’s hard to find another point guard that produces like him all over the box score, whereas, you can maybe draft a player like Nicolas Batum or Monta Ellis in later rounds to get the same across the board type of numbers from the shooting guard position. Granted, not Harden-type numbers, particularly in points, but I think the appeal of The Beard is his production across several categories, and the aforementioned players do the same, but at a cheaper price.
Speaking of cheaper price, since you mentioned having Harden locked up cheap for the next five years in a keeper league, who were a couple of draft day values this past season that could be solid keepers for the next several seasons?
JW: For auction leagues, you likely drafted guys like Kemba Walker, George Hill, Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Kawhi Leonard, Larry Sanders, Chandler Parsons, and Nicola Vucevic for cheap, and they should be viable keepers for years to come. Every single one of those players should be worth whatever you paid for them in an auction next year and beyond, and provide cheap building blocks that provide you with more flexibility during the actual auction due to their low price.
In addition, veterans like Jose Calderon, Tim Duncan, David Lee and Chris Bosh outplayed their draft-day value, and even if they’re not worth keeping long-term, could be worth it for at least next year, or for as long as you have in your league before you have to sign them to a contract.
Also players like Harden, Jrue Holiday, Paul George, Nic Batum, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford, Steph Curry and Brook Lopez cost you some money on draft day, but not as much as they will in next season’s draft. It’s not all about the single-digit dollar value keepers; sometimes if you bought a guy for $30 and he’s worth $50 next year, he’s worth keeping and even signing for a few years beyond his current contract even if it gives you a little less money to play with during the auction.
And finally, if you’re screwed in a keeper league, spending your last remaining FAAB on guys like Jonas Valanciunas, Jae Crowder and Dion Waiters could pay off; even if they’re not going to help you much this year, they could prove to be valuable $1 keepers for next year. Same goes if players like Marcin Gortat or Pau Gasol were dropped in your league — grab them for cheap and reap the rewards next season.
Speaking of next year’s draft, I always try to make a note of who I like before the offseason begins, and rampant speculation and draft-analysis muddles my perspective. Who do you like going into next season’s draft based on how they’re playing down the stretch?
DV: Regarding the more well-known names, I really like the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry heading into next season as he’s pretty much dispelled any worry about last season’s ankle issues. In the last month, he’s averaging 26.6 points while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor, including 48.9 percent from behind the three-point line where he’s making 4.1 treys per game! He’s hitting 88.0 percent of his freebies, grabbing 3.9 boards, dishing 6.9 dimes and 1.5 steals in 39 minutes. Curry is easily having his best season and if you look at his splits for this season, he’s basically improved month-to-month. He might end up getting into that third overall pick conversation we had earlier!
Of the sort-of-known names, Kawhi Leonard had a lot of “real” basketball hype before the season because of Gregg Popovich basically blowing him up and calling him the future of the San Antonio Spurs. That’s obviously some really high praise. However, Leonard ran into injury and just didn’t produce on a fantasy scale that a lot of owners may have had expected considering Pop’s proclamation of the franchise’s future. However, Leonard’s post All-Star numbers have been a lot better than before the break. In the last month, he averaged 15.3 points on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 85.7 percent from the free throw line, 1.0 triples, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks in 34 minutes. This overall production makes me think of Shawn Marion when he dominated fantasy while with the Phoenix Suns. Am I saying that Leonard is the next Matrix? He has the tools and talent, but he’ll need the consistent burn to make pretend basketball owners happy and Pop an all-knowing prophet.
Of the lesser known names, Amir Johnson has been really, really good of late and it’s too bad not enough people know about it. Since averaging 30+ minutes in each month this season, Johnson has been a double-double threat and a defensive troublemaker for the opposition, averaging at least 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks in this time period. In his past 14 games, Johnson is putting up 11.0 points while hitting 55.7 percent of his shots from the deck and 75.0 percent from the charity stripe, 9.8 rebounds, 1.5 dimes, 1.0 steals and 1.7 rejections in 32 minutes. He’ll be 26 years old at the beginning of next season and should be entering his prime, as well as holding down the four-spot at the T-Dot.
And I’ll take a shot at the NBA rookie to watch for next season. Please note that the following player hasn’t tipped his hand on whether or not he’ll even play in the NBA next season, but I really like Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Jr. Yes, he shot horribly against the Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast Eagles in the NCAA Tournament, but looking at his demeanor and evolution this season, I think he’ll be the most NBA-ready player — physically and mentally — next season. Another plus is that he doesn’t need the ball a ton to succeed, he’s a willing passer, tough and scrappy, possesses great physical tools including a 7-foot-1 wingspan and has ubiquitous upside. What’s most important is that Porter should be able to adapt to any team that drafts him and succeed.
That all said about Porter, which players of this year’s rookie crop do you really like moving forward over the next few seasons other than Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis who look like they may be the tops of this class in five years. Although, I do have a man-crush on Andre Drummond’s potential.
JW: I mentioned Valanciunas and Waiters, both whom I think will be solid fantasy players but not superstars. Waiters is a magnet for criticism, and can be maddening at times, but picked it up in the second-half of the season and has some Jason Terry/Randy Foye-when-they-are-good flair to his fantasy skill set.
Bradley Beal is bananas-exciting. In 10 games since the All-Star break he’s averaging 16.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks while shooting 47.7 percent from the floor, and those numbers have been limited by injuries. Oh yeah, he’s 19 years old and improved his scoring average in every month of the season except this injury-hampered March. That’s my only concern — he’s missed games at three separate instances this season, and I’m hoping the similarities that are drawn between him and Eric Gordon stop at the statistical potential and don’t translate in the injury-prone department. Regardless, he’s a guy I’ll be willing to reach a round or two ahead of his average draft position next season.
I also love Jae Crowder’s long-term fantasy potential, as he has a skill set designed for a system that rewards contributions in multiple categories. His per-40 minute averages of 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.2 threes and 2.1 steals is enticing, and that’s in a somewhat-constricting role on a team in flux. Once he develops into a starter for the squad, he’ll be a fantasy mainstay that many hoops fans didn’t know existed before this season.
I also like Harrison Barnes and Terrence Ross long-term as legitimate fantasy players, and both Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and John Henson to be serious contributors in the defensive categories. Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson should get plenty of run for a rebuilding Orlando team and have exhibited potential that will be worth a late-round gamble next year, and John Jenkins will be a lights-out three-point specialist if he ever gets consistent playing time.
And yes, Drummond is drool-inducing and will undoubtedly be one of the most popular “sleepers” going into next year. The only rub is that his free throw shooting is so bad (36.5 percent on 2.3 attempts per game) that it will always limit his fantasy value, especially in roto formats. He might be the next Dwight Howard in positive and negative ways.
DV: Well, we can probably go back-and-forth non-stop about fantasy basketball, but let’s break here and pick it up again next week. Until then, good luck to everyone and enjoy the continued madness that is the NCAA tournament! Or at least enjoy this right here!