For many of us, another fantasy season is in the books, and we’re left with some similar lessons compared to last year. Once again, having your key players log the most games late in the season is the best way to set yourself up for success in the fantasy playoffs. These days, a player being hurt and missing time can be out of his hands. We saw LeBron James (groin) get shut down to keep him to a career-low 55 games, including the lockout year. Plus, Anthony Davis (back, waking up on the wrong side of the bed) has been probable for four games and did not suit up for any of them.
As mentioned before in most of my previous season preview-type stuff, reliability is the way to go early in your draft. Back in the day, we could see guys who missed games because of injury. It was clear guys like Corey Maggette could be a stud, but he pulled his hamstrings too often to aggressively target. Andrei Kirilenko and Gerald Wallace had top-five upside, but they were always getting hurt, as well. Now, there’s just more to it than tracking injury history, which is still a big piece of the pie in evaluating where you want to take someone, especially early in your draft.
I’ll do a deeper dive on this over the offseason, but here are some factors to consider when looking at determining reliability: chances of team fighting for a postseason spot, coach’s rotation, coach’s propensity to rest, team owner’s plan, stability of the franchise, player’s say in organization, possibility of trade request, a contract year, and of course that player’s agent. Yep, some agents are now impacting fantasy, and all of Anthony Davis’ fantasy owners would agree with that. A contract year angle is usually a plus in other sports, but it doesn’t really matter for the NBA’s stars because they’re getting their money regardless. Instead, players are more likely to sit before another big payday. For the non-stud guys, contract years can add some attractiveness to their value, but if a true max player has a slightly down year before becoming a free agent, it likely won't affect his earnings.
The following is a nine-category ranking for early next year, but reliability is the most important aspect of a player when you’re thinking about building around him. This won’t be your typical top-10 rank breakdown and it won’t have as many stats as my usual columns. Here we go.
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1. James Harden (age 30 when the 2019-20 season starts) - Is he MVP? Maybe, but he’s been the most valuable player for fantasy this season with the most total and per-game value. On top of his ridiculous stat line of 36.3 points, 6.5 boards, 7.5 dimes, 2.1 steals, 0.7 blocks and 4.8 treys on a 44/37/88 shooting line, he’s been extremely durable. Here are his game counts since the 2014-15 season: 81 in 2014-15, 82, 81, 72, 79 (assuming he plays in the rest of the games this year). Coach Mike D’Antoni has openly said he’ll play James Harden if The Beard wants to, and Harden’s priority in the game right now is to go down as one of the greats. His thirst for MVP trophies adds fantasy value, and he checks basically all the boxes for reliability factors.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns (23) - It took a near-death car crash to cause KAT to have a multiple-game absence an NBA game. If not for that accident in a Santa Fe, KAT would likely have been looking at an 82-82-82-81 game log -- a knee injury cost him one game this year. Towns predictably took another step forward in counting stats with averages of 24.4 points, 12.5, boards, 3.4 dimes, 1.7 blocks, 0.9 steals and 1.9 treys. The Wolves likely want to keep Ryan Saunders, who is tight with KAT partly because of his dad, Flip Saunders. He’s young, he’s durable, he has a super-max deal, his coach/organization trusts him, and hopefully the Wolves are at least a little better in the standings. Still, KAT hasn’t rested and maybe he has some say in that, as well.
3. Nikola Jokic (24) - Like the two fellows ahead of him, Jokic has been out there in this NBA career (80, 73, 75, 81 if he doesn’t miss hit final four), and he has a strong stat line: 20.1 points, 10.8 boards, 7.4 dimes, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks and 1.1 treys. Coach Mike Malone hasn’t rested his guys and said he won’t rest players until the Nuggets are locked in on their seed. Centers are also tougher to draft in fantasy, so that give Joker an edge there, as well.
4. Damian Lillard (29) - He’s basically the guard version of KAT. If he plays in the final four games this year, his career game log is truly elite: 82 his rookie season, 82, 82, 75, 75, 73, 81. Lillard has said that he’s loyal to the Blazers and there’s more to his career than winning a championship. He’s likely going to set a career-high in dimes per game at 6.9, adding averages of 26.0 points, 4.6 boards, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks and 3.0 treys on a 45/37/92 shooting line. Dame has been a top-six player after the break for three years running and he hates to rest. Sure, there are others that may offer a little more ceiling than Dame, but you know what you’re getting. Plus, he played four years in college, so at 29 he doesn’t have as much mileage on him compared to the guys who were one and done.
5. Anthony Davis (26) - If you drafted AD, you probably didn’t win your league. He was the No. 1 player per game before the Pelicans cut his minutes back, but it’s been an utter disaster since the All-Star Game. Obviously, if AD lands in an optimal spot, that moves him into the discussion for the top pick. Even if AD does land on a squad with several stars, it’s not like he’ll need a high usage rate to produce potential No. 1 value. He’ll be moving up into the top three as soon as he’s traded, but the Klutch factor does knock him down. He is in a contract year after all, so you would think he’ll be getting plenty of rest. Owning Kawhi Leonard in a contract year was not fun.
6. Paul George (29) - What a season for PG, posting career-high stats of 28.0 points, 8.2 boards, 2.2 steals, 3.8 treys and 5.9 free throw makes. Signing with the Thunder long term shows his commitment to the team, and OKC hasn’t rested players like other teams. George has cooled off considerably since the break with a 5.2 FG% dip compared to before the break, but that could be due to his shoulders. Excluding his horrific leg fracture injury, PG hasn’t missed more than seven games in a season since the lockout year in 2011-12. He was an easy pick at the turn in the 11-15 range in October, but you’ll have to drop a top six on him this coming fall. He should be worth it.
7. Stephen Curry (31) - He’s one of two guys on this list who almost break my rule of thumb of avoiding guys over the age of 32 for early-round picks, but Curry is the guard version of Anthony Davis for upside. Plus, the potential departure of Kevin Durant could lead to a higher ceiling. Curry has also been a top-three player per game in each of the last five seasons, including a No. 1 rank the season before KD showed up. Curry has scored 34.6 points per 36 without KD on the floor with an absurd 7.0 treys (!). The perpetual ankle concerns keep him out of the top five, and maybe the Warriors have to fight for the No. 1 seed. If KD is gone, Curry could move up a couple spots, too.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo (24) - The Bucks are good and locking down Eric Bledsoe shows this team should run the Eastern Conference next year, especially if Kawhi Leonard heads to the Western Conference. Sure, maybe the Celtics add AD, but as of right now the Bucks look like they’ll have a huge lead late in the 2019-20 season. Coach Mike Budenholzer has shown he’s not afraid to rest guys and he’s been known for it since his Atlanta days. Plus, Bud will have a little longer leash with the front office and may be more likely to rest guys than this year. Giannis has had a handful of knee issues in the last two seasons, so he may be more likely to rest next year, as well.
9. Kevin Durant (31) - The second guy on this list who is pushing 32, but c’mon. KD has been made for fantasy for a decade. He has been a top-eight player per game in every season since 2008-09, and he’s been very durable with the exception of his Jones fracture problems in 2014-15. If KD bolts to the Knicks or somewhere else besides the Bay Area, he will likely offer a huge ceiling with his 36.0 usage rate without Steph this season, scoring 33.0 points with 7.5 boards, 6.6 dimes, 1.3 steals and 2.0 treys per 36. If not for some uncertainty and his semi-advanced age, KD would be a top-five pick.
10. Andre Drummond (26) - Sure, we all know about his FT% woes, but goodness Drummond has really blossomed into a fantasy stud. He’s also one of the most durable players in the NBA. If he doesn’t miss any of the final four games, Drummond’s game counts over the last six seasons: 81, 82, 81, 81, 78, 79. Not bad. Since returning from a concussion, Drummond averaged 19.1 points, 16.5 boards, 1.8 dimes, 1.9 steals and 1.7 blocks on 58.2 FG% and 66.7 FT%. Plus, if you’re picking late in a 12-team draft, there’s a good chance you can punt FT% with either Clint Capela or Rudy Gobert on the way back.
We'll be doing plenty more this offseason with columns and pods. It should be a fun offseason!