One of my least favorite fantasy clichés is that "drafts are won in the later rounds."
While it can be true, the vast majority of hoops drafts are won and lost in the first four rounds. The earlier the pick, the greater the weight that rests upon every draft slot.
If you overvalue a first-rounder by four to five slots? Your team's fortunes could be sunk. If you snare early second-round value on a late fourth-rounder? You may have just won your league.
Those are the cautionary tales that stick. But the actuality is that your draft will hinge on nailing your first four rounds. Finding value where others don't see it. Avoiding pre-draft groupthink and reaching for a player.
Your goal: to maximize the available value on the board with every early pick with ruthless efficiency.
Last season, I did a deep dive on draft-pick valuation in fantasy hoops. The NFL has its own points system (popularized by Jimmy Johnson) that assigns a relative point value to each pick (3,000 for No. 1, 2,600 for No 2, etc.) So why couldn't we do the same for fantasy basketball? By using the Player Rater, I was able to come up with a points system that roughly mirrored how NFL front offices weighs the value of draft position.
My chart ended up bearing a striking resemblance to the NFL value calculator. The value in a fantasy draft is as top heavy as the NFL draft. The drop-off in value between a first overall pick and the fifth overall pick was similar to the drop-off between a mid-first round pick and a fourth round pick.
Conclusion: in fantasy basketball, valuation of draft position is exponential. It's measured in degrees. Top-heavy extremes.
If you end up with fifth-overall value on a first-overall pick? That's a screw-up it may be hard to bounce back from. I'd rather get 10th-round value back on a fifth-round pick. In terms of draft valuation? It's less of a statistical hit. That you can recover from.
Conversely, if you end up with top-10 overall value on a second-rounder? You're playing with house money.
Taking all that into consideration ... I just examined the first edition of ESPN's Live Draft Results.
Early ADPs are important because they set the market. Groupthink is synthesized. Draft trends are defined. Managers drafting closer to Halloween will be impacted early ADPs more than they realize.
And upon further examination of the Live Draft Results ... you're making some mistakes. Mistakes to be avoided ... and mistakes for others to capitalize upon.
Let's take a quick trip through some early draft targets that are getting overrated, and five players that are getting less love than they numerically deserve.
It's easy to see why James is going this high. He had his finest fantasy season in 2017-18. He's going to one of the Association's buzziest teams. Wrap James' Cavalier-based volume and deepening efficiency with Lakers Exceptionalism, and you're sure to net a little overvaluation.
In terms of volume and efficiency, last season's edition of James delivered maximum value. It was a perfect fantasy storm: he led the league in minutes and points while posting a 28.65 PER.
James' 2018-19 fantasy campaign won't be defined by minutes played, or true shooting percentage. It will be defined by expectations.
Winning the East last season required James to play all 82 games. The 2018-19 Lakers will be a playoff team, but expectations end there. This has the feel of a developmental campaign, where James will assess who stays, who goes, and who to go after next summer. In persevering James for the playoffs, his workload will be managed with more care. The pressure won't be there for James to play every minute of every game.
James is going from a title contender to a team in the later stages of a rebuild, but James is also going to a deeper team with scores of young upside, upside that will need minutes and touches to develop.
Put it down here that James will play somewhere closer to 75 games. That's nearly a 10 percent drop in aggregate value right there. Put it down that he'll play 2-3 fewer minutes per game. That's another 2 to 3 percent drop.
The offense will still flow through James, but he'll be playing alongside a budding facilitator in Lonzo Ball and a former All-Star in Rajon Rondo. He's got a rising elite star to nurture in Brandon Ingram. Young upside in Kyle Kuzma.
Efficiency-wise, James's metrics should hover close to last year's heady altitude: 28.65 PER, 62.1 TS%, and a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio. But he won't -- shouldn't -- come close to last year's league-leading minutes mark. Even if James's usage rate stays north of 30.0, his end-of-season totals have nowhere to go but down.
Last year's volume just won't be there, and James has hit his ceiling in terms of efficiency.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If LeBron is overrated by four slots, someone's going to get underrated. The ADP (9.1) and our own preseason rankings (No. 10 overall) are shortchanging Curry's production potential.
The reason for the slide? The top 10 is stacked, and Curry only played in 51 games last season.
But in terms of shooting efficiency, Curry was still the NBA's best: 67.5 TS%, 42.3 3PT%, and a 92.1 FT%. When he was on the court, Curry offered heavy volume: 26.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.1 RPG, 4.2 3PG, and 1.6 SPG. When Curry was on the court, he was a top-5 producer.
If you believe Curry plays 73-75 games this season? He's a top-5 pick. If you want a player that can lay the foundation for your imaginary squad's efficiency, Curry's a steal at nine.
Fast fact: 2017-18 was the first time Drummond finished with a free throw percentage higher than field goal percentage.
I'm happy for Drummond. Happy he had a bounceback year. Happy that he led the NBA in rebounding. Happy that he boosted his free throw percentage to a less unsightly 60.5 FT%. Happy he led the league in rebounding (16.0 RPG). Happy that he averaged a career high in steals+blocks per game (3.1).
But while I agree that Drummond is C5, there are three to four other mid-second-rounders I'd take before considering Drummond: John Wall, Jimmy Butler, Victor Oladipo, and Paul George (more on him in a minute).
It's easy to see managers are reaching for Drummond. Gonzo volume. Megaelite rebounding. Nightly 20-20 potential. Looking at the center position by fantasy tier, the value gap between him and C6/C7 (LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love) is over half a round.
But Drummond's free throw percentage is still subpar. You're going to have to build your draft around making up for his poor charity stripe performance. Plus, one of Drummond's best secondary stats -- assists -- takes a hit due to the presence of Blake Griffin.
Both Drummond and Griffin are good sources of big man dimes. But when it comes to dishing from the post, Griffin's going to take a bite out of Drummond's APG.
25.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.0 3PG, 1.8 SPG, with a 61.0 TS% and 29.6 USG. That's what Leonard posted the last time he was healthy and motivated. If you believe Leonard's entering 2018-19 healthy and motivated? Then he has top-5 upside.
There isn't another player in the draft that offers more possible return on a second-round investment. If he performs as he's capable of? You could, best-case scenario, get nearly a full extra round of value.
And we're not talking about getting fifth round value on a sixth rounder. We're talking mid-first round on a mid-second round pick.
Keep in mind that Leonard is in a contract year, and is playing to restore his reputation after a star-crossed 2017-18. The Raptors revamped their offense last season, and their fantasy-friendly flow will empower Leonard.
I'm not down on DeRozan. I loved what DeRozan accomplished last season. He ceded minutes and shot attempts due to Toronto's new commitment to ball movement, but gained assists, 3s, and true shooting percentage.
DeRozan is a safe, solid pick at a shallow fantasy position. But sometimes, when a player is a headline in a high-profile deal, his draft stock ends up getting overinflated. And DeRozan appears to be a victim/beneficiary of that phenomenon.
Also, don't forget what moving to San Antonio did to LaMarcus Aldridge. It took a full season for Aldridge's fantasy stock to recover from adapting to San Antonio's system.
DeRozan extended his shooting range last season, but still only logged a 31.0 3PT%. Long defined by his mid-range game (just like Aldridge), it may take time for him to adapt.
To his (fantasy-based) credit, Coach Gregg Popovich admitted he had mistakenly tried to "turn (Aldridge) into John Havlicek" and that he would largely leave DeRozan's game alone.
You won't go wrong picking DeRozan. But at No. 18, there will be other players on the board that can offer a greater, more dynamic return on your draft investment.
(Like this next guy, for instance...)
UNDERRATED: Paul George, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder Current ADP: 25.3 Estimated Actual Value: 16.0-19.0
George's current shortfall in ADP is a head scratcher. Carmelo Anthony is gone. George just had two surgeries (elbow, knee) to correct what turned out to be a season-long issues for him in 2017-18. If anything, George is in position to improve on last season's numbers: 21.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.1 3PG, 3.3 APG, and 2.0 SPG.
He delivers elite production in two categories: 3s and steals. He's embraced playing with Russell Westbrook, and just signed a huge extension. George is a surefire mid-to-late second-rounder.
Tatum checked a lot of boxes during his rookie campaign. He filled in admirably for Gordon Hayward. Gained steam as the year progressed. Peaked in the playoffs. For all intents and purposes, Tatum should be a year two breakout candidate.
But for all the exact same reasons...you're reaching for Tatum in drafts.
Gordon Hayward is back. Kyrie Irving is back. The last time anyone saw Tatum play, he was delivering a boffo playoff performance (which invariably leads to players being overrated come next draft season.)
Boston could be the deepest team in the NBA this season. For all of his rookie accomplishments, Tatum could start the season coming off the bench.
Put it all together, and Tatum will be fortunate to duplicate the volume that drove rookie success. No. 37 is reaching by a half-round.
After Leonard, Booker offers the most early-round upside. If everything breaks right for Booker, he could notch top-20 value ... but his services can be enlisted in the mid-fourth round.
Like with Leonard and Curry, injury concerns are driving Booker's draft stock down to ludicrous lows.
DeAndre Ayton is looking like the real thing, which should open things up for Booker. Which will fuel Booker, since most of his room for improvement lies in his midrange game. He shot a subpar 35.1% from 3-to-10 feet in 2017-18. His shooting in that area was the main culprit behind his mediocre 43.2 FG%.
Booker is only 21. He has several leaps left to take in his development. If you're looking for maximum upside on an early round pick? Booker's your guy.
How much are you willing to pay for an elite rebounder whose blocks totals have been in steep, scary decline since 2013-14? While his field goal percentage (64.5%) remains a plus, Jordan only attempted 7.5 FGA per game last season, and that was a career high.
A change in address isn't going to suddenly boost Jordan's blocks per game average back towards 2.0 a night. If Jordan's blocks rate hovers closer to 1.0, he loses half his fantasy appeal. And while his free throw percentage improved to a 58.0 FT% last season, Jordan's still one of the league's worst free throw shooters.
Middleton is a victim of the hype surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Fantasy observers barely noticed the fact that Middleton's game took an exponential leap in 2017-18. Middleton established new career highs across the board with 20.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.8 3PT and 1.5 SPG. He shot 88.4% at the line, and backed it up with 4.4 FTA per game.
Still only 25, Middleton is actually in line for a bounceback in one key area: 3-point shooting. Middleton's 3PT% dipped to a replacement-level 35.9% last season, well below the 43.3 3PT% he posted in 2016-17.
If his 3-point efficiency returns to previous levels, Middleton cracks the top 30.