One of the chief positives in having children is the ability to force them into follow your mediocre sports teams. I'm a native Washingtonian living in Los Angeles. I've marked 20 years within a lonely, barren outpost of sports fandom. Now? Thanks to genetics, osmosis, and the power of the purse... I finally have someone within my immediate vicinity to share the highs and omnipresent lows. The result is that in the middle of a superstar-infused L.A. basketball renaissance, my 11-year-old son is currently more interested in the rookie progress of Rui Hachimura than any of the more geographically-friendly options.
I've also instilled two major Washington Wizards-based life lessons in him. First, just be glad you weren't alive in the 80s. Second, learn to appreciate the hidden victories. At present? My team or rather, our team, is 4-8. Yet, we are unabashed. We are uncommonly pumped. It's because these scrappy also-rans are playing my favorite brand of NBA basketball.
They are practicing a version "The Process" -- and our fantasy teams are the better for it.
The two major NBA statistical movements of the last decade within fantasy are "Warriors-fication" and "The Process." The latter, as mapped out by then-Philadelphia's Sam Hinkie, engages a bottoming-out mechanism. You lose. You lose badly. You accrue draft capital. Then, after perhaps many dismal seasons, you spend that capital on breakthrough talent.
One the other keys to maximizing the bottoming-out phase is statistical overinflation. You give younger, unproven players big minutes. You turn up the pace. You turn down the defense. You watch said players' offensive volume-based stats bubble to a boil. Pace means more possessions, more volume, and more points. It means more rebounds, more 3s, more steals, blocks and turnovers. On paper, it makes individual players more valuable, even in the face of 60-70 loss campaigns.
Through "The Process," management is developing building blocks for the future. Some will be kept, some will be traded for more draft picks, and some will ultimately be bundled in deals for proven stars. We want to mine these names for fantasy. These names play for losing (low-buzz) teams. We are presented with production that flies under the radar. Think of 2014's Michael Carter-Williams (15.0 PTS, 7.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 6.2 REB) or 2015's Ish Smith (14.7 PTS, 7.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 3PT). These are the players that are easier to acquire.
For fantasy purposes, here's the equation in colloquial terms:
Low buzz teams + Youthful upside + Big minutes + Gobs of extra possessions = Undervalued sources of fantasy goodness.
Here are some teams currently dabbling in this practice, and some players who fit this equation to a tee.
Washington Wizards (4-8)
Pace: 104.4 (6th in NBA), PPG: 119.7 (1st), Offensive Efficiency: 114.6 (2nd)
To be fair, there are two major differences between these Wizards and the peak-Process Sixers. One, they have a proven superstar in Bradley Beal. Two, they are killing it in both offensive efficiency and volume. Last night's 138-134 win against the Spurs was an example of all the fantasy potential the Wizards have to offer. Beal led the way (33 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 3-pointers). Thomas Bryant was efficient in limited minutes (11 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 3-pointer). Rui Hachimura showed some growth (15 points, 7 rebounds).
Beyond that, you had multiple rotation players posting fantasy-worthy nights. Davis Bertans (21 points, 4 3-pointers, 5 rebounds), Moritz Wagner (13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 3 assists), Isaiah Thomas (11 points, 6 assists, 3 3-pointers) and Ish Smith (21 points, 4 assists, 3 3-pointers). That's a total of seven players generating medium-league value.
The problem here is consistency. Are players going to get a steady diet of minutes? Can they become reliable night-in, night-out producers for roto managers or are they short-term lottery tickets -- plug-and-play guys you can get off the wire (or leverage for DFS) for one-night stands?
We're 12-15 games into season. We can begin to establish which teams are Processing their production. We need to monitor which names are beginning to stick within their rotation. When players on said teams average at least 25 MPG, they become roster-worthy. Now, Beal and Bryant are already heavily rostered. The five names we need to watch are Wagner, Hachimura, Bertans, Thomas and Smith. Sure, there are multiple timeshares to sort out, but anyone netting 25-plus minutes in this offense is going to be worth an add.
New Orleans Pelicans (5-9)
Pace: 105.2 (3rd), PPG: 115.6 (5th), Offensive Efficiency: 109.1 (11th)
The team-wide production here can't be locked in until Zion Williamson returns. Still, the high-pace Pelicans are overflowing with young upside. They're the "anti-Spurs" in that they've got names carrying all kinds of buzz. At the top of the funnel, Jrue Holiday is logging heavy minutes while trying to fight his way out of a shooting slump (46.0 eFG%). It's a little ugly at present, but Holiday's past elite production tabs him as a great buy-low opportunity.
Brandon Ingram is the big headline, as he's amid the best run of his young career. He's finally realizing some of that mini-Durant potential I wrote about in 2016. However, Ingram has to remain ambulatory and establish more shooting consistency. The heavy usage he's hogging (29.5%) will take a hit when Zion returns. So, above all, Ingram has to stay on the court. I fear he's headed for a season of heavy, terrifying load management.
Two other buy-low names in New Orleans are Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. Both players have established solid medium-league value. Both players are still miles below their ceiling. Derrick Favors and JJ Redick are two grey-beards to track. They're decidedly unsexy veterans, but could spike some fantasy relevance with just a 10% increase in minutes.
San Antonio Spurs (5-9)
Pace: 102.0 (14th), PPG: 113.5 (8th), Offensive Efficiency: 111.4 (4th)
The Spurs are in a miniaturized freefall as the losers of five straight games. Trade rumors are swirling around one of their two bankable fantasy producers (DeMar DeRozan). However, beneath the present calumnies, Gregg Popovich's system breathes. Despite all the issues, his Spurs are still an efficient offensive operation. I watched last night's game with an eye on the box score. Yes, the Wizards are defenseless. Still, somehow these mostly no-name Spurs managed to score 134 points. That production still counts, regardless of the players involved.
The problem for fantasy is minutes and roles. Never the friendliest of fantasy coaches, Popovich is plugging and playing combinations of players with the attention span of my aforementioned 11-year-old. Dejounte Murray is the obvious upside play. He opened the season with two throw-down performances (a combined 37 points, 10 assists, 18 rebounds) in limited minutes. Fantasy managers rushed to add him with the reckless abandon of a Walmart customer on Black Friday headed towards a doorbuster deal. Unfortunately, Murray has only broken the 25 MPG barrier once. He's being rested here and there. Last night, he came off the bench and struggled in the first half before coming on strong in the second half. If any Spur is going to rise up and stick for the season, Murray's your best bet.
Former fantasy stalwart Rudy Gay could still have some life. Once upon a time, Gay was a nifty source of across-the-board production. He can still produce in fits and starts. He's gone for double-digits in five of his last six games. There have been some flashes of 1+1+1 in his recent box scores. Alternatively, if you need to stream some cheap points and 3s, Bryn Forbes is a reliable add. I took Derrick White as a late round flier in a couple of leagues. He was my first drop. That said, there is some fantasy potential here. Last season, he showed just enough of a mix of assists, rebounds, steals and blocks to get me interested. Jakob Poeltl started last night. There is some deep-league blocks potential there.
Memphis Grizzlies (5-9)
Pace: 104.3 (7th), PPG: 109.0 (17th), Offensive Efficiency: 103.7 (30th)
At present, the Grizzlies are playing fast. They're not doing much else of note. Even so, the juxtaposition with the Memphis teams of the past and their plodding style, coupled with the presence of intriguing young upside makes them a worthy fantasy story. This is a team-wide buy low situation.
I wrote about Ja Morant last week. He's already logging heavy usage (31.5%) in just 27.7 MPG. The fits and starts and random rest is aggravating, but if you take a step back, you'll realize that Morant is a comer. His Tuesday box score (20 points, 6 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 3-pointer) is about to arrive with more frequency.
Jaren Jackson Jr. ranks as my biggest disappointment of the young season. I was sky-high on him as late-round upside pick. He's been ravaged by early foul trouble. Tuesday's 18-minute nadir against the Warriors almost forced me to switch to a different sport. I know it's hard to keep your finger off the trade button, but there is just so much multi-categorical potential here. Try to soothe yourself with box scores containing the 22 points and 5 3-pointers he recently posted against the Nuggets. Jackson's foul problems are fueling a looming frontcourt timeshare.
Brandon Clarke has been picking up Jackson's slack with genuine authority. He's almost duplicating Jackson's box scores with a heady mix of 3's, blocks and steals (as well as a lack of rebounds). It's hard to see Clarke getting the upper hand on Jackson in terms of minutes, but he's playing well -- so well, in fact, that the Memphis frontcourt has devolved into a shapeless morass of fantasy guacamole.
Elsewhere not he team, Jonas Valanciunas is turning back the clock and giving us vintage Raptors-based Valanciunas. He's averaging 12.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and not much else. The issue is that fantasy managers want a flashback of last season's Grizzlies-based Valanciunas (15.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks). Jae Crowder is capable of putting it all together and producing without a ton of usage. He can help in every category. The history backs it up. As a Celtic, Crowder proved he could be a solid Player Rater citizen. However, in 2019-20, the shooting has been fitfully terrifying. The minutes are there as is the pace. Like the rest of the Grizzlies, some well-applied patience will eventually yield a better result.