So here we are ... the All-Star break. The football season is long gone, and we are still more than a month away from meaningful baseball games, so that means it is time to really buckle down and take over your fantasy hoops league. Allow me to shed light on 26 topics -- one for every letter in the alphabet -- that will make you a better owner as we prepare for the stretch run.
A ... is for Andrew Wiggins
With consecutive 40-point games heading into the break and the blatant disrespect of Nikola Jokic he displayed by putting him on a poster last Wednesday night, Wiggins' value (and buzz) is reaching new heights. Is he worth it? His athleticism is unreal, and he's a very capable scorer, but his fantasy value is limited. For a second consecutive season, the usage stats indicate that Wiggins is settling more (19.1 percent of his shots come from at least 24 feet out, 6.3 percentage points above his career average) and driving less (37.9 percent of his shots have come inside of eight feet, 7.7 percentage points below his career average), a concern for a player who relies heavily on his ability to score. Despite averaging 37.2 minutes this season, he is averaging fewer than seven assists-plus-rebounds per game for a third consecutive season. For reference, his 6.6 assists-plus-rebounds rank behind Evan Fournier's 6.7 ... and Fournier is not only less gifted, he is averaging 4.1 fewer minutes.
B ... is for Brooklyn Nets
Nobody blends pace of play (top ranked) with defensive inefficiency (third-least efficient) quite like the Nets, and they should continue to be treated as The Giving Tree of the fantasy hoops world. Coming out of the break, they go on a two-week, eight-game road trip that essentially takes us to the fantasy postseason, so don't be afraid to stream their opponents if you are trying to claim a playoff spot. For what it's worth, no team sees the Nets more the rest of the season than the Atlanta Hawks, making the fact that Tim Hardaway Jr. (42.1 percent owned) and Mike Muscala (1.2 percent) are widely available interesting.
C ... is for Carmelo Anthony
Name value. That is Anthony's most valuable asset these days. Yes, he can still get buckets (23.4 points per game, a top-20 rate), but there are concerns with consistency and aggression. For the first time in his career, Melo is averaging more 3-point attempts than free throws, and that gives him a lower floor on a night-to-night basis than we are accustomed to seeing. Only 18.6 percent of his shots are coming inside of 8 feet this season, the lowest rate of his career by 5.6 percentage points, and by averaging fewer than one offensive rebound per game for the first time in his career, it is clear that Anthony is migrating to the perimeter with the intensity that older generations pursue warm weather. Toss in the trade talks surrounding the Knicks star and there is significant risk here.
D ... is for Dwight Howard
Underrated? It's possible, as Howard's success in Orlando seems to have rendered any lesser stat line as a disappointment. Howard's efficiency from the field is difficult to deny (his field goal percentage is on pace to increase for a fifth consecutive season), and he is one of just three players (joining Andre Drummond and Rudy Gobert) who rank in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. Is the scoring down a bit? Sure, but considering that a decent percent of that is due to fewer free throw attempts, the argument could be made that the lesser impact of his FT percentage helps balance that out for fantasy owners.
E ... is for Efficiency
Need a statistic to quantify the shooting spike that seems to be sweeping the NBA? Consider this: A 25-year-old Ray Allen and his Milwaukee Bucks led the NBA in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) during the 2000-2001 season with a mark of 49.9 percent. This season, the Lakers, 76ers and Pistons are tied for 22nd in eFG% with a 49.9 percent rate. Who is leading this charge? Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are all in the top 10 of PER for a seventh consecutive season.
F ... is for Foul Shooting
It is possible that you drafted LeBron James/Hassan Whiteside with your first two picks or, for one reason or another, your team routinely gets beaten in FT%. You could try to fix that problem, but odds are good that your poor FT% is the result of a player who dominates in other categories, thus making a trade almost impossible to sort out. The goal in fantasy isn't to win every category; it's to win the most. If you're considering punting FT% for the remainder of the season in an effort to put yourself in the best spot to win each individual week, Mason Plumlee should be on your trade radar. According to our Player Rater, if you subtract the impact of FT% (which, if you're punting the category, you are essentially doing), Plumlee actually holds more value than Kyrie Irving.
G ... is for Giannis Antetokounmpo (or Greek Freak)
The Greek Freak has been amazing. It's that simple. He is taking 26.8 percent more shots this season than last, is converting at a career-best 52.4 percent, has seen his assist count increase by more than 27 percent for a third consecutive season, and is the only NBA player averaging at least 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks. Having said all of that -- he can actually get better. Significantly better. Slightly more than 38 percent of Antetokounmpo's shots come from 8 or more feet away from the bucket, and he is making just 33.8 percent of those shots. LeBron has never been known as a marksman, but if Antetokounmpo can convert at James' current rate, he would add 0.5 points to his average of 23.4 PPG (not to mention a spike in shooting percentages). If he improves to the rate of Blake Griffin, add 1.2 points to his 2016 average. Logic would say that his usage would be likely to increase should his efficiency spike to these levels, which is another way for his point total to increase in a hurry. Look out.
H ... is for Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside's involvement in Miami's offense cannot be overstated (he trails only Goran Dragic in points per game and leads the squad in PER), and while that helps fantasy owners, it has come at the expense of his blocked shots. While that may seem like a decent trade-off, it is likely killing his fantasy owners who spent a second-round pick on him and avoided drafting shot-blockers until the later rounds. Based on our Player Rater, the value of Whiteside's blocked shots is down 44.6 percent from last season. For reference, if Stephen Curry saw his Player Rater PPG total decline by 44.6 percent from last season, he would drop from the league's most impactful scorer to 25th. Whiteside's importance on the offensive end has forced the Heat to protect the rim in a variety of ways in an effort to keep him on the court, and that doesn't seem likely to change.
I ... is for Injuries
Injuries are the worst ... or are they? Desperation will soon be setting in for owners looking to make a playoff push, thus making them less patient with injured players. Time for you to pounce! Khris Middleton looked like himself in the Bucks' final game before the All-Star break -- 20 points (7-13 FG), 7 assists and 3 steals -- but he is still available in 47.3 percent of leagues because his minutes aren't near his 2015-16 rate yet. Ben Simmons is a versatile option who seems likely to debut in the next month, while Enes Kanter and CP3 both play for teams looking to improve their playoff standings and are targeting late March to return to action. If you're in a good spot in your standings, Kanter (career-high FG%) and Paul (making a career-high 1.9 3-pointers per game and averaging his most rebounds since 2008) make for interesting candidates in a buy-low trade situation.
J ... is for Joker
Jokic (ADP: 49th overall) is turning into the poster boy for what a center needs to look like in today's NBA, and his fantasy owners are reaping the benefits of him being ahead of the curve. He is effective in close (shooting 64.9 percent from inside of 8 feet), has the ability to stretch the floor (averaging more than one 3-pointer per game since we flipped the calendar to 2017), is a strong rebounder (a greater rebound rate than DeMarcus Cousins), and possess rare vision for a player his size (his 7.8 assists per 48 minutes are on par with Damian Lillard). There are no shortage of big men who can stretch the floor, but how many can get good looks for others? If a player is going to spend time and actually be dangerous on the perimeter, the ability to distribute is the next step as big men evolve, and Jokic is well on his way to developing this skill set as the new normal.
K ... is for elite player names starting with 'K'
Studies have indicated that less than seven percent of people have a first name that starts with the letter K. That doesn't mean much, but how about the fact that seven of the top 29 players (according to both total and average Player Rater value) have a K starting their first name? That's 24.1 percent! I thank Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson for putting K on the fantasy radar (and Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love for their continued effort to break into this club). I can't confirm that a K first name is correlated to success, but those guys are pretty good -- and this article has been brought to you by an author with 100 percent of his first name starting with a K.
L ... is for Long-Term Schedule
While qualifying for the postseason is your first goal, simply making the playoffs does not earn you glory. As you look for players who gain value during your postseason, I'd give the Denver Nuggets a long look. Not only do they rank comfortably inside the top 10 in both pace and offensive efficiency, they have six games against the fantasy-friendly Rockets or Pelicans during ESPN's postseason (March 13-April 12). Versatile guards like Emmanuel Mudiay (28 percent owned), Gary Harris (32 percent owned) and Will Barton (49.6 percent owned) should be watched closely as your fantasy regular season winds down and you prepare to chase a league title. Bonus tidbit: The Nuggets play 16 games during the fantasy postseason, including 11 before the first back-to-back situation.
M ... is for 'My Guys'
N ... if for 'Not My Guys'
I just gave you three players who are trending in the right direction and/or project as a stable options you can feel confident in with your season on the line. Harrison Barnes (the scoring is as stable as the underwhelming rebound and assist totals, not to mention the Mavericks operate at the second-slowest pace), Klay Thompson (65 percent of his value this season has come from 3s and scoring, which is great if that's what you need, but he leaves a lot to be desired for those looking for all-around production), and Dwyane Wade (35-year-olds in a seemingly toxic situation with nagging injuries who are on pace to set a career-low in FG% for a second consecutive season simply don't appeal to me) do not fit that mold. That's not to say you should cut these players, but based on name recognition and visibility, there is a good chance that their perceived value outweighs what you are actually getting from them.
O ... is for Otto Porter Jr.
You would have won a lot of money had you bet on Porter owning the highest eFG% among non-centers at the All-Star break, but here we are. With each passing game, it is getting more and more difficult to deny that the Wizards have a "Big 3" on their perimeter, and the metrics suggest that this breakout isn't a fluke. Yes, the accuracy from deep is going to be tough to sustain (though his 3FG% has increased in each of his professional seasons), but considering that Porter is converting more than 61 percent of his shots from inside of 16 feet, he is not a one-trick pony when it comes to scoring the basketball. His defensive numbers aren't overwhelming, but they have been consistent (at least 0.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game for each qualified month this season), and that's a major plus for fantasy owners. Durant is enjoying the most efficient season of his career, and Porter is keeping pace with him in both eFG% and TS% while gaining confidence as time passes (his 3FGA average has increased each month this season).
P ... is for 'Punt Plays'
As mentioned in "Foul Shooting," it can be a viable fantasy strategy to overlook a major wart of a player if your team is already deficient (or dominant) in that statistical category. Consider this: Draymond Green is the top-ranked player if you evaluate value in terms of only rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. You read that right. No. 1. The scoring categories are the easiest to fill, something that makes Green's skill set invaluable. But he isn't the only example of a player who can be more helpful in exactly the right spot. On a per-game basis, Griffin has been more useful this season than Paul George if you ignore 3PPG. Or if you choose to overlook FG% and blocks, then Louis Williams is in the same zip code as LeBron on our Player Rater.
Q ... is for Quality Minutes
Joel Embiid is the obvious example of making the most of limited minutes, as he ranks safely inside our top 20 per game, but there are a few players who are producing better per-minute numbers than you realize. For example, Williams ranks sixth in points per minute this season (ahead of Anthony Davis and every member of the Golden State Warriors). Or go to San Antonio, where Dewayne Dedmon ranks seventh in rebounds per minute and has actually seen his rebounding rate increase (19.7 per 48 minutes in February) as his role has expanded following Pau Gasol's injury. What if I asked you to name the two players with an assist-to-turnover rate of at least 3.00 who are handing out at least 10 dimes per 48 minutes? It probably takes you a while to answer "Ricky Rubio and TJ McConnell." Per-minute production is not a category in most fantasy games, but it does give you an idea of just how effective a player is and his upside, should a larger role present itself (which often happens as the season winds down with injuries, playoff seeding locked or the desire to evaluate youth).
R ... is for Rebounding Guards
Westbrook (12th in the NBA in rebounds per game) and James Harden (on pace to set a career-high in rebounds for a third consecutive season) stand out as great examples, but they aren't alone. You have CP3 averaging 5.3 RPG (the second most of his career and most since the 2008-09 season) and DeMar DeRozan (career highs in both offensive and total rebounds). And while Porter Jr. is busy leading the league in 3FG% (46.5 percent), he is also pulling down 6.7 rebounds per game, his third consecutive season with at least a 28 percent spike in his rebounding average. The times ... they are a-changing. It is getting harder and harder to win a fantasy title with backcourt players who simply fill the traditional "guard" stats and don't help out across the board.
S ... is for Shooting Bigs
As much as we have the "little" guys mixing it up and snatching rebounds, there are seemingly even more big men distancing themselves from the painted area. Leonard was truly an elite long-range shooter last season for the first time, so one would assume that his confidence from deep would spill over into this year, right? That might be the case, which makes it even crazier to think that Cousins has attempted more 3-pointers than Leonard this season. Aaron Gordon challenged the laws of gravity last All-Star break, yet his average shot distance is up 30.8 percent this season from last. Brook Lopez? His paint allergy has carried over to the offensive end as he is 90-for-262 from distance through 51 games this season after going 4-for-32 during the first 500 games of his career. Getting 3-point production from a frontcourt player is no longer special, as much as it is expected.
T ... is for Triple-Doubles
You may have heard, Westbrook is making a run at averaging a triple-double this season. He has been great and should continue his pursuit of history for the remainder of the season, but there is no actionable here, as the Westbrook owner isn't moving him. The same can probably be said regarding five of the other six players with multiple triple-doubles this season (Harden, James, Green, Antetokounmpo and Cousins) ... but what about Julius Randle? The 22-year-old power forward notched at least five dimes in 54.5 percent of January games in which he played at least 25 minutes, a significant bump from his 29.6 percent rate up to that point this season. His February started slowly due to an illness, but his assist average has doubled from last season, and that's not a fluke, given the Lakers' tendency to play high-scoring games (seventh in pace and 29th in defensive efficiency).
U ... is for Unicorn
The Big Apple has not been short of attention lately, but fantasy owners can ignore the nonsense surrounding this organization and appreciate what we have seen from Porzingis. The Knicks' Unicorn has a very real opportunity to average 2.0 blocked shots and 2.0 3PPG, a skill set that we are not accustomed to. Over the past decade, Rasheed Wallace (2007-08) was the only player to average even 1.5 of both statistics in the same season. Heck, the six players who averaged at least 2.0 blocked shots per game in 2010 did not make a single 3-pointer ... combined! You can nitpick all you want (just 32.4 percent of his shots coming within 8 feet of the rim is an issue for a player who stands 7-foot-3), but Porzingis doesn't turn 22 until August and should see his usage increase as the Melo era in New York nears an end. Buckle up folks, Porzingis is here to stay as an elite and versatile fantasy option who champions can be built around.
V ... is for Volume
I've often heard that "sometimes it is better to be lucky than good." Yeah, whatever. As a child, I was raised to believe that "luck has nothing to do with it," and as a professional number-cruncher, the notion of "luck" is one that bothers me. So, I'm changing this cliché for fantasy sports: "Sometimes it is better to be used than good". Case in point this season: Tyreke Evans. Before this week's trade to the Kings, there were very few analytics indicating that he was anything close to ownable (101st in PER and 301st in TS%), but he does rank 27th in usage rate this season (ahead of Durant, George and Towns, to name a few) and that has given 31.8 percent of you hope in Evans when healthy. Is he good? Maybe not, but we can expect his statistical volume to increase dramatically now that he is with the Kings, which gives us even more hope going forward.
W ... is for Well-Rounded
Whether you play Roto or head-to-head, a well-rounded skill set is a bit underrated. Sure, everyone loves a player who can light up the scoreboard or challenge rebound records, but the guys who help across the board are often the foundation of championship-level teams. You're probably aware that players like Antetokounmpo and Towns are without a negative-impacting statistic, according to our Player Rater, but did you know that Tobias Harris and Porter Jr. also fit that bill? I'd take a look at testing the trade waters, as those two don't come with the fanfare of a player without a true fantasy flaw. With all of the well-rounded players these days, it may be easy to overlook the fact that they have played 746 fewer NBA games (and 18,451 fewer minutes) than J.J. Redick, and yet you have the same number of double-doubles. I don't mean to take a shot at the former Dukie ... but wow.
X ... is for Xenial
Yep, you get to increase your vocabulary by one word in addition to expanding your fantasy hoops knowledge. You're welcome. Xenial is defined as "hospitable, having friendly relationship between host and guest." NBA arenas outside of Memphis have been very xenial to Marc Gasol this season, and I'm guessing that you haven't taken notice. How does a center flirting with the coveted 50/40/90 percentage slash line sound? How about a player who averages more points on the road than Thompson and more assists than Walker? The four-person list of players averaging at least 20 points, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks on the road this season: Antetokounmpo, Durant, Cousins ... and Gasol.
Y ... is for Young, Thaddeus
With Thaddeus Young in the league for nearly a decade and being a similar statistical asset since Day 1, it is easy to understand why the casual fantasy owner doesn't view Young as exciting or fun to own. You know what? Players who help win fantasy titles are fun to own, and Young is that type of player. Young isn't far from averaging more than 1.5 steals, at least 1.5 offensive rebounds and 1.0 3-pointers per game this season. Who is doing that this season? Just Jimmy Butler and Westbrook. In fact, this would be Young's second such season since 2013. Now, are those arbitrary thresholds? Sure, but any stat that puts Young in the fantasy class with those superstars deserves attention, especially for a player who is available in 25.6 percent of ESPN leagues and is underrated in a much higher percentage of leagues. Young's free throw percentage is the lone wart on his fantasy résumé, but considering that he is attempting a career-low 1.3 freebies per game, the impact of his lone weakness hurts you much less than his many strengths help you.
Z ... is for Z-Bo
Listen, I get it. Zach Randolph doesn't start any more, is 35 years old and is shooting as poorly from the field as he has over the past decade. Not ideal, I know. That said, he is the 10th-best rebounder on a per-minute basis among those logging at least 23 minutes a night and is averaging nine percent more points per minute than his career average entering this season. He may no longer be "first name: 20; last name: 10" -- but considering that his per-minute numbers are strong in the expected areas and that he has made more 3s this season than he had in the previous three seasons combined, Z-Bo is still a viable fantasy asset and is flying a bit under the radar.
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