By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
It’s a fitting week for us to embark on a tradition unlike any other. No, I’m not talking about The Masters — I’m talking about fantasy basketball’s way-too-early look at the top picks for the 2019-20 season.
The default settings are nine-categories here, though I’ll comment on players whose values would change noticeably in 8-cat leagues. Also, I recommend 8-cat leagues, but that’s neither here nor there.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
I couldn’t have hesitated less on this pick. Most years, there is very little debate as to who should be the No. 1 overall pick. The last two seasons, in which as many as seven candidates warranted legitimate consideration, were extremely unusual. LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the runaway top choices for nearly a decade, with a third player (Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis) occasionally entering that conversion for a couple years at a time.
Before that duopoly, Kevin Garnett had a lengthy run as the almost unchallenged king of the fantasy offseason, and that gets us back to the late-90s before many of us were even playing fantasy basketball. The point of all this? Contrary to the past two seasons, consensus at the top is the norm in fantasy basketball, and we shouldn’t overthink it.
After the All-Star break, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Antetokounmpo blew away the rest of the league in terms of fantasy production. Antetokounmpo is the youngest of the three. Embiid’s health has been about as fortunate as one could hope the past two seasons, but it is still a major cause for concern — hence the frequent in-season rests. Harden is a turnover machine who will turn 30 next season, and it would be foolish to assume he can repeat this season’s historic offensive numbers. Antetokounmpo is still just 24 years old, already an MVP candidate, has improved every year, and he has no concerning injury history.
Finally, Antetokounmpo makes sense at No. 1 from a strategic standpoint. After picking first, there’s an awfully long break before you pick again. Antetokounmpo maintains the most flexibility for your team, not locking you in to any one strategy. The biggest flaws in his fantasy profile are his threes and his free throws, but he’s not a killer in either category, and the NBA’s offensive shifts have led to more and more three-point specialists available in the later rounds. Pick Antetokounmpo first, then you can set a more specific team build around your back-to-back second and third picks later.
2. Kevin Durant, Free-Agent-To-Be
By putting Durant here, I’m assuming he leaves the Warriors this summer. If he stays, he’d drop down one spot. Heading into this season, I called Durant the greatest fantasy player of the millennium. He’s finished the season No. 1 in 9-cat in five of the last nine seasons, and he finished top-three in all but his injury-shortened 2014-15. His 8-cat resume is only slightly less incredible: “Just” three first-place finishes, and staying inside the top four in all but 2014-15.
By those lofty standards, he was a bit of a letdown, seeing drops in points, threes, rebounds and blocks this season, with the only meaningful improvement coming in assists. He fell to the bottom half of the top-10. But Durant is still an elite option, providing positive value in seven categories (narrowly missing in steals; all first-round options are bad in turnovers).
If he leaves the Warriors, his offensive workload would probably increase, boosting his points, threes and assists numbers. Durant is already 30 years old, which could be bad news for his defensive production, especially if his offensive load increases. However, he’s shown no signs of decline yet, and his offensive game should age gracefully.
Like Antetokounmpo, Durant is also a solid strategic pick. Not only does he have an unmatched track record of success, but his versatility provides incredible flexibility.
3. Steph Curry, Warriors
Again, this assumes Kevin Durant leaves in free agency this summer. If Durant stays, Curry would drop to fifth or sixth. The Warriors have been so dominant that Curry has been overlooked over the past few seasons. His ADP last season was all the way down at No. 8, despite finishing in the top four in both 9-cat and 8-cat in each of the previous six seasons. And, once again, he delivered a top-four performance.
While his shooting efficiency dropped slightly from his absurd 2015-16 unanimous MVP season, Curry actually came fairly close to repeating those numbers. The biggest difference was a smaller usage rate. With Durant gone in 2019-20, Curry will likely see even more points, threes and assists. Like the two names above, Curry offers a do-no-harm fantasy profile that can adapt to almost any roster build.
4. James Harden, Rockets
Harden is not in the top two here because of the potential impact of Durant’s offseason and the 9-cat default settings for this ranking. Regardless of Durant, Harden is my clear-cut No. 2 in 8-cat leagues, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for choosing him ahead of Antetokounmpo there. If Durant returns to the Warriors, then Harden jumps to second on this ranking, though he’d remain considerably behind Antetokounmpo. But assuming that Durant makes like a tree (and ... leaves), this is where I’d take Harden.
Harden is coming off an historic season — but the use of the word “historic” should serve as a clear signal that he’s not likely to repeat it. As mentioned above, he’s a turnover machine who will turn 30 in August. He’s been nearly indestructible through his 10-year career, but he’s absorbed a ton of contact along the way. At his current pace, he’s three seasons away from joining the top-10 all-time in free throws attempted, a list dominated by Hall-of-Fame bigs who were terrible from the line. We also cannot assume he’ll be able to maintain his health forever.
Harden will probably still be a fantastic pick next season, but age, regression, and the 9-category default all diminish his appeal.
5. Anthony Davis, Pelicans (for now)
Davis finished this season still inside fantasy’s top-three, despite averaging just 21.1 minutes per game after the All-Star break. That is incredible. Before The Saga, which tanked both the Pelicans and the Lakers, Davis was destroying the competition for this season’s No. 1 spot in 9-cat. Injuries remain a concern for the lanky seven-footer, but he’s worth the risk after the four names above are off the board.
His value will depend, in part, on where he ends up this summer, but it’s hard to think of a situation that would elevate Davis above this ranking or would drop him below eighth. Davis could lead the league in blocks and finish in the top five in points and rebounds. Barring disaster, he’s the best fantasy big man there is — though, granted, he does seem a little disaster prone.
Final caveat: Davis is still the best per-game fantasy big man, and that’s not debatable, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid have closed the gap significantly. If you’re afraid of “Davis to the locker room” tweet, or if you just don’t want to root for the guy, it’s OK to pass on him for Towns or Embiid.
Note to readers, the margins between Picks 6, 7, and 8 are razor-thin. I have them as functionally tied.
6. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
For the third straight season, Towns has finished between fifth and eighth in both 9-cat and 8-cat. The biggest difference this season was that Towns showed a much higher ceiling than ever before when he averaged 35.1 points, 14.1 rebounds, 3.3 threes and 59.7 percent field goal shooting for just over two weeks after the All-Star break. Over the past two seasons, you could make a sound argument for drafting Towns second overall — as long as Davis went first.
But with Davis’ ongoing injury issues and Towns flashing this elevated ceiling, there is finally a realistic argument for taking Towns first among the two former Kentucky Wildcat No. 1 draft picks. I’d still recommend Davis first, but the gap is closing. One slight negative: Towns’ averages barely changed after the Jimmy Butler trade. It would have been better to see them increase after his high-usage co-star left town.
7. Joel Embiid, 76ers
Like Towns, Embiid has made up a ton of ground in the “best fantasy big man” conversation. It’s a legitimate three-man race, and it’s a coin flip between Embiid and Towns for second place. After the All-Star break, Embiid was the No. 2 overall fantasy producer, with a production profile highlighted by 28.8 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. During that time, he averaged 1.5 threes, 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks. In fantasy we sometimes talk about the 1-1-1 club; only three players ever have joined the 1.4-1.4-1.4 club.
As for the injury risk, it’s a bit overstated. Most of Embiid’s missed games in 2017-18 were due to a freak facial injury, something with almost no risk of re-injury, and without that he would have probably played 70 games last season. Missing five of the last seven games of 2018-19 with a knee injury is more concerning, especially after missing eight games in March due to the same injury. That said, the five late-season absences came after the 76ers were effectively (though not mathematically) locked into the East’s three-seed, so some of those may have been precautionary.
8. Kawhi Leonard, Free-Agent-To-Be
If you’re not interested in drafting a traditional big in the first round, I could get behind pushing Leonard all the way up to fifth overall. Yes, there are some injury concerns here, too, but I don’t think he’s going to sit out one game of back-to-backs for the rest of his career. He’s another player with an established history of top-10 finishes, and he offers an incredibly balanced stat profile. His appeal might actually increase slightly if he leaves the Raptors, as their defensive schemes have Leonard blocking a career-low 0.4 shots per game — barely half his career average. Wherever he goes, he’s going to be an elite source of points and steals, and he has one of the lowest turnover rates of anyone who’ll get drafted in the first round.
9. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Jokic is a fun draft pick. When I have a late first and I see someone reaching for LeBron James (an unfortunately frequent occurrence — be better, fantasy community!), I get excited because it means I have a better chance of landing Jokic. His point guard-esque passing — 7.3 assists per game this season — gives a roster a ton of flexibility to wait on point guards. His low block rate is a double-sided blessing; it’s high enough that it doesn’t have to kill you, or it can give your roster a punt-block identity. Because of his assists, you can pass (get it?) on point guards to compensate for the missing blocks, or you can double-down, drafting extra point guards and making a finely-tuned punt build.
Entering his fifth season, Jokic is nearing superstar status. Though it’s unlikely, he could average a 20-point triple-double. His field goal efficiency has stayed high, even after he became a regular three-point shooter.
10. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
The most underrated player in the NBA is also among the most underrated in fantasy. For four straight seasons, Lillard has chugged away, averaging at least 25 points, six assists, four rebounds and three threes per game (technically, he was at 5.9 assists and 2.9 threes in one of those, but close enough).
Lillard is the perfect pick for someone with the “You can’t win a draft in the first round, but you can lose one” mindset — which, by the way, is a very legitimate approach. He has one of the narrowest windows of possible outcomes in the draft; his ceiling is maybe seventh overall, his floor probably no lower than 15th, maybe 20th.