Fantasy Basketball Small Forward Preview: LeBron James not a first-round pick

Yahoo Sports

By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

Tiers are an indispensable draft-day tool in all Yahoo Fantasy sports. So, we made some for you in time for the Fantasy Basketball season.

A few notes before we dive in:

  • Overall, the tiers cover players projected to rank roughly among the top 120 overall.

  • Within each tier, players are generally listed in the order in which they should be drafted. Of course, come draft night, team construction and roster constraints must be considered.

  • Yahoo assigns most players eligibility at multiple positions. As such, players are included in these articles for every position at which they are eligible. Players who do not have multiple-position eligibility are denoted with an asterisk, as their single-eligibility can be a strategic disadvantage in some settings. 

  • Unless otherwise noted, players are listed only within the positions at which they are currently eligible in Yahoo fantasy Basketball leagues.

  • Tiers assume 9-category roto settings, unless otherwise noted.

One last thing: Per-game production is valued above season-total production. For example, Chris Paul was a top-10 per game fantasy producer in 2017-18, but since he missed 24 games, he was closer to the 20-25 range by total production. While Paul’s chronic injury risk impacts his standings here, he’s still valued as roughly a top-15 player. Most leagues allow for easy and frequent substitutions, and season-total rankings are often counterproductive for head-to-head playoffs.

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Tier 1: Potential #1 Overall Picks

Kevin Durant – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Concerns about the Warriors’ overabundance of talent will probably drop Durant below Antetokounmpo in ADP. There is some legitimacy to fears that Durant will miss some late-season games, and if that’s your justification for preferring Antetokounmpo, that’s fine, but any other justification falls flat. Simply put, Durant is the best per-game fantasy talent in this millennium.

He has five No. 1 finishes in the past nine seasons. He finished second, third, third and fifth in the other four seasons. Antetokounmpo may be the Next Big Thing — he’s closing the gap — and he’s probably more fun to root for — but when it comes to per game fantasy dominance, no one is on Durant’s level.

Tier 2: Elite late-first/early second-round options

Kawhi Leonard – Jimmy Butler – Paul George – LeBron James

Leonard and James were recently early-first-round options, but they no longer elicit the same sense of security that comes with drafting an Anthony Davis, James Harden, or either of the two players in Tier 1. Leonard’s question marks relate to his injured quad and his new team. Both seem like they shouldn’t get in the way of first-round-worthy fantasy production, though we can never be too certain.

Not too long ago, LeBron James dominated the top of Yahoo Fantasy drafts at Small Forward — but no longer. (Getty Images)
Not too long ago, LeBron James dominated the top of Yahoo Fantasy drafts at Small Forward — but no longer. (Getty Images)

As for James, the 33-year-old was actively bad — by his standards — for a full month of last season, and he was not a top-10 performer in two of the previous three years. Superstars frequently require some adjustment period at the start of the season when they move to a new team. Fantasy is a regular season game, and during the regular season there are too many question marks to consider James in the first round of standard leagues. James rises somewhat in 8-category settings, but I still wouldn’t have him pass anyone else in this tier. Instead he’d rise above Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and potentially Nikola Jokic.

Butler and George never quite reached the same fantasy heights as Leonard or James, but both have been solidly top-15 guys for most of their careers. Butler has a good chance to lead the league in minutes if he ends up staying in Minnesota, and if his limbs stay attached he’s likely to return first-round value or close to it no matter where he plays this season. Now in his second year with the Thunder, George could finally crack fantasy’s top 10 after spending five of the last six seasons stuck in the 10-20 range. As mentioned with James, there is frequently an adjustment period after stars join new teams, which is something George gets to avoid this season after signing on with the Thunder long-term.

Tier 3: Sturdy, well-rounded sub-stars

Khris Middleton – Gary Harris – Otto Porter – Gordon Hayward – Tobias Harris

No matter who an owner takes with his or her first two picks, grabbing one of these guys in the third round maintains flexibility and builds upon a sturdy base. Middleton produces more like a typical guard, while Tobias Harris produces more like a typical power forward, but all five of these guys are well-rounded and don’t hurt any roster.

8-category managers take note: Porter is one of the lowest-turnover fantasy stars in the league, so he loses a round of his value in non-turnover leagues.

Tier 4: Great players with declining value

Klay Thompson – Robert Covington

In the Shooting Guard tiers article I went into depth on why Thompson’s fantasy value is dropping, even as he remains the paragon of consistent year-over-year statistical stability. The short version: the league-wide shifts in NBA offenses makes Thompson’s greatest statistical contributions more abundant and easier to replace.

Covington makes this tier for one straightforward reason: I’m terrified of how many quality forwards are on the 76ers’ depth chart. Covington is one of the best defenders in the NBA so he’ll have a significant role in the rotation, but he’ll have a hard time maintaining 31.6 minutes per game if the rest of the team stays healthy. This team needs to keep playing Covington, J.J. Redick and Dario Saric, while finding minutes for Markelle Fultz and Wilson Chandler. Covington has finished in the top-40 in each of the past two seasons, but it would only take a small dip in workload to drop him closer to the top-50 range.

Tier 5: Best players on their teams

DeMar DeRozan – Aaron Gordon

Gordon was a popular breakout candidate ahead of 2017-18. While he posted easily the best season of his career, he still fell short of the expectations after a hot start. On the other hand, he also flashed the ability that made some so excited to draft him.

Aaron Gordon is on the cusp of fantasy stardom. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon is on the cusp of fantasy stardom. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Through October and November, Gordon ranked inside fantasy’s top 20 overall. He’s probably Orlando’s best player by default, and as long as he can stay healthy he should be a fantasy stud.

DeRozan is now the new face of the Spurs as they enter their first season without any of their longtime “big three,” and without Kawhi Leonard. DeRozan made significant improvements to his game to better fit the Raptors’ system in 2017-18, but that fact can be used either as an argument for or against his 2018-19 value. Either he “learned those new skills and proved he can adapt and now he’ll have one of the best coaches in the league to help him continue to progress” or “those were not permanent changes to his natural tendencies, and both his three-point shooting and increased passing will erode as he tries to fit into a new situation.” Managers who subscribe to the former philosophy should probably bump DeRozan up a tier, while managers who are more swayed by the latter might drop him down a round.

Tier 6: Interregnum

Joe Ingles – Will Barton – Nicolas Batum

There is a giant chasm between the fantasy value of the players in Tiers 5 and above and Tiers 7 and below. These three players are sure to elicit a wide range of opinions from the fantasy community, but yet they probably won’t be rising or falling much compared to other small forwards.

In the Shooting Guard Tiers piece, Ingles, Barton and Batum were listed in the tier named “solid players at risk of declining.” All three are better than “top-50 upside” — they’ve all proven they are capable of producing in that range — but, for the reasons described in that other article, all may have difficulty recreating that in 2018-19.

For Tier 7, I’m playing with the format. Tier 7-A will represent players with a relatively small range of likely outcomes; guys very likely to finish between 60th and 90th overall. These players have very little top-60 upside, and their ADPs are likely to stay fairly stable. Tier 7-B will represent players with a much wider range of outcomes; guys who could just as easily finish the season inside the top-50 as they can on the waiver wire.

 Within each group, players are listed in the order I recommend drafting them. The players from 7-A are not, however, necessarily recommended above the players from 7-B. One group just had to get listed first.

Tier 7-A: Safe, middle-round options

Thaddeus Young – J.J. Redick – Evan Fournier – Taurean Prince* – Harrison Barnes – Nikola Mirotic – Carmelo Anthony

Redick is my favorite player from this list, but Young’s incredible consistency and the increasingly deep 76ers lineup knock him down a spot.

Prince is the only player in this entire article who is currently eligible at just one position. He’s not great, but he’s on what I expect to be the worst team in the NBA.

Anthony may end up become the latest in a growing list of players whose fantasy output suffered as a result of joining the Thunder. He now joins up with two of the best (and one of the least-selfish) point guards in the NBA. He’s still good for three-point shooting, scoring, and rebounds, and he was a top-60 option in 2016-17.

Tier 7-B: Variable, middle-round options

Jayson Tatum – Jaylen Brown – Brandon Ingram – Andrew Wiggins – Trevor Ariza – Tim Hardaway Jr. – Allen Crabbe

There’s no doubting the talent or potential of “New Paul Pierce” and “New Kawhi Leonard,” better known as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But while those two are the future of the Celtics, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are still much better players as of the start of 2018-19. The Celtics have arguably the deepest roster in the league, and there are only so many minutes to go around. Tatum and Brown are definitely better than Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, but those two also need to play, and Al Horford tends to play a lot of minutes at power forward. I’m sold on the talent, but the situation makes me uneasy about their fantasy value.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Brandon Ingram may stumble this fantasy season, thanks to the addition of King James. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Brandon Ingram may stumble this fantasy season, thanks to the addition of King James. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Ingram is in a similar situation to the Celtics’ wings. He’s probably the best returning member of the Lakers, but everything about the Lakers’ franchise changed the moment LeBron James joined the team. Ingram now faces an uncertain role in a to-be-determined offensive system.

Hardaway’s circumstance is exactly the opposite. I’m not convinced he’s a particularly good player, but I’m also not sure who is going to challenge him for minutes. Unless both Mario Hezonja and Kevin Knox significantly exceed expectations, the Knicks have little choice but to give Hardaway 30-plus minutes and 15-plus shots per night.

For more detail on Wiggins, Ariza and Crabbe, check out our Shooting Guard Tiers.

Tier 8: High-probability upside guys

Kyle Anderson – Jabari Parker – Kevin Knox – James Johnson – Josh Jackson – Kent Bazemore

As I noted in SG Tiers: don’t draft Kent Bazemore. He isn’t good. I’m only including him here to avoid angry tweets and comments accusing me of forgetting him.

Tier 9: Low-probability upside players

Kyle Kuzma – E’Twaun Moore – OG Anunoby – Bogdan Bogdanovic – Jae Crowder

Follow Alex on Twitter @Rikleen

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