As I prepare to publish this, we are just a few hours away from the start of approximately two months of playoff basketball.
But before we turn our full attention to the postseason, I’d like to swim among the numbers of the regular season for just a few more minutes, with an (extremely) early look at Roundball Stew’s top-25 fantasy players for next year. I skew this toward 9-category leagues, because that’s what I play in. And I’ve included each player’s ranking on the Basketball Monster 9-category leaderboard from this year in parentheses, so you can see how far (or how little) I strayed on my list. Also: I’ve already debated this with myself extensively, and every time I go through it I start a new argument. But at some point I need to stop and publish it, and that point is now. Let’s go:
1. Kevin Durant (this year’s 9-category rank: 1) - When healthy, he was the no-doubt #1 player in 9-category leagues. And even though he’ll be 29 next season, and missed more than a month with that knee injury, I think the reasons remain clear for taking KD first. Those reasons are: He’s a percentage monster (53.7?! / 87.5) who helps everywhere: 25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.6 bpg and 1.9 3s. Do I want the #1 pick? No, I don’t, for reasons that will become clear in a minute (see No.3 and No. 4, below). But if I was choosing first, I don’t think there’s a glaring need to overthink it.
2. Anthony Davis (2) - Played in a career-high 75 games this season, uncorking career-highs in points (28.0) and rebounds (11.8), along with his usual stout defense (1.3 spg, 2.2 bpg). And he only turned 24 last month. I do worry about injuries here, but the best-case scenario is insanely good.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (5) - Still just 22 years old, and is basically a trey ball away from fantasy invincibility (he shot 27.2 percent on 3s this year, making 0.6 per game). If I had to bet on one player making the leap to #1 overall, it would probably be Davis. But if I had to pick a second, based on pure upside, it would be Giannis. Considering the jump he made from his third year to his fourth — improving notably in FG percentage, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and points (16.9 -> 22.9) — I wouldn’t come close to ruling it out.
4. Karl-Anthony Towns (6) - You know who else could end up as the top-ranked player next year? Over his last 45 games, Towns posted 28.2 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 1.2 bpg and 1.3 3s — with awesome percentages (59.5 / 84.9) and zero games missed. And he’s twenty-one years old. I’m beginning to talk myself into taking him ahead of Brow, and maybe even Giannis — and maybe even KD?! — but for now he stays here.
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5. Stephen Curry (3) - Even with Durant around, he still led the league in 3s (4.1) and put up dynamic numbers elsewhere: 25.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg and 1.8 spg. I take him over James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of the relative lack of turnovers (3.0).
6. Russell Westbrook (8) - Only reason he’s this low is his FG percentage (42.5) and turnovers (5.4). Some might disagree and put Westbrook higher given that he averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg, 1.6 spg and 2.5 3s (it’s still fun to write that). But I had Westbrook in one of my most competitive leagues — again, a 9-category format — and found it tough to win with him submarining the squad in two categories (FG and TOs). However, if you’re playing in an 8-category league, there’s a clear case for taking Westbrook and Harden No. 1 and No. 2.
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7. James Harden (7) - Same story as Westbrook, but sub in 44.0 from the field and 5.7 TOs. And like Westbrook, if you think you can navigate around the shooting and turnovers, move him way up your list.
8. Kawhi Leonard (4) - Would be an absolute steal at No. 8 (he ranked No. 4 in 9-category leagues), but because he’s not as exciting as the players before him, it’s not crazy to think you can get Kawhi somewhere around here. And if you’re inclined to play your first pick safe, I could be convinced to take him as high as fifth. But I don’t think I’m moving him above Durant, Davis, Antetokounmpo or Towns.
9. LeBron James (14) - His FT percentage (67.4) and turnovers (4.1) were the worst of his career, but it remains hard to argue with the rest of his stat line: 26.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 8.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.6 bpg and 1.7 3s in 74 games.
10. Jimmy Butler (10) - So solid. So steady. So durable! Okay, not quite that last one. This was just the second time in six seasons that Butler has played in more than 70 games (he logged 76 this season), and the first time he’s topped 70 since 2012-13. But when on the court, he is undeniably useful and I enjoyed his cameo in Office Christmas Party.
Now I’d like to pause for a quick aside. And no, that aside is not about Office Christmas Party, though I could easily discuss that movie for an hour or more without any trouble. The aside is this: While looking at Butler’s numbers, and specifically his free throw attempts (8.9 per game), I noticed a strong correlation between FT attempts and fantasy success. This in many ways isn't a surprise — the guys who get to the line a lot are probably piling up a bunch of other stats. But it’s worth noting just how strong the correlation is. Of the top 25 players in FT attempts per game, 13 of them finished in the top-20 of 9-category leagues this season. In fact, out of the top 25 in FT attempts, only four — Lou Williams (71), Dwight Howard (87), Andrew Wiggins (117) and Devin Booker (129) were outside the top 50 in 9-category value. So when you’re making your draft lists, if you want a really simple starting point or tiebreaker, you could do a lot worse than using FT attempts as a barometer.
11. DeMarcus Cousins (13) - In 17 games for New Orleans, he posted 24.4 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.1 bpg and 2.1 3s.
12. Paul George (15) - Lost a bit of ground in rebounds (7.0 -> 6.6) and assists (4.1 -> 3.3) from last season, but made up for it with a career-high in scoring (23.7 ppg) and a monster spike in FG percentage: from 41.8 in 2015-16, to a career-best 46.1 this season.
13. Damian Lillard (16) - A virtual guarantee to land around the top 15, and more durable than a few other (older) PGs in this area.
14. Chris Paul (9) - Speaking of which… CP3 has missed 20 or more games in two of the last four seasons (including 21 this year). He’s still just 31 (soon to be 32), and does put up top-10 value when he’s on the court, but there is a clear reason to be concerned. And with all that said, I would still very happily draft him in the early part of the second round.
15. John Wall (18) - One major issue is turnovers (4.1 per game), and to a lesser extent, FG percentage (45.2).
16. Kyrie Irving (17) - Another durability concern. After missing 10 games this year, he’s now averaging 14 games on the sidelines in his six seasons in the NBA, and has only hit the 75 mark once — in 2014-15.
17. Isaiah Thomas (11) - Made a huge leap (No. 37 overall last year, to No. 11 this year), but I think he’s in the top-15 range to stay.
18. Nikola Jokic (20) - From late-December onward (46 games), he posted 19.8 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.8 bpg and 0.8 3s. His ranking in 9-category leagues during that run: 10th. In other words, if you wait until 18, there’s certainly a chance someone else will be more aggressive.
19. Kyle Lowry (12) - Averaged career-highs in points (22.4) and 3s (3.2), but missed 22 games this season — including most of the stretch run — and is now 31 years old. With that said, if you can get him this late, it has a chance to pay off brilliantly.
20. Draymond Green (21) - The scoring average (10.2) and percentages (41.7 / 70.9) may be annoying, but everything else is pure butter: 7.9 rpg, 7.0 apg, 2.0 spg, 1.4 bpg and 1.1 3s.
21. Rudy Gobert (19) - Your league leader in blocked shots (2.6) had a monster second half. Last 40 games: 16.0 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg.
22. Hassan Whiteside (24) - His blocks took a major hit this season (3.7 -> 2.1), but he didn’t disappoint with 17.0 ppg and 14.1 rpg in his first season as a full-time starter.
23. Myles Turner (25) - A run on bigs! Turner ultimately didn’t dazzle in points or rebounds this season — and only averaged 11.5 ppg over his final 21 games. On the plus side, he just turned 21, and without a lot of trouble could average 1.0 spg, 2.5 bpg and 1.0 3s next season (Turner averaged 0.9 spg, 2.1 bpg and 0.5 3s this year). With all that said, I could certainly see moving him up higher than this at some point.
24. Kemba Walker (26) - Career-highs in points (23.2), 3s (3.0) and FG percentage (44.4) this season; could have posted even better overall value if not for a surprisingly low average in steals (1.1). Walker averaged 1.5 spg the previous four years.
25. Kristaps Porzingis (35) - Yes, he missed a bunch of games this season (16, to be exact). And yes, there are probably safer options to drop into the top 25 (more on that in a second). But first, of all the players I didn’t drop into the 25 spot, are there any with more upside than Porzingis? At age 21, he just posted 18.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 0.7 spg, 2.0 bpg and 1.7 3s. Don’t you want to take a chance on how high he and his torso can surge next year?
Just Missed: Paul Millsap (an uncharacteristically low 45th overall this season) … Marc Gasol … Otto Porter … Joel Embiid … C.J. McCollum … Bradley Beal … Mike Conley … Klay Thompson … and a bunch of others.
Also Notable: Robert Covington (over his final 30 games, he was No. 13 overall) … Ricky Rubio was 30th overall the last two months of the season, Gary Harris was 31st and T.J. Warren ranked No. 28 during the same stretch.
Now Ending: This column. It’s been another fun season. See you again sometime during this postseason (or offseason, or both).