The season is half over, and in today's column I'll be looking at the all-important factor of playing time. I've shown before that minutes correlate to overall fantasy value more strongly than any other category or metric. Minutes are a better indicator of value than scoring, usage, True Shooting, combined steals and blocks, and anything else you can dream up. It's always worthwhile, therefore, to discuss which players might best take advantage of increased playing time.
If a bad team like the Hawks stops trying to actually win games, and focuses solely on player development, you'd assume Alex Len would be out of the rotation, for instance, and Bruno Fernando might benefit. But would Fernando be able to capitalize on those minutes? Probably not. I'll also be looking at the flipside of the equation. Despite the preeminence of playing time, some players have an amazing ability to squander playing time -- they can get 30+ minutes and still be a liability in fantasy leagues. Good or bad, the goal here is to suss out how well players are faring on a per minute basis. Then, if their roles increase (or shrink) we'll have a stronger basis for expectations.
The idea for this column sprang from a routine I've developed with our six-month-old twins. Each day we listen to music from artists beginning with a new letter. We were up to the letter 'M' and after touring through other artists, we eventually landed on the Minutemen album 'Double Nickels on the Dime'. As a fantasy hoops writer, dimes get me thinking about assists and I instantly decided on a column and title - The Minutemen.
To set the stage, let's look at a list of the top-150 players on a per-36-minute basis (raw stats from the inimitable BasketballMonster). I'm limiting the list to guys who have averaged at least 10 minutes per game and appeared in at least 10 games. Otherwise, you'd get wacky outliers like Amir Coffey ranking higher than James Harden for per-36 value, simply because he scored five points with one 3-pointer and one assist in five minutes of play this season. On a per-36 basis, that would be 33.5 points on 66.7% shooting, 6.7 triples and 6.7 assists without any turnovers. So, yeah.
Editor's Note: Drafting is only half the battle. Dominate all season long with our Season Pass! Use our NEW Start/Sit Tool, Trade Analyzer, Weekly Tiers, Rest-of-Season Rankings, Projections and more on your way to a championship! Click here for more!
It's worth mentioning some players who were eliminated by these cut-offs. For the 10 minute rule, we lost Goga Bitadze, Ante Zizic, Bruno Caboclo, and of course Amir Coffey. The first three guys could emerge with some value, though Bitadze and Caboclo would probably need to benefit from a teammates' injury. For the games-played threshold, we had to ditch Stephen Curry along with Reggie Jackson, Zach Collins, Otto Porter and Chandler Parsons. This is the final year of Parsons' contract (he's earning $25.1 million), and it could be the end of his NBA career. Anyway, here are the remaining top-150 guys.
James Harden, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns are at the top. No surprise there, beyond the fact that Kyrie Irving is nestled into the No. 2 spot just ahead of AD. That's a reminder of his supernova upside as the go-to guy in Brooklyn, though I'm still terrified of owning him (as I recently expressed on the Rotoworld hoops podcast). In a shallow, unorthodox 9-cat league (free throws made rather than FT%, double-doubles as a category, no turnovers) I own Kyrie but have too many elite guards, and my only SF right now is Jeremy Lamb. I just floated Kyrie for Jimmy Butler (rejected), Brandon Ingram (bound to get rejected) and Kelly Oubre (might get accepted). I simply do not trust Irving to stay on the court through the end of March/early April.
The first major surprise, if you haven't paid close enough attention to him, is Nerlens Noel. His recent ankle sprain has been a downer and prompted plenty of owners to cut him loose. The impulse is understandable, but I'm an advocate for holding him in category-based leagues. Noel has been a top-75 player (9-cat) in just 18.4 minutes, after all, and ranks No. 7 on a per-36 minute basis. You have a viable roto player who could go wild if the Thunder do blow things up and trade Steven Adams, so holding Noel through the Feb. 6 deadline makes perfect sense.
The list of per-36 surprises continues with a series of big men -- Gorgui Dieng (No. 14), Brandon Clarke (18), JaVale McGee (20), Jonas Valanciunas (23) and Robert Williams (26). Blocks, boards and FG% are a potent combination and these guys hit their marks whenever they're on the court. Clarke stands out to me as the guy most likely to see his minutes ramp up as the season reaches the late stages. He's another player like Noel, who is already helping you with mid-round value in a mere 21.3 minutes -- only Clarke isn't injured. That low playing time should help keep him fresh, so hopefully he can leap over any 'rookie wall' and continue his ultra-efficient play through March and April.
Davis Bertans showing up at No. 27 on this list surprised me, as did a pair of Bucks' reserves in the top-40. Ersan Ilyasova thrived when Giannis Antetokounmpo was out of the lineup, and George Hill has been similarly impressive, albeit he didn't gain much traction even when Eric Bledsoe missed extended time with a fractured shin. The variable here is team dynamics. The Wizards are in 12th-place in the East with a 13-26 record, so a guy like Bertans could be unleashed in the waning weeks of the season. Milwaukee is romping their way to the top spot in the East (currently 7.0 games up on the Celtics), which might yield some extended run for second-unit guys in April, but even then I wouldn't expect veterans like Hill (33 years old) and Ilyasova (32) to be prime beneficiaries.
I'm comfortable ignoring Denzel Valentine, who barely cleared the 10-minute threshold and therefore has distorted value. Chris Boucher failed to do much even while Marc Gasol was sidelined, due to the excellent play of Serge Ibaka, and the defending-champion Raptors have been too good to anticipate them simply unleashing the young big man -- unlike some other young PF/Cs I've discussed, I'm fine cutting Boucher loose. Within the top-40 we also see Mitchell Robinson, and this remains a sore spot for me (also discussed on this week's podcast). Yes, he's foul prone. But why in the world are the Knicks, under two different coaches, insistent upon bringing a 21-year-old potential stud off the bench behind Taj Gibson? It defies reason.
[UPDATE: I asked my Knicks-specialist colleague Tommy Beer about this, and his response was illuminating. "I think it’s a combination of factors. When [the Knicks] first put in Taj, they played a bit better and won some games. Plus, Mitch Rob gives them a spark off the bench and improves the defense on their second unit, which is much needed. But arguably the issue is he hasn’t earned a promotion to the starting lineup. He still fouls way, way too often. He chases blocks on the perimeter, even though his block rate has decreased. His FG% is wonderful, but he hasn’t developed a single offensive move on the block. In many ways, he’s regressed this season. He’s still averaging more minutes than last season, and I assume he’ll replace Taj in the first five within the next month or so, but he hasn’t really forced the coaching staff’s hand this season, which is surely what they were hoping for.” Thanks, Tommy!]
I can't write this column, of course, without discussing De'Anthony Melton. His per-36-minute averages are 16.5 points (47.5% FGs, 86.9% FTs), 1.2 triples, 8.1 boards, 6.3 assists, 2.6 steals and 0.8 blocks. If he developed a more consistent 3-point shot (currently 31.6% from deep), he'd be even more ridiculous. As my colleague Jonas Nader pointed out recently, "[Melton] is on pace to join Scottie Pippen as the only players in NBA history with a steal rate above 3%, a block rate above 1.5%, a total rebound rate above 11% and an assist rate above 23%." The entire Rotoworld crew is on board with Melton playing more minutes, but that seems unlikely while Dillon Brooks is playing well in 26-30 minutes per game. Brooks, by the way, is not on this list because he ranks 167th for per-36 value.
That raises an interesting point. The list above highlights plenty of guys whose value might spike if given the opportunity with more playing time. The other side of the equation is guys who are squandering a surfeit of minutes...if their minutes were cut, they might suffer a reversal of fantasy fates. With that in mind, here is a sampling of players outside the top-150: Marvin Bagley (albeit, barely at 164), Tomas Satoransky, Spencer Dinwiddie (this one surprised me, but overall he's just top-150 anyway in 30.9 minutes...he's almost just a points/dimes/3s specialist?), Montrezl Harrell (almost purely because of his 64.9% FTs on high-volume attempts), Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green (this season has not been kind to him), OG Anunoby, Carmelo Anthony, Josh Hart, Rui Hachimura, Kendrick Nunn and Jae Crowder.
Again, if those guys get enough minutes, they can be useful. There are plenty of guys averaging 15-20 minutes above them, too, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it paints of picture of pure fantasy efficiency, or a lack thereof. Diving outside the top-200, which gets into pure inefficiency that's hard to justify, we find Goran Dragic (224), PJ Washington (206...thankfully he's almost a lock to continue playing 30+), Taj Gibson (232...see above), Dennis Schroder (220), Frank Ntilikina (242), Markelle Fultz (248), P.J. Tucker (251), Julius Randle (263...although he's been far better in recent weeks), Gary Harris (266), Aaron Gordon (275), Mike Conley (283), Harrison Barnes (286)...the list goes on.
You may have noticed a lot of New York Knicks at the bottom of this list. Dennis Smith Jr. is in fact the second-worst player who meets the criteria (10 minutes/game, 10 games) in this entire list, ranking 371st. The only guy below him is Ty Wallace. For perspective, Wallace was waived by the Clippers in July, waived by the Wolves in October, and waived by the Hawks in December. I'm still baffled by the fact that DSJ was drafted in most fantasy leagues. Just a few spots above him, at 363, we find prized lottery pick RJ Barrett. It's not a good look.
I could write all day about the surprises and discoveries of this analysis, but I'll conclude with one shocker -- Caris LeVert comes in at 361 on this list, sandwiched between Eric Gordon and Jordan Poole. Yes, he's scoring 20.0 points with 5.3 boards, 4.4 assists and 2.0 triples per 36 minutes. That's enough for points-league owners, but he's contributing nothing defensively (0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks per 36) and crushing owners in percentages (41.0% FGs, 63.0% FTs) with high turnovers (4.0 per 36). I've been low on LeVert all season, compared to my Rotoworld colleagues, and at times I've questioned if I'm too pessimistic. I like LeVert in a holistic sense, and am thrilled he's healthy, but his awful per-36 ranking feels like justification.
That's all for this week! You can always find me on Twitter @Knaus_RW if you have any questions or insights.