Fantasy Basketball: Early look at top-12 rankings for 2021-22

·11 min read

By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

When is it too early to start looking at next season? Never!

Sure, the 2020-21 campaign isn’t technically over yet, but most fantasy seasons are. With only days remaining in the regular season, and most championship belts already in the mail, let’s take a look at what the first round of next season’s draft might look like.

As I see it right now, there are three clear tiers:

  • A two-way race for the No. 1 pick

  • A nausea-inducing group of six players you’d love to get at the end of the first, but who will start coming off the board at No. 3

  • A tight — and very much subjective — race for the final few spots

Read on for a detailed dive into next season’s top prospects, and for a lot (too much?) of analysis on what to do about the Nets’ superstar threesome.

RACE FOR THE TOP SPOT

1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

2. Steph Curry, Warriors

I see this as a toss-up between Jokic and Steph Curry. Forced to choose, I’ll take the 27-year-old who can fight for the league lead in assists from the center spot over Curry’s otherworldly shooting at age 33. Jokic’s assists are the single-biggest strategic advantage in fantasy basketball. Getting assists from a non-guard is rare, and Jokic doesn’t just help there — he’s better than almost every guard.

On top of that, he also ranks pretty high on the points and rebounds leaderboards, and he rarely misses time. Even if Jokic’s production falls off a little (which might not happen!), the strategic advantages he provides significantly lessens any potential harm from statistical regression.

Based on this season’s stats alone, the Jokic-Curry question isn’t close — Jokic wins in a landslide. But when we’re picking at the top of a fantasy basketball draft, we should be mindful of our history. Historically, there is very little turnover at the top of the season-ending fantasy leaderboards. Outside of last year, when Curry played only five games, he’s finished inside the top five in both 8-cat and 9-cat every year since the lockout.

Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Anthony Davis have basically been locked in as four of the top five in both settings for that entire stretch. Intruders on their hegemony are rare (and tend to be named “Karl-Anthony Towns.”) Regardless of who plays around him, Curry is a locked-and-loaded top-five producer. Meanwhile, Jokic stagnated in the 10-15 range for each of the last three seasons before this year’s breakout.

Do I think Jokic can repeat as the No. 1 player? Of course. But he has put up unprecedented offensive numbers, so some drop-off is likely. This gets back to an earlier point — apply a 10% across-the-board reduction to his 2020-21 stats and he’d still be basically even with Curry in per-game value. Add in the games played advantage, the age advantage, and the strategic benefit of Jokic’s passing, and Jokic is my No. 1.

***Gigantic gap***

3. Kevin Durant, Nets

With two games remaining in 2020-21, the Nets’ All-NBA trio has shared the court exactly seven times — and Durant left injured after playing just 19 minutes in one of those. So, while all three still rank inside this season’s top-10 by per-game production, that is not reflective of the impact that the high-usage trio has on one another.

Here are the trio’s stats in their six full games together, compared to their season averages:

*Note: the Nets played 3 overtimes in those six games, inflating all three players’ minutes and production

Nets star trio analysis
Nets star trio analysis

In a perfect world, we’d have more than seven percent of a full season to analyze. But these six games are the only information available, so we have to work from there. And what I see in the data from these games is that Durant can absolutely remain an elite fantasy option, even alongside two high-usage scorers. Though the parallel is imperfect, this jives with what we saw when Durant finished in fantasy’s top three in his first two seasons with the Warriors, when he was also playing alongside multiple All-NBA talents.

4. Anthony Davis, Lakers

There’s not much to say here. If you could promise me that Davis misses no more than 10 games next season, he’d be my No. 1 pick without hesitation. Here are his 9-cat finishes over the last seven seasons: first twice, second four times, and fifth once. Durant is the easy title-holder for this century’s best fantasy producer, but Davis is the only active player who has a chance to catch him. Almost everything has gone wrong for Davis this season, but he’s still eighth in blocks and one of five centers averaging at least 20 points and three assists.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

The free throws continue to be a problem, but he has improved slightly in that category this season. If Giannis can just get back to his career average of 72% from the line, then he’d transition from “automatically punting FT%” to a more manageable drain. He’s spoken openly about wanting to improve from the line, so there’s a real chance that happens.

But even if his FT% doesn’t improve, Antetokounmpo is a fantastic pick. He’s second in per-game production for a punt-FT build, behind only Jokic. Strategically, there is a benefit to recognizing that you want to punt a category this early. It makes taking someone like LeBron James or Luka Doncic a no-brainer if they last until your second pick.

Digging deeper, Antetokounmpo’s versatile stat profile (and positional eligibility) allows managers to pay less attention to positions as they build their team. He provides enough assists that managers could go back-to-back bigs in Rounds 2 and 3 and enough rebounds and blocks that a manager could lean hard into their backcourt. Jokic is the only other first-round pick who comes close to providing the positive impact on FG%, and he’s the only small-forward eligible first-round pick who can reliably provide both a steal and a block per game.

6. Joel Embiid, 76ers

As is true of every player in this 3-to-8 tier, there’s a good argument to take Embiid as high as third overall. He’s currently third per-game in 9-cat (fifth in 8-cat) production. His stat profile looks a lot like Antetokounmpo’s, except he swaps out a few assists per game for more efficient free-throw shooting. For many managers, especially ones playing roto, that’s a worthwhile trade. Embiid wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he’s undeniably motivated by external factors. In 2021-22, that should work in our favor – Embiid openly covets the MVP trophy, and the fact that he was this season’s frontrunner before injuries got in the way should keep him energized for next season.

The concern, of course, is the injuries. He’s missed at least 18 games in every season. If your league doesn’t have an IR, you can’t take Embiid inside the top 10. On the other hand, in a highly competitive league where you need to hit big on a few risks to win, I’m fine with Embiid as high as second overall.

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid
If not for injuries, Joel Embiid would be an unstoppable fantasy force. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

7. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

There’s a pretty reasonable argument to put Lillard as high as third. Between Davis’ and Embiid’s injury histories, and the combination of Durant’s health plus the uncertainty of playing alongside two high-usage stars, managers with mid-first-round picks are going to find themselves reaching for Pepto Bismol.

While Lillard lacks the extreme upside of those three, he also lacks their floor. He’s elite in points and threes, good in assists, and only hurts in blocks. He finished in the back half of the top-12 in three of the past four seasons. Strictly speaking, you’re likely to lose a little bit of value taking Lillard this high, but it’s not the kind of season-killing loss that a month without Davis/Embiid/Durant can be. If your goal is simply to survive what looks like one of the trickiest first rounds in years, Lillard is probably your guy.

8. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Speaking of boring but safe … including his Rookie year, Towns has never finished outside the top 12 in 9-cat. Since his rookie year, he’s never finished outside the top 10 in 8-cat. His health derailed the end of last season and the beginning of this one, but he’s back on track to continue those streaks. He’s one of very few players who help in every category. He’ll probably go at a discount next season after so many managers feel burned by these last two years, but the numbers don’t lie – Towns is one of fantasy’s best, and one of very few players with the potential to finish inside the top five. He’s the second-youngest player listed in this article, and none of the injuries that have hindered his last two years come with a high likelihood of re-injury.

9. James Harden, Nets

There’s a gigantic red flag here. Harden’s 21% usage rate in games with both Durant and Irving is really low for a first-round pick. Right now, there are only two players inside fantasy’s top-20 with a usage rate below 22%: Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner, efficient big men who rank 1st and 2nd in blocks. Neither of them is inside the top 12. So why can Harden be the exception?

First, and most importantly, Harden’s season-long usage rate next year will be higher than 21%. Durant and Irving are not playing all 82 games, and Harden’s usage will jump any time either of them is out. Second, this season’s league-leader in assists is dishing 11.7 per game — Harden averaged 12.7 in the six games alongside both Durant and Irving. Meanwhile, his shooting efficiency and three-point volume were effectively unchanged in those six games, meaning that there’s a good chance that the only true statistical damage his teammates will cause will be in points, FG% impact, and FT% impact (due to fewer attempts). The jump in assists won’t completely offset that damage, but it should help keep him inside the top 10.

10. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Leonard is another player likely to miss games but who is a top-10 producer when he’s active. Excluding the nine-game season in San Antonio, Leonard has been top-10 per game since he won his first Finals MVP. He’ll probably slide into the early second in a lot of drafts due to the injury concerns, but we’re at the point where I’m happy locking in his helps-everywhere-hurts-nowhere baseline and figuring out the missed games later.

11. Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets

Someone under 25 is going to break into fantasy’s upper echelon — the question is who. A year ago, Jayson Tatum looked like a lock. At the start of this season, it looked like it would be Zach LaVine. But Porter has surged over the second half of the year. I’ve long believed in his potential to get this good eventually, but his breakout this year has come even earlier than I was expecting.

He’ll be 23 at the start of next season with a full season of starter-level experience under his belt. Since Jamal Murray (knee) went down, Porter is averaging 24.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.5 stocks (steals and blocks), and shooting an incredible 56-45-85 split. Murray is likely to miss a decent chunk of the 2021-22 regular season, and even when he does return, the focus will be on gradually working into playoff readiness. Since Murray’s injury, Porter ranks eighth per game in 9-cat.

12. Nikola Vucevic, Bulls

Let’s give the big man some love. He’s probably the most boring option one might reasonably take with a first-round pick, but all Vucevic does is produce. His numbers have been remarkably consistent in each of the last three years, regardless of season or city — his numbers before and after this season’s trade are almost indistinguishable from one another. Taken together, his three-year averages are 21-12-4 with 1.9 stocks and 1.7 threes. There isn’t much upside with this pick, but there is also very little chance of disaster.

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