Published on September 16th, 2013 | by Alex Rikleen0
Injuries Off – All Upside Tiers
The new season represents hope: everyone starts with a clean record. Everyone has a chance. With that in mind, I’m kicking of SP’s fantasy basketball preseason coverage by writing the most optimistic article I could imagine: one where injuries simply don’t exist.
Injuries ruin everything. If the NBA were a video-game, I’d play with the injury settings off. For the purposes of this article, therefore, they don’t exist. This is a ranking, by tiers, of how players would do if we were confident that they would never get hurt.
Let’s start with what this ranking is not. This ranking is not a prediction of who will be the most valuable players this season, or of who will play healthy the whole season long.
No. This ranking is about what would happen if all our favorite fantasy players could guarantee us a full, healthy season. If fantasy sports is a game of risk verse reward, then these rankings are designed to help you understand the possible rewards each player exemplifies, should the stars align correctly in their favor.
Some comments on methodology:
- This ranking system ignores any potential inclination towards injury – even Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum are presumed healthy for the whole season.
- This ranking does not ignore aging, however, and players like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are knocked down a peg as age should slow their production at least a little. Age-caused stat reductions presume some falloff, but nothing cliff-like.
- This ranking pretends that players who will miss the first few months of the season recovering from injury (Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, etc) will return ready to go – for younger players like Rondo, we assume their production will return to pre-injury levels, while an older player like Kobe will be docked slightly for age, but none for the injury.
- To equalize for players who do miss time due to pre-existing injuries or emotional breakdowns, players are ranked according to nightly averages, not season sums.
- Within each tier, names are listed in approximately descending order of value.
Tier One – You Know.
1-2: Kevin Durant and LeBron James
They fill your box scores with multi-categorical fantasy gold. They guarantee playoff berths for their owners, and leave everyone else playing catch-up.
Tier Two – The Great Impersonators
3-8: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Marc Gasol
They aren’t the tier one guys, but every night they try their hardest to act like one, even occasionally outperforming those other guys in one category or another – just never in all 8 or 9 at the same time. Opposing managers hate facing these guys, and if you can finagle two or three onto your roster then you can even pass KD’s or LBJ’s owner for league favorite.
Tier Three – Elite Specialists
9-15: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson, Deron Williams, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis
Each of these guys have at least one or two clear weaknesses which separate them from the two classes above. But, on the other hand, they give you a giant leg up over the rest of the league in the categories they are strongest in. They are building blocks, and they provide a deeply sturdy foundation. The only name most readers will bat an eye at here is Davis (though regular readers know this is the highest I will rank Love and Irving all year) – stop, go look at his stats from last year, think about the fact that he did that at 19 years old, and try to explain to me how he doesn’t belong this high if a full season can be guaranteed. My twitter is @arikleen. I would love to hear someone argue this one with me. (Seriously, I would enjoy it, my friends won’t let me talk basketball at them for another month).
Tier Four – The Impersonators’ Impersonators
16-19: Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Nic Batum, Tony Parker
These guys are clearly a step or two behind the ones in tier two – most of them used to be tier two guys, but have lost that step due to age. They fill your box scores, have few weaknesses, and, when fully healthy, lead lots of teams into fantasy playoffs.
Tier Five – Elite Bigs
They are not the most elite overall players in the NBA, but they are the best at being large. We have entered a period in the NBA when nearly every team sports at least one semi-desirable (or better) fantasy point guard. As a result of this draft day positional depth*, top-flight bigs are the more scarce – and therefore more valuable – commodity. Shooting guards would come first, but the elite SGs have already been absorbed into tiers two and four, and there is currently no close sub-elite class at that position.
*I should note that while valuable PGs will be available until the last rounds of your draft, very few will remain on waivers.
Tier Five A – The “locks” that make “punts” worth it
20-22: Anderson Varejao, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bynum
Here is a full sub-tier that would not exist without the “no injuries” prerequisite, because injuries have haunted these guys, especially Bynum and Varejao. But let’s face it: in a world without injuries, every one of these guys is a top-20 pick. 11 rebounds is a bad game for any of them. All are capable of some assists from the center spot and high (for a center) percentage free throw shooting. Bynum and Noah are top-10 blockers, and Varejao is a top-10 center at steals. They are the prototype of elite bigs, each with at least one important weakness, but each of which can put fantasy teams on a path to category dominance.
Tier Five B – Major Downside
23-24: Josh Smith, Dwight Howard
These two are multi-categorical gold mines, as long as you don’t want to be competitive in free throw percentage. No universally owned player comes anywhere near these two in terms of destruction from the charity stripe, at least not until Andre Drummond cracks 3.5 attempts per game (definitely coming soon) while also boosting his performance elsewhere (probably coming soon). These guys produce across the board, while also being elite in at least one category. In an optimistic list like this one, I’m temporarily assuming you don’t like free throws anyways, in which case these are immensely valuable assets.
Tier Five C – Offensive Gurus Plus, Nets Edition
25-26: Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett
When it comes to hungry aging future hall of famers with elite strokes, history says the shot is the last thing to go. Garnett, known mostly for his defense, but also for his mid-range jumper, should follow that pattern. Now on a team surrounded by offensive weapons that demand defenders (even notorious shot-hound Joe Johnson shouldn’t be left totally open, and he enters the season as the Net’s least intimidating scorer), Garnett should get far better looks than he has seen in years. He has lost/will lose a little bit defensively due to aging, but he can still be an above average rebounder and blocker while posting improved offensive numbers. As for Brook, the addition of Paul Pierce and Garnett are not going to help his poor rebounding, but they will take away defenders, boosting his already elite scoring and efficiency numbers, and he will still be top 10 in blocks.
Tier Five D – Limited Upside Staples, and Pau
27-29: Al Horford, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol
These are the kinds of players hurt by this all-upside format, because all three seem to have already reached their ceilings. Al Horford is a durable fantasy machine, and Tim Duncan, nearing his 60th birthday, somehow continues to be one of the best players in the league while missing very few games due to actual injuries (as opposed to ones Coach Popovich imagined in order to buy Duncan a night’s rest). These guys fill all your normal center stats but add decent free throw shooting (last season was Horford’s worst in this regard, expect a rebound in 2013-14) and passing from the center spot. In real (fantasy) life and in injury-off dream land, these guys can be drafted with confidence. Pau Gasol is here because his strengths and weaknesses align really well with Horford and Duncan – a few blocks, better than usual free throw shooting, lots of assists, plus the normal Center stuff. He seems more likely to age or to slump, so his fantasy value plummeted last year, but he was recently a top 20 pick. Injury free plus a dose of optimism, and this guy is right back up in this imaginary top 30.
Tier Five E – Offensive Gurus Plus, Western Conference Edition
30-31: Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge
In this optimistic world, Blake Griffin’s knees are indestructible, so he adds back some of the recklessly youthful abandon he played with his rookie year. He’s a good passer and rebounder, has one of the most positive impact field goal percentages (due to high volume) in the game, and started showing signs of life from the charity stripe late last season. Aldridge scores and rebounds a bit more, passes a lot but slightly less than Blake, and shoots free throws like someone who doesn’t realize he is 6’11” (aka really well).
Tier 6 – Incredible Point Guards
32-35: Derrick Rose, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo
Once the elite big men – the scarcer commodity – are gone, these elite point guards need to be snatched up in a hurry. In real drafts, many of the tier five bigs will be docked due health concerns, bumping the healthy pair here (Wall and Rubio) well into the top-25. Rose and Wall are big time scorers who add close to a block a game (and poor FG%) to their top ten assists averages, while Rubio and Rondo should be top five in steals and assists (while rarely reaching the vicinity of 15 points). I’ll admit I was surprised to have Derrick Rose this low, but his 2011-12 production was simply not on D-Wlll or CP3 level – he needs more of at least one of the following to get there: steals, blocks, rebounds, 3s. I’m prepared to give him an injury-free season, but I can’t assume his numbers will significantly improve after a year off the court.
Tier “7” – Breakthrough Yout’s
NOT 36-40: Nikola Vucevic, Evan Turner, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Robin Lopez
So, the problem with doing a ranking system that ignores injuries and diminishes the impact of aging is that it inherently advantages older and more established players. To make sure to include some young guys without writing another 2,000 words, I’m changing gears here a little, while trying to stick with the notion that makes this article worthwhile: fantasy basketball is a game of risk verse reward, and these rankings are designed to highlight the possible rewards each player exemplifies, should the stars align correctly in their favor. With that in mind…
These last five guys have been in the league three years or less, will be drafted outside the top-30, and have very real chances of outperforming their draft position by either 30 spots or 50%. That is to say that if Vucevic’s average draft position was 42, by listing him here I am saying he could end the season ranked 21st; if his ADP was 70, then he could end the season ranked 40th.
- Vucevic was last season’s second leading rebounder at age 21. He has no backup, and the Magic have no goals except to make him (and other ‘90s babies Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, and Oladipo) better.
- Speaking of no backup, Evan Turner doesn’t even have other NBA players to join him on the court. It took a couple years, but Turner is finally catching up to the NBA game. He has a lot of talent, and opponents will be beating the poor 76ers too badly to really care about guarding him closely or fighting for rebounds.
- Speaking of defenses letting up because they’ll win the game anyways, Cody Zeller’s Bobcats will lose a lot of games (even with Al Jefferson and a steadily improving Kemba Walker). Zeller’s backup Josh McRoberts played admirably late last season, but Zeller is the future, and the Bobcats will give him all the time he needs to develop.
- And we’ve come full circle back to Oladipo and the Magic – there are better guards in Orlando, but Oladipo sells tickets, Oladipo is the future, and helping Oladipo improve may be the Magic’s number one goal this season. In truth, I could include Harris here as well – based on where rankings currently have him – but I think people will figure out his value before draft day.
- I cheated on Robin Lopez – he’s been in the league five years – but all the other young guys were too obvious to bother (do you really need another writer to tell you about Andre Drummond?). Last year’s running mate for LaMarcus Aldridge averaged a double-double and will now be buried on Denver’s depth chart. Lopez is coming off the best year of his career and will add a few more minutes to last year’s career high of 26. He’s not his brother, but this year could be a huge year for him.