Fantasy basketball forces you to take a critical look at the NBA’s unmitigated success stories. Will a breakout performance translate from one season to the next? Should we expect the dreaded faux-scientific sophomore slump for rookies? Will a natural year-to-year fluctuation in shooting push a player out of fantasy relevance? These are the relevant questions we have to weigh as the NBA season winds down and the fantasy playoffs start. It will be the fantasy offseason before you know it—it’s never too early to start planning for the future.

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The fantasy playoffs are fast approaching, or maybe they’ve already arrived for you. Tough decisions will need to be made—the game is survival. Some of you may be in win-now mode. Others may be planning ahead, looking for keeper value on the wire, or last-minute trades with an eye toward the future.

The primary league I play in is a 9-cat Yahoo keeper league. You’re allowed to keep five players. I enjoy the keeper format because it’s an (extremely mild) replication of the control and decision-making required of an NBA general manager. You don’t start with a brand-new team every year in the NBA (as you do in re-draft leagues). You pay a price for the bad decisions of yesteryear or reap the benefits from the good ones. Keeper and dynasty leagues also force you to do the most scouting and projecting. If you insist on waiting until a player pops, you’re going to miss out on a lot of players. A competitive league ups the pressure to be first, it pushes the timeline of your decision-making forward. Of course, if you’re wrong about a player, that comes at a cost too.

Keeper values incorporate a value estimation and vague salary cap structure, at least during the offseason and through the draft. In the Scorekeeper League, you’re allowed 5 keepers and your draft capital is $200 minus the cost of your keepers. Every player’s cost increases by five dollars each year and you can only hold a player for four seasons. Keepers force you to always be thinking about the future even as the present rages on.

With the playoffs two weeks away, my Fat Mamba fantasy team is sitting in 9th place. I’m faithfully looking ahead to next season. Just in case you are too, here are some thoughts.

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In Dave Hickey’s seminal basketball essay, “The Heresy of Zone Defense,” he celebrates and argues that the game of basketball has been fair, civil, and liberated, from its very inception. Hickey celebrates basketball’s continuous evolution toward freedom, though he has nothing but contempt for college basketball and (naturally) zone defense. By the time Hickey wrote and published his essay in 1995, zone defense had been outlawed in the NBA in favor of the now defunct illegal defense rules. Obviously, the illegal defense rules morphed into its own form of limiting monotony, and though it does not appear that Hickey expected such an evolution, there’s no doubt that he’d support its elimination once it ceased to inspire innovation. In 2020, zone defense is back with a vengeance, but the reality of zone defense today is different from the one Hickey saw as dangerous, uninteresting governance.

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Duncan Robinson is one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters in only his second season in the Association. After playing in only 15 games and starting just one last season, Duncan Robinson has had an outsized impact on the Heat’s success this year. Robinson is fourth in the league in three-pointers made, behind only James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Buddy Hield. Among players with at least 200 attempts, Robinson is tied with Khris Middleton for fourth in the league in percentage at 43.8. The effectiveness of Robinson’s two-man game with Bam Adebayo helps unlock Bam’s playmaking and driving game.

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In the lead-up to the February 6, 2020 NBA trade deadline, there was a flurry of activity. Reports of a quiet deadline were greatly exaggerated. Below, I take a look at two of the biggest deals and break down how the new environments might affect the fantasy production of the players involved. So much of team and player success is about fit. How are roles assigned? Can a player fulfill his adequately? Would he be better suited for something different? How do the surrounding pieces in a lineup accentuate the strengths or weaknesses of any individual player? Not all of this information is necessary to make sound fantasy decisions, but it can certainly help. I won’t be doing any in-depth trade analysis or draft pick tracking. I’m strictly focused on how each of the key players will fit in their new environment.

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By any objective measure, the Milwaukee Bucks are a historic team. They have the best record in the league at 41-6, they have the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they’re on pace to win 71 games. The Bucks rank first in Defensive Rating and second in Offensive Rating, behind a historic Dallas Mavericks offense. They would pass any old school eye test—they score in the paint (3rd in the league in points in the paint), get to the free-throw line often, and prevent teams from getting to the basket by walling off the paint with a conga-line of seven-footers (1st in the league in opponent points in the paint). At the same time, Daryl Morey would have few complaints with their offense. They are first in the league in fast break points at 18.8 a game, they take the fifth most threes a game at 38.5, and they attempt the fifth most free-throws a game at 24.7. They give up only the least desirable three-pointers and there is a full season’s worth of data validating this unique defensive strategy—they were first in the league in Defensive Rating last year.

The only thing the Bucks are incapable of doing is drawing the interest of the average fan. The Bucks are so dominant in such a specific, ruthlessly efficient way, as to make the outcome perfunctory, eliminating most if not all intrigue…..

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The Miami Heat are in a truly delicious position. They are second in the Eastern Conference with a 31-13 record, a near lock to make the playoffs, and a good bet to have home court in the first-round. The Heat are good, but not great, flawed and exciting because of it. They shoot threes and shoot them well—they’re second in the league in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent and eighth in the league in three-pointers made at 12.8 a game. They play more than enough zone to satisfy curmudgeonly high school coaches; they are always in an overtime game and they keep winning those overtime games and other close games in dramatic, heart-pounding fashion. Most league insiders expected them to make the playoffs, finishing the season somewhere in the 4 to 6 range in the Eastern Conference. They’ve overshot all reasonable expectations during the first half of the season and have arrived as a pesky playoff contender ahead of schedule. For the moment, the Heat are playing with house money.

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Trades, Trades, Trades

Kevin Love wants out of #Believeland. Love is slapping chairs and chucking basketballs at teammates. He ignored the mere pretense of defense for a while. He has since got his act together, but the damage has been done, though maybe not the exact damage he was expecting. It appears his reputation took a larger hit than he anticipated and for now, the pressure he applied to Koby Altman and the Cavaliers front office, has not lead to a trade. The Cavaliers, I imagine, are trying to avoid dumping Love without receiving a meaningful return, or worse, giving up assets to get off his expensive deal. The stark reality for Kevin Love is this: he’s a modern center who lacks the ability to protect the rim—a necessity at the center position. He’s playing out the final four seasons (including this one) of a bloated contract that no other sane general manager would have signed him to. He can play either the power forward or center position on offense, he can play neither position well on defense. He’s no longer an efficient low-post scorer and his injury history is longer than the Odyssey. If age is only a number, in this case it’s one of a long list of numbers preventing the Cavs from securing a useful return for Kevin Love. In spite of all that, here’s a trade idea:

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As NBA fans and fantasy basketball players we all lust for the power of NBA general managers. Many of us wrongly assume we could do a better job heading our favorite team’s basketball operations—it isn’t hard to get those ideas if you happen to be a Knicks, Magic, Timberwolves, Suns, or Kings fan. But what we long for as much as the power, is the seriousness of the endeavor. NBA GM’s get to make decisions that carry weight. A draft pick is quite simply a choice—a highly public, decade-defining choice in some cases, but a choice all the same. We make choices every day—the blue or the red tie, Toyota Camry or Nissan Altima, Fleabag or The Good Place, two drinks or twelve, poetry or literally anything else that might actually pay the bills. We make applicable sports decisions as well. We choose between Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard in our fantasy draft, we add Kendrick Nunn or Davis Bertans off the wire, we kill Russell Westbrook in the group chat, we build property on Julius Randle, Dion Waiters, or Lonzo Ball Island. We tweet, we engage, and we argue. We win our league or we don’t. In time, we are either vindicated or pilloried. At best, we have a lighthearted thing to lord over people we care about, at worst, we have to dye our hair, wear ugly ill-fitting clothes, or in a more recent trend, consume enough waffles to avoid sleeping in a Waffle House. But largely, no one notices or cares, as our sports opinions are indiscernible dots in a sea of data points.

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I would like to ask for the internet’s help with something. I won’t be asking you intensely-online people to creepily track down the trilingual, poetry obsessed woman I chatted with during a Denver layover on a return flight from Hawaii, whom, I’m certain was charmed by my decidedly average height and intelligence. None of that. I’m sitting here today, in front of a loaned laptop from a college IT department, neurotically scratching at the dry scalp beneath my messy afro, in custom full-body face pajamas—the face being my ex-girlfriends—and asking you to work a little post-holiday magic for yours truly. I’m asking you, people of the internet, to do something you’ve already successfully done before, so it should be easy.

Before James Harden won the 2018 MVP Award, before he and Chris Paul pushed a historic Golden State Warriors team to the brink of playoff elimination, before he broke isolation and pull-up three-point records, and before he began flirting with historic scoring numbers not seen since Wilt Chamberlain, James Harden had to prove that he belonged in the upper echelon of NBA players. Harden had largely existed in the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The first order of business for Harden was to stake his claim to NBA superstardom by dominating on the offensive end and to do so with panache. Harden quickly established himself as a bona fide superstar, but his singular allegiance to the offensive end of the floor was, to put it mildly, concerning.

Harden was an all-star and made it to the playoffs in his first two seasons in Houston, but he was also eliminated in the first round of the playoffs each year. As Harden settled in to his new position as front-page daily news, he also built an endless lowlight reel of defensive lethargy. It was this backdrop of increased attention coinciding with mild playoff failure and a noxious disinterest in defense that provided the perfect platform for the internet’s only example of helpful public shaming. In a show of intense, wide-spread harmony, the NBA watching populous banded together to shame James Harden into playing defense. There’s no other way to read the situation. Fans, sportswriters, and analysts alike took to YouTube, NBA Twitter, and any other available medium to share clips of Harden’s avant-garde interpretation of defense. Harden was so comically bad, so plainly allergic to defense that a novice fan could watch 10 minutes of a Houston Rockets game and realize something was amiss. It was almost as if Harden had his brain wiped every time his team’s offensive possession ended

We’ve moved past Harden’s patented space cadet method acting, to viewers wrongly, but not completely irrationally suggesting that James Harden is a good defender. He’s not. He’s a good post-defender in 2020, which if you know anything about NBA basketball means he rarely gets the opportunity to be good. The Houston Rockets have crafted a switch everything defense in large part, so Harden never has to endure the unpleasantness of fighting over a screen. In fairness, the Rockets have the personnel to make a switch defense work and they did so to great effect in the 2018 playoffs when they befuddled the Warriors historic offense. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and now Russell Westbrook are all capable of battling with bigger players in the post as well as defending on the perimeter.

This brings me to Trae Young. You, beautiful people, have already worked your magic once before and I beseech you to do it again. It’s time we start the shaming of Trae Young (SHAME SHAME SHAME!).

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