Fantasy basketball – An NBA rule change, struggling stars and a big opportunity for fantasy managers

“It feels like 1987 basketball again.”

So said Nuggets coach Mike Malone Monday night. He was spinning hard, attempting to avoid a suspension of MVP Nikola Jokic after the very-flagrant exchange between Jokic and Markieff Morris.

In reality, the quote was a sideways reference to the fantasy story of the 2021-22 season: the offseason rule changes designed to empower defenses.

The main idea? Make it more challenging for shooters to initiate contact via “abrupt, overt and abnormal” moves. Thereby negating their attempts to get to the line via contortion-heavy theatrics. (Think James Harden, Devin Booker.)

In reality? Games are more enjoyable to watch. Flopping is down. The intrinsic rhythm of the game is less choppy. The back and forth of offense vs. defense has more flow.

But Malone is wrong. It isn’t 1987. In 1987, teams averaged 109.9 points per game. This season? It’s down to 107.2 points per game… a steep drop from last season’s sky-high 112.1 points per game.

In fantasy, we like high-pace, high-scoring, high-efficiency offense pitted against a ball-hawking defense that prioritizes generating turnovers.

Shooting fouls are down. Free throw attempts are down. By team, it’s down from 21.8 FTA to 19.9. So it’s an appreciable drop, but it’s not like free throw attempts are solely responsible for the near five-point drop in team scoring.

Pace has remained steady, so it’s not that the game has slowed down. So what else is going on?

3-point defense — the rule changes also appear to affect 3-point production.

3-point attempts so far this season are up (from 34.6 3PA per game to 35.8 3PA.) But 3-point percentage is way down. League-wide, 3-point percentage has nosedived from 36.7 3FG% to just 34.2 3FG%. Effective Field Goal Percentage (which folds 3-point shooting into FG%) is down from 53.8% to 51.7%.

Maybe this is just the league getting the hang of the new dynamic. Maybe offenses will adjust. But the overall fantasy effect is a decrease in overall offensive efficiency. On defense, steals are up slightly by about a half a steal per game, but that’s a less weighty fantasy development.

Does this affect my emphasis on efficiency… especially free throw efficiency? With fewer attempts per game, does that mean free throws carry less importance than I previously thought in gauging overall fantasy value?

Not at all. The rule changes enhance my point of view. Scarcity is enhanced across several offensive categories: 3-point production, field goal percentage, points per game and free throw production. The decrease in scoring and drop in efficiency means that players who maintain their points per game and overall efficiency just got a heckuva lot more valuable.

Is this a permanent shift? Has this new dynamic locked in? Think of it this way: unless you’re carrying an elite Usage Rate, you have to make every touch count. Pace is the same. NBA games are generating the same amount of possessions. It’s the outcomes of said possessions that have altered.

But for fantasy? This shift should have you thinking, “buy low.”

I’m not a huge fan of making trades just 10-12 games into a season. I like to let the numbers bake in a little more before doing a lot of heavy tinkering.

But the relative struggles of so many fantasy elites probably mean we are witnessing an early-season adjustment period. There are so many top-40 players suffering slow starts that some bouncebacks have to occur. So in a couple of leagues, I am pushing myself to consider buying low on some players I would typically never pursue.

In a points league, I just traded Josh Giddey and Jordan Poole for De’Aaron Fox and Cade Cunningham. I’m not the biggest Fox fan. He’s the opposite of what I’ve been preaching in terms of building via free throw production.

On paper, at present, the other league manager wins this deal:

Giddey: 10.1 PTS, 6.1 REB, 5.9 AST. 0.8 3PT, 1.4 STL. 0.7 BLK, 40.4 FG%, 61.5 FT%
Poole: 18.2 PTS, 3.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.3 BLK 45.4 FG%, 94.4 FT%

Fox: 18.6 PTS, 4.0 REB, 6.1 AST, 0.9 3PT, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 39.3 FG%, 68.3 FT%
Cunningham: 10.8 PTS, 5.8 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.0 3PT. 0.5 STL, 0.3 BLK, 23.2 FG%, 92.9 FT%

The hardest thing for me to do is to trade endgame picks I’ve hit on… especially picks I’m bullish on for the entire season. In this case? Poole was my final pick. I chose him over Giddey, but I then added Giddey right after the draft. Their early-season overperformance has powered this team. But duty called.

I roster teams not only to play and win but also to test my theories. And in a points league, I think Fox still ends up delivering top-35 production. In a points league, with shooting efficiency dropping, Usage Rate climbs in importance. We want players that control possession; if these deceased 3-point percentages hold, high-possession players are going to acquire additional value.

As do players with solidified lead guard roles. Early season rotations are historically volatile. Job security is much more critical than most fantasy managers think. A highly-paid cornerstone like Fox and an incoming number one pick like Cunnigham are better bets than GIddey and Poole just by virtue of the capital invested into their roles.

And while Poole’s value will dip when Klay Thompson returns, Poole’s becoming too good to regulate to second-team duties. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the unique fantasy opportunity in Golden State. And we’re watching that play out. But the looing returns of Thompson and James Wiseman are inevitably going to ding everyone else’s value.

But the fact that this is a Points league swayed me to make the deal. So, in this case, this deal isn’t so much as sell high/buy low, as much as it’s buy really, really low. The idea of trading two endgame picks for Fox and Cunningham was too enticing to ignore.

Here are some other Points players due for a bounceback:

Giannis Antetokounmpo
Trae Young
Damian Lillard (though I’m worried he’s more injured than slumping)
Luka Doncic
Fred VanVleet
Jayson Tatum
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Deandre Ayton
Derrick White
Nikola Vucevic

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