Fantasy basketball 2023-2024: Lessons learned, from Jordan Poole to Daniel Gafford


I scream. You scream. We all scream for… fantasy hoops! I love this game for a myriad of reasons, but numero uno is the challenge of figuring out the puzzle. It is a living, breathing entity that is constantly evolving and morphing, spitting out those with too much hubris, while punishing the mentally and emotionally weak.

The landscape is always changing, whether it be from a new player pool, strategic concepts or rule changes. As I continue to hop on my board every year and ride the wave, there are things I see when I’m at the crest, but usually the most important lessons are those I learn when tumbling near the floor with the waves crashing all around me. Here’s what I learned this past season:

Be Yourself

We fantasy nerds live in a bubble, especially in the fantasy hoops space because it is more niche than the football and baseball worlds. There are fewer outlets to consume information from, which inevitably allows certain thoughts to permeate the landscape quicker and more pervasively. This leads to the formation of herds. And this is a staple throughout the human and animal kingdoms. Why? Because there is safety in numbers.

But maximizing profit, or avoiding traps, comes from being a contrarian, because that is when market inefficiencies can be exploited. And that can only happen when you’re willing to identify, then act upon a unique thought or perspective. Will you get hurt? Absolutely, and quite often. But the more you do it, the better you get, as long as you put in the work. Experience truly is the best teacher, while pain is a tremendous motivator.

I got many things wrong this past season, but one thing that I was happy about was my view on Jordan Poole. Doing the basic projections, the numbers told me Poole was going to have a huge year. And it all made sense because he was going to be THE guy in Washington, and he demonstrated that he, not only belonged in the league, but could get buckets with the best of them. But the more I thought about it, I saw plenty of ways that he could fail. And all I kept reading about was how Poole was going to smash this season, resulting in price helium.

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Now, I’m able to spend plenty of time parsing through headlines and articles, while many of you don’t. I get it. Josh Lloyd at Locked On Fantasy Basketball and Basketball Monster is one of the GOATs in the industry, a tremendous resource and someone I highly recommend to get information from because he grinds his butt off. But rather than just following what he says, take in the information like a sponge and let it soak into your consciousness.

Because we all have unique perspectives, strengths and weaknesses. And that’s important because a strategy or piece of information hits differently for each of us.

For example, one person may put a premium on points early in the draft while another is comfortable mining for them later. I know a successful NFBKC player who locks up forwards and bigs early on because he feels that there is some scarcity in those positions, while having no issues pounding guards later in the draft. In addition, he understands that his style is unique, so that if he hits, there will be no one competing with him.

Eric Wong essentially said most of this when I asked him what makes him so good at fantasy hoops in the mailbag article. I highly recommend reading it because Eric is THE GOAT.

Change

Change permeated my consciousness a lot during the offseason, but I don’t think I addressed it enough, and it is something I plan to do more for next season.

I had concerns about the changing situations and environments for Jordan Poole and Fred VanVleet. Change obviously affected Poole much more than VanVleet. Thinking back on that situation, Poole was so young and stepping into a high-profile role, something he didn’t have the experience for. In addition, Kyle Kuzma was already there, a grizzled veteran and someone who had been in Washington for two years, garnering a high usage rate. VanVleet, on the other hand, was 29 years old, having seven years under his belt and being an NBA champion. I didn’t give the maturity and experience enough credit.

Boston acquired Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday while losing Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart. I had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown losing a few shot attempts, but I got Jrue Holiday and Derrick White wrong. Looking back at it now, it kind of makes sense. White has always been known as an across-the-board contributor and I figured he would get over 30 mpg now. In the two prior seasons in Boston, the usage rate was 20.1 and 17.6 percent. This season, he was at 19.1 percent. Holiday, though, saw his usage rate plummet from 24.5 percent to 16.4 with Boston. I knew he would lose usage rate, but I didn’t expect that much of a downgrade because I thought it would be White who would lose usage rate. Instead, he gained. The lesson I learned from this is that White was in the Boston system for two seasons, so he was ahead of Holiday in terms of familiarity and place on the totem pole.

There were changes in leadership for many teams heading into the season. Nick Nurse moved from Toronto to Philadelphia; Darko Rajakovic replaced Nurse in Toronto; Frank Vogel supplanted Monty Williams in Phoenix; Williams took his talents to Detroit; Adrian Griffin took over for Mike Budenholzer; and Ime Udoka landed in Houston.

I like looking at coaching changes because of the identity shifts. Some coaches are more offense-leaning, while others focus on defense. These things matter for fantasy because teams often increase or decrease the pace of play, altering the number of possessions and opportunities for fantasy goodies.

Nurse had the Raptors playing at the 25th-fastest pace. Rajakovic installed his principles and has Toronto playing at the 13th-fastest this season. Going back to Nurse, he’s shown, ironically, to put minutes played ahead of player health, as he’d often give his guys a robust dose of playing time. Tyrese Maxey averaged 33.6 mpg two seasons ago. With Nurse at the helm, he’s at 37.3 mpg this season.

The biggest coaching change was in Houston, but pace wasn’t affected in this scenario. It was a complete culture and identity shift. Ime Udoka has always been a defense-first coach, and he turned the 29th-ranked defense into a Top 10 unit this season. In the past, Houston was a prime candidate to stream against because they played fast while eschewing defense. That is no longer the case. In addition, how he viewed Alperen Sengun was huge. The prior regime didn’t think much of Sengun on the defensive end, therefore limiting him to 28.9 mpg. Udoka identified his strengths and weaknesses, constructed defenses to account for those, and allowed him to play 32.5 mpg while being an offensive hub for the team.

Patience, Grasshopper

There is a fine line between holding a player too long and dropping him for the flavor of the week. It’s definitely more art than science, with luck playing a big component. Do we wait for bigger sample sizes? But we are told that the early bird gets the worm.

The one scenario that jumps out for me is Daniel Gafford. I had him in a few leagues, but I will be referencing a Roto league on ESPN. Once he got traded to Dallas, he was amazing, going for 16 points, 17 rebounds, two steals and five blocks in the first game, then following up with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a block. But Dereck Lively II was out and my thesis at the time was that Gafford was acquired to provide depth and back up Lively when healthy. And that’s how it played out when Lively returned, as Gafford came off the bench and his minutes were greatly reduced over the next six contests — I ended up dropping him for Lively after a six minute scoreless effort at Boston. Two games later, the roles reversed and Gafford went on his epic heater. I probably could have waited a few more games, but then needed to pounce when the situation changed.

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

I play in quite a few dynasty leagues, with many of the 30-team variety. Sometimes I get so focused on youth, to the detriment of my team.

In one of the 30-teamers, a manager was looking for a guard, while I needed a center. He proposed Marvin Bagley and wanted either Donte DiVincenzo or Quentin Grimes. This was when Bagley was playing in the low-20s, while DiVincenzo and Grimes were splitting the shooting guard duties. I opted to keep Grimes because he is four years younger and I do like his game. Well, we know how that one played out. How was I supposed to know that Thibs would end up hating Grimes, while the Knicks would suffer a ton of injuries and DiVincenzo would start getting massive usage? Looking back at it, Divincenzo was starting, so that should’ve been the sign. Thibs had him in that role for a reason. There’s no way I could have foreseen how the rest of the season would play out, but from an asset management perspective, DiVincenzo had more value simply for that reason.

When I look at many of the top teams across my dynasty leagues, they are littered with older vets because minutes are gold and vets are usually the ones soaking up the significant ones. I’m often an ageist and, fundamentally, I’m okay with that, but it does prohibit me from making some moves. I should be open to everything because that increases the opportunities to make my team better.

 

We all get rookie fever. It’s natural because the new toy is shiny, but the optimism is often unwarranted in Year 1, especially since the cost is often elevated. Out of the 2023 draft class, only one player is currently in the Top 100 on a per-game basis, and that’s because Victor Wembanyama is a generational freak of nature.

Since 2000, there have been only 55 first rounders to finish their rookie season in the Top 100. That’s around a seven percent hit rate. Only 11 have finished in the Top 50:

Don’t fall for the banana in the rookie pipe.

When in Doubt…

Don’t pout! I kid, I kid. There is so much out of our control, so just focus on the things that you can control.

In my first Main Event league a few years ago, I drafted Anthony Davis and Paul George at the 1/2 turn, then scooped up what I thought was a value in Kyrie Irving. That was the year when all three didn’t play much. Suffice to say, things did not go well that year. Injuries happen. That’s a part of the game. I obviously learned a lot about roster construction, but what most stood out to me from that experience was that I had to clog up three of four bench slots all season because none of them were ruled out for the season and I couldn’t bring myself to drop them due to draft capital.

In many of my Roto leagues with weekly lineups, I would think that a player’s illness or injury wasn’t serious, so would keep him in the lineup, believing that even if he missed one game, his elite production would make it worth it. It’s just not worth it. Minutes and production are so important, especially in Roto, that you have to do everything you can to maximize games played and minutes. Once you fall behind, it’s extremely difficult to catch up.

On that note, the boring veteran who is going to play ends up being sexier than that stash. Depending on the league context and bench size, those roster slots can be so, so valuable.

(Top photo of Jordan Poole: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)





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