Who's the Master?
Coming into the season, the first two picks in pretty much every fantasy draft couldn't have been more clear. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were going to be the first two picks, point-blank, period. There was some discussion about the third pick. Though James Harden was often tabbed in that spot. Chris Paul and Stephen Curry were also considerations, and if you were an oddball like me, Kevin Love was in the discussion of who went next. But the first two picks were set in stone.
Fast-forward a month, and suddenly the top two players in fantasy basketball aren't nearly so certain. LeBron and Durant haven't really played badly. Lebron's averages of 26.0 points, 6.7 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.4 treys and 9.8 made field goals on 61 percent shooting from the field have him ranked 11th by Yahoo! while Durant's 29.6 points, 7.0 boards, 5.2 assists, 1.9 treys, 1.4 steals and 11.3 made free throws (at 88.3 percent) have him ranked 5th. It's not any lack of production from LeBron or Durant that has their rankings a bit lower than we're accustomed to. No, it's the other-worldly level of production we're seeing from some of their competitors that have made this an interesting discussion to have.
In particular, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Kevin Love have placed themselves in the pole position to earn the fantasy basketball MVP award this season. These are the top-3 ranked players by Yahoo! (among players that have played in more than one game), and each one does it in an entirely different way. If your fantasy draft were to be re-held today, who would be your No. 1 pick? Let's make a case for all five guys.
The case for Durant is obvious, as it's what made him the consensus No. 1 overall player in the first place. He'll likely lead the NBA in scoring yet again, and he doesn't have a single roto flaw. Durant is a plus rebounder, a five assists per game forward; he'll challenge for two made treys and two combined steals and blocks per game; his field goal percentage isn't bad for a perimeter player; and his impact on free throw percentage is unprecedented. Durant is challenging the historical pace to take and make more free throws than anyone ever has in NBA history and angling to do so at around a 90 percent clip. He's the total package, and Durant is still a smart money pick for the top spot.
LeBron's case is based on his real-life credentials. He's (and has long been) the best real-life player in the NBA. LeBron is still at his physical peak, and he is capable of putting on video game displays of production for months at a time if it strikes his whim. He contributes at a similar level to Durant in most of the categories, and with his free throw percentage up over 75 percent this season, he doesn't have any real weakness either. Plus, his 61 percent shooting from the field is almost Shaq-like. The argument against LeBron is that he is playing on a team that has made the Finals three straight seasons with an Olympic run right in the middle, and that at almost 30 years of age with all of his goals based on postseason performance, LeBron may coast through the regular season more than he ever has before. His defensive and rebound numbers being down would support the notion that he might not be expending as much energy and hustle this season.
Davis is the wild card in the bunch, and as I mentioned before, he's the one that I most bitterly regret missing out on. (Side note: I was in a keeper league that I opted out of playing in this season. My two A-keepers coming into this season would have been none other than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. In the words of Bill Simmons, "I will now light myself on fire.") Davis' stat-line right now reads like a misprint. How can one player average 21 points and 11 boards while contributing almost six combined steals and blocks per game, and oh-yeah, he's also shooting better than 48 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line on high volumes. On the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today radio show, Chris Liss asked me two weeks ago if I would take Davis over James Harden (I said yes). He then asked me last week if I'd take Davis over LeBron (I hedged, saying I'd take Davis' production if guaranteed that he'd have LeBron-like health even though I prefer the comfort of LeBron's name). This week, I'm not sure there's anyone I would take over Davis.
Paul is doing all of the things that have made him a consensus top-5 pick for the past several years, but he's just doing more of them. His scoring is up; his assists are up; his steals are up; his rebounds are up. Paul is essentially posting the best parts of Rajon Rondo's stat line (everything except scoring) while averaging almost 20 points with tremendous free-throw shooting. His only down area is shooting from the field, and considering he's shot between 46.3 percent and 50.3 percent from the field in each of the last six seasons, it's a good bet that his shot will get better as the season progresses. The only thing keeping Paul from the top spot is the lingering question of his health, and whether he can play a full schedule at his best.
Finally, there's Love. He has been much-discussed this week, from Shannon McKeown's NBA Barometer that argues for taking Love over LeBron to James Anderson's Category Strategy that breaks down the beauty and potency of Love's outlet passes. I, of course, am feeling smug for bucking the expectation and taking Love with the No. 4 pick in our Sirius/XM Experts league, but would I take him No. 1 overall if drafting today? I'd have to at least consider him, as his stat line looks like a combination of Durant's and LeBron's outside of rebounds, where Love is (as expected) among the league leaders.
Overall, if I were re-drafting at this exact second, my top-5 would go in this order: