Lessons Learned From the 2020-21 Fantasy Basketball Season

Lessons Learned From the 2020-21 Fantasy Basketball Season

The end of the 2020-21 regular season is nearly upon us, and while some fantasy titles remain up for grabs, most managers can all but close the book on a uniquely challenging campaign.

Due to the pandemic, the NBA condensed the calendar and lopped off 10 games from its usual 82-game schedule, but somehow this season has felt longer and more grueling than any in recent history. Early on, several teams were ravaged by COVID-19 outbreaks, leading to a rash of mini-shutdowns and postponed games that wreaked havoc on fantasy leagues – particularly those with weekly lineups. In addition, a high number of the league's top players – from LeBron James to James Harden to Kawhi Leonard to Kevin Durant – have missed extended time, sending managers scrambling to find healthy bodies from the bench or the waiver wire.

Down the stretch, a number of teams, including the Pistons, Thunder and Raptors, have taken to aggressive resting strategies, leaving fantasy managers with little to no heads-up as to when a key player might miss a game or two or three.

Suffice it to say it's been a frustrating year for many managers (this one included), but the beauty of fantasy basketball is that in a few short months, we get to regroup and do it all again. Draft season is only five months away, after all. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, a key part of the offseason for any fantasy manager is taking a look back and running an internal audit, of sorts, aimed at identifying what went right and what went wrong.

As I begin that process myself, here are a handful of lessons I learned from the 2020-21 fantasy basketball season:

Don't trust bad teams on draft night

Just don't do it. This is an obvious one, but we've all fallen victim to buying a little too much into preseason hype, exciting young players or a change in coaching/management. Unlike other sports, the NBA rarely produces a true out-of-nowhere contender.

Thinking back to December, most of the teams we thought would be bottom-feeders ended up being bottom-feeders (sincere apologies to the New York Knicks). Detroit, Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Cleveland all had win total over/unders set below 30.0. There was a little more optimism around Orlando and Houston, but that quickly evaporated as soon as their star players were dealt away. When a team fully embraces its fate – like Houston did when it traded James Harden – that's when fantasy managers begin to squirm.

Of course, there's still value to be found on bad teams, but the level of variance is infinitely greater – especially as the season wears on and each game becomes increasingly meaningless. That's not to say managers haven't been rewarded for targeting Karl-Anthony Towns or buying low on Darius Garland, but those who took a stab at John Wall (guilty), Kevin Love (also guilty), Lu Dort, or even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have been burned by longer-than-necessary injury timetables and frequent, late-season rest. Gilgeous-Alexander hasn't played since March 22, and while his injury is completely legitimate, the Thunder have little-to-no motivation to steer him toward returning to game action before the end of the regular season. In fact, SGA sitting out the rest of the schedule is probably in the franchise's best interest.

In the same vein, managers who seemingly scored a bargain in Jerami Grant early on have since seen his overall ranking plummet, as the Pistons have adopted the most-aggressive rest plan of any of the non-contenders. Grant was a top-35 player heading into All-Star Weekend, but since the break he's barely hanging onto top-200 value. For the season, Grant has fallen to 76th overall in eight-category leagues, and he's rested for 10 of the last 15 games at the most crucial juncture of the season.

Looking ahead to next season, perhaps the lesson isn't to avoid players on bad teams at all costs, but instead to make a point to deal away those players around the All-Star break. Even with the schedule expected to return to normal in 2021-22, the reward is not worth the considerable risk.

Ensure multiple sources of production

In other words, don't put all of your eggs in one basket when it comes to a certain category. In one league, my downfall was believing I was set in blocks after I landed Anthony Davis with my first pick. A year ago, Davis ranked third in total blocks (143) and blocks per game (2.3), accounting for roughly the same total as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Clint Capela combined. With Davis locked in, I targeted other categories with my next few picks as I looked to round out my roster.

Had Davis not missed 30 straight games in the middle of the season, maybe everything would've worked out. But by failing to ensure I had a backup plan – or at least a semi-elite secondary source of blocks – I found myself scrambling to the waiver wire on a weekly basis in search of one of the scarcest categories in fantasy basketball. I'm not proud to admit this publicly, but things got so bad that at one point I was rostering both Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard. In the year 2021, that's not a position in which you ever want to find yourself.

Avoid the obvious injury risks

It can certainly be tempting to take a mid-round stab at a player with top-40 potential if he can just stay healthy, but more often than not you're going to end up wasting a pick. Particularly in this condensed season, simply having a consistently healthy roster – even if the team, itself, isn't stacked with elite talent – was likely enough to finish in the top-half of most leagues. 

We've already touched on Kevin Love, who's on track to play less than 30 games for the second time in the last three seasons. I stashed Love on IR way too long for very little late-season payoff. At this point, he'll be in the Undraftable category for me going forward. Even if he's still sitting there in Round 12, I won't take him. I simply will not.

Other oft-injured players – like D'Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis, John Wall, Jonathan Isaac, Jaren Jackson Jr., Victor Oladipo and Kemba Walker – also turned out to be major fantasy busts. Managers knowingly assumed the risk, and while most of that group came at a discount on draft night, not a single one currently ranks inside the top 100 in 8-cat total value.

Younger players like Porzingis, Isaac and Jackson Jr. will continue to hold plenty of appeal in the future, but until they definitively prove they can stay on the court, I'll be focusing my efforts on investing in a lower-ceiling player with a more-reliable track record. No one is ever fired up about grabbing T.J. McConnell or Thaddeus Young, but they've combined to miss seven games and rank 49th and 63rd, respectively, in eight-cat leagues.

Don't overthink the preseason

This is more of a minor lesson, as we're rarely able to glean anything concrete from the NBA preseason. But I'll admit I was scared off by James Harden – his midsection, specifically – after watching one of the Rockets' final preseason games the night before a draft. With Harden looking like he was prepared to tank his way out of Houston (that turned out to be correct) and an uncertain road ahead, I ended up selecting Damian Lillard over The Beard in the first round.

Did it ultimately turn out to be the correct move? Technically, sure. But only because Harden – one of the league's underrated ironmen throughout his career – went down with a hamstring strain that may cost him the final 25 games of the regular season. Prior to the injury, Harden was charging toward the top of the fantasy rankings, and he's still a much better per-game value than Lillard. The result may have turned out OK, but the process was flawed.

In short: Don't pass on James Harden. Chances are, he's not going to miss 20-plus games in a row again anytime soon.

There's nothing wrong with playing it safe

This goes hand-in-hand with staying away from the major injury risks, but playing it safe can also mean avoiding boom-or-bust players. Maybe it results in missing out on a breakout like Terry Rozier, but the strategy can help avoid busts like Jusuf Nurkic, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter or Tyler Herro. Back in December, there was reason to believe all four of those players – and plenty others – could make a major leap this season. But managers who paid a premium to draft them (Nurkic's ADP was 35.8 and Herro's was 81.0) have likely struggled all season to recoup that value. 

With that said, it's important to note that when a boom-or-bust player hits – like Michael Porter Jr. (57.6 ADP) or Julius Randle (74.3) – your team's ceiling can skyrocket. Scoring a value like Porter or Randle in the sixth or seventh round of a draft can be season-changing. The lesson isn't to avoid these players at all costs, but rather to be smart about where you're allocating your riskier investments. Drafting a veteran player with a proven track record isn't nearly as fun, but it tends to be a fool-proof path to remaining competitive in just about any league.

Prepare for some regression in 2021-22

Look, there's a decent chance I'm wrong and offenses will continue to rise meteorically next season and beyond. But when seven of the top 10 offensive ratings in the history of the NBA occur in one season, something seems a little fishy.

The days of Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince holding opponents to 75 points are (thankfully) long gone, and while we're undoubtedly in an age where offense is king, it wouldn't be surprising if some teams take a step back next season when the calendar and game environments normalize. Overall, the average offensive rating has jumped from 110.6 last season to 112.2 in 2020-21. Meanwhile, pace has actually decreased by more than one possession per game, which helps explain why teams are averaging almost exactly the same number of points per game as last season.

The overall shift toward more-efficient shot selection has aided in boosting offenses, but when fans return and the schedule de-condenses, opposing defenses should be more rested and better-prepared to put up a fight. Fewer injuries/nights off will cut down on the number of lopsided, throw-away games where one team – or both teams – is missing several regulars. 

What does this mean for fantasy? For one, it could result in fewer players putting up gaudy scoring numbers on a nightly basis. Entering Tuesday, 43 players are averaging at least 20.0 points per game this season – up from 35 a year ago, 34 in 2018-19 and 28 in 2017-18. The general uptick in offense and three-point volume is a major factor in the rise, but 40-plus players averaging 20 points is a massive jump. The elite players are going to remain elite no matter what, but those who posted career years during the pandemic may be in for a course-correction next season.

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Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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