Jokic vs. Curry for Top Spot in Early 2021-22 Rankings

Jokic vs. Curry for Top Spot in Early 2021-22 Rankings

When is too early to start looking toward next season? Never!

Sure, the 2020-21 campaign isn't technically over yet, but most fantasy seasons are. With only days remaining, and most championship belts already in the mail, let's take a look at what the first round of next season's draft might look like.

As I see it right now, there are three clear tiers:

  • A two-way race for the No. 1 pick
  • A nausea-inducing group of six players you'd love to get at the end of the first, but who will start coming off the board at No. 3
  • A tight race for the final few spots

Read on for a detailed dive into next season's top prospects and for some analysis on what to do about the Nets' superstar threesome. 

The Race for the Top

1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

2. Stephen Curry, Warriors

I see this as a toss-up between Jokic and Steph Curry. Forced to choose, I'll take the 27-year-old who can fight for the league lead in assists from the center spot over the otherworldly shooter at age 33. Jokic's assists are the single-biggest strategic advantage in fantasy basketball. Getting assists from a non-guard is rare, and Jokic doesn't just help there, he's better than almost every guard.

On top of that, he also ranks pretty high on the points and rebounds leaderboards. Even if Jokic's production falls off a little (which might not happen!), the strategic advantages he provides significantly lessens any potential harm from statistical regression.

Based on this season's stats alone, the Jokic-Curry question actually isn't close – Jokic wins in a landslide. But when we're picking at the top of a fantasy basketball draft, we should be mindful of our history. Historically, there is very little turnover at the top of the season-ending fantasy leaderboards. Outside of last season, when Curry played only five games, he's finished inside the top five in both 8-cat and 9-cat every year since the lockout.

Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis have basically been locked in as four of the top five in both settings for that entire stretch. Intruders on their hegemony are rare and tend to be named "Karl-Anthony Towns". Regardless of who plays around him, Curry is a locked-and-loaded top-five producer. Meanwhile, Jokic stagnated in the 10-to-15 range for each of the previous three seasons before this year's breakout. 

Do I think Jokic can repeat at the top? Of course, I just ranked him first, after all. But he has put up unprecedented offensive numbers, so some amount of drop-off is likely. Which gets back to an earlier point: apply a 10% across the board reduction to his 2020-21 stats and he'd still be basically even with Curry in per-game value. Add in the games played advantage, the age advantage, and the strategic benefit of Jokic's passing, and Jokic is my No. 1.

Gigantic gap. As in, a "third might be the worst spot to pick in a snake draft" sized gap.

3. Kevin Durant, Nets

With two games remaining in 2020-21, the Nets' All-NBA trio has shared the court exactly seven times – and Durant left injured after playing just 19 minutes in one of those. So, while all three still rank inside this season's top-10 by per-game production, that is not reflective of the impact that the high-usage trio has on one another.

Here's the trio's stats in their six full games together, compared to their season averages:

Note: The Nets played 3 overtimes in those six games, inflating all three players' minutes and production

Ok, there's a lot happening there, but trying to figure out the Nets is arguably the fantasy off-season's most important puzzles, so let's get into it.

  • Minutes: Because of the overtimes and a few regulation close games, the Nets' trio averaged more minutes in their six games together than they did over the rest of the season
    • This is likely due to the small sample size, and not something we'd see repeated over a full season.
  • Usage rate: Predictably, all three stars saw their usage rates drop when they played together
    • Harden took the hardest hit, while the impact on Durant was minimal
  • Points: Durant and Irving scored slightly more points, but that effect goes away when you factor out the extra minutes, and Harden's scoring took a meaningful dive
    • Over the course of the full season, it would likely look worse for all three
  • FGA: Durant took more shots when the trio played together, while Irving took slightly fewer and Harden took a lot fewer
    • This seems to be a deliberate part of the game plan when the threesome shares the court. Over a full season, I'd expect it to continue, except with an even larger drop for Irving and Harden as the minutes normalize
  • FTA: The free throw rates for all three plummeted
    • Small sample size may play a role here, but combined with the decreased usage and shot attempts, this trend would likely continue over a full season
  • Assists: Harden's assists increased dramatically, while Durant's and Irving's went down
    • This also appears to be a part of the game plan and would likely continue.
  • Rebounds: Factoring in the extra minutes, rebounds were basically unimpacted.
  • Defense: Defensive stats look funky, which is probably due in large part to the small sample size
    • That said, it's noteworthy that if we combine steals and blocks into "stocks", Durant's increase slightly while Harden's and Irving's are exactly in line with their season-long averages. This makes some sense, as Durant is a better defensive player, and may be able to devote extra attention on that end when Harden's and Irving's presence make the offensive side of the game easier for him.
  • Overall: Durant's fantasy value was least impacted when all three shared the court together, while Harden transformed into a pass-first facilitator. Irving became an efficient off-ball secondary option, though hot shooting and extra minutes probably hide what might otherwise have been some problematic developments in his fantasy profile.

In a perfect world, we'd have more than six games to analyze, but we should be able to glean some more information during the playoffs. Small sample size and unfamiliarity between the players absolutely skew the data we have. But these six games are the only information available, so we have to work from there. And what I see in the data from these games is that Durant can absolutely remain an elite fantasy option, even alongside two high-usage scorers. Though the parallel is imperfect, this jives with what we saw when Durant finished in fantasy's top three in his first two seasons with the Warriors. 

4. Anthony Davis, Lakers

There's not much to say here. If you could promise me that Davis misses no more than 10 games next season, he'd be my No. 1 pick without hesitation. Here are his 9-cat finishes over the last seven seasons: first twice, second four times, and fifth once. Kevin Durant is the easy title-holder for this century's best fantasy producer, and Davis is the only active player who has a chance to catch Durant. That body of work matters when we're trying to predict who will finish next season at the very top of the standings.

Almost everything has gone wrong for Davis this season, but he's still eighth in blocks and one of five centers averaging at least 20 points and three assists. I'm willing to bet that a more normal offseason and a less-condensed schedule will do wonders for Davis in 2021-22.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

The free throws continue to be a problem, but he has improved slightly in that category this season. If Giannis can just get back to his career-average of 72% from the line next year then he'd transition from automatically punting FT% to a more manageable drain. He's spoken openly about wanting to improve from the line, so there's a real chance that happens. 

But even if his FT% doesn't improve, Antetokounmpo is a fantastic pick. He's second in per-game production for a punt-FT build, behind only Jokic and with a giant gap between those two and third-place Rudy Gobert. Strategically, there is benefit in recognizing that you want to punt a category this early. It makes taking LeBron James or Luka Doncic a no-brainer if they last until your second pick. Even if they're gone, an early punt strategy helps differentiate your big board from the consensus, turning second- and third-round reaches (Gobert, Domantas Sabonis, Zion Williamson, Russell Westbrook) into clear value picks. 

Enough about his limitations – Antetokounmpo does a lot of great things! His versatile stat profile (and positional eligibility) allows managers to pay less attention to positions as they build their team. He provides enough assists that managers could go back-to-back bigs in rounds two and three, and enough rebounds and blocks that a manager could lean hard into their backcourt. Jokic is the only other first-round pick who comes close to providing the positive impact on FG%, and he's the only small-forward eligible first round pick who can reliably provide both a steal and a block per game.

6. Joel Embiid, 76ers

As is true of every player in this 3-through-8 tier, there's a good argument to take Embiid as high as third overall. He's currently third per-game in 9-cat (fifth in 8-cat). His production profile looks a lot like Antetokounmpo's, except he swaps out a few assists per game for the ability to not punt FT%.

For many managers, especially ones playing roto, that's a worthwhile trade. Embiid wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he's undeniably motivated by external factors. In 2021-22, that should work in our favor – Embiid openly covets the MVP trophy, and the fact that he was this season's frontrunner before injuries got in the way should keep him energized for next season.

The concern, of course, is the injuries. He's missed at least 18 games in every season. If your league doesn't have an IR (sidenote: fix your league, IRs are important!), you can't take Embiid inside the top 10. On the other hand, in a highly competitive league where you need to hit big on a few risks to win, I'm fine with Embiid as high as second overall.

7. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

There's a pretty reasonable argument to put Lillard as high as third here. Between Davis' and Embiid's injury histories, and the combination of Durant's health plus the uncertainty of playing alongside two high-usage stars, managers with the 3rd-through-7th picks are going to find themselves reaching for the Pepto Bismol. While Lillard lacks the upside of those three, he also lacks their floor. He's elite in points and threes, good in assists, and only hurts in blocks.

He finished in the back half of the top-12 in three of the past four seasons. Strictly speaking, you're likely to lose a little bit of value taking Lillard this high, but it's not the kind of season-killing loss that a month without Davis/Embiid/Durant can be. If your goal is simply to survive what looks like one of the trickiest first rounds in years, Lillard is probably your guy.

One important unknown that lurks in Portland: what happens if the Blazers decide to make some major personnel moves this offseason? It's hard to imagine a scenario that would drop Lillard out of fantasy's top-10, but it's also hard to guess what turmoil might take place over the offseason. Odds are that nothing in the offseason meaningfully hurts Lillard, but it's something to keep an eye on.

8. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Speaking of boring but safe… Including his Rookie year, Towns has never finished outside the top 12 in 9-cat. Since his rookie year, he's never finished outside the top 10 in 8-cat. His health derailed the end of last season and the beginning of this one, but he's back on track to continue those streaks. He's one of very few players who helps in every category.

He'll probably go at a discount next season after so many managers feel burned by these last two years, but the numbers don't lie – Towns is one of fantasy's best, and one of very few players with potential to finish inside the top five. He's the second-youngest player listed in this article, and none of the injuries that have hindered his last two years are ones that come with a high likelihood of reinjury.

9. James Harden, Nets

There's a gigantic red flag here. Harden's 21% usage rate in games with both Durant and Irving is really low for a first round pick. Right now, there are only two players inside fantasy's top-20 with a usage rate below 22%: Gobert and Myles Turner, efficient big men who rank one and two in blocks. Neither of them are inside the top 12. So why can Harden be the exception?

First, and most importantly, Harden's season-long usage rate next year will be higher than 21%. Durant and Irving are not playing all 82 games, and Harden's usage will jump any time either of them are out. Second, this season's league leader in assists is dishing 11.7 per game – Harden averaged 12.7 in the six games alongside both Durant and Irving. Meanwhile, his shooting efficiency and three-point volume was effectively unchanged in those six games, meaning that there's a good chance that the only true statistical damage his teammates will cause will be in points, FG% impact and FT% impact (due to fewer attempts). The jump in assists won't completely offset that damage, but it should help keep him inside the top 10.

When everyone is healthy, Harden probably remains a borderline-top-12 producer. When either Durant or Irving are out – two players who tend to miss tons of games – Harden switches back into a top-five fantasy dynamo. 

10. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Leonard is another player likely to miss games, but he's a top-10 producer when active. Excluding the nine-game season in San Antonio, Leonard has been a top-10 per game since he won his first Finals MVP. He'll probably slide into the early second in a lot of drafts due to the injury concerns, but we're at the point where I'm happy locking in his helps-everywhere-hurts-nowhere baseline and figuring out the missed games later.

11. Michael Porter Jr, Nuggets 

Someone under 25 is going to break into fantasy's upper echelon. The question is who. A year ago, Jayson Tatum looked a lock. At the start of the season, it looked like it would be Zach LaVine. But Porter has surged over the second half of this season. I've long believed in his potential to get this good eventually, but his breakout this year has come even earlier than I was expecting. Porter's always had the potential – before injuries cut short his college career after just three games, Porter was considered a possible No. 1 overall pick in the loaded Luka Doncic-Deandre Ayton-Trae Young draft.

He'll be 23 at the start of next season, with a full season of starter-level experience under his belt. Since Jamal Murray (knee) went down, Porter is averaging 24.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.5 stocks and shooting an incredible 56-45-85 split. Murray is likely to miss a good chunko f next season, and even when he does return, the focus will be on gradually working into playoff readiness, so he probably won't get in the way of Porter's fantasy productivity. Since Murray's injury, Porter ranks eighth per game in 9-cat.

12. Nikola Vucevic, Bulls

Let's give the big man some love. He's probably the most boring option one might reasonably take with a first round pick, but all Vucevic does is produce. His numbers have been remarkably consistent in each of the last three years, regardless of season or city – his numbers before and after this season's trade are almost indistinguishable from one another. Taken together, his three-year averages are 21-12-4 with 1.9 stocks and 1.7 threes. There isn't much upside with this pick, but there is also very little chance of disaster.

Next up: Bradley Beal, Wizards; Jimmy Butler, Heat; Jayson Tatum, Celtics; Zach LaVine, Bulls; Paul George, Clippers

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Alex Rikleen
Rikleen writes the NBA column "Numbers Game," which decodes the math that underpins fantasy basketball and was a nominee for the 2016 FSWA Newcomer of the Year Award. A certified math teacher, Rikleen decided the field of education pays too well, so he left it for writing. He is a Boston College graduate living outside Boston.
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