July 19, 2022, 1:12 pm
Playmaking bigs are becoming the rule instead of the exception in the NBA. As the center position continues to be redefined in the modern era, many pivots find themselves in the wrong era, while others thrive in a way they never could have before. There is a third group that blends some of the best elements of the others, and they are the bigs that can lead their team in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage on the same night. Floor-spacing is still an optional requirement for the bigs that can make plays from the high post or pick-and-roll, so Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis have carved out solid careers as some of the premier centers in the league. Both men are only a year apart in terms of age and NBA experience as they enter their physical primes, meaning that they may continue to contend with each other for several years to come. They’ve been playoff rivals and have faced each other in the finals of the NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge -along with their regular matchups- so we’ve had plenty of chances to watch and compare the pair. In this edition of Fantasy Face-off, we’ll look at their recent results and try to project who’s more likely to win the Adebayo-Sabonis matchup next season.
Bam Adebayo v. Domantas Sabonis
PAST: Who was the better fantasy player?
18.7 PPG, 0.0 3PG, 9.0 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 2.6 TOG, .570 FG%, .799 FT%
64 games, 1,197 points, two 3-pointers, 573 rebounds, 346 assists, 75 steals, 66 blocks, 169 turnovers, 456-of-800 field goals, 283-of-354 free throws
20.3 PPG, 0.8 3PG, 12.0 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 3.4 TOG, .535 FG%, .732 FT%
62 games, 1,260 points, 52 3-pointers, 742 rebounds, 415 assists, 76 steals, 33 blocks, 213 turnovers, 484-of-904 field goals, 240-of-328 free throws
In a season that began 72 days after the previous one had ended, Adebayo and Sabonis turned in their best fantasy results to date. Adebayo’s results were unlikely to surprise anyone after barely having a cooldown period since helping to lead the Heat to the NBA Finals. More surprising was Sabonis’ production in spite of notable issues within the organization, as intense speculation over coach Nate Bjorkgren’s stewardship distracted the team throughout the season. The Pacers fell from being the fourth-best Eastern Conference team in the previous season to turning in a losing season and being eliminated in the NBA Play-In Tournament. In fact, Adebayo’s Heat swept them out of the playoffs in the Disney Bubble and sent them on the rebuilding trajectory that the Pacers appear to still be on. The individual matchup was much closer between the two bigs, as Sabonis outperformed Adebayo in points, treys, rebounds and assists. Surprisingly, the Gonzaga alum collected one more steal in two less games, giving him the slightest edge on totals after tying Adebayo on average. Where his more offensively-gifted counterpart had the advantage in raw stats, Adebayo was able to create advantages in the efficiency categories while staying close in other areas. This allowed him to counteract the counting stat advantage of Sabonis, who provided significantly higher per-game value on the boards, but also had an equally-great disadvantage in blocks and free throws. A 63-point advantage for Sabonis in scoring is negligible when spread across an entire season, whereas a comparably smaller number can make a much larger impact in another category, as Adebayo’s 33-block surplus did for his overall value. Although the Heat pivot was softer on managers’ turnovers, he was outperformed in assists by a considerable volume and only won the assist-to-turnover battle by a slight margin. When considering the weight of assists over turnovers on top of the prevalence of 8-cat leagues that don’t even consider the category, it’s a clear win for Sabonis as a playmaker. For managers that value efficiency, the race wasn’t actually that close: Adebayo was one of the titans of field goal percentage while breaking even in free throws, whereas the Lithuanian big was still solid from the field but tanked free throw value with high volume and sub-par accuracy. It’s a complicated battle and not one with an easy answer, but the advantage for Adebayo in totals is fairly conclusive if turnovers matter. Quite simply, the Heat’s star center had a top-12 finish on totals this season, while Sabonis was the tail-end of the top-24.
Verdict: Bam Adebayo
PRESENT: Who is the better fantasy player?
19.1 PPG, 0.0 3PG, 10.1 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.6 TOG, .557 FG%, .753 FT%
56 games, 1,068 points, 0 3-pointers, 564 rebounds, 190 assists, 80 steals, 44 blocks, 148 turnovers, 406-of-729 field goals, 256-of-340 free throws
18.9 PPG, 0.6 3PG, 12.1 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.1 TOG, .573 FG%, .741 FT%
62 games, 1,171 points, 39 3-pointers, 752 rebounds, 323 assists, 59 steals, 27 blocks, 195 turnovers, 443-of-773 field goals, 246-of-332 free throws
Adebayo’s steals were bound to go down after Kyle Lowry came to town, but a decrease in offensive responsibility suggested that Adebayo would be able to lock-in on the other end to potentially secure his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Jumps in scoring and rebounding were offset by drops in all other areas as Adebayo struggled to maintain health through the middle of the Heat’s impressive season, which still saw him recognized for the third time as an All-NBA defender. In a more turbulent season, Sabonis was shipped off to the Kings in a mid-season trade that saw increases in his rebound and assist averages after the trade. A Slight decrease in blocks, steals and field goal percentage after leaving the Pacers also showed in Sabonis’ production, but he still showed an overall increase in all three categories over the previous season regardless. There were some key battlegrounds for these two men -rebounds, assists and field goal percentage- which carried their value. Sabonis won all three categories on totals and averages this season. The second-generation star also took treys, although anything beats Adebayo’s production in that regard. Sabonis was far from an asset in that category and he almost eliminated the 3-point shot from his arsenal with the Kings. Similarly, Adebayo won the free throws and turnovers categories without having any positive impact in those areas. Winning the battles of free throws, treys and turnovers does not win the war for either side, so these marginal victories will be inconsequential to the final determination. In a black-and-white evaluation of categories, it would seem like Adebayo is the better choice because his marginal victories in points, free throw percentage and turnovers pair with a clear defensive advantages to give him a 5-4 edge over Sabonis. However, there are empty calories in free throws and turnovers which negate this advantage in favor of Sabonis’ much more decisive victories in assists and rebounds. It’s worth noting that Sabonis clearly outperformed Adebayo on an assist-to-turnover basis, further solidifying Sabonis’ pyrrhic victory in that department. The Lithuanian big man also kept pace with Adebayo’s scoring average while actually winning the matchup on totals. Raw statistical production won the individual matchup for Sabonis, while Adebayo experienced more success from a team perspective.
Verdict: Domantas Sabonis
FUTURE: Who will be the better fantasy player in 2022-23?
The Heat had a disappointing finish to their season after failing to return to the NBA Finals. In particular, their star pivot seemed to take a considerable share of the blame along with Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry. While Adebayo didn’t have an ideal finish to his year, he has already publicly-acknowledged his struggles and the prevailing sentiment that he should be more aggressive on offense. The NBA All-Defensive Second Team member stated that he expects his shot attempts to go up, which could have significant impact on his efficiency numbers along with the obvious potential in scoring. Although there is no indication that he will shoot from further away and become a 3-point asset, the Kentucky alum was already the pre-eminent scorer among non-shooting bigs, producing nearly four points per-game more than the next-closest big that didn’t register a trey in 2022, Rudy Gobert. Adebayo will be sharing his offensive workload with several capable scorers, including Herro and Jimmy Butler, and they will all rely on the spacing of players like Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus in order to operate. The amount of extra looks a Heat offense can generate for Adebayo is unclear while they presumably retain a similar playbook to match their mostly-static roster from the previous year.
As one of the featured players of a team looking to break a 16-season playoff drought and the star of a mid-season blockbuster, Sabonis projects to maintain his usage level with the Kings going into next season. Despite shooting half as many treys per-game with the Kings, the Lithuanian big has been appearing in workout videos with one of the league’s most in-demand shooting coaches this offseason. As previously noted, Sabonis declined in his already-low production from range between the post-Bubble season and present, so a commitment to extending his range would be a welcome change if not yet an asset. What will be important to follow as Sabonis launches this era of his career with the Kings will be his playmaking. A full offseason working with his teammates and new coach Mike Brown should allow him to integrate more effectively with the Kings since joining in the middle of a season can be chaotic. Brown carries a reputation as a defensive coach without much creativity on offense, so it remains to be seen if he will help Sabonis create better looks for his teammates. The additions of floor-spacers like Keegan Murray and Kevin Huerter to the Kings’ shooting-starved rotation as well as increased familiarity with co-star De’Aaron Fox are as likely to produce extra assist opportunities for the big man as anything Brown might do with the playbook.
Neither man figures to experience much change in their respective team environments going into the next season. The Heat have given no indication that they plan to change the roster outside of costly and unlikely potential high-profile acquisitions of elite talents like Donovan Mitchell or Kevin Durant. The same should be true of the Kings, who recently emptied their treasure trove to acquire Sabonis and must see how everything fits before they can look at other moves. Therefore, whatever changes are seen in Adebayo or Sabonis’ fantasy profiles will likely be the result of internal dynamics as opposed to any external variables that could change their value.
Both teams will be incentivized to develop young talents like Herro, Murray and Davion Mitchell, meaning that incumbent stars like Adebayo, Fox, Sabonis and Jimmy Butler won’t have carte blanche to use up every possession. Thankfully, both centers’ on-court and fantasy value is reliant on their ability to elevate others. The hope is that the aforementioned prospects become efficient scorers to ensure the best possible results for their passing bigs. Of the group, Herro stands out as the premier points producer and is likely to continue churning out 20-point performances as he enters a potentially lucrative contract year on the heels of contending for Most Improved Player and winning Sixth Man of the Year. The Kings will need immediate offense from their prized rookie, Murray, and a significant increase in efficiency from Mitchell to keep pace with Herro’s output, but there’s a chance that the Kings end up with the more potent offense next year. Last season, the Heat notably struggled to score in tight contests and averaged less than 100 possessions per game, as opposed to the fast-paced Kings, who were top-10 in possessions and pace last season. The net result is that Adebayo might find cleaner looks in a more-refined half-court Heat offense, but Sabonis will have more opportunities to pad his already-solid lead over Adebayo in the assists column. The same could be true for their scoring, as more possessions translates to more plays for the Kings’ star big man.
If the two bigs were considered in more black-and-white terms, then Sabonis is the offensive center and Adebayo is the defensive one. The Lithuanian pivot is a monster on the offensive glass and has a deep bag of tricks to get shots off within 15 feet of the rim, whereas Adebayo is still developing a finesse game to match his more impressive physicality. Their scoring averages are similar, but Sabonis seems to have been identified as a more potent offensive force after consistently drawing more double-teams than his peer. There is currently no debate over who has the better shooting range, as Sabonis will win by default until Adebayo elevates from his Ben Simmons-esque production from range. The same criticisms of Simmons’ offense can be applied to Adebayo after he was exposed in the playoffs for an unwillingness or inability to put points on the board; he finished with 10 points or less in eight playoff games in 2022. Adebayo’s offensive struggles limited his abilities to make plays for others, as the Kentucky alum fell below his assist average in 11 playoff games this year. While there is no recent playoff history from Sabonis to measure against, it does seem that he is better-equipped to work through effective defenses at present. His superior scoring will be measured against Adebayo’s predicted shot volume increase next year in what is likely to continue being a closely-contested category for the two men. With regards to their playmaking: neither man is on the level of the reigning MVP or countless lead-guards as passers, but a 200-plus assist advantage over the last two years seems to favor Sabonis as a better playmaker, even if there may be an argument that Adebayo’s advanced ball-handling and superior speed could be differentiators one day. An even larger gap exists over the same length of time when measuring their total boards, leaving no doubt about who is the superior producer of counting stats.
While there is evidence that Sabonis is working on his craft as a shooter this offseason, there is arguably more convincing evidence that the Kings don’t want or need him to stretch his range next year. A quick review of roster changes since acquiring their new star reveals that the Kings intend to surround “The Fox and the Ox” with shooters, including Huerter, Murray and Malik Monk. This reduces the need for either star to be pressured into what is traditionally an area of discomfort for them, which opposing defenses would gladly yield. Further, as one of the best rebounders in the league, it would make little sense for Coach Brown to move Sabonis away from the rim as a floor-spacer. Managers should be grateful if they see Sabonis come near one trey a night, as it would simply be the metaphorical icing on the cake for his production, albeit one that wouldn’t drastically raise his fantasy ceiling. Becoming more consistent from mid-range is a far more realistic hope for Sabonis, as he will likely get as many pick-and-pop opportunities in the high post as he can handle. There could be extra benefit to this from a fantasy perspective, as more reliable shooting will require paint protectors to close out more aggressively on Sabonis, who would then be able to use his presumably-increased shot accuracy as a vehicle to create easier assists for Fox and Co. as they drive to the basket with extra space.
Shot volume is directly-related to two categories: points and field goal percentage. There is an argument that free throws are related, but that’s an indirect result of attempting a shot. It follows that any potential increase in Adebayo’s scoring from his promise to shoot more may also impact his value in percentages. Recall that he edged Sabonis in one season based on his status as one of the top-10 field goal percentage options in the entire league, while Adebayo’s free throw value has alternated between bad and passable. A potential addition of one or two points per-game probably won’t be worth it if Adebayo yields ground to Sabonis by falling out of elite field goal percentage status or by increasing his free throw volume without a corresponding increase in accuracy. Taking points from Sabonis while yielding one or more efficiency metrics probably isn’t worth it for Adebayo, so the optimistic angle is that the skilled, super-athletic big will be able to simply take and make more shots within a Heat offense that can -in ways we do not yet know- get him, Butler and Herro more clean looks without making any major on-paper changes. Butler and Herro can take care of themselves, while sweet-shooting role players like Duncan Robinson, Lowry, Strus and Vincent all get their shots when the ball finds them within the flow of the offense. Adebayo lacks the creation abilities of the former group, while he lacks the shooting abilities of the latter, so it’s unclear what would change to allow Adebayo’s shot volume and accuracy to simultaneously go up.
There is a risk-reward factor when taking Adebayo over Sabonis due to the former’s comparatively worse counting stats. Simply put: it’s not so simple to predict efficiency for high-usage players, but it’s relatively easier to project that they will, generally, find a way to put numbers on the board. That’s why it’s fair to accept that Adebayo may get a win in the points category over Sabonis next season, but that he could lose ground nonetheless. Based on historical precedent, what feels most predictable is that Sabonis will outproduce Adebayo on combined points, rebounds and assists. Adebayo will likely be a small step behind on the offensive end and on the boards, so it is almost mandatory for him to create stronger advantages with defense and efficiency. Sabonis manages to produce similar value in steals, but has no such hope of competing as a shot-blocker. On the other hand, Adebayo seems assured to return as one of the premier defenders across all positions in the league, leaving little doubt that he should be able to produce extra value there. However, he is now two seasons and half a block per-game removed from his career-high in rejections, while also declining in consecutive seasons. The Heat have been a defensive juggernaut throughout that entire time-frame and Adebayo has been increasingly recognized as a premier defender over that period, so his rim protection may not be as valuable on-court or in fantasy as with other post defenders. Getting on the right side of one block each night will push Adebayo’s value up nonetheless.
An optimized Adebayo is better than peak Sabonis due to his ability to find measurable success on both ends. As previously mentioned, the likelihood of sustained offensive growth while maintaining efficiency isn’t high for him. There is some historical precedent for the Heat pivot as an efficient scorer at higher usage, as he scored 23.5 points on better than 65 percent from the field when he took more than 15 shots in a game during his personal-best 2020-2021 season. There is justifiable doubt that any player could sustain such scoring and shot accuracy while also nearing 10 boards, five assists, one steal and one block per-game, but Adebayo would surely contend with the top-12 fantasy players in such a season. His rival is likely looking at another season hovering around 20 points, 12 rebounds and five assists regardless of what changes occur in the Kings playbook or to his game. Increased output from range might be the key differentiator for Sabonis, while increased output in general seems to be the goal for Adebayo. The difference between them is that Sabonis is already ahead on the production side, meaning that the refinement of his skills is easier to rely on than the combined expectations of sustained efficiency and extra output that will be placed on Adebayo next season. Taxing the Heat big on the offensive end may impact his available energy for the other side of the floor, where he is undeniably impressive despite falling behind other defensive specialists in production. There is a question of how Adebayo’s less-noticeable contributions -shooting percentage values, steals and blocks- will be impacted by his forecasted offensive boost next year that cannot be answered until the season kicks off. If the stars align for the former Kentucky Wildcat, Sabonis’ only realistic hope to keep pace is by making a comparative leap in another category: treys. While it’s not impossible that the Lithuanian big makes such a leap, the odds aren’t in his favor to become a true 3-point asset. The same risks that apply to Adebayo’s potential increases in shot volume apply to Sabonis and his shooting percentage as well, since treys are the hardest shot in the game. What’s important to consider when choosing between the two men is who is most likely to outperform their draft position, since both men have been neck-and-neck in fantasy valuations and most of their statistical production for several years. Managers will likely get a solid floor of production for either of these men as early-round picks, thanks to their ability to help anchor multiple categories. One may slightly outproduce the other in terms of their raw numbers, but it’s the smaller numbers and the fractions that will make a difference in the Adebayo-Sabonis matchup next season. The incumbent winner is Adebayo, who has a higher defensive ceiling and a projected increase in creation responsibilities on a Heat team looking for extra offense next season. Although his ability to meet expectations has yet to be determined, the higher-potential player with the better team and the clear need for growth gets the benefit of the doubt in this judgment.
Verdict: Bam Adebayo