August 21, 2023, 10:24 am
Readers, I am so excited to get back to talking fantasy basketball with you this season. Summer is coming to an end and that means NBA basketball is on the horizon, so it’s time to reflect with a recap of last year’s Fantasy Faceoff series before I dive right back in next week with some new head-to-head matchups for you to consider ahead of draft day.
Last summer, we looked at five matchups of positional peers that were expected to go in the early-to-mid rounds in standard re-draft leagues with an eye on their past (two seasons ago), present (last season) and future (projections) as 9-cat producers. Admittedly, injuries mucked things up for some of the head-to-heads so there were some hits (Jaylen Brown over Brandon Ingram and DeMar DeRozan over Khris Middleton) and misses (LaMelo Ball over Tyrese Haliburton, Bam Adebayo over Domantas Sabonis and Terry Rozier over C.J. McCollum). In the game of fantasy projections, you win some and you lose some but the most important thing going into any draft is to ensure you’re getting good value within the range of your pick. Notwithstanding the uncontrollable -injuries- my theoretical teams wouldn’t have suffered much for my misses, given the draft range of players in each matchup. I hope to improve my win percentage this year while picking player matchups that are solid bets to return good value in their projected draft range.
So here it is, folks. Let’s go matchup by matchup and review the seasons each player had. In some cases, I might switch my picks if I had to re-do the same matchups for the upcoming season but don’t be surprised if I double down on one or two of my misses. You’ll have to read more to find out who and why.
LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton
My 2022-23 Pick: LaMelo Ball
Winner: Tyrese Haliburton
23.3 PPG, 4.0 3PT, 6.4 RPG, 8.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 3.6 TO, .411 FG%, .836 FT%
36 games, 838 points, 144 3-pointers, 231 rebounds, 304 assists, 46 steals, 11 blocks, 129 turnovers, 296-of-721 field goals, 102-of-122 free throws
20.7 PPG, 2.9 3PT, 3.7 RPG, 10.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.5 TO, .490 FG%, .871 FT%
56 games, 1160 points, 161 3-pointers, 205 rebounds, 585 assists, 91 steals, 25 blocks, 141 turnovers, 412-of-841 field goals, 175-of-201 free throws
There’s no debating the Ball-Haliburton matchup in hindsight. That was a clean sweep in favor of Haliburton after Ball only managed to appear in 36 games and his opponent leveled up as a scorer, shooter and playmaker while improving his efficiency. Ask dynasty managers how they feel about this matchup and you might still find that it is an open debate. There’s really no going wrong with two lead guards that seem likely to contend for first-round value in the next five-plus years. However, it’s now clear that Haliburton has the lead for the short term as the more productive fantasy player with the better team.
Ball remains the better scorer and shooter but apparently less so than when I wrote the Fantasy Faceoff piece comparing him with Haliburton. There was once about five points per game between them and now there are less than three. I was correct in identifying Haliburton as the better potential assist producer in this matchup and was also proven right with his superior per-game production in blocks, shooting percentages, steals and turnovers. Assists could prove to be a swing category and Ball might be able to draw even as a steals producer but Haliburton is likely to stay at or above the level with his competitor in those areas. Despite some overall efficiency concerns, it seems clear that Ball has once again leveled up as a three-point sniper and is going to flirt with top-12 value there when healthy, so he should continue to outperform Haliburton there. However, if I had the chance to do this one over again, I would definitely switch to Haliburton as he has clearly thrived with another boost in usage and is already outpacing Ball despite the former’s considerably higher career usage rate.
Bam Adebayo vs. Domantas Sabonis
My 2022-23 Pick: Bam Adebayo
Winner: Domantas Sabonis
20.4 PPG, 0.0 3PT, 9.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.5 TO, .540 FG%, .806 FT%
75 games, 1529 points, one 3-pointer, 688 rebounds, 240 assists, 88 steals, 61 blocks, 187 turnovers, 602-of-1114 field goals, 324-of-402 free throws
19.1 PPG, 0.4 3PT, 12.3 RPG, 7.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.9 TO, .615 FG%, .742 FT%
79 games, 1510 points, 31 3-pointers, 973 rebounds, 573 assists, 65 steals, 39 blocks, 230 turnovers, 577-of-938 field goals, 325-of-438 free throws
Remember last season when most people found it too easy to discount the Kings due to their extensive playoff drought? Even as a self-proclaimed Sabonis optimist, I didn’t see a surge to nearly top-20 per-game value and top-10 totals value in the cards. Both had been proven more realistic in Adebayo’s career and after what I remember being the closest call of all my matchups, I ended up giving the Heat pivot the favor of the doubt due to historical precedent as much as anything else. Was I wrong to expect a man nicknamed “The Ox” to continue trudging along at the same pace as he always had?
What I didn’t see coming was a nearly twofold increase in assist value from Sabonis, who also stepped up as a field goal percentage anchor. On the contrary, Adebayo both regressed and stayed in place, in a sense. On his way to another NBA Finals appearance, the 6’9” center actually beat his per-game and totals valuation from the 2021-2022 season despite backsliding in rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage averages. That’s a net draw for him, while his peer made a massive leap by comparison. They’re close enough that it could be argued either way but if history repeats itself, then the Kings center now has a slight edge. But which history? It’s equally possible that Adebayo could regain his 1-and-1 blocks and steals production from earlier years and in so doing would likely become the better choice once again. That or returning to 5+ assists per game could help to close the gap with Sabonis in that category. As he enters his physical prime on a championship contender, it’s hard to rule either scenario out for Adebayo. Sabonis just became a top-20 fantasy player for the first time in his career but his opponent reached that pinnacle several seasons ago and could reasonably return with previously-achieved marks in assists, blocks or boards. If I had to do this again, I wouldn’t do it differently because it likely will cost one of your first two or three picks to get either one and Adebayo’s peak potential remains higher than Sabonis.
Jaylen Brown vs. Brandon Ingram
My 2022-23 Pick: Jaylen Brown
Winner: Jaylen Brown
26.6 PPG, 2.4 3PT, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.9 TO, .491 FG%, .765 FT%
67 games, 1784 points, 163 3-pointers, 459 rebounds, 232 assists, 75 steals, 26 blocks, 197 turnovers, 679-of-1383 field goals, 263-of-344 free throws
24.7 PPG, 1.4 3PT, 5.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.3 TO, .484 FG%, .882 FT%
45 games, 1112 points, 64 3-pointers, 246 rebounds, 262 assists, 32 steals, 19 blocks, 148 turnovers, 404-of-835 field goals, 240-of-272 free throws
These two were natural opponents after being picked back-to-back in the 2016 NBA Draft and carving out similar careers as high-scoring second options. Of course, Brown has experienced better fantasy results recently along with significantly more team success, and is certainly benefitting from the gravity of his consistently healthy superstar teammate(s). That seems to be the case again, leaving last year’s arguments in Brown’s favor mostly unchanged. In terms of counting stats and general standing with the NBA fanbase, Brown and Ingram are fairly similar. However, yours truly was unequivocal in giving the Celtics swingman a past, present and future sweep as the better fantasy option and I promise not to change my tune.
No matter what optimism Ingram’s summer with USA Basketball could generate, he remains the poorer defensive option and has lost ground to Brown in treys. Further, he has been less available for games than his peer. Last year, I wrote “Drafting Ingram commits a manager to four main categories: points, treys, assists and free throws. Among these categories, it’s only truly clear that Ingram can give teams an extra advantage over Brown in two of these areas.” Ingram is only better if you focus on assist or free throw value. It remains true that the Pelicans forward should be a worthy option within the top 50 for teams looking to get a boost in the aforementioned areas and that he has the tools to surpass Brown as a fantasy producer but I see no reason to predict that one will grow at a significantly greater rate than the other as they approach the pinnacle of their respective careers. You have to know what’s going to get better for the uniquely talented Ingram before you say it will be so. In particular, the Duke product will need to get his 3-point output back up to the two-plus treys per game that he started out with in New Orleans before he should be considered as a potentially better pick than Brown. That or a boost in assists could be x-factors in re-opening this debate.
DeMar DeRozan vs. Khris Middleton
My 2022-23 Pick: DeMar DeRozan
Winner: DeMar DeRozan
24.5 PPG, 0.6 3PT, 4.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.1 TO, .504 FG%, .872 FT%
74 games, 1816 points, 46 3-pointers, 343 rebounds, 377 assists, 83 steals, 36 blocks, 657-of-1303 field goals, 456-of-523 free throws
15.1 PPG, 1.5 3PT, 4.2 RPG, 4.9 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 2.2 TO, .436 FG%, .902 FT%
33 games, 497 points, 51 3-pointers, 140 rebounds, 163 assists, 23 steals, five blocks, 71 turnovers, 177-of-406 field goals, 92-of-102 free throws
Every DeRozan piece I write should come with a disclaimer: I am a lifelong Raptors fan and was following his career back when SLAM Magazine was writing features on his AAU career with Lil’ Romeo and under Master P’s tutelage. You will rarely get an unbiased take on DeRozan from me but in this case, my declaration in his favor was entirely defensible. Another top-30 fantasy season certainly beats the Middleton roller coaster from last season. If we’re being honest, that roller coaster had more drops than climbs. Middleton struggled with injuries and then was injury-managed through the latter half of a disappointing season for Bucks fans and fantasy managers that drafted the Bucks sniper.
Despite being the younger man by a few years, Middleton had poorer health and that made what was otherwise a very close matchup a bit of a wash. He was never going to match DeRozan as a scorer but the same was true -moreso, even- with the Bulls swingman’s chances of competing in treys. Bulls DeRozan isn’t producing assists like Spurs DeRozan did and he’s now averaging less on a per-game basis than Middleton since that transition. They’re also pacing each other in boards, so DeRozan’s points are the only tiebreaker in counting stats production. If he returns to form, Middleton will likely continue to be the better defender next season but it is no longer clear that fantasy managers will see any benefit and there should be little debate that he will catch up to DeRozan’s value as a field goal percentage or free throw percentage contributor. Middleton is probably falling outside the top 50 in most drafts this year but it’s highly unlikely that the same occurs with DeRozan. The Bulls swingman gets the nod again but it should be noted that Middleton could still provide solid value if he slides past the middle rounds and shouldn’t be discounted too much for last season’s poor results. I’m not willing to close the door on another potential top-50 season for MIddleton just yet but not at the expense of an All-Star like DeRozan.
CJ McCollum vs. Terry Rozier
My 2022-23 Pick: Terry Rozier
Winner: CJ McCollum
20.9 PPG, 2.8 3PT, 4.4 RPG, 5.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.4 TO, .437 FG%, .769 FT%
75 games, 1568 points, 211 3-pointers, 328 rebounds 429 assists, 70 steals, 38 blocks, 183 turnovers, 587-of-1344 field goals, 182-of-238 free throws
21.1 PPG, 2.6 3PT, 4.1 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 2.1 TO, .415 FG%, .809 FT%
63 games, 1329 points, 165 3-pointers, 259 rebounds, 319 assists, 74 steals, 16 blocks, 134 turnovers, 493-of-1188 field goals, 178-of-220 free throws
Don’t let their per-game valuations fool you: McCollum and Rozier are both better than top-100 players. It wasn’t that long ago that both were top-50 options and really, what changed? From a per-game perspective, they were actually quite good last season despite their seeming decline as fantasy producers. They were as good as ever in certain areas while declining in similar ways as well.
I predicted a scoring boost for Rozier despite his stock trending down at the time and he came through with a career-high scoring mark of 21.1 points per game. McCollum was correctly identified as the better career scoring option and a likely peer or superior to Rozier as a points producer in the past season and he only narrowly missed the mark. Both set career highs in assists per game last year as well. However, I also was proven unfortunately correct that both would suffer a decline in efficiency, with McCollum continuing to disappoint as a free throw producer, narrowly missing a career-worst mark in turnovers per game and adding field goal percentage as a concern for the year ahead after putting up percentages not seen since his rookie and sophomore years with the Blazers. Not to be outdone, Rozier fell so hard in field goal percentage that he became an outright liability while also dropping to average in free throw percentage and losing a full point on his assist-to-turnover ratio. Their faults outweighed their gains last season and that explains the drop in fantasy valuation but that could work to some managers’ benefit if they fall to the top-100 range that they might seem to be. McCollum seems to be thriving as more of a primary playmaker and just beat Rozier in both per-game and total value. There were some red flags though, as the Pelicans guard played through thumb problems last year and waited until the offseason to have corrective surgery. His health picture looks worse when factoring in the torn labrum in his right shoulder from late last season. Terry Rozier is in a shallower backcourt rotation, has less wear-and-tear on his body and has kept pace with an elite combo guard like McCollum in counting stats over recent years. Declining efficiency and some injury concerns lost the day for McCollum more than they won the day for Rozier. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same result or nearly as close.
I’m only willing to flip on one of my predictions from last year even though I missed more than I hit in hindsight. What can I say? I have my convictions. It’s important to know what you value and why when evaluating players for fantasy basketball and I think I have set out a clear standard for what amounts to a win or loss in each respective matchup. None of these matchups were foregone conclusions at the time of writing and that is arguably still true, with maybe one exception. I’ll be tackling these matchups and more as part of our NBA Draft Guide, coming out in just a few weeks!
That’s a wrap for this week. When we return, it’s going to be Kristaps Porzingis versus Myles Turner in a battle of stretch bigs. Chime in with your thoughts on that matchup in the comments and we’ll see if we agree next time around.